The History of the Munkács Community Before the Holocaust
"As its number of streets, so was the number of minyanim (prayer quora) that gathered in the shteiblech for morning and evening prayers. There was not one area without a neighborhood synagogue, and not one hour in the day when you could not find Jews bent over a sefer [holy book] or just sitting and talking about the inyanei deyoma [daily topic for study]. The synagogue, or more accurately the "Polosh" (entranceway), was the fixed meeting place for discussion, charitable transactions and acts of benevolence".
(Yehudah Speigel, from Yad Kehillat Munkács [Hebrew], the Yavneh Nezach Yisrael School, Haifa)
Munkács was world renowned for its rabbis, dayanim and roshei yeshiva, dedicated to the Torah and yeshiva world.
With its establishment in 1741, the Jewish community numbered some 80 souls. That year, the first synagogue was also founded in the town. By 1769, an active Jewish life could be found in Munkács: an established beit midrash for Torah study and prayer, as well as a number of hederim.
At the beginning of the 19th century, the prohibition against Jews owning land was annulled, and the community bought a plot of land in the city to erect a permanent synagogue, which was built a short while later. In 1890, the synagogue was burnt down, but a new one was built three years later. In 1903, the beit midrash was also torched, but the community managed to raise a considerable sum of money to build it anew. Part of the finances came from selling 309 permanent seats in the new beit midrash: 168 for men and 141 in the women's gallery.
From 1825-1829, the community was led by the Hassidic rabbi Tzvi Elimelch Shapira.
During this period, tensions began to arise between the different streams of Judaism in Munkács. Rabbi Shapira resigned his position after confrontations with the Misnagdim. His grandson, Rabbi Shlomo Shapira, was appointed chief rabbi of the town at the end of the 19th century, thus beginning a dynasty of Munkács rabbis famed in the annals of the Orthodox community.
To read more about the Hasidic rabbis of Munkács.
Many charity and benevolence associations were established in Munkács, among them Tmeichin Deoraysa, which aided poor Hasidic families; Talmud Torah, which helped those underprivileged Jews not counted among the Hasidic public; Tzedaka Vehesed; Poalei Tzedek; Gemach (free loans); Bikur Holim (aiding the sick); Hachnasast Kallah (aiding poor brides); Loktei Shemot and others.
There were also Torah learning organizations, such as Tiferes Bachorim, which was well known among the young workers and traders of the town. Members of Tiferes Bachorim would meet every night as well as on the Sabbath and Holidays to learn the weekly Torah portion, and to participate in classes on Gemarah, Rashi and Tosefoth.
To read more about the tradition of Munkács rabbis.
Religious Life in Munkács in the Interwar Period
In the interwar period, Jewish life in Munkács was centered around communal institutions that cared for all their daily needs: hederim for learning Torah, mikvaot and public baths, slaughterhouses and butcher shops, printing presses for publishing books (siddurim, chumashim, gemarot and more) and Yiddish newspapers that appeared every Friday. The religious community in Munkács was led with a firm hand by Rabbi Chaim Elazar Shapira, chief rabbi of the community and Admor of the Munkács Hasidim. Rabbi Chaim Elazar Shapira was a well-known Admor and Torah giant, but was zealous in his opinions, intolerant of Misnagdim and all those who he believed endangered his hegemonic rule as chief rabbi of the town and the region. He conducted power struggles with other Hasidic courts, the most well-known of which was his disagreement with the Belz Hasidim.
In 1922, Rabbi Chaim Elazar Shapira established the largest yeshiva in the town, Darchei Teshuva, which drew many students from across Hungary and Czechoslovakia, and became one of the largest yeshivot in Hungary. The Rabbi spent his whole life fighting Zionism in all its diversities, and opposed immigration to Eretz Israel. In 1925, when the cornerstone of the new Hebrew Gymnasium was being laid in Munkács, Rabbi Shapira held a gathering in the Great Synagogue with black candles, and declared the teachers and staff of the Gymnasium, as well as the parents intending to send their children to the school, excommunicated. He nicknamed the Gymnasium the Beit Hatfela (the House of Frivolity).
In 1937, Rabbi Chaim Elazar Shapira passed away, and Rabbi Baruch Rabinowitz, his son-in-law, succeeded him as chief rabbi of the town and Admor of the Munkács Hasidim. Rabbi Rabinowitz devoted his time and energies to the yeshiva, and was also active in public issues. Until the Holocaust, he adopted his father-in-law's anti-Zionist attitude and opposed immigration to Eretz Israel out of ideological and educational beliefs.
"In Munkács the Sabbath was holy… everything was shut and all who had walked along the quiet streets of the town in the morning were on their way to the synagogue. The scene was heartwarming – men wearing streimels [Hasidic fur hats] and talleisim [prayer shawls] on their shoulders, softly singing different melodies. The women looked splendid in their elegant dresses and the children were adorned in Sabbath clothing. The atmosphere was serene and festive, and the aroma of cooked fish and cholent wafted out of the houses".
(Peretz Litman, Hana'ar Mimunkacs [Hebrew], p. 15)