On March 10, 1866, Yitzchak Meir Alter, founder of the Gur Hasidic dynasty, died in the Polish town of Gora Kalwaria (Gur, or Ger, is the Yiddish name of the town).
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Yitzchak Meir Rothenburg (he changed the family name to Alter in 1831) was born in 1799 in Magnuszew, Poland. His family was said to be descended from the medieval rabbinical commentators Rashi and Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg.
As a young man, Alter married Feigele Lipszyc and moved to Warsaw, about 25 kilometers southeast of Gora Kalwaria. The couple had 13 children, only four of whom lived to adulthood, and only one of whom outlived her father.
He was a disciple of Simha Bunem of Prshischa, and, after his death, of his student Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, who was married to the sister of Yitzhak Meir’s wife. For all his brilliance, Menachem Mendel was not especially interested in being a communal leader; he saw his purpose in gathering a small coterie of students who would adhere to his teachings. During the last two decades of his life, Menachem Mendel lived in seclusion, and Yitzhak Meir served as something of a caretaker leader for both the Kotzk and Prshicha Hasidim.
When Menachem Mendel died in 1859, Yitzhak Meir officially took up leadership of the community. In 1860, he moved his base to Gora Kalwaria, which remained the center of his Hasidic dynasty until midway through the Nazi period, in 1939.
Although Hasidim were generally distinguished from other traditional Jews during his lifetime by their emphasis on the spiritual and mystical, as opposed to study exclusively, Yitzhak Meir was known for his intellect and scholarship, and for the respect he earned from rabbis who might otherwise have been Mitnagdim (“opponents,” as those who disapproved of Hasidism called themselves). In Warsaw at least, the sometimes bitter atmosphere of conflict that characterized Hasidic-Mitnagdic relations in this era was set aside during Yitzhak Meir’s lifetime.
Yitzhak Meir is also known as the “Hidushei Rym,” for the multi-volume work of rabbinic scholarship he wrote (“Rym” is an acronym for Rabbi Yitzchak Meir).
He also engaged with the secular authorities when necessary, leading the campaign against legislation that would have required Jews to give up their traditional clothing, a dictate that was supported by Enlightenment Jews. This activity even led to Yitzhak Meir’s brief imprisonment. He also came under suspicion by czarist authorities as a nationalist sympathizer during the Polish uprising of 1830.
The seven years during which he led the Gur community are referred to by the Hasidim as the “seven years of plenty.”
By the time of the Holocaust, the Gur Hasidim were probably the largest Hasidic group in Poland, and it is estimated that some 100,000 of them died during the years 1939-1945. Avraham Mordechai Alter, the third Gur Rebbe (known as the Imre Emet), escaped from Poland in 1940 and came to Jerusalem, where a Gur yeshiva had already been established in 1926.