July 13, 2024
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Rabbi Yisroel Gordon, z”l, 92, Educator, Mentor in Morristown and Randolph

For decades, Rabbi Yisroel Gordon was a beloved figure at the Rabbinical College of America in Morristown. On the walk from synagogue to his home in the tight-knit Tikvah Way community, every few minutes, he would be stopped to chat by another person, each one of whom felt that he or she had a unique connection with Rabbi Gordon—and indeed they all did.

With humor, wit and patience, Rabbi Gordon, z”l, who passed away last week at the age of 92, made each person feel special, treasured and valued.

Yisroel Gordon was the youngest of four surviving children, born in the Chasidic Belarusian town of Dokshitz, in 1930, to Rabbi Yochanan and Zeesa Gordon, where his father was the town shochet, a position that had been in the family for generations. Following a complicated pregnancy, he was born safely at home, as per the directive of the Sixth Rebbe—Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, of righteous memory.

At his circumcision, the honor of sandek was given to the town’s Chasidic rabbi, who was later murdered by the Nazis, Rabbi Leib Sheinin.

When Yisroel was still a baby, at the urging of the Sixth Rebbe, Rabbi Yochanan traveled to America, where he worked to earn enough money to bring his family to the new world.

When Yisroel finally reunited with his father as a 3-year-old, it took some time for him to learn to recognize and love the stranger he was to call “Papa.”

Walking to the synagogue with his father, he learned about the Rebbe, who lived across the ocean, and developed a love for the Rebbe and his family members.

After the Nazi invasion of Poland, American Chasidim toiled tirelessly to bring him to American safety. Young Yisroel, who was not yet bar mitzvah, was part of the effort, fielding phone calls on Shabbat, when the adults were forbidden to use the phone.

As soon as the Sixth Rebbe arrived in America, he founded a yeshiva, in which Yisroel’s older brother, Sholom, was enrolled. And as soon as a junior high division was founded, Yisroel followed suit.

By the age of 15, he was part and parcel of life in the Chabad court and was called to read the Megillah for the Sixth Rebbe. He came home exhausted and sweating from the effort. Later that day, the Rebbe’s son-in-law, the future Seventh Rebbe, told him that his father-in-law had asked him to convey how much he had enjoyed it.

Rabbi Gordon loved music, and he infused his prayers with heartfelt song, bringing the old-world warmth of his father’s prayers wherever he went.

Even though he trained as a cantor and served in several large congregations, he saw the craft as a means to an end, to bring people closer to God and Judaism, discreetly encouraging people who came to say Kaddish to wear tefillin and increase in mitzvah observance.

Following the Sixth Rebbe’s passing, he was tapped to serve as the driver of the Seventh Rebbe, whom he would drive to the Ohel and to other destinations. He would also drive the Sixth Rebbe’s widow and her daughters on occasional excursions to parks.

In the early 1950s, he was sent by the Rebbe on several summer trips to isolated Jewish communities, where he brought Jewish literature, inspiration and a connection to Jewish resources. On one trip to the Deep South, he almost got thrown off a bus for mistakenly sitting in the back, which was reserved for “colored” people.

For many years he served as Judaic studies teacher and principal in the local Chabad day school in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he also took a position as cantor at the Shaarei Torah synagogue.

Blessed with a keen sense for understanding and connecting with people, he forged bonds with students and congregants, which he and they treasured for life. Friendly and convivial, he always had a ready quip or kind word for everyone, from custodians to fellow administrators to students.

This continued when he relocated to Morristown, New Jersey in the early 1980s to serve as an administrator at the Rabbinical College of America. There, he founded the Yeshiva Summer Program, which introduced generations of 14-year-old post-bar mitzvah students to the rigors and joys of yeshiva lifestyle.

For many, a memorable moment was when Rabbi Gordon would teach the students to sing “Shir Hageulah,” a Chasidic song set to music by students in the Chabad yeshiva-in-exile in Shanghai, China.

As hundreds of students can attest, his office at the yeshiva was a haven for students who needed an outlet, a knowing smile or even just a listening ear.

Possessing a gift for vivid descriptions and mimicry, he would regale audiences with his depictions of scenes of his childhood, including visits by legendary Chasidim such as R. Itche Der Masmid and R. Mordechai Cheifetz.

The brother of Rabbi Sholom B. Gordon, longtime rabbi at Congregation Ahavath Zion, first in Newark and then in Maplewood, he was often called upon to speak at community functions and lifecycle events.

He also taught a weekly senior class at the JCC in West Orange, and he gave regular Torah classes in Randolph, where he served as a mentor to his students, many of whom had rediscovered Judaism as adults.

Equally comfortable in English and Yiddish, he formed a living bridge to a bygone world and would lovingly paint mental images of the people, places and interactions he had experienced in his life.

A lifelong Torah reader trained by his father, he knew the entire Torah by heart and would allow people to test him by starting any verse and have him pick up from there, a feat he always managed with aplomb.

Even as he battled illness, his good cheer and Chasidic warmth remained, and his non-Jewish aides learned many prayers, melodies and blessings by heart. Throughout, he was cared for by his wife, Ellen, who spared no effort to ensure his comfort and dignity.

Rabbi Yisroel Gordon passed away on Sunday, Shevat 14, just two weeks shy of his 93rd birthday.

In addition to his wife, Ellen, he is survived by his children Zeesy (R. Yosef) Posner, Rishe (R. Avrohom Moshe) Deitsch, Rivkah L. (R. Chaim Tzvi) Groner, Etty (R. Yossel) Gurevitch and R. Yossy (Rochel) Gordon, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

By Menachem Posner

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