Mrs. Devorah Groner, a pioneering matriarch of Jewry in Melbourne, Australia, passed away on May 27. She was 92 years old.
She was born in Smolensk, Russia, in the spring of 1926 to Rabbi Chaim Tzvi and Breina Konikov, devoted Chabad Chassidim. Having served as a community rabbi and determined not to work on Shabbat, Rabbi Chaim Tzvi found piecework employment making clothing from home, one of the few professions in Soviet Russia that allowed workers to set their own hours. Also blessed with mechanical skills, he soon found himself fixing the sewing machines and equipment of many other Chassidic workers engaged in similar trades.
His success aroused some jealousy, and he soon found himself the target of unwanted attention from the Soviet authorities. In 1929, armed with affidavits and tickets from relatives in the United States, the Konikov family immigrated to the United Stattes, settling in New Jersey. Devorah was 4 years old at the time. She would later recall how difficult it was to acclimate to an American kindergarten, where only English was spoken. Years later, when groups of Russian children came to Australia and enrolled in the schools her husband led, she reached out, and was able to relate to them personally and help ease their transition by empathizing with their immigrant experience.
In 1933, her father was appointed rabbi of the Tzemach Tzedek synagogue in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, N.Y. In addition to his official rabbinical duties, Rabbi Konikov was deeply involved in many aspects of Jewish education. He would gather children on Shabbat afternoon for treats, Torahthoughts and stories. He taught them basic Judaism after their public-school days. He even released records in which he spoke and sang in Yiddish. These projects were often family affairs, where Devorah and her brothers would contribute to the efforts in any way they could.
Devorah inherited her father’s knack for teaching. In 1942, she began teaching the first class in the nascent Beth Rivkah school in Brooklyn, which was being founded by the Sixth Chabad-LubavitchRebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn of righteous memory, and headed by his son-in-law and subsequent successor, the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory.
At some point, Devorah heard from her after-school charges (she taught during and after the school day in several institutions) that Catholic children in their public schools received an hour of religious training during the public-school day. Discussing it with her father, they consulted with the Rebbe, who strongly encouraged them to teach the Jewish children Judaism. These early efforts quickly grew into the Released Time Program, directed by Chabad-Lubavitch’s National Council for Furtherance of Jewish Education, which was closely overseen and spurred on by the Rebbe. Thousands of Jewish children receive weekly doses of Jewish education and inspiration until this day from the program.
As an older teen, she was sent by the Sixth Rebbe to teach in the Chabad-Lubavitch schools that were being founded across the East Coast. In an era when phone calls were prohibitive, this entailed significant hardship, often living alone far from family and friends.
In 1946, she married Rabbi Yitzchok Dovid Groner, a promising young scholar and communal leader, who had been sent to lead the school in Providence, R.I., where she had been teaching. In 1947, the newly married rabbi was sent by the Rebbe on a spiritual tour of Australia and New Zealand to assess the religious needs of the Jewish communities that were growing rapidly through in influx of European immigrants after the Holocaust. The trip to Melbourne took 55 hours.
“The task of inspiring people is a necessity, and this—awakening people—is ikar ha’ikrim[the main part],” wrote the Rebbe.
The trip to Melbourne was his first connection to a community that would end up adoring the Groners’ fearless and unabashed dedication to Jewish activism, and their boundless love for every Jew.
Following the trip, the Groners and their growing family moved to Buffalo to run the Chabad school there. While in Buffalo, she was instrumental in building a women’s mikvah—a project she spearheaded and raised significant funds for.
In 1954, the rabbi visited Australia a second time—this time as an emissary of the Seventh Rebbe—and the local community asked that he come back permanently. In 1958, the Groners moved to Australia for what was initially meant to be for three to five years. Mrs. Groner waited behind, and then took her children by boat to join her husband.
They threw themselves into their work of bolstering the existing Jewish framework and building new institutions.
They ended up remaining for the rest of their lives devoted to their mission as emissaries of the Rebbe. Their home was an open one, and there were regular classes for men and women there both on Shabbat and on weekdays.
Under their stewardship, the cluster of schools they led grew to educate tens of thousands of Jewish children over the decades, and Judaism flourished in Australia.
At the time of her husband’s passing in 2008, Isi Leibler, a former president of Australian Jewry, said: “History will record that Rabbi Yitzchok Groner was beyond a doubt the greatest Australian Jewish leader of the past century.”
While her husband built organizations and schools, she built people and families.
Even as their community grew, she remained involved in the lives hundreds of individuals, patiently listening and supporting with gentle advice and guidance. That same patience allowed her to teach many people who discovered Judaism late in life how to read Hebrew, supporting, encouraging and taking pride in their accomplishments.
Her Chassidic devotion and fervor never waned. She was scrupulous in her mitzvahobservance, faithfully praying three times a day, and was particular that someone (often a doting grandchild) be present to say “Amen” after she said each of the morning blessings.
Like her father, she loved to sing, tell stories about her beloved and revered Rebbes, and share anecdotes from her storied and significant life. But most of all, she loved to laugh. She saw the best in everyone and everything.
In her early days in Melbourne, she struggled to light the fire in her home one chilly winter morning. In true Chassidic fashion, she saw it as a lesson in human service to G‑d. After she shared her insight with the Rebbe, she received a letter back encouraging her to publish her insights. The result was an article in the N’shei Chabad Newsletter (Purim1983) in which she compares the Rebbes to matches, the shluchim to twigs and their communities to logs, all of which burn with a holy fire.
She is survived by her children: Rabbi Sholom Ber Groner (Johannesburg); Miriam Telsner (Melbourne, Australia); Shterna Zirkind (Brooklyn, N.Y.); Rabbi Yossi Groner (Melbourne, Australia); Chaya Haller (Johannesburg); Rabbi Chaim Tzvi Groner (Melbourne, Australia); Rivkah Yurkowicz Melbourne (Australia); and Rabbi Mendy Groner (Melbourne, Australia); and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She is also survived by her brother, Rabbi Velvel Konikov of Brooklyn, N.Y.