Our Heroes: Rabbi Yisroel Jacobson (Part 1)

by Rabbi Michoel Seligson

Reb Yisroel Jacobson was born in Zurowitz, White Russia in 1895 * He arrived in the town of Lubavitch to study at age 10 * He traveled to America in 1925, and served as the Frierdiker Rebbe’s trusted Askan until the latter’s arrival in 1940 * He passed away on the 17th of Sivan, 1975 in New York.

Any attempt to review the life and accomplishments of the illustrious chossid Rabbi Yisroel Jacobson can best be described in the words of Reb Yehoshua Dubrawsky, who wrote about Rabbi Jacobson after his ptira [see Yiddisher Heim issue #65].

“To write a biography of Rabbi Jacobson or even an overview of his life, I would not take upon myself. It is impossible with mere words, to describe the large segments of communal life and individuals in whom he blew a wind of Torah, a wind of Judaism and a wind of Chassidus. Many decades of activities on behalf of the community at large and the individual are so densely overgrown with generations of fruit, that it is difficult to be familiar with all the different aspects of his activities. In his constant movement he has plowed through large territories in spreading Judaism, attracting Jewish souls, returning wandering souls, treating Jewish wounds and rejuvenating downfallen Jewish hearts in all corners.

In addition to this, he was loaded with a refined, dynamic and deep Chassidishe quality. The G-d’ly richness of Chassidus and the beauty and wisdom of Chassidus flowed from him. . .from his eyes so alive and. . .And from his deep analytical Chassidic thoughts and hartzige stories with which he warmed participants during the Farbrengens that continued into the late night hours. Therefore he successfully drew from the distance and began from the close!

Therefore he was merely considered as a personality with private-individual interests; his name was always associated with “something” and with “someone”- in addition to his own private matters: a mosad, a public, a matter of Torah, a topic of Torah and chassidus life. As a result of this, in the very same moment he at times needed to carry three different phone conversations, warming one person with a Chassidic vort, giving a second person solid guidance, and with a third and a fourth at least, giving a sweet smile with a fatherly hand-touch.”

To date, there has been no published article that presented in a consolidated format the biographical outlines of his life including all of his many accomplishments. Several books including Rabbi Jacobson’s own documents were used to give this view of his life and his many accomplishments.

Rabbi Yisroel Jacobson was born on the third of Kislev 1895 in Zurowitz to Rabbi Yaakov Leib, a descendent of the Sheloh and one of the Tzemach Tzedek’s chassidim. There were no melamdim in Zurowitz so the young Yisroel studied Gemoro with the Rav of the Ashkenazim in the city. When he was somewhat older, a Lubavitch chossid convinced his father to send the young boy to Lubavitch. He was ten-years-old when he came to the city Lubavitch and on the 2nd of Cheshvan he entered into Yechidus with the Rebbe Rashab together with his father. The Rebbe Rashab referred his father to the hanhola, the faculty of the yeshiva who entered the young boy into Yeshiva Tomchei Tmimim. Over the course of the years, he received Rabbinic ordination at the Yeshiva.

In his autobiography, Reb Yisroel wrote, “Since 1909, I did not miss spending a Rosh Hashana in Lubavitch with the Rebbe Rashab. In 1915, when the Rebbe Rashab moved to Rostov, WWI had broken out and therefore I was unable to visit the Rebbe”.

The wedding and the hunger years

In 1920, Reb Yisroel was married to Rebbetzin Shaina, the daughter of the chossid Horav Yehoshua Heshel Levin. The wedding itself was a restricted affair with little food. The years 1920 and 1921 were years of hunger and the newly married couple also suffered from starvation. That year, the Rabbonim allowed people to eat kitniyos or beans on Pesach, something customarily prohibited. In 1922 Reb Yisroel organized a yeshiva in Homil in order that the students need not travel to Lubavitch.

On one occasion when the Previous Rebbe visited the city of Lubavitch, Reb Yisroel consulted the Rebbe about a livelihood. The Rebbe advised him not to open a store rather to work as a broker. This provided an income, in addition to some assistance from relatives in the United States.

When Reb Yisroel’s parents immigrated to the United States in 1923, the Russian government had started persecuting Jews and tried to limit Jewish schools and mikvaos. In the following year, Reb Yisroel formed a business partnership with his friends and they sold synthetic materials and purchased material from Poland. The business brought in great profits, but after they were reported to the government everything was confiscated. Reb Yisroel recalled in his memoirs that in 1924 he began working tirelessly to expedite his departure for the United States.

In early 1925 during a meeting of chassidim, it was decided that when a chossid left Russia he should try to bring out and assist the students left behind. Since Reb Yisroel was traveling to the U.S. he accepted this responsibility.

Trip to the United States

During a Yechidus in late Adar, the Previous Rebbe advised Reb Yisroel that he should begin arranging his trip to the United States. Until he departed, he should serve as a mashpia in Homil. The Rebbe also asked if Reb Yisroel could travel on his behalf to Rostov on the 2nd of Nissan for the hilulo of the Reb Rashab, which was on a Friday. At the conclusion of the Yechidus, the Rebbe gave Reb Yisroel money for a train ticket from Leningrad to Moscow. He instructed that upon his return he should report back as to whether he had purchased the ticket and enter into Yechidus again on Sunday at 6:00 P.M.

When Reb Yisroel came for Yechidus, the Rebbe reviewed the Maamor that he had delivered on Shabbos and explained that it was difficult for him to say the Maamor because of pain in his side. The Rebbe then gave Reb Yisroel pidyonos and instructed him to get a pidyon from the Rebbe’s mother, the Rebbetzin Shterna Soro. The Rebbe then told him, “Do you know how to speak to my father? To my father you need to speak as one does during Yechidus, and say the following, ‘Rebbe, I am the shliach from your son and your Rebbetzin. They made me for a shliach’ ”. The Rebbe also added, “You will probably be at the Ohel the same time that I am davening here, so my davening will be with a geshmak, an ecstasy.”

Reb Yisroel left Russia for Latvia with his family at the end of Tamuz 1925. Reb Yisroel described the events.

“It is hard to put in words the feeling that in a few moments we would be leaving Russia. When we arrived in Riga, we were told by the embassy that the authenticity of my invitation to the U.S. needed to be verified. This took six weeks. In the beginning of Elul, while we were staying in Karantin, our four-and-a half year daughter Chaya Soro became ill with scarlet fever and needed to be hospitalized for six weeks. We visited her every day and left her gifts. When the consulate learned that our daughter was ill, they instructed us not to enter the consulate for the next three months. If we violated this regulation, we would never receive a visa.

During the 19th of Kislev Farbrengen in Riga, my friends bid me farewell and we were on our way. Traveling via Berlin and Paris, we boarded the ship for the U.S. in Havre, France. On the fifth of Teves, we arrived on American shores at Ellis Island. The following Shabbos, I went to the shul that had invited me to the U.S. but it was closed. Evidently, the Shul had been “established” to bring me to the U.S.”

Parnossa was difficult. Reb Yisroel tried different options, but was accepted as a Rav in a shul in Brownsville, which was considered the Jerusalem of America at the time. His first Farbrengen took place on the 2nd of Nissan in the Tzemach Tzedek shul on 184 Henry Street and made a deep impression on Anash. They asked where Reb Yisroel lived and then began coming to his shul on Shabbos at Shalosh Seudos.

On Motzoei Shabbos Parshas Shmini, Reb Yisroel helped organize a meeting in Rabbi Simpson’s house, at which the Agudas Hatmimim was founded. The organization consisted of twenty Yeshiva Tomchei Tmimim students from Russia residing in the U.S. The functions of this organization were to raise finds, collect “Maamod” for the Rebbe’s personal needs, attempt to bring additional students from Russia to the U.S. and consider the establishment of a cheder that would have the spirit of Yiras Shomayim.

Agudas Chassidei Chabad was already in existence, having beenestablished in the summer of 1924 upon the Rebbe’s directive. It was located in a factory owned by the popular Kramer brothers who supported the Previous Rebbe’s efforts and activities. This organization also sent funds to the Rebbe and Yeshiva Tomchei Tmimim in Warsaw.

Publishing a Likutei Torah

As a result of Reb Yisroel’s membership in Agudas Chassidei Chabad, a suggestion was made to reprint the Likutei Torah, the Alter Rebbe’s discourses, for a thousand dollars. During a Farbrengen on the hilulo, yahrzeit of the Alter Rebbe in Reb Yisroel’s house, Reb Yisroel spoke about this publishing project and every person contributed. Anash in the United States were encouraged by the new mosdos and the publishing of the Likutei Torah.

Reb Yisroel then began a tireless effort to bring people out of Russia. He successfully brought out a number of great chassidim who later served as Roshei Yeshiva or Rabbonim in their respective communities.

In Sivan 1927, when the Rebbe was arrested and imprisoned, chassidim in the free world began to pursue any and all options to free the Rebbe. In the U.S. chassidim worked with lawyers familiar to Lubavitch, to lobby senators in Washington to pressure the Russian government to release the Rebbe. When the Rebbe was finally freed and was ready to leave Russia for Riga, chassidim were told that funds needed to be raised so that the lack of money should not hinder the Rebbe from leaving Russia. Reb Yisroel and a small group chassidim met with the Kramer brothers in their factory on a wintry Friday and advised them to immediately contribute the 4,000 dollars. Reb Yisroel insisted that if the money was not raised that day, he wasn’t leaving the factory. The money was raised and the funds were sent via Riga, and Reb Mordechai Dubin to the Rebbe in Russia.

Calabria Esrogim

In early 1928, when Reb Yisroel went to purchase esrogim for Sukkos, he found that there were no Kalabria, Italy esrogim available. For the upcoming year, Reb Yisroel arranged that the Lubavitch bochurim studying in Warsaw should send ten Kalabria Esrogim to him. In later years, Reb Yisroel would supply the Previous Rebbe and the Rebbe, as well as many chassidim with Calabria esrogim. In 1955 Reb Yisroel began traveling to Italy to supervise and select the esrogim.

In mid 1929, a newsflash was relayed to chassidim in the U.S. The Previous Rebbe was planning a trip to the U.S. on behalf of Russian Jewry. Reb Yisroel recalled, “Anash in the U.S. were not sophisticated enough how to prepare and host such a royal visit. However we mobilized ourselves and notified all the different Anash shuls about this special visit and an awakening began. As it got closer to the Rebbe’s arrival, it became necessary to employ a full time person in the Aguch office to spread the news and coordinate the arrangements.” When Reb Yisroel saw that no one appropriate for the job, he committed himself. When the plans for the Rebbe’s residence location was discussed, Reb Yisroel and Reb Berel Rivkin stated that it needed to be in the most distinguished place, and at his immediate arrival the Rebbe should stay in a hotel in Manhattan.

Rebbe’s arrival in the U.S.

The Rebbe arrived on the 13th of Elul, September 18, 1929. A large crowd came to greet the Rebbe and stood for hours in the pouring rain waiting for his ship to arrive. Delayed many hours, the ship arrived in the evening and the crowd was somewhat diminished. The news media came out in full force to cover the Rebbe’s arrival. As the Rebbe came off the ship, photographers flashbulbs went off, and people jostled each other to get a glimpse. A motorcade escorted the Rebbe to Rabbi Simpson’s house in Boro Park.

The Rebbe asked for Reb Yisroel. He wanted to know why the crowd had not been allowed to greet him and give him shalom. He told Reb Yisroel to check if there was a Rabbi, Rebbe or Ben Torah present and to immediately allow them access to the Rebbe. A crowd gathered and the Rebbe went onto the porch of the shul on the first floor to address them.

The Rebbe stayed at 184 Brooklyn Avenue in Crown Heights in a house prepared exclusively for him. The Rebbe spent the month of Tishrei with the community in Crown Heights. Reb Yisroel supplied the Rebbe with an Esrog mehudar. After Tishrei, the Rebbe began traveling to various cities and speaking for large audiences in different shuls. When the Rebbe would return to New York, Reb Yisroel would receive notice from the Rebbe’s secretary so that he could make arrangements for the Rebbe. The Rebbe fasted quite often during his stay in the U.S. On one occasion, Reb Yisroel told the Rebbe, “We are greatly aggravated that the Rebbe is not eating. The Rebbe’s health is important to us.” The Rebbe responded, “I miss the food?! Yesterday I saw that you brought Mezonos which your wife baked, so I took something to eat with milk.” The Rebbe was consulted regarding the bylaws of Agudas Chassidei Chabad and it was decided to establish branches in different parts of the city and include additional members.

Prior to the Rebbe’s arrival in the U.S. there had been rumors and excitement that the Rebbe would be settling in the U.S. Over the course of his visit, the Rebbe made it clear that he would not be doing so. Regarding this matter, the Rebbe once said to Reb Yisroel, “They spoke with me about settling in the U.S. but I am not up to it. My coming here was as a public communal figure. I have a sense and a success in it but this is not my inyan, function. My inyan is chassidim and chassidus.”

Chabad Ladies Auxiliary

During his visit to the U.S. the Rebbe encouraged the establishment of a Ladies Auxiliary to strengthen the observance of family purity laws. The Auxiliary also worked to spread Yiddishkeit and support Lubavitch mosdos. Rebbetzin Jacobson took on a large role in the work of the Auxiliary and it was blessed with much success. On one occasion the members raised money to buy a Sefer Torah for a shul. Over the course of time, branches were established in Brownsville, the Bronx, Bensonhurst and Boro Park.

Chassidus Shiurim and Farbrengens

The Rebbe also urged the chassidim to give shiurim in Chassidus. Reb Yisroel began giving a Tanya shiur and occasionally a shiur in Likutei Diburim, the Previous Rebbe’s Sichos. He would go from one shul to another giving shiurim. In his own shul, Reb Yisroel would give a shiur in Ayin Yaakov. He would leave his shul immediately after borchu and rush to the next shul where a shiur was scheduled.

Reb Yisroel would make Farbrengens in his home on Yud Tes Kislev, Yud Beis Tamuz, Simchas Torah, and other significant days and many people would attend. This also attracted numerous bochurim to Chassidus, including Horav Meir Greenberg, who later became the Rav in Patterson, New Jersey. He became a member of the new shiur chassidus established for the bochurim. Reb Yisroel began giving shiurim to bochurim during the week and on Shabbos. Some of the bochurim felt that the shiurim were too difficult for them. Reb Yisroel told them that his home was open for them at any time and that they could always come to talk with him. A young bochur, Reb Sholom Ber Gordon, later the Rav in Maplewood, New Jersey, once came to Reb Yisroel’s home wearing a stylish hat. Reb Yisroel spoke to the bochur saying that clothing are in accordance with the time and place, as long as they do not influence people in a negative. If a person would begin wearing a Russian-style hat, it would seem peculiar. This comforted the bochur.

Reb Yisroel’s shiurim and influence reached far and wide, beyond the calculation of the community. Some felt threatened that he was trying to make all the bochurim into Lubavitch chassidim.

In the following years, chassidim visited the United States and Farbrenged with local chassidim. Among them were Reb Yitzchok Gorowitz, also known as Reb Itche Masmid, Reb Mordechai Chefetz and additional chassidim who were dispatched from Europe to raise funds for the Rebbe and warm up chassidim.

In 1937 Agudas Chassidei Chabad decided that since Reb Yisroel had served as a director of Agudas Chassidei Chabad without a salary, they would fund his trip to the Rebbe. Reb Yisroel would bring all the pidyonos to the Rebbe and report on the activities in the U.S. Reb Yisroel traveled on the 25th of Tamuz to Poland where he stayed near the Rebbe for approximately a month and a half. The things he heard from the Rebbe during that time made such a great impression on him that even many years later he was unable to sit down and record them.

Achos Tmimim – chassidus shiurim for the women

When Reb Yisroel was in Yechidus with the Rebbe, the Rebbe told him about the mosad Achos Tmimim in Poland and encouraged him to establish a branch in New York. The function of Achos Tmimim was for girls to study Chassidus, Tanya, and Maamorim. On one occasion, the Rebbe sent the chossid Reb Moredchai Chefetz, the mashpia of the Achos Tmimim in Riga, to Farbreng with the girls in the United States. As a result of the Farbrengen, the girls asked for an increase in their studies. Reb Yisroel, Reb Yochanon Gordon, and Reb SA Kazarnovsky received specific directives from the Rebbe regarding what to learn with the girls. This increased the involvement of the girls in chassidic studies and conduct.

In 1938, Reb Yisroel’s oldest daughter, Chaya Soro, was married to Horav Shlomo Hecht. After their wedding, with the Rebbe’s permission, they came to Otwock where Reb Shlomo studied in Yeshiva Tomchei Tmimim. Reb Shlomo later became the Rebbe’s shliach in Chicago. He served there until his last day on Menachem Av 1979.

Upcoming article: A group of Reb Yisroel’s students travel to Otwock, and Reb Yisroel’s activities from the 1940’s until 1975.

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