BDE: Rabbi Yisroel Gordon, 92, OBM
With great sadness we report the passing of Rabbi Yisroel Gordon OBM, a veteran Educator and father of Chabad on Campus CEO Rabbi Yossy Gordon. He passed away on Sunday, the 14th of Shvat, 5783.
He was 92 years old.
Yisroel Gordon was the youngest of four surviving children, born in the Chassidic 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 chassidic rabbi, who was later murdered by the Nazis, Rabbi Leib Sheinin.
When Yisroel was yet a baby, at the urging of the Sixth Rebbe, 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 three-year-old it took some time for him to learn to recognize and love the stranger he was to call “Papa.”
Growing up in 1930s Brooklyn, he was among the only boys to be raised in the uncompromising Chassidic manner, including a European-style “zero” haircut, something even his classmates who were the children of Chassidic rebbes did not sport.
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 Chassidim 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, who told him that his father-in-law had asked him to convey how much he had enjoyed it.
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 G-d 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 1950’s, 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.
His work as a teacher and chazzan took him to several communities, including in St. Louis and Pittsburgh.
It was while he was living in Pittsburgh that the Rebbe told him to join Rabbi Hershel Fogelman as the Rebbe’s shliach in Worcester, Mass., where he became a Judaic studies teacher and principal in the local Chabad day school. 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, N.J., 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 young men to the rigors and joys of yeshivah lifestyle.
For many, a memorable moment was when Gordon would teach the students to sing Shir Hageulah, a Chassidic song set to music by students in the Chabad yeshivah 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 Chassidim such as R. Itche Der Masmid and R. Mordechai Cheifetz.
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 to pick up from there, a feat he always managed with aplomb.
Even as he battled illness, his good cheer and Chassidic 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.
He is survived by his wife Ellen Gordon and their children, Rabbi Yossy Gordon, Mrs. Zeesy Posner, Mrs. Rishe Deitsch, Mrs. Rivkah L. Groner, and Mrs. Etty Gurevitch.
The funeral will take place today, Sunday, and will be passing by 770 Eastern Parkway at approximately 12:00pm, and go from there to the Ohel.
The Gordon children will be sitting shiva at the Deitsch home, 667 Crown Street, with visitors from 10:30 AM to 12:00 Noon, 3:30 PM to 5:00 PM and 7:00 PM to 9:30 PM.
Davening will take place at the Gordon home, 719 Crown Street, with Shachris at 9:15 AM and Mincha at 5:10pm and Maariv at 5:50pm.
To arrange a visit with Mrs. Ellen Gordon, please call (718) 974-6230.
Boruch Dayan Hoemes