Friday, July 14, 2006

The Rebbe’s man downunder


IT’S 7pm on a cold winter’s night and I’ve been summoned to the home of Rabbi Yitzchok Dovid Groner. Several previous appointments have been cancelled due to his ill health. Tonight, however, Rabbi Groner is in inimitable form.

Like legions before me, I have arrived to ask questions of Australia’s most senior Orthodox rabbi. But unlike members of his burgeoning Lubavitch flock, my questions do not pertain to issues of family purity, relationship foibles, fertility or commentaries on Jewish law.

To Lubavitchers and many others across the Orthodox community of Melbourne, Rabbi Groner is their spiritual leader, their chief rabbi, a medicine man who dispenses spiritual antidotes from his small office, where the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves almost groan under the weight of halachic texts.

Parked in his wheelchair behind his desk, he appears physically and spiritually larger than life. He has a fax (it’s old and could use upgrading) and a computer (which he says he can’t use but on which someone downloads halachic texts for him), but he says he doesn’t watch TV because “they put the prettiest women as the news readers”. He does, however, own a video which he uses to watch the late Lubavitcher Rebbe’s speeches and family simchas.

But it is his telephone that plays the pivotal role in his daily work. Indeed, on the occasions I have been in his office, his phone has rung several times.

Mostly, it’s people calling with she’elot, or questions. Sometimes it’s benefactors returning calls. On one occasion during this interview, Rabbi Groner picks up the phone and after a few pleasantries cuts to the chase. “My friend,” he says bluntly, “I’m calling for a cheque”.

Not for him, his eight children or his growing number of grandchildren and great-grandchildren. No, anyone who has met Rabbi Groner knows he doesn’t dabble in the frivolous pursuit of luxuries.

It’s for his other family, his extended family: the Yeshivah Centre in Melbourne which he was instrumental in building and the Lubavitch movement in Australia over which he effectively presides.

He has been offered a testimonial dinner to mark his 80th birthday, which he will celebrate next year. Initially, he says he cast the idea off. Then he reconsidered.

“If a testimonial dinner for Rabbi Groner will bring in $1 million [for Chabad] then I’m alright,” he concedes. So a gala dinner will be held in November at Crown Palladium with philanthropist Richard Pratt as patron.

There are some questions which Rabbi Groner refuses to be drawn on, and others which he scorns, but answers nonetheless.

Given his love for Eretz Yisrael — his parents were both born in what was then Palestine — does he define himself as a Zionist?

A glaring stare pierces through his thick glasses at me. “There isn’t a speech or a sermon in which I haven’t mentioned Eretz Yisrael because it’s uppermost in me,” he insists.

When I ask him what the greatest threat to Judaism is, he replies diplomatically: “Torah ignorance.”

And when I broach the subject of the Rebbe’s passing — without an heir — in 1994, he cautions me with a wagging finger, and says: “The Gemarah says in Sanhedrin that Daniel was the Moshiach and he was dead 1000 years.

“When he left it made us stronger. Since 10 years ago the Lubavitch movement has grown more than ever before.”

He is right. The fact is, as Lubavitchers worldwide mourn a decade since the death of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Chabad movement has strengthened in his absence. Whereas the doomsayers forewarned the demise of a leaderless messianic movement, Chabadniks have answered them by spreading their reach to virtually every corner of the globe in search of lost Jews.

Their mission, as the Rebbe put it, is “to light up the souls of Jews with the light of Torah and mitzvot. Jewish souls are in readiness to be lit. Sometimes they are around the corner. Sometimes they are in a wilderness or at sea.”

The Chabad House in Launceston, Tasmania, is arguably both “in a wilderness” and “at sea”. It is just one of innumerable Chabad houses that have sprouted around Australia and in more than 60 countries worldwide.

If you thought Chabad had no reason to exist in Central Africa, let alone Tasmania, think again. There’s a Chabad house in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Coca Cola has penetrated most corners of the globe. Chabad, thanks to shlichim such as Rabbi Groner, is not that far behind.

One of the most important contributing factors in the globalisation of the Lubavitch movement has been its willingness to embrace technology, a giant leap Rabbi Groner has resisted.

“I don’t know how to use the computer,” he admits. “They [my staff] use it for me. A man in America put all the Rebbe’s sichas [talks] in America on disk. Then he took 10,000 books printed in America that are not in print any more and put them on disk. So I wanted that.

“I’m very, very sceptical,” he says of the technological revolution. “Television does as much good as it does detriment to the community... with pornography and the sex.”

Yet he recognises that without it Chabad would be far less able to connect with Jews in remote parts of the world.

Sometimes, however, a question will not draw an answer, but a look, a gesticulation, raised eyebrows — silence that speaks volumes. At other times, a question does not elicit an answer at all, but another question. And every now and then a question will spark a story, one of many, many stories Rabbi Groner has accrued over the decades.

“I was brought up in a shtiebel in Brownsville, New York,” he recalls. “We used to have every day from 4am people learning. Davvening went from 6am-12 midnight, minyan after minyan.”

This is the world that the young Yitzchok Dovid entered aged 11 in time to mature before his bar mitzvah.

“There were elderly Jews there who knew the world from before [World War I] and I used to listen to their stories; that’s why I know a lot of stories,” he says.

“I learned two tractates of Gemarah when I was a kid of 13 — one of them was the most difficult discourses in Shas [the Talmud].

“My father was a great tzaddik, a very learned man, a very righteous man, but an extremely humble man.”

There’s no doubt Rabbi Groner inherited his father’s humility. Whatever else one may say about him, one fact is indisputable: although he lives, breathes and sleeps Lubavitch, he does not promote himself. Humility is one of his watchwords.

Indeed, at several junctures during this interview, Rabbi Groner insists that he not be depicted as the individual who built Melbourne’s Lubavitch empire.

“It cannot be mentioned — and it’s not fair — that one person made everything,” he stresses.

This is a measure of the man. “It’s not just Rabbi Groner,” he insists. “It’s not true,” he says, noting the foundations that were laid down by the Feiglins in Shepparton in the 1940s, the Wilshanskys, Serebryanskis, Kluwgants, Althauses and Gurewiczs, as well as Reb Abba Pliskin.

YITZCHOK Dovid Groner was born in 1925, just two days after Pesach, the fifth of eight children — but the first born in the United States. His father was born in Jerusalem; his mother in Hebron.

“My father left Israel in 1920 because he had nothing to eat. When I was born there was no Lubavitcher yeshiva yet. The first Lubavitcher yeshiva started when the previous Rebbe came to America in 1940.”

Yitzchok Dovid grew up in a close-knit family in New York. One of his brothers was a pilot in the US Air Force but was killed in a crash in 1945. Another brother — Yehuda Leib — became the late Lubavitcher Rebbe’s personal secretary.

Rabbi Groner vividly recalls the 9th day of Adar II in 1940 when, as a 15-year-old boy, he watched the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, sail into New York Harbour.

“There were thousands of people there. It was wartime and there was great security. I was standing at the back. I remember his [the Rebbe’s] face when he was wheeled off the ship in his wheelchair.

“He was the first great leader of Judaism that came out of the war.”

Purim fell four days later. “Hundreds and hundreds of people came from all walks of life because they wanted to hear what’s going on in Europe.

“I remember how the Rebbe said ‘Good yom tov.’ And then he said, ‘How can I say good yom tov when my brethren are being burnt?’ That sicha [talk] killed me,” recalls Rabbi Groner stroking his long, salt-and-pepper-coloured beard.

By the age of 22, he had been marked out for shlichut, to become an emissary of the Rebbe, to take the Chabad message to far-flung corners of the earth. In 1947, the year of his marriage to his wife Devorah, he was sent by the Rebbe on a pilot tour to Australia and New Zealand.

“I flew 55 hours from New York to Sydney. The DC-6 came out, so I took it from New York to San Francisco — 13 hours. I was there for Shabbat. Pan-Am had a DC-4 from San Francisco to Hawaii — 13 hours. Then I flew to the Canton Islands in the South Pacific — 10 hours. Then from Canton Islands to Fiji. From Fiji to Noumea. From Noumea to Sydney. Fifty-five hours.”

A smile breaks out across his face when I ask him of his first recollection upon landing on Australian soil.

“Sydney’s Kingsford Smith Airport was a hangar.”

The first Jew to greet him in Sydney was a young, beardless Chaim Gutnick. It was the first of many meetings between the two rabbis who went on to spend the next 50 years as colleagues and Orthodox leaders.

In Melbourne, Rabbi Groner went to the Carlton shtiebel. “I came in there and saw 100 people. I went to the corner and I started to cry. The next day I wrote a letter to the Rebbe, ‘You should know there’s Yiddishkeit here.’ I was so impressed.”

At that time, the Melbourne community was deep in debate about whether to establish a Jewish dayschool. There were two schools of thought, bitterly divided. The Anglos were staunchly against the idea, fearing it would isolate the Jews from the wider community. The Eastern Europeans were fiercely in favour because they believed Jewish education was a vital bulwark against assimilation.

Rabbi Groner, unsurprisingly, sided with the Europeans. “I said it’s the only thing that will preserve any Yiddishkeit in the community,” he recalls.

The doors of Mount Scopus College were opened in February 1949. In the 55 years since then, Australian Jewry has spawned more than 15 Jewish dayschools, including at least two which bear the imprint of Rabbi Groner’s own hands: Melbourne’s Yeshivah College and Beth Rivkah Ladies College, which today boast more than 1500 students between them. To this day he insists the most important step a Jewish parent can take “is to give their children to a Jewish dayschool”.

ALTHOUGH he and his wife of 57 years appear the archetypal couple who have succeeded as Chabad shlichim, it was not all plain sailing.

In 1958, the Rebbe sent Rabbi Groner to Australia for a third time (his second visit was in 1953). His wife Devorah joined him six months later with their six children (two more were born in Australia).

“The Rebbe said, ‘Go for three to five years.’ I’ve been here 45 years!” says Rabbi Groner, a smile washing over his face.

Initially, however, Rebbetzin Groner had difficulty integrating. “We wanted to leave. The Rebbe sent her [my wife] a three-page letter in English.” In it, the Rebbe referred to her concerns regarding the opinions and attitudes of the local Australian Jews and the lack of appreciation she felt.

“The more responsible a task is, the greater is the reward,” wrote the Rebbe. “[Rabbi Groner’s] work is... in a country where Judaism is still in its infancy, requiring a real pioneering spirit to transform... Jewish life in that remote continent.”

Although he said they were free to return at any time, between the lines the Rebbe’s message was clear. “More knowledge, more pain,” were his parting words.

Almost half-a-century later Rebbetzin Groner is very much an integral part of the fabric of Orthodox Melbourne, delivering shiurim, offering counselling and opening her house to a constant stream of guests. She comes and goes throughout our interview, delivering chicken soup, some kneidlach, a few pieces of challah.

If Hotham Street, St Kilda East, is the epicentre of the Lubavitch movement in Melbourne, if not Australia, then Rabbi Groner’s house is the nerve centre.

From his desk he is, to put it mildly, capable of transforming dreams into reality. Indeed he has.

Adjacent to his house stands a living testament to his life’s work: Yeshivah College — home to a boys’ school, several shuls, a kollel, mikvah and virtually everything in between. Next to it lies Beth Rivkah Ladies College. Just up the road is the Lubavitch women’s mikvah. And across the continent, from Sydney to Perth, are similar schools and shuls that are inspired by the Lubavitch philosophy.

In short he has helped plant the roots of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement in Australia, a movement which now has a hegemony over Orthodoxy in this country, an army of men in black who have, depending on one’s perspective, either lured members of the moderate Orthodox camp or forced it to reappraise itself.

But to understand Rabbi Groner’s true impact — and his standing as the most senior Orthodox rabbi in Australia — consider that the map of Jewish Melbourne, indeed of Australia, would be significantly different had the Rebbe not sent him and Rebbetzin Groner here some 45 years ago.

The facts speak for themselves: the Rabbinical Council of Victoria’s acting president, Rabbi Gidon Fox, is a Chabadnik; the president of the Organisation of Rabbis of Australasia, Rabbi Mordechai Gutnick, is also a Lubavitcher; so is the president of the Kashrut Authority of NSW, Rabbi Moshe Gutnick. And Rabbi and Rebbetzin Pinchus Feldman — who like Rabbi Groner were sent by the Rebbe to Australia — built up the former Yeshiva College in Sydney. The list goes on. In Melbourne a telephone directory lists some 450 Lubavitcher families, accounting for about 3000 people; in Sydney, while no such directory exists, there are approximately 2000 Lubavitchers, including children.

Perhaps most importantly, the vast majority of Orthodox pulpits across the continent are now led by Lubavitcher rabbis.

This may well be a function of their training, but it is, at a deeper level, a measure of the success of those, such as Rabbi Groner, sent by the Rebbe to instil Yiddishkeit, to continue a brand of Chassidism that evolved in the 18th century from a town in White Russia called Lubavitch.

“It [the hegemony of Chabad] is a good thing,” claims Rabbi Groner. “A Lubavitch-Chabad rabbi gives of himself totally.”

He is one who has. If one had to distil Rabbi Groner’s philosophy of life into one word it would have to be “menschlichkeit”. Summoned to the High Court in the 1970s to act as a witness in a landmark case relating to government funding for private (generally religious) schools, Rabbi Groner was asked by the QC what his objective was.

“I said my objective is to make my boys and girls a mensch.”

The judge, Rabbi Groner recalls with a smile, was puzzled. “I said a mensch. I want that they should be decent, moral, learned, observant young men and women, a credit to the community where they will live.”

Thousands upon thousands of graduates of his two schools — most of them unaffiliated to Chabad — have been instilled with Rabbi Groner’s version of menshlichkeit.

“It causes me a certain satisfaction,” reflects Rabbi Groner, “but by the same token it causes me a certain feeling that it wasn’t accomplished enough and we have to go ahead.

“The Rebbe was never satisfied to sit on his laurels. He always pushed for more and more.”

What is his proudest moment in life?

“There’s no such thing as the proudest moment. My moment is when I feel I can help other people because the whole community comes here, not just Lubavitch. If I can help them both in a spiritual way and in an educational way and in a moral way and in a physical way, that’s my greatest satisfaction.”

And what would he like his legacy to be?

“That I had a share in the development of the Melbourne Jewish community in various aspects. That would be my satisfaction, that would be my zchut, my merit.

“That I shared with others, that I gave my little bit to the development of the Jewish community in bringing up and educating decent young men and women.”

No comments: