The first book penned by the Lubavitcher Rebbe was Hayom Yom, a collection of inspirational aphorisms and Chasidic thoughts in a calendar format. Each day has a unique entry and Chabad Chassidim customarily strive to link each vort with the events of that day. It takes no great stretch of imagination to connect the passing of the Rebbe’s head


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The man who made Jewish Melbourne

The first book penned by the Lubavitcher Rebbe was Hayom Yom, a collection of inspirational aphorisms and Chasidic thoughts in a calendar format. Each day has a unique entry and Chabad Chassidim customarily strive to link each vort with the events of that day. It takes no great stretch of imagination to connect the passing of the Rebbe’s head Shliach to Australia, Rabbi Yitzchok Dovid Groner zecher tzaddik livrocho on 4 Tammuz with the Hayom Yom allocated to that day. One single chassid or student who devotes his heart, mind and soul to Torah and to bolstering Torah, effects wonders in a large city, in all that city's affairs - in a manner that transcends the natural order, by the merit of our Patriarchs, "Fathers of the World."

If Melbourne, Australia is today an Ir VeEim BeYisroel, enormous credit for that must be attributed to Rabbi Groner. Put simply, Rabbi Groner made Jewish Melbourne. A giant of a man and a peerless orator, Rabbi Groner, or ‘the Big chief’ as he was affectionately known, could best be described as “bestriding Melbourne like a colossus” inspiring humbler men to commit to his vision.

Gevuro Shebigvuro

Born in New York on 24 Nissan 1925, the sefira of his birthday was gevuro shebigvuro, and he truly lived up to the promise. Hailing from a family of prominent Rabbis and communal workers (his younger brother Leible was for many years the secretary of the Rebbe), and a descendent of the Shalo hakodosh, the Bac”h, the Alter Rebbe and the Mittler Rebbe, the Young Yitzchok Dovid quickly rose to prominence in the Chabad movement. At the behest of the Rabbi Y. Y. Shneersohn, the then Rebbe, he organised the first ever Jewish children’s rally in 1942 and was a leading figure in the nascent ‘Released Time,’ which brought Jewish education and religious identity to Public School students. These twin themes of Jewish pride and authentic education were to define his life.

He served short stints in Providence, Rhode Island and Buffalo, New York, where he received shimush in Rabbonus from Rav Beirish Zuckerman zt”l. The expertise in hilchos mikvaos he gained there was later used in his travels around the world where he was instrumental in planning and building kosher mikvaos.

His first visit to Australasia was in 1947 as a fundraiser representing the Rebbe Raya”atz’ Central Lubavitcher Yeshivah. Even as a visitor, his influence was immediate, as he waded straight into a community-wide fight to help establish a Jewish day school. A second visit in 1954 further endeared him to the community, many of whom were entranced by the sight of the huge man with a Yankee accent who could discuss baseball stats and scores, beat them on the sporting fields and then shlep them into the shule for a shiur. In 1958, when the community went looking for a rov and someone to spearhead the expansion of Chabad, it was only natural they would turn to the vibrant, English speaking and charismatic Rabbi Groner.

Initially hesitant to travel so far away from his Rebbe, family and friends, it was only the direct personal intervention of the Lubavitcher Rebbe that persuaded him to commit to a lifetime of service. The Rebbe appointed him as ‘my man in Australia,’ his direct personal emissary and promised him and his Rebbetzin Devorah ybl”c that they would enjoy success in their endeavours for the tzibbur and nachas from their children.

The Rebbe kept his word; Rabbi Groner was zoche to build Melbourne into an unparalleled city of Torah and his 8 children have all followed him into positions of responsibility in suburbs around Melbourne and throughout the world.

Ish asher Ruach Bo

Other rabbis are respected, Groner was loved. Who else would devote every shabbos afternoon for a year to sit and teach Chassidic niggunim to teenagers? What type of devotion does it take to maintain a regular Thursday morning shiur for ladies and his Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Shabbos Mincha and Sunday afternoon shiurim for ba’alei battim, some for over 40 years, with barely a break for sickness or travel? I personally know someone who decided to become frum after shaking the Rabbi’s hand and first becoming enveloped by the force of his personality.

He was an unparalleled ba’a tefilla with a rare gift for nusach and niggun. Blessed with a powerful voice and true hartzikeit, people flocked from all over Melbourne to hear him lead the tefillos on 1st night Selichos, Musaf Yom Kippur and Neila. How could one ever forget the sight of him, obviously ailing and in great pain, levering himself to his full height at the conclusion of Yom Kippur, thrusting both hands upwards as if to wrench the gates of heaven open and bellowing out his signature sha’arei shomayoim P’SACH!?

He had an encyclopaedic knowledge of the history of all Chassidic movements and was a lover of seforim and a great boki in Tshuvois. Rav Moshe Feinstein addressed a teshuvo in Igros Moshe to him. He was a treasure chest of stories and the seriousness with which he insisted on accurately recounting the most minute details of the stories he heard growing up in the Reyim Ahuvim shtiebl in Brownsville was legendary.

He took great joy in meeting gedolim. When he visited the Beis Yisroel he was announced as the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s Shliach in Australia. The Belzer Rebbe once stood behind a window listening to a speech he gave to students in Yerusholayim. In his youth he was zoche to meet many gedolei yisroel and rebbeim from previous generations. He was especially fond of recalling the days he saw the Frierdicker Lubavitcher Rebbe and the Rebbe arrive in America and to have met him was to have heard and enjoyed his famous catch-cry of “I was there” as he settled down to recount the story again in all its details.

How can anyone adequately describe that roughish twinkle in his eye with which he could temper the fieriest outburst of righteous indignation? It would be absolutely impossible to replicate that combination of charm and contrariness? His logical flights of fancy were unique. Only Groner could suggest with a straight face that “most people are average, otherwise the average would be higher”.

Just as his ability to join in with the simcha of others as if it were his own simcha, his ability to empathise in other’s suffering was also extraordinary. He was sensitive to the anguish of others and would mourn along with the family at every tragedy. I vividly remember walking into Rabbi Groner’s office one afternoon to find him weeping into the phone. A local lady had dropped off a sha’ala that morning and was calling back for the p’sak. No Rov enjoys paskening in the negative but Rabbi Groner’s reaction was unique. He was so distressed by the thought of inflicting pain on a bas yisrael that he was overcome with tears. From the part of the conversation that I heard, the lady ended up trying to comfort him.

Ish HoEshkoilos asher Kol Boi

Rabbi Groner wore many hats; he was the Rav of the Chabad kehilla, the dean of the educational movement which includes 9 pre-schools, the Yeshivah and Beth Rivka Colleges, and the Ohel Chana teacher’s institute, which together educate well over 1000 students a year. He founded the first kollel on Australian shores and was on the hanholo of the Yeshiva Gedola Rabbinical seminary. He was the Head Shliach of a string of successful Chabad Houses throughout Australia and a fundraiser extraordinaire.

Soon after his arrival he came to be recognised as more than just a Chabad leader and assumed the unofficial role as rabbi and spokesman for Judaism to the country. The community consulted him about everything and if any attitude could be said to sum up his flamboyant personality it would have to be the sight of him entrenched at his desk, in his dressing gown, tzitzis gaping from the neck and solving yet another communal crisis. Neighbours grew accustomed to seeing the light on in his front room at all hours and laymen, talmidim and politicians alike were welcomed with the same élan.

Rabbi Groner was the personal rabbi and chief connection to yiddishkeit to many thousands of Australian Jews. In his fifty years of public service he would have officiated at countless weddings, funerals, consecrations and Barmitzvas. He spoke every single time and invariably would put his heart and soul into preparing an apt drosho and personal message to the participants. At almost every Bar Mitzva or wedding, the Ba’al Simcha introducing him would begin by remarking that it would not be a family simcha without Rabbi Groner and it was true, he was a member of every family and was a father figure and zeida to all.

His care and concern extended to every local institution. A former President of my shul, a man who was far from observant in his personal life, once remarked to me “Rabbi Groner was the only man I ever really respected, because he was honest enough to tell you the truth to your face, no matter how much he might have needed you at the time”. It was due to Rabbi Groner’s personal intervention and his sage counsel that the Moorabbin community, as with so many others, continues to survive and flourish today. He was the one to insist that Yiddishkeit must be supported even on the outskirts of town and history is the judge of his stewardship.

He had the rare gift of being able to think globally and act locally. His organisational ability allowed him to direct the activities of a giant organisation and mediate between competing beliefs and factions while always remaining accessible to individuals. His house was open to everyone, and it was a rare communal issue that was not thrashed out over the desk in his office.

Even during his last few years when ill health constantly plagued him he was still the fulcrum around which the whole community revolved. After coming out of medically induced coma his first question was about the state of the Yeshivah’s finances and on that very day he was already working the phone, bring in much needed support for his beloved moisdos.

He was totally selfless when it came to ensuring the future of his institutions. Some years ago a number of wealthy supporters were concerned that his lifelong devotion to the klal had left him without adequate superannuation funds to finance his latter years. They put together a tidy sum as their personal gift and presented him with the bankbook. Some short time later the Centre’s accountant noticed that the account was totally depleted. The rabbi had secretly ploughed it all back into his mosdos to stave off yet another financial crisis and to ensure the continued survival of his community.

The roar of a lion

Almost the last time I heard him speak in public was at a fundraising dinner for the Yeshivah-Beth Rivka schools. The undoubted highlight of the evening was when Rabbi Groner was wheeled in for a while.

Even then Rabbi Groner was not a well man. Just 3 days before the event emergency emails were circulated urging people to pray for him. He had a list of medical problems and complications and even when he was allowed to temporarily leave his bed he had to be transported on a reclining wheel-bed.

But he still had it.

When he came in, nobody announced, “would you please rise”, but every one automatically stood in silence and respect until he reached his place.

Rabbi Groner had always been a fantastic orator, but this was gold. His voice may have been hoarse, his strength sapped, but he still had it. You could almost feel the collective will of the crowd, willing him on and wishing him well. Only a man who had given so much of himself, to so many, for so long, deserved such a reciprocal show of respect and love. It was a powerful moment, and a defining one.

He quoted the posuk from this week’s parsha “Kora, shochav koari - He will crouch and lie down like a lion”.

Usually interpreted as a description of the Jewish people during their time in exile, outwardly submissive but waiting for their time to come again, Rabbi Groner repunctuated the verse to bring out a new meaning. He crouches, he lies down. He will be a lion. Sometimes a man is bowed and bent, forced by the vagaries of fate and ill health to crouch down in agony or recline in pain, but he can still dare to dream, hope and pray and never give up. Wait for your strength to return, and with G-d’s help you will yet become a lion again.

The rabbi was clearly praying for health, for the chance to contribute some more and to keep on building like he’d done all his life, but I had a different take on the verse. He’s crouching and lying down, but he’s (still) a lion. I saw a man beaten but not out, hurting, but refusing to submit. Imprisoned in his bed, but keeping his dignity during the hard times and demonstrating inherent nobility.

Just like the Jewish people have never been vanquished throughout their time in exile, our Rabbi was demonstrating that every human has the capacity to triumph over fate and overcome all. The reason that one man could conquer a city and bring yiddishkeit and authenticity to tens of thousands is because he cared deeply about every single one of us and never gave up for a moment. The lion’s roar was his and he lived life on a plane of his own.

There were thousands of people there from every walk of life and from all degrees of observance, yet they were all bound together in their common love for their rabbi. Only Rabbi Groner had that ability to unite a disparate crowd and blend them into a community.

His 50 years here made Melbourne, and we are all the richer for having had him with us.

Yehi zichro baruch

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