For decades, Rabbi Yisroel Gordon was a beloved figure at the Rabbinical College of America in Morristown. On the walk from synagogue to his home in the tight-knit Tikvah Way community, every few minutes, he would be stopped to chat by another person, each one of whom felt that he or she had a unique connection with Rabbi Gordon — and indeed they all did.
With humor, wit, and patience, Rabbi Gordon, who died last week at 92, made each person feel special, treasured, and valued.
Yisroel Gordon, who was born in 1930, was the youngest of four surviving children born in the chasidic Belarusian town of Dokshitz to Rabbi Yochanan and Zeesa Gordon. Yochanan Gordon was the town shochet, a position that had been in the family for generations. Following a complicated pregnancy, Yisroel was born safely at home, as per the directive of the Chabad Lubavitch movement’s Sixth Rebbe — Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, of righteous memory.
The honor of being sandek at the baby’s brit was given to the town’s chasidic rabbi, Rabbi Leib Sheinin. Later, the Nazis murdered him.
When Yisroel was a baby, Yochanan Gordon traveled to America, at the urging of the Sixth Rebbe. There, he worked to earn enough money to bring his family to the new world.
When Yisroel was 3 years old, he finally was reunited with his father. It took him some time to learn to recognize and love the stranger he was to call “Papa.”
Walking to the synagogue with his father, he learned about the Sixth Rebbe, who lived across the ocean, and developed a love for him and his family.
After the Nazi invasion of Poland, American chasidim worked to bring the Sixth Rebbe to safety in America. Young Yisroel had not yet become bar mitzvah, so he was part of the effort. He fielded 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; Yisroel’s older brother, Sholom, was enrolled there. As soon as a junior high division was founded, Yisroel followed suit.
By the time he was 15, he was deeply integrated into the Chabad court; he 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, told him that his father-in-law had asked him to tell the teenager how much he had enjoyed his reading.
Rabbi 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 God and Judaism, discreetly encouraging men who came to say Kaddish to wear tefillin and increase in mitzvah observance.
Following the Sixth Rebbe’s death, Rabbi Gordon became the Seventh Rebbe’s driver; he’d drive him to the Ohel — the cemetery in Queens where the Schneersohns are buried — and to other destinations. He also would drive the Sixth Rebbe’s widow and her daughters on occasional excursions to parks.
In the early 1950s, the rebbe sent Rabbi Gordon 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 so-called colored people.
For many years Rabbi Gordon was a Judaic studies teacher and the principal in the local Chabad day school in Worcester, Mass., where 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 in the early 1980s to become an administrator at the Rabbinical College of America. There, he founded the Yeshiva Summer Program, which introduced generations of 14-year-old post-bar-mitzvah boys to the rigors and joys of yeshiva lifestyle.
For many, a memorable moment was when Gordon would teach the students to sing Shir Hageulah, a chasidic song set to music by students in the Chabad yeshiva 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 chasidim such as R. Itche Der Masmid and R. Mordechai Cheifetz.
His brother, Rabbi Sholom B. Gordon, was the longtime rabbi at Congregation Ahavath Zion, first in Newark and then in Maplewood, and often asked him to speak at community functions and lifecycle events.
He also taught a weekly senior class at the JCC in West Orange, and he gave regular Torah classes in Randolph. He was a mentor to his students, many of whom had rediscovered Judaism as adults.
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 chasidic 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 died on Sunday, Shevat 14, just two weeks shy of his 93rd birthday.
In addition to his wife, Ellen, he is survived by his children Zeesy (R. Yosef) Posner, Rishe (R. Avrohom Moshe) Deitsch, Rivkah L. (R. Chaim Tzvi) Groner, Etty (R. Yossel) Gurevitch, and R. Yossy (Rochel) Gordon, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.