This past week saw the passing of Rabbi Yaakov Rabinowitz, a pioneer in Jewish education for over fifty years.
Rabbi Rabinowitz had a long chinuch career as a rebbi at Yeshiva Rabbi Jacob Joseph, a lecturer at Stern College, Dean of Students at YU, Dean of Undergraduate Students at YU-Stern, Dean of Erna Michael College at YU, chairman of the Board of Education of Shulamith for two decades, chairman of the Middlestates Licensing Panel for three decades, member of the board of Ohel, rebbe at Erna Michael College of Hebraic Studies, and co-founder and educational director and camp rabbi of Camp Morasha for 16 years.
Rabbi Rabinowitz gave daily Chumash shiurim at the Agudah of Avenue H and Daf Yomi during the summers. He completed all of Shas more than 7 times, wrote two seforim on Chumash titled Yemin Yaakov, and lectured worldwide on various chinuch and hashkafah topics.
He learned daily at the Lakewood Minyan of Boro Park, was a co- founder of Congregation Ahavas Chessed, and was sought after for his advice in all areas of formal and informal education.
He is survived by his wife Toby, his two sons, R’ Baruch and R’ Dovid, and two daughters, Mrs. Esther Shulman and Mrs. Fayge (Safran) Novogroder. He was pre-deceased by his son R’ Yosef Bezalel z”l.
What follows is the eulogy delivered at the funeral by his son-in-law, Rabbi Eli Baruch Shulman, rov of the Young Israel of Midwood in Brooklyn, and Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshivas R’ Yitzchak Elchanan:
Most of us have several faces. The face that we show at work is not the same face we show to our friends and neighbors, and then again the face that we show them is not the face that we show at home. It’s not hypocrisy; it’s part of human complexity that we put on different personas for different roles.
My father-in-law was not that way. He was the exact same person everywhere. In that sense he was a poshuter yid – not poshut in the usual sense of unremarkable; he was quite remarkable in many ways. But poshut in the way we speak of a matzoh pshutah, or of a shofar poshut: something that is straight as an arrow, without anything crooked or different on one side that on the other.
He was a caring father at home, and a caring father in yeshiva; a master mechanech in yeshiva, and a master mechanech at home; everywhere the same very remarkable and at the same time very straightforward man.
He was one of the builders of Torah in this country. He toiled in the fields of Jewish education and the dissemination of Torah for fifty years, as a teacher, as a dean, as a Camp rabbi who conveyed more feel for Yiddishkeit to his charges over a summer than perhaps they absorbed the whole rest of the year, as the head of a Chinuch network, as a leader of Ohel, as a maggid shiur in many settings, as an author of seforim. And in each one of those roles he was innovative, and indefatigable, and inspiring.
He was a pioneer, and he had the warm and rugged personality of a pioneer; a personality that combined unshakable faith, dogged persistence, passionate commitment, and enormous good will.
His faith was absolutely remarkable. He was very fond of describing a Yiddish newspaper from pre-war Europe, and how it reported the weather: Heint zun, morgen regen, v’hameshaneh itim ya’aseh k’retzono; sunny today, rainy tomorrow, but the One above does as He wills.
That was the motto of his faith: hameshaneh itim ya’aseh k’retzono; in good times and in tough times. In all the years I knew him I never heard him express worry or complaint. Even in his darkest hour, when he was told of the untimely passing of his son, R’ Yosef Bezalel, his first words were: geshenkte yoren, the fifty-odd years we were given with him (after a serious childhood illness) were Hashem’s gift.
And this past year, when he felt his powers diminishing, he told me so many times that we have to accept whatever Hashem gives us.
My father-in-law was a man of strong character; perhaps you might even call him stubborn. But not unreasonable, and he could be persuaded by a good argument to change his mind. But once he decided on a course of action he was a rock. He undertook Daf Yomi many cycles ago, and he would come home late from work, tired out from a hard day, but no matter what the time he sat down and did the Daf. And his ability to reach a firm decision and see it through was part of what made him such an effective leader and administrator; especially since it was wedded to his good sense and wisdom.
In those many years that he served as a dean at YU, he earned the respect of scholars and of students alike. They knew that he was an ehrlicher, and a kluger.
To his children and grandchildren, to his many students and admirers, he was indeed the very model of an ehrlicher yid, and of a kluger yid, of integrity and of wisdom. Unassuming and yet forceful, respectful and yet of an independent spirit, broadminded and yet simple in his pure faith, he brought together so many different qualities. For all of us he was a treasure house of experience and guidance. Whether the issue was professional or personal, he always brought to it a unique insight and quick intelligence.
His faith and his firmness were a remarkable combination. In the family we all know the story of how he was almost finished his PhD in chemistry, when Dr. Belkin approached him and told him that he needs his help at YU. “Rebbe”, he said, “give me a few months to finish my degree”. “But I need you now“. And that was that. Duty called, and he responded. There was no question of finishing his degree first, so that at least he would have a safety net if Chinuch didn’t work out. That was his emunah. Nor was there a question of finishing because that was what everyone expected of him – that was his strength of will.
He had a true and a deep love of Torah. When someone spoke to him in learning his face lit up. When he learned the Daf the love of Torah reverberated in his voice. I remember how he looked forward each summer to R Berel Povarsky’s shiurim at the Yarchei Kallah, and how much pleasure he took in them.
Even during this past difficult year, if you wanted to catch a glimpse of what he was like in his prime the surest way was to learn with him. He would suddenly be transformed, becoming animated and invigorated. That is not a trait one suddenly develops late in life. That takes a lifetime.
And that love of Torah overflowed into abiding love of Talmidei Chachamim; real love, remarkably free of the taint of party spirit. He spoke with same love and reverence of the Rov, of R’ Aharon, of R Chaim Zimmerman, of the Bluzhever Rebbe, of R’ Mendel Zacks, of R’ Aharon Kreizer, and of course of R’ Dov Schwartzman, with whom he had a particular bond.
When he heard of a young rising star he was so unstintingly happy that lo alman yisroel. He was a true rachim rabanan, and dachil rabanan, someone who loves and reveres talmidei chachamim.
Abba was a great speaker and, actually, an incredible maspid. He had a gift to speak in a way that offered real comfort to his listeners. It was almost uncanny. One wishes he were here to do justice to our shared grief, and to comfort us in that warm voice that he used on these occasions.
But since we can’t have that, I will share something I once heard from him that I think is so appropriate now.
Abba used to preside every year over the Pesach Seder. And his whole focus was on the grandchildren; he would tell them the story of yetzias Mitzrayim, and he would tell them, too, about the Sedarim that had attended as a little boy, which were presided over by his zeide. You could see how he lived and breathed the mitzvah of v’hodata l’vanecha v’livnei banecha. That was why those sedarim were so important to him; he wanted to instill those same kind of memories that had nurtured him, in his own grandchildren and great grandchildren.
At one of those sedorim he asked one of the children what she would like for her afikomen present. “A chapter book!”, she answered. “What”, he asked, “is a chapter book?” “You know; a book that doesn’t have a lot of little stories, but chapters that are connected to make one long story – that’s a chapter book”.
Later, at a family celebration, he spoke to us and used that story – absolutely brilliantly – to teach us a lesson. He recounted that conversation, and then he said to us: “Isn’t that what we all want? That our life should be like a chapter book – not a series of disconnected episodes, but one continuous story – in which each part of our lives leads us to the next, in a way that feels connected and purposeful”.
He lived a long life, with many chapters. There was the Lower East Side chapter, the Yeshiva College chapter, the chemistry chapter, the RJJ chapter, the YU chapter, the Boro Park chapter, the retirement chapter.
But it was a chapter book. It was one continuous story, held together by a golden thread, and that thread was v’hodata l’vanecha v’livnei banecha, to pass on the mesorah of Sinai to the next generation, and the next, and the next after that. And that unity of purpose gave his life, and his persona, an unmistakable integrity and wholeness.
One last point. The Gemara in Shabbos teaches that rekev atzamos kinah, that the petty jealousies we harbor in our lifetime disturb the body’s rest after death. There is no one I can think of more certain to rest in peace than my father-in-law. He had such a generosity of spirit. Never, ever did I see him evince jealousy of anyone, in any sphere. He had the rare capacity to be happy for others, and in others’ accomplishments. And therefore assuredly he lays himself down now as peacefully as in a bed, resting b’shalom al mishkavo, as his neshamah ascends al kanfei ha’shechinah, to learn his beloved Torah in the mesivta d’rekia, until that time when death will have no more sway, when bila hamaves lanetzach u’macha Hashem dimah me’al kol panim.