I was There!
How Rabbi Yitzchok Dovid Groner Transformed a Continent

Leibel Baumgarten
Aug 12, 2016 · 10 min read

It was 1958, and the Rebbe was sending off a young Yitzchok Dovid Groner to faraway Australia. Rabbi Groner was hesitant; he knew of the challenges that awaited him.

“Go, and I will make you a godol,” said the Rebbe.

During the next 50 years, Yiddishkeit in Australia was completely transformed. It now boasts a vibrant community rivaling any other worldwide. There are many influential characters in the story of Australia’s blooming Yiddishkeit, but front and center — the godol — is Rabbi Groner.

The Compassionate Leader

Like few other shluchim, Rabbi Groner seemed to excel in every area. He was a serious scholar but could tell a joke or story with the best of them. He was a fearless leader and a deeply compassionate rov to thousands of individuals. He was a world-class orator, an extraordinary fundraiser, and a talented institutional manager. He was an ambitious visionary, yet ever practical. And he was a beautiful baal tefila.

Yet it was what lay underneath these qualities that made him the shliach he was. He refused to take credit for what he had built. “One man cannot do it on his own,” he would often say before listing the names of numerous pioneers of Lubavitch in Australia, including the Serebryanski, Kluwgant, Althaus, Gurewicz, Wilschanski, and Pliskin families, who were brought to Australia by Rabbi Moshe Zalman Feiglin, A”H. He stated that any success belonged to the Rebbe.

The key to his phenomenal influence was undoubtedly his care and concern for every member of his community. It was clear that he drew true joy from their every simcha and was pained in equal measure by others’ tzoros.

Community members often expressed that Rabbi Groner had a soft spot for their families, that he’d taken special interest in their lives. It was true. But…it was true for everyone. He wouldn’t call only his big donors to check in on them; he would do that for anyone. Rabbi Groner cared.

Strong Foundations

Rabbi Groner grew up in a warm, Chassidishe home in Brownsville, New York. His mother Menucha Rochel was born in Chevron, named for her great grandmother, the famed daughter of the Miteler Rebbe. His father Reb Mordechai Avrohom Yeshaya was born in Yerushalayim, a Karliner Chossid. Following their marriage, he began learning at Yeshivas Toras Emes, then stationed in Chevron.

Due to dire poverty, the Groners moved to America, where Yitzchok Dovid was born. When he was 15, his father took him to the pier to greet the Frierdiker Rebbe as he arrived in America. “I was there!” Rabbi Groner would often exclaim loudly when retelling the story, speaking of the effect the Frierdiker Rebbe had on him.

At the age of 18, he was sent by the Frierdiker Rebbe to help with the establishment of yeshivos in Rochester, Philadelphia, and Providence. At the age of 22, he married Devorah Konikov.

The Seeds Are Planted

Barely a year after his wedding, Rabbi Groner was sent on a fundraising mission to Australia, to last for several months. It was a long, arduous journey, with 55 hours flying time.

In a poignant letter, the Frierdiker Rebbe describes Groner’s mission at that time: “The funds may be greatly needed, but the task of inspiring people is a necessity, and this — awakening people — is ikar ha’ikrim.”[1]

In those few months, he encouraged the opening of the first Jewish day school in Melbourne, Mount Scopus, which many in the community had opposed. He also met with pioneers of Yiddishkeit in Australia, including Rabbi Chaim Gutnik and Rabbi Moshe Feiglin.

Following the trip, Rabbi Groner and his family moved to Buffalo to run the Chabad school there. A second fundraising trip to Australia followed in 1954 and lasted six months. Rabbi Groner then moved back to Crown Heights and worked for the central Lubavitch Yeshiva as a fundraiser. He traveled from city to city to inspect yeshivos and help further their progress.

During one Australian mission, after Rabbi Groner had written the Rebbe that he wished to return home, the Rebbe asked[2], “Did everybody already put on tefilin there? And did everybody empty their [pockets of] money? …There is nothing to rush for.”

The Rebbe’s Encouragement

A group of Chabad families who were sent to Melbourne had founded a boys’ yeshiva. They felt Rabbi Groner was the perfect person to help them expand the institution. He was able to better communicate with the modern families, while still retaining the look and feel of the “old school” Jew who was nostalgically sought out by the Eastern European émigrés. They requested from the Rebbe that Rabbi Groner be sent to Australia.

The decision to move to Australia was a long and difficult one. Rabbi Groner was aware of the great responsibility and sacrifice that would be demanded. Yet the Rebbe persisted. “What do you want?” the Rebbe once asked in a yechidus,“To make the landowners of Crown Heights rich?” In another respons relayed to Rabbi Groner by Rabbi Chodokov over the phone, the Rebbe said, “Why do you want to stay in America? So that your wife should be able to say that she bought dresses on Fifth Avenue?”

The Rebbe spoke of the potential within Australia and within Rabbi Groner himself. He further stated that the decision must not be based solely on kabolas ol but also on a complete heart. “Whatever you decide should be with success, but only with simcha, Reb Yitzchok,” he wrote.

The Shlichus Begins

During the summer of 1958, arrangements were made for Rabbi Groner to go to Australia, though he still wasn’t ready to commit to a lifelong shlichus. The Rebbe instructed him to go for three to five years to boost the yeshiva and then make a decision whether to return.

During Rabbi Groner’s yechidus before his departure, the Rebbe told him that Rabbi Serebryansky was the menahel gashmi and menahel ruchni. “As for you, you will already find a title! What more do you need? Shlucho shel adam kemoso!”

Rabbi Groner departed for Australia on 21 Kislev 1958. His wife and six children arrived by boat six months later.

The Landmark Letter and Yechidus

In the years that followed, Rabbi and Mrs. Groner wrote the Rebbe detailing their troubles and successes, and they received numerous inspiring and encouraging letters. “When a soldier goes out to war, he goes with a happy victory march, which facilitates that the victory should be greater and quicker. So, too, is it also in the abovementioned, that when you and all those who are doing the work will go with joy and will be assured in the victory of the work, it will come more easily and quickly and in a bigger measure.[3]

In Nissan that year, the Rebbe wrote her again. “The intention of going on shlichus is not only to bring Yiddishkeit in Australia, and not only are you doing a favor for the Jews in Australia, but a main point is also that this brings use and good for the one who does this [shlichus], in his own personal endeavors.[4]

In a yechidus in Tishrei of 1960, the question of remaining in Australia was brought up yet again. For 55 minutes, the Rebbe spoke of the mission’s importance, both to Rabbi Groner and to Australia.

The next month, the Rebbe wrote a landmark letter to Mrs. Groner, which discussed many of the same concepts the Rebbe had said in the yechidus.

The Rebbe explained the difference between a clerk who, although he has defined hours and can leave the job behind when he goes home, is not an executive who is fully responsible and has to make decisions.

“One who has the capacity to be an executive and in charge of a responsible undertaking, if such a person should confine himself within the framework of a clerk’s job, it would be a gross injustice even to himself, not to mention to the cause. […] One can say: ‘I don’t want to be on the higher level, so that I be spared the pain.’ But this would be like a person saying: ‘I don’t want to be a human being, I want to be like an animal and be spared all the pain associated with human life.’”[5]

For the next half century, the Groners served devotedly as the Rebbe’s shluchim, spearheading the growth of dozens of Chabad institutions and a Lubavitch community that wields influence over the vast majority of Jewish communal life in Australia.

“The Rebbe sent me for three years,” Rabbi Groner would often say with a smile. “I’ve been here for the rest of my life!”

The Rebbe’s Care

Inquiring about Rabbi Groner’s health, the Rebbe said in a yechidus in 1979, “If I will travel with you, will you be healthy? Physically, I can’t, but spiritually, wherever you travel, I travel with you.” Indeed, the Rebbe’s special care and concern for him and his family were readily apparent.

Rabbi Groner once asked the Rebbe to keep a special eye out for Melbourne. The Rebbe replied, “Do you even need to ask me for this?”

Another time, while packing the car for a journey back to Australia, Mrs. Groner was standing by the car chatting, not knowing the Rebbe was waiting and watching until her car left.

After Rabbi Groner requested a brocha that he receive no unnecessary heartache, the Rebbe answered, “Even necessary heartache you shouldn’t have.”

When Rabbi Groner had opened a secondary school at an event that was attended by the prime minister and 1,500 people, Rabbi Groner told the Rebbe, “The hatzolcha was so great, we weren’t able to convince ourselves it was our doing. It was clearly the Rebbe’s brochos.” The Rebbe then instructed Rabbi Leibel Groner to call his parents and share the news saying, “Why shouldn’t they have nachas?”

Building a Community on Education

Rabbi Groner headed a Chabad community that features numerous chinuch mosdos. The diversity of students is unique to these schools. Children from all segments of the wider Jewish community enrolled; non-religious children mixed with traditional Jews, Chabad Chassidim, and more.

Rabbi Groner often stated that his mission was to teach mentchlichkeit, to teach children how to be upstanding, contributing members of society. “People ask me to write a book,” Rabbi Groner said. “A book? Who wants that? The greatest ‘book’ is being instrumental in teaching thousands of kids to help people.”

His charisma, charm, and, above all, sincere care and devotion shown to every student caused hundreds of families to become closer to Yiddishkeit during their time at the school, and many became members of the Chabad community.

It is no stretch to say an entire generation of Jewish children became more involved with Yiddishkeit thanks to Rabbi Groner’s dedication to chinuch.

A Scholar

To the thousands who lived in or visited Melbourne and made their way to his humble abode, one thing was immediately clear: Rabbi Groner loved learning. Even a short conversation with him revealed his tremendous knowledge. He had shelves packed with well-used seforim, and he knew exactly where to find each one. No matter the subject, he had knowledge to impart.

Throughout his years on shlichus, Rabbi Groner traveled to dozens of countries. The Rebbe encouraged him to speak words of Torah and to discuss learning with the community rabbis. The Rebbe also instructed him to print some of those talks.

Despite his unbelievably packed schedule, he found time to learn and never let any excuses — even shlichus — get in the way.

Humility

When Rabbi Groner walked into a room, everyone knew it. He was a giant of a man in size and in spirit. He naturally commanded respect. Yet, he remained remarkably humble.

“Tell us about your trips […]; your reign extends all over,” asked Rabbi Yosef Katzman in an interview with Rabbi Groner.[6] “My reign doesn’t extend […] A human being doesn’t look for ‘reign’; one must simply be sincere and conscientious and try to help others. People will detect if you are sincere or if you’re putting it on. Lubavitch is a success because the Rebbe [teaches us] that greatness is helping others. […] I’ve met many shluchim who don’t ‘burn the house on fire’; they are ordinary people. But they have the emes; they have truth. Truth penetrates.”

A Chossid’s Effect

The success of Chabad in Melbourne was referred to by the Rebbe as l’maaleh mi’derech hateva. He once told Rabbi Groner, “Not everyone sees success in their work. You are lucky to see success; you see the fruits of your labor.”

The HaYom Yom of 4 Tamuz, the day of his passing, succinctly sums up Rabbi Groner’s impact on this world:

“חסיד אחד או תלמיד אחד כאשר נותן לבו דעתו ונפשו על התורה וחיזוקה, פועל ישועות בעיר גדולה בכל עניני העיר, והוא בדרך מלמעלה מדרך הטבע בזכות אבות העולם.”

“One single chossid 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 the ‘Fathers of the World.’”[7]

***

Contributors
Rabbi Dovid Eliezrie, Yorba Linda, California
Rabbi Chaim Tzvi Groner, East St. Kilda, Australia
Rabbi Sholom Zirkind, Brooklyn, NY

Sources
“Cable to Jewish Life”
Show by Rabbi Yosef Katzman
“My Zaidy — The Shliach”
Article by Chana Groner for N’Shei Chabad Newsletter
“The Rebbe’s Man Down Under”
Article by Daniel Goldberg for The Australian Jewish News

[1]Excerpt from a letter dated 9 Adar 1 5708, Frierdiker Rebbe’s Igros Kodesh, Vol. 9 page 396. Translated from by Rabbi Sholom Zirkind
[2] Letter to from Rabbi Leibel Groner to Rabbi Y.D. Groner, dated 6 Menachem Av, 5715
[3] 29 Kislev 5720, Igros Kodesh Vol. 19 page 108
[4] 20 Nissan 5720, Igros Kodesh Vol. 19 page 266
[5] 11 Cheshvan 5721, Letters from the Rebbe, Otzar Sifrei Lubavitch Vol. 1 page 153.
[6] Cable to Jewish Life
[7] Translation by Rabbi Yitschak Meir Kagan OBM

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