Wednesday, July 09, 2008

A Larger-than-Life Jewish Giant

The Muscular Humility of Rabbi Yitzchok Dovid Groner

Rabbi Yitzchok Dovid Groner, who died on Monday, was one of a kind. It is rare that I refer to someone as a truly great man, but Rabbi Groner earned the epitaph in spades. If the test of Judaism lies in its ability to create men and women of outstanding righteousness and humanity, then Rabbi Groner was one of those rare individuals who made his faith sparkle. He was an outstanding scholar. A builder of enormous institutions. A world-class orator. The head of a large and prosperous family. A devoted disciple of the Lubavitcher Rebbe who spent 50 years heading Chabad in Australia. But those qualifications capture only a small dimension of the man. More than anything else, he was a larger-than-life personality with the most tender heart one could find. And I say larger-than-life not only because he was a towering physical presence, but because he had an outsize personality which he used to make everyone he met feel outsized as well. Rarely have I met a man who had the capacity to use sarcasm, wit, religious conviction, scholarship, and down-to-earth decency to make others feel like they infinitely mattered.

His home was open to all. You could just stroll in at any time during the day and he would immediately engage you in stimulating conversation. He had a phenomenal memory for detail and would rib you about your religious and personal shortcomings and where he wanted you to improve.

Whenever I saw him he asked me if I was studying enough. When I would answer in the negative, he would wag his enormous finger at me and remind me that a Chassid dare never be an ignoramus. He could criticize me for forty minutes straight, yet I would never even feel defensive. First, I would be laughing through most of it because his sense of humor was infectious. But more importantly, I felt his love for me in every word. He oozed fatherly affection from every pore of his being. I never doubted that he loved me and I am sure that everyone who met never doubted the same.

I began visiting him when I was a Rabbinical student in Australia in the 1980’s and continued up until my last visit two years ago. The first thing he would ask me upon entering his office was whether I was taking good care of my wife. Debbie had been a student of his at Ohel Chana and he felt especially protective of her. He also told me repeatedly that I did not deserve her, that I had married up, and that he would hold me personally accountable for her happiness.

When I left his Spartan home office I always felt like I had just sat in the presence of a human being of such incomparable goodness that surely it was a privilege I had not earned.

Although he was a man whom all of Australian Jewry deeply revered, you would never have know it from his surroundings. He lived in the most modest home, wore the simplest clothing, his only indulgence being in the massive library that filled his home. These volumes were his friends and he mastered most of the texts that surrounded him.

A man should be principally known for the caliber of children he raises. Rabbi Groner’s youngest son, Mendy, was in my class in Yeshiva in New York and we and eight others were chosen by the Rebbe to start Sydney’s first Rabbinical Academy. To the Jewish community of Sydney, Mendy was a returning hero but he never took advantage of his celebrity status. He was always a modest, serious, and devoted student and friend who studied humbly with anyone who came to learn with him, just like his father.

When Rebbetzin Groner would come up from Melbourne to visit her son, she would take the bus in its excruciating twelve hour journey. I said to myself, ‘Who is this saintly woman? Her husband is the most influential Rabbi in Australia, but she takes the bus to see her son?’ Humility shown through the entire family. But not the kind of boring, depressing humility that is often associated with religious figures, but the kind of ‘muscular humility’ that was unique to Rabbi Groner.

When I first met Rabbi Groner, he told me of the colossal Yeshiva he had built, of the women’s seminary he had launched, of the thousands of schoolchildren he had educated. Someone taken aback, and being a teenager with a lot of chutzpah, I said him, “It sounds like you’re bragging!” He responded, “Of course I’m bragging. But the difference between me and others is that I leave plenty of room for you to brag as well.” With these words he taught me a valuable lesson. We all need achievements we can point to and say, “I made this happen.” It is part of our quest for human majesty and our desire to imitate the Creator with our own, more limited creativity. But our greatness lies not in our ability to take pride in what we have accomplished, but specifically in our ability to inspire others to succeed as well and to celebrate their accomplishments rather than ever feel threatened by them.

It’s safe to say that there will never be another like Rabbi Groner. It’s also safe to say that if world Jewry could produce another hundred like him, we would instantly solve the global problem of Jewish assimilation. But that’s the problem with great men. They are so rare that they are not always appreciated during their lifetime, but are sorely missed once their fiery hearts are no longer present to illuminate our lives.

By Rabbi Shmuley Boteach

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