A true eved Hashem is able to do Hashem’s will and bring others closer to Torah no matter where he finds himself. He can rise above the differences inherent in the Jewish community and work together with other Jews of all backgrounds in order to increase Torah learning and mitzvah observance. Harav Hagaon Yaakov Aizer Dubrow was such a person. Forced to move, first within Europe and then across the ocean to America, due to pogroms and persecution, he influenced and strengthened each community he joined. He remained loyal to his Rebbe, even while separated from him, and at same time, he built relationships with many rabbis outside of his Chassidic community and worked together with them on many communal matters.
Harav Dubrow was born in 1881 in Zlobin, Belarus, to Rav Elyakim Getzel and Devorah Dubrow. His father was a dayan, a talmid of the Mir yeshiva, who devoted his life to Torah learning. Harav Dubrow followed in his father’s footsteps, dedicating his life to learning and teaching Torah. At age sixteen, in Elul of 1897, he left home to study at the newly formed Chabad yeshiva Tomchei Temimim, founded by the Rebbe Rashab, Rabbi Sholom Dovber Schneerson, the fifth Chabad Rebbe, in the town of Lubavitch in Belarus. After six years in Tomchei Temimim he received semicha from Rabbi Shneur Zalman Kliatzkin, head of Beis Din of Rogotchov, and Rabbi Dovid Tzvi Chein of Chernigov (the RaDaTz).
Throughout his life Harav Dubrow remained a chassid, first of the Rebbe Rashab, and then, after his passing in 1920, of the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, who had been the head of the Yeshiva of Tomchei Temimim. Harav Dubrow arrived in America before his Rebbe, and he was instrumental in helping to bring the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe to America. Harav Dubrow maintained a correspondence with his Rebbe, and some of his letters are preserved in the Chabad archives. He addressed the Rebbe as a true chassid, sent him money for the upkeep of his family, as is customary among chassidim, and signed his letters as “avdo v’talmido” — his servant and student. The Rebbe’s letters to Harav Dubrow are warm and caring.
Harav Dubrow married Chana Leah Shifrin, the daughter of a well-known Lubavitcher chassid Gershon Shifrin. The Dubrows had seven children.
Rebbetzin Chana Leah was highly educated, the only frum girl in her town to go to high school. She spoke several languages. Her top priority, however, was her husband’s Torah learning. When the Dubrows were in Odessa, waiting for the boat to take them to America, they ran out of money to provide for their basic needs. Rebbetzin Chana Leah went out to sell apples in the market, together with the peasant women, to ensure that her husband would be able to learn undisturbed.
Harav Dubrow must have been an outstanding scholar, for after he received semicha the Skverer Rebbe, Rabbi Dovid Twerski, hired him as a melamed for his son, Rabbi Yitzchak. After teaching Rabbi Yitzchak gemara and poskim for two years Harav Dubrow became a Rosh Yeshiva in Zivostav, a town near Kiev in Ukraine. Two years later, he became the Rav of Shpitznitz, a town near Berdichev, and remained there for twelve years.
In 1920 there was a pogrom in Shpitznitz, and Harav Dubrow escaped to Podolia and became the Rav of Strizhivka, a town near Vinnitsa. While not much is known about Harav Dubrow’s life in Europe, it is clear that he was appreciated as a Torah scholar and given rabbinical positions wherever he went.
Harav Dubrow’s younger brother, Pesach Dubrow, had moved to America, and he arranged for Harav Dubrow and his family to join him. In 1924, at the age of 43, Harav Dubrow arrived in America.
At the time, there were very few Lubavitcher chassidim living in America. Harav Dubrow found himself in a strange land, far away from his Rebbe and from other chassidim who shared his spiritual aspirations. But none of that deterred Harav Dubrow from serving Hashem in his new circumstances. He intended to continue teaching Torah and leading a congregation in spiritual matters. And his scholarship and leadership qualities were recognized outside of the Chabad community. It was a Litvish Rav, Rabbi Avraham Nachman Schwartz of Baltimore, MD, who wrote a letter recommending Harav Dubrow for the position of community rabbi. In 1925 Harav Dubrow was hired by Kesher Israel Congregation of Georgetown in Washington, D.C. as its first spiritual leader.
Harav Dubrow’s congregants in Washington D.C. appreciated his Torah scholarship and valued his shiurim. He taught a daily gemara shiur at Kesher Israel. A congregant wrote, “the whole community is pleased with his richly spiritual droshes that he gives every Shabbos in shul. ” Another congregant, Mr. Lee Greenstein, who was a child at the time, fondly recalls listening as the distinguished-looking Rav addressed the crowd in Yiddish on Yom Kippur. Harav Dubrow also gave regular shiurim for the elderly at the Hebrew Home for the Aged. A local newspaper article describes a siyum on the “second volume of the Talmud and the second volume of the Mishna” at the Home for the Aged and reports that Harav Dubrow “gave a very interesting philosophical talk of the contents of these books.”
As a true Lubavitcher, Harav Dubrow must have also learned Chabad Torah with his congregants. A set of Likutei Torah, written by the Alter Rebbe, the first Rebbe of Chabad, was recently found at Kesher Israel. Inside the books there is a list of shul members who contributed money towards their purchase, with Harav Dubrow listed at the top.
Harav Dubrow’s love for Torah extended to sefarim. In his home in Washington D.C., which was located on the second floor, on top of a department store, he collected sefarim, old and new. He was willing, however, to part with his precious sefarim for a greater cause. In 1940, the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe miraculously escaped from war-torn Europe to New York, but he wasn’t able to bring his extensive library with him. Harav Dubrow wrote a letter to his Rebbe, lovingly describing a two hundred fifty year old sefer, Midrash Rabba on Bereishis, which he bound in a good binding and which sat on his bookshelf “as a precious stone.” He wrote, “It is very dear and beloved to me.” Then he offered this sefer to his Rebbe as a gift, so that the Rebbe would be able to learn from it. “With this I will know,” he wrote, “that my heart is close to him [the Rebbe] just as his [the Rebbe’s] heart is close to me. ” The Rebbe wrote a warm response accepting the gift. This sefer is still part of the Chabad library at the Chabad headquarters in Crown Heights.
As a community Rav in Washington, D.C. Harav Dubrow needed to draw not only on his love of Torah and holy books, but also on his love for his fellow Jews in order to succeed in his holy work. The challenges he faced in America were very different from those he had dealt with in Europe. While his congregation consisted mostly of recent immigrants from Eastern Europe and the services in the shul had always been conducted in the familiar European manner, many shul members were not fully observant. As typical of Jewish immigrants to America in that era they struggled with Shabbos observance due to financial pressures. Jewish residents of Georgetown supported themselves by operating small shops in the neighborhood, selling groceries, fabrics, clothes, shoes, and liquor. The stores were run as family businesses, with children often helping their parents. The families lived on the second floor of the buildings, on top of their store. Since the businesses were family operated hiring outside help on Shabbos was not an option. The storekeepers that prayed at Kesher Israel were often in a rush to finish the services before noon so that they could open their stores on Shabbos afternoons. Other areas of observance were also falling into neglect.
This was the situation that Harav Dubrow encountered when he was entrusted with leading Congregation Kesher Israel in 1925. A new immigrant himself, in a land foreign to him both physically and spiritually, he was faced with the task of preserving whatever was left of Judaism for the older generation as well as reaching out to the younger shul members, growing up in America, far from the European traditions and values that were part of him, and, despite the cultural divide, transmitting the precious mesorah that he had carried within him.
Harav Dubrow rose to the challenge. He devoted himself wholeheartedly to educating his community and raising the observance level throughout Washington D.C. Rabbi Dubrow was well-liked by his congregants. One member, Joseph Mendelsohn, remembers that when he was discharged from the army due to ulcers he met Rabbi Dubrow on the bus. Rabbi Dubrow got up and said, “Take my seat. I know why you were discharged from the army.” “He was a saintly person,” says Mr. Mendelsohn.
Harav Dubrow did not limit his work to his own shul. He joined the Agudas Hakehillos of Washington, D.C. and participated in many community undertakings.
Rabbi Shmaryahu Shulman, who was a student at the Ner Yisroel Yeshiva at the time, recalls a prayer gathering that took place in one of the largest shuls in Washington D.C. when the news of atrocities in Europe reached the community. Harav Dubrow was honored with the recitation of Tehillim. Seventy years later, Rabbi Shulman still vividly remembers the sweetness of Harav Dubrow’s voice as he completed Psalm 22 with great feeling.
Harav Dubrow participated in the efforts to save European Jewry. He was part of a group of rabbis who met with President Roosevelt. He also met with senators in Washington, D.C. to arrange for a special exception in the immigrations laws that allowed the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe to come to America.
Afterwards, Harav Dubrow participated in raising money to support the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe’s activities in America. He used to come to New York often to visit the Rebbe and bring the money he had collected. He would also visit his married daughters in New York. A grandchild recalls that Harav Dubrow would farher him on his studies and give him money as a reward if he did well.
Perhaps Harav Dubrow derived his strength from his relationship with the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, who encouraged him to strengthen the observance level in his community and provided specific advice on how to transmit the timeless messages of the Torah to the younger generation. It was the Rebbe who had issued a call to action regarding the observance of taharas hamishpacha among young married women. Harav Dubrow responded to the call, reporting in a letter to the Rebbe that he formed a committee of women dedicated to the issue of taharas hamishpacha and instituted shiurim on these halachos. The Rebbe responded with more advice and encouragement. A later letter to the Rebbe reports the completion of the new mikva building in Washington D.C. A community-wide celebration held in honor of the new mikva was reported in the Washington Post.
Another letter of encouragement, sent on Chanukah of 1942, was written by Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (Ramash), the son-in-law of the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe who later became Rebbe. In it, the Rebbe discusses the halacha of lighting the Chanuka menorah so that its light would be seen from outside. Even those who live high up, on the top floor, are still obligated to place their menorahs where they would be visible. The Rebbe interprets this halacha metaphorically, saying that even those select individuals who lead highly spiritual lives, who are located high above the material world, still have an obligation to reach out to those below them and share their light with them. While these words were meant as encouragement for Harav Dubrow to continue reaching out to Jews distant from Yiddishkeit, it is also clear from the Rebbe’s letter how highly he thought of Harav Dubrow.
Harav Dubrow also received specific instructions and requests from the Chabad headquarters. In 1942, the Ramash wrote to Harav Dubrow asking him to reach out to a Jewish soldier from a religious family who was working in Washington D.C. asking if him “to influence him… to put on Tefillin and to eat kosher even at work.” The Rebbe further encouraged Rabbi Dubrow to reach out to other Jews “whose hearts are touched by fear of G-d ” and to arrange kosher food for other Jewish soldiers in Washington D.C.
Harav Dubrow also enforced halachik burial practices in his community. The chevra kadisha of Kesher Israel was formed under his leadership. The shul also purchased a plot of land for use as a cemetery. The rules stated that any shul member could be buried there free of charge. Jews with non-Jewish spouses, however, were not permitted to be buried at the shul cemetery.
Rabbi Dubrow’s chief concern was the education of the children in his community. Together with the board members he had formed a Talmud Torah, a Hebrew school that met daily after public school hours. Boys and girls studied together, usually until the age of Bar Mitzvah, after which their parents needed them to help out in the shops.
The shul hired a talented teacher, Rabbi Oscar Summer, who taught at the Talmud Torah for over ten years. According to a local Jewish newspaper article on Rabbi Summer’s passing in 1945, “the Kesher Israel Talmud Torah of Georgetown became a model school. [Rabbi Summer] had a unique way with children. His pupils always stood in awe and love for him. They will ever remember him with reverence and gratitude.”
Even though the Talmud Torah was very successful, Rabbi Dubrow felt that it wasn’t enough. By nature it was able to provide only a very limited Jewish education. His dream was to open a Jewish day school in Washington D.C. so that Jewish children born in America could learn Torah just as their parents did back in Europe.
It was a lofty vision, but difficult to achieve. Many Jewish parents opposed the idea of a Jewish day school. They feared that separating their children from the public school students would hinder their ability to fully participate in American society. Harav Dubrow joined forces with other local rabbis, including Rabbi Yehoshua Klavan, Rabbi Jeremiah Weitz, and Rabbi Moshe Chaim Levinson, and together they were able to address the parents’ concerns and raise funds for the school.
In his final letter to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, written in 1944, shortly before his passing, Harav Dubrow joyously informs his Rebbe that his dream had finally come true as the first Jewish Day School opened its doors in Washington, D.C. He describes the spacious building the community had purchased for the school and mentions the school bus that was bought to transport the students to and from school. The school day ended at three o’clock, and a Talmud Torah for older children who attended public school took place in the school building at four o’clock. The older children learned Chumash with Rashi and Gemara. In its first year, the school had twenty four full day students and ten Talmud Torah students. The school grew rapidly after Harav Dubrow’s passing and later became the Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy which is still in existence today.
Harav Dubrow’s delight at the school’s opening is evident from his letter to the Rebbe. He wrote, “We teach them from a young age the way of the Torah and the mesorah… And at twelve o’clock, when they eat lunch, … we teach them to bless before they eat and bless birkas hamazon after they eat… This is my portion from all my toil – because this is my life’s purpose: to spread Torah to young and old, and to do tzedaka and chessed, and to help those who seek help. ” Harav Dubrow expressed his gratitude to Hashem for helping him actualize his dream and concluded the letter with a request to daven for him, perhaps knowing that his life was coming to an end.
Here, in a nutshell, Harav Dubrow summarized his life and his goals. Another summary is found in his letter to his newly married daughter Rivka, where he wrote, “…everything here is as before. I go on with my holy work day to day, learning G-d’s Torah with the Jewish nation, and tzedakah to the poor. May G-d allow me to continue for many more years.”
All his life, Harav Dubrow strove to serve Hashem and to disseminate Torah wherever he found himself, whether among advanced students as a Rosh Yeshiva, or among balabatim as a community Rav, or among young children in an alien land where mitzvah observance was neglected and even such simple things as brachos and benching weren’t taught at home. Despite the striking differences between the level of education and observance he was accustomed to in Europe and what he found on American shores he did not complain or bemoan his fate or that of American Jewry. Instead, he devoted himself wholeheartedly to his work and rejoiced greatly at every step towards greater observance.
Even personal tragedies did not hinder Harav Dubrow’s holy work. His wife, Rebbetzin Chana Leah, passed away from tuberculosis in her early forties, leaving him with several young children still living at home. Harav Dubrow carried on, and eventually remarried. One of his married daughters also succumbed to tuberculosis. Harav Dubrow’s only son, Eliezer, who had saved the whole family during a pogrom, was drafted into the Russian army and had to remain in Europe. During World War II, Harav Dubrow lost contact with him. Eliezer was killed towards the end of the war. The fate of his wife and child is not known. Despite these tragedies, Harav Dubrow continued teaching and leading his community with true dedication.
When Harav Dubrow passed away in 1944, at the age of sixty three, the community gathered together for his levaya. Parts of Pennsylvania Ave were closed off to accommodate the crowd. Even after his death, Harav Dubrow’s chessed continued. In his will, he requested that the extensive collection of books that he owned be sold at an auction and the money thus acquired be used for a fund for the poor of Eretz Yisrael.
Rabbi Shmaryahu Shulman had purchased some of Harav Dubrow’s sefarim at the auction, and he found Harav Dubrow’s Torah chiddushim in the glosses. He was able to print these chiddushim in the Moriah publication of Machon Yerushalayim.
Some of Harav Dubrow’s descendants continue his holy work as rabbis and teachers. Harav Dubrow’s grandson, Rabbi Elyakim Getzel Rosenblatt, heads Yeshiva Kesser Torah in Queens, NY, which serves the community with many daily minyanim and kiruv rechokim activities. Some of Harav Dubrow’s great-grandchildren are also involved in Jewish education.
Harav Dubrow’s descendants also continue to disseminate Torah by sponsoring the printing of sefarim. They sponsored the 6th volume of the letters from the Rebbe Rashab, the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe, and also Toras Shalom, halachic responsa of the Rebbe Rashab, both published by Kehot Publication Society, in memory of the Dubrows.
Harav Dubrow’s descendants are always looking for more information about their illustrious ancestor. If any readers knew Harav Dubrow or have any of his sefarim or writings in their possession the family would very much appreciate if they could contact them at JR@jrcap.com.
Harav Dubrow’s seventieth yahrtzeit is on the 1st of Kislev of 5775. May his memory be a blessing.