“Strength in Humility” The Life and Legacy of Rabbi Yehoshua Binyomin Gordon, Shliach of the Lubavitcher Rebbe

By

Yehudis Litvak

On February 8th, the Greater Los Angeles Jewish community lost a unique leader, Rabbi Joshua (Yehoshua Binyomin) Gordon, z”l. Rabbi Gordon was the executive director of Chabad of the Valley and a Torah teacher at Chabad.org. He impacted thousands of people, both locally and throughout the world.

Rabbi Gordon was born in 1949 to Rabbi Sholom Ber and Rebbetzin Miriam Gordon of Newark, New Jersey. His father was the rabbi of Congregation Ahavath Zion, a Torah teacher, and a hospital chaplain. In addition to raising a large family, Rabbi Gordon’s mother taught Hebrew school, led a local Chabad women’s organization, and maintained an open home where every Jew from any background felt comfortable.

As a young man, Rabbi Gordon studied in Chabad yeshivos in France and MontreaI. In 1972, he married Deborah Posepoff. From the start, the couple was committed to spreading Torah learning and mitzvah observance according to the directives of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, ztz”l. At first, they settled in Detroit and participated in the work of Chabad there.

In 1973, the head Chabad shaliach in Los Angeles, Rabbi Shlomo Cunin, recruited the Gordons to establish a Chabad center in the San Fernando Valley. They were among the first Chabad shluchim in Southern California. Under Rabbi Gordon’s leadership, the Chabad center he began in a small private house grew to a network of 26 Chabad houses throughout the Valley, as well as schools, summer camps, and other community institutions. Starting from scratch, the Gordons built up their community by showing genuine interest in their congregants and building warm and lasting relationships.

Dr. Les Rosenthal, one of the old-timers in Rabbi Gordon’s community, remembers his first visit to Chabad of Encino in 1979. At the time, Dr. Rosenthal and his family belonged to a Conservative synagogue where he was a member of the choir. They drove to shul, parking a block away out of respect. Rabbi Gordon surprised Dr. Rosenthal as soon as he walked into the shul by giving him an aliyah. “In my experience, only wealthy people got an aliyah,” says Dr. Rosenthal. “We had a great time. And next time, I got an aliyah again. And the third time, the rabbi invited us to come to his house for lunch. It was a wonderful experience. After the meal, he invited us to stay and take a nap. My wife and I rested while our kids played with the Gordon kids.” This was the beginning of the Rosenthals’ journey towards full mitzvah observance and eventual move to Encino.

Dr Les Rosenthal

Dr. Les Rosenthal during his interview with the “My Encounter” team

Mr. Lyle Weisman is another longtime congregant. “I spent nearly 17 years with Rabbi Gordon on an almost daily basis,” he says.

The Weismans moved to Encino “by mistake,” recalls Mr. Weisman. His wife had asked the real estate broker to show her a house in Sherman Oaks, and instead the broker showed her a house in Encino. They bought that house and found themselves in Rabbi Gordon’s community. When Mr. Weisman told the story to Rabbi Gordon, he replied, “You didn’t choose where you live, but what you do when you get here is up to you.” At the time, the Weismans weren’t fully observant. “It was quite a transformation that [Rabbi Gordon] took us on,” Mr. Weisman muses.

As the Valley community grew, so did Rabbi Gordon’s various responsibilities. He recruited other Chabad rabbis to run the newly emerging Chabad centers, becoming a mentor to these younger men. “[Rabbi Gordon] hired me about thirty four years ago,” says Rabbi Aaron Abend of Chabad of North Hollywood. “He molded [me] and many other Chabad rabbis. His strength was in recognizing other people’s strengths.”

Rabbi Moshe Bryski of Chabad of Conejo agrees. “There’s nobody – nobody – better at assessing, nurturing, maximizing and galvanizing the talents of his shluchim than Rabbi Josh Gordon! From the day I first came out here as that ‘wet-behind-the-ears’ 20-year-old kid, Rabbi Gordon made it abundantly clear to me how much he believed in me, how much he trusted me, and how far he felt I could move Chabad of the Conejo along in the years to come…More than that, he inspired and empowered me to believe in myself that way.” Rabbi Gordon provided not only inspiration, but also practical guidance. “He was there with me and for me every step of the way,” recalls Rabbi Bryski. “Yes, he did give me the leeway and latitude to do things in my own style, but at the same time, he would constantly check in on me – not as an ‘overseeing shaliach,’ as much as a caring mentor and friend.”

Rabbi Gordon was a “people person” who was able to relate to everyone he encountered. He was often called upon to resolve conflicts among the shluchim working under him, as well as outside of his community. “He did not like conflict,” says Rabbi Abend. Rabbi Gordon’s input was often more humane than halachic, explains Rabbi Abend. Rabbi Bryski adds, “On many, many occasions, [Rabbi Gordon] would drive out to the Conejo Valley and play a hands-on role in facilitating our growth and resolving various thorny issues we were contending with.”

At a recent gathering of the Chabad Shluchim  to the Valley

At a recent gathering of the Chabad Shluchim to the Valley

At the same time, Rabbi Gordon was a very pragmatic person who was personally involved in all the practical aspects of running each of the Valley’s Chabad houses, from fundraising to banking to zoning regulations. Rabbi Bryski recalls, “I remember how devastated I was back in 1993 when we lost our lease on the facility we were so glad and proud to be occupying of at the corner of Kanan and Sunnycrest in Agoura Hills…I remember thinking at the time how that forfeiture was going to set us back who knows how many years…That’s when Rabbi Gordon got on the horn and assured me that it was not going to set us back at all; in fact, it was going to propel us to new and unprecedented heights!…That was not just feel-good lip-service he was paying me…He actually spent many hours of many days thereafter driving the area to help us find a new place…Not only did he find our new location for us, he utilized his masterful skills to negotiate terms with the seller and landowner, enabling us to acquire the site that would put us on the map in a whole new way!”

Despite his many communal responsibilities, Rabbi Gordon found the time to teach daily Torah classes. What began as a local class for his own community transformed in 2009 into an online class with a worldwide reach at Chabad.org. Rabbi Gordon taught the daily portion of the Torah, the Tanya, and the Rambam, as encouraged by the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Thousands of listeners from all over the world, from all walks of life, learned with Rabbi Gordon daily, even though they had never met him in person. Just in the past year, Rabbi Gordon’s classes were downloaded 1.86 million times.

Dr. Shimshon Blicblum of Brandon, FL, has been listening to Rabbi Gordon’s online classes every day during his commute to and from work for the past three years. “Rabbi Gordon takes dry, tedious material and makes it entertaining. In addition to his incredible knowledge of Torah, he brings in current events, movies, TV shows. He was awfully fluent in everything he taught. He could keep you interested no matter what level you were at. For me, the material was mostly new, and he made it understandable.” Dr. Blicblum never met Rabbi Gordon, though he had emailed him to say thank you.

Within a few days of the announcement of Rabbi Gordon’s passing at Chabad.org, over four hundred people left comments and condolences on the website. The messages came from all over the world: United States, Canada, Israel, Holland, Italy, England, Austria, Germany, Russia, Latvia, Gibraltar, France, Sweden, Portugal, Brazil, Peru, Argentina, South Africa, Australia, Puerto Rico, Thailand, Pakistan, Singapore, China, and even Saudi Arabia.

Some of Rabbi Gordon’s online fans are not even Jewish. Sondra from Maryland wrote, “I began watching you on the Chabad site about 6 years ago and as a non-Jew (I am neither Christian) you gave me a sense of community in your teachings. You helped me believe that I still matter and that G-d and Torah is a light for me to follow until I find my path. You were, and still are, a blessing given to this world.” A comment signed by B’nei Noach says, “As a Noahide family, our primary source of Torah teaching comes from the Internet via Chabad, Breslov, etc. We have been, and will remain, eternally grateful for Rabbi Gordon’s knowledge, wit, and sincerity which permeates every [shiur].”

Other listeners are Jews living far away from Jewish communities. Rubertha Blackman wrote, “As [a] convert with no [r]abbi in the community I currently live in, I was happy to learn about Rabbi Gordon. I listen daily and would often discuss what he thought with other[s]. My Torah knowledge was limited but with the excellence of Rabbi Gordon teaching, I understood more and was a happy student for it.” Another comment from Massachusetts says, “Thanks to Rabbi Gordon’s classes I can study and feel connection to the community when I [live] in isolation (because of my husband’s disability needs). I am really thankful.”

Still others discovered Rabbi Gordon when confronted with personal challenges. David Parvey wrote, “Rabbi Gordon was a companion through difficult times in my spiritual journey. He brought me to highs and lifted me from lows.” Sandra from Brooklyn wrote, “I am a recovering drug addict…Four months ago [I] began listening to the Rabbi’s daily Tanya portions. Everyday his humor and explanations of Torah opened the spark of love for HaShem to blossom and grow by leaps and bounds.”

Jews of all ages and all over the religious spectrum credit Rabbi Gordon’s online classes for their spiritual growth. Denise Curry wrote, “We have been listening to Rabbi Gordon for the past three months and his delightful way of teaching has given us a new perspective of the Torah. We have embraced his teachings and have now begun to follow the commandments that G-d gave to Moshe on Mt. Sinai.”

“[W]hat really made him so special is somehow he made you feel that he knew you. And that is why I cry. It felt like a personal loss,” wrote Gitel Chana Levin.

Such profound influence required a tremendous commitment on Rabbi Gordon’s part, says Rabbi Mordechai Einbinder, Associate Director of Chabad of the Valley, who worked closely with Rabbi Gordon for many years. Incredibly busy with his community work, Rabbi Gordon nevertheless took the time to prepare his daily lessons. “Once he undertook a commitment nothing could stand in his way,” says Rabbi Einbinder. He explains that Rabbi Gordon was a very humble person who was much more comfortable in the background than in the limelight. Yet, when duty called, he was ready to push himself beyond his comfort zone and spread Torah teachings to a previously unheard of extent. “In Judaism, strength comes from humility,” says Rabbi Einbinder. “Rabbi Gordon was a humble servant. He never asked, ‘What’s in it for me?’ He only asked, ‘What is demanded of me?’ He could go against his intrinsic nature because that is what was needed.”

Even though Rabbi Gordon accomplished much in his public role, his true greatness lay in his quiet, private interactions with community members in need. Rabbi Einbinder has many stories to share – of the time Rabbi Gordon got involved with helping a homeless family and managed to get them housing, clothing, and jobs, even though he himself complained that they were “making him crazy,” or of the time Rabbi Gordon enlisted Rabbi Einbinder’s help in searching for a man who had left his wife without giving her a get. The man was spotted boarding a city bus, and the rabbis spent two hours stopping every single bus going in that direction and searching for the recalcitrant husband.

Dr. Rosenthal adds another personal anecdote. Several months after the birth of their youngest child, Mrs. Rosenthal had major surgery. Rabbi Gordon called her a few days later to ask how she was feeling. Mrs. Rosenthal cried to him that she didn’t even have the strength to change her baby’s diaper. Rabbi Gordon immediately came over and changed the diaper.

Many such stories are emerging during shiva, as masses of people crowd the Gordons’ home, each one with their own story of gratitude towards the rabbi. Rabbi Einbinder described a mother and grandmother of a large Chabad family. As a teenager, she was interested in Judaism, but her family was staunchly anti-religious. At the time, there were no Jewish schools in the Valley, where she lived. Rabbi Gordon not only helped her enroll in the Bais Yaakov high school in the city, but drove her to school and back every single day, despite his busy schedule. Thanks to Rabbi Gordon’s dedication, this woman’s children and grandchildren are all connected to Torah and mitzvos, and are teaching Torah to others.

Rabbi Einbinder relates that at the shiva, Rebbetzin Gordon said, “I didn’t know that the mourning would be so great, that I would have to comfort the visitors.”
Mr. Weisman adds, “Rabbi Gordon taught me so much. He even taught me how to leave this world in a positive way. He was pushing to do good up until two weeks before his passing. Even when he was in a lot of pain his question was, ‘What can I do for you?'” Mr. Weisman explains that Rabbi Gordon always had faith that everything was for the best, even when things looked very dim.

Rabbi Einbinder relates that Rabbi Gordon was told by the Lubavitcher Rebbe to approach problems with positivity: “Think good, and it will be good.” Rabbi Gordon took it to heart. “He had a certain positivity even in the face of insurmountable obstacles,” Rabbi Einbinder says. “It was the guiding light of his life.”