Miriam Gordon, a Jewish educator and mentor in Essex County, N.J., known for her patience, open home and classes for women on Jewish thought and practice, and whose life coincided with the growth of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement in America, passed away last month at the age of 87.
Miriam was born in 1925 to Rabbi Eliyohu and Fruma Ita Simpson, in the Harlem section of New York City. The family had immigrated to the United States from Russia in the early 1920s, after the Bolsheviks had taken power and the communist authorities began to clamp down on Jewish life. Before Miriam’s father left for the United States, the sixth Chabad Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, of righteous memory, told Rabbi Simpson that when he arrived in the United States, he should make it a priority to teach Judaism.
Upon his arrival, Simpson began giving classes in the Chabad synagogue in Harlem, while searching for a livelihood. But from every job he took he was fired by the next week, family members recalled, because he would not show up for work on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, a day that Jews spend resting and not doing many types of creative work.
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Before long, he was hired to be the rabbi in the local Nusach Ari synagogue. The family later moved to the Borough Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., where he took on the position of rabbi at the Anshei Lubavitch synagogue, and later established the Ahavas Achim Tzemach Tzedek synagogue.
As a rabbi with a meager salary, his family lived on limited funds, yet “my parents never let us feel that it was a hard life,” said Miriam’s sister, Krainy Rosenfeld, who later took on her mother’s responsibilities in the Borough Park synagogue. “Our mother would work very hard to make us feel like we never were missing anything.”
Rosenfeld recalled how during the Depression era their mother would wash and iron their clothes through all hours of the night, so the next morning the clothes would be fresh and starched, even if they had been worn the previous day.
Miriam’s parents’ home was the base for many lively Hassidic gatherings, and was open to anyone who needed anything. “We always had people coming in,” said Rosenfeld, “with many of them sleeping over, and some remaining with us for weeks.”
Miriam was deeply influenced by what Rosenfeld said her mother personified. “She was the type of person who was always there to give advice to those who came to our home. My parents treated everyone the same, and with great respect.”
The Rebbe’s Arrival
Miriam Gordon (standing, left) next to her husband Rabbi Sholom Ber Gordon, at a synagogue meeting in Newark, N.J., circa 1960s. (Photo: Lubavitch Archives)
One of the greatest milestones of Miriam’s life as a young woman was the arrival of Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak in 1940 from war-torn Europe. She would repeat the minutest details of the story: how her father went to the boat to greet Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak while her mother held her and her siblings’ hands tightly, and then finally seeing Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak herself.
It was a new vista in her life, she would always say. Although Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak came off the boat in a wheelchair, she noted that “he said that he came here not to relax and retire, but that he had seen a great potential in the American youth, and was here to prove that America is no different [in its potential to become a center of Judaism].”
She recalled that he immediately arranged for the opening of Jewish day schools, organized groups for children to gather on Shabbat, and supervised the creation of new Jewish publications. Miriam and her sisters took an active part in instructing the girls during Shabbat gatherings, and in teaching in the Beth Rivkah Day School established by Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak.
Her father soon became an aide to Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak, and would transcribe from memory his talks and scholarly discourses, just as he had done in Russia for Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak’s father, the fifth Chabad Rebbe, Rabbi Shalom Dovber Schneersohn.
In 1945 she married Rabbi Sholom Ber Gordon, the charismatic educator and founding director of the Lubavitch schools in Newark. Before their marriage, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak wrote to the couple that they should be blessed to find a livelihood in Jewish education, writing that “you should educate upstanding, G‑d-fearing and knowledgeable Jews.”
In an audience with Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak before their marriage, he guided them on how to conduct their home peacefully, since they both would have busy schedules in the Jewish community they would soon be leading. “We must always look for the other’s good traits and at our own faults,” he advised them. “This doesn’t mean that we must elevate the other and cast ourselves down,” she recalled him saying. “It means that the other’s good traits should, in our eyes, cover over their shortcomings.”
He added that “in general, when it comes to family life, we must see each other in a respectful light. Generally, we should not look for the other’s failings. Never do anything unilaterally; always discuss every issue with your spouse.” Family members said that these words guided the couple in their day-to-day relationship until the day of Rabbi Gordon’s passing in 2001.
At the request of Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak, the couple established a Jewish day school in Springfield, Mass. “I did my canvassing by accompanying a baker on his delivery route,” Rabbi Gordon once recalled, “and as he was selling his bread, I would offer to nourish the customers’ children with Jewish education.”
On the first day of school they had ten students, who were learning in temporary quarters in the dining room of a family that permitted the use of their home as a school. The difficult task was tough on the couple, who later recalled that what sustained them most in their struggle to establish the school was a letter from Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak, who told the couple that the sound of learning that was “emanating from the innocent mouths of these children is echoing through the heavens.”
The Lubavitcher Yeshiva Academy of Springfield has since educated tens of thousands of children.
In 1948 the couple was guided by Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak to move to Newark, N.J., to lead the school whose founding director Rabbi Gordon had been in 1942. There the Gordons became synonymous with Jewish Newark.
Rabbi Gordon became the rabbi of the Congregation Ahavath Zion, at the time one of the largest synagogues in Newark, while Miriam Gordon taught at their Hebrew and Sunday school, led the city’s Chabad women’s organization, and headed the local organization for family purity, the Taharas Hamishpacha Group, which educated women in the community about the importance and laws of mikvah, the Jewish ritual bath.
“I have the greatest hope,” wrote the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, to the Newark congregation in 1959, “for the blossoming of your synagogue as a center for Torah study, prayer and charity, and for the strengthening of Judaism in the entire city, as that is the ‘great statute’ of Judaism, to love your fellow as yourself.” The Gordons lived up to this hope.
“She was a wonderful, dynamic woman,” said Anne Zakheim, whose husband had been the rabbi of the Agudath Israel synagogue in Newark, and who was close with Mrs. Gordon. “She was involved in everything in the synagogue, with all the people, especially when they had any problems.”
After years of shifting demographics, in 1967 vandals set fire to Congregation Ahavath Zion, and many congregants moved to nearby Maplewood. The Gordons moved to Maplewood as well, where the couple reestablished the synagogue.
When they realized that the mikvah in Newark was no longer a viable option for the local Jewish community, and with no other one to use in the area, they headed an effort to build one in West Orange, N.J.—the Essex County Ritualarium.
“Rabbi Gordon was most instrumental,” said Lorraine Gold, “with my husband [Dr. Eli Gold], in the building of the mikvah.”
But she said Mrs. Gordon was the force behind encouraging the women to actually use it. “She gave classes in the West Orange community and the outlying communities on the importance of using a mikvah.”
Gold recalled that there were not many women in their community who were educated in using a mikvah, and its success was due to these classes and educational effort. “I remember meetings we had—it didn’t matter if there was a snowstorm outside, she was always there. She was quite a woman.”
She recalled that Mrs. Gordon was the president for many years of the mikvah’s women’s organization, where she would select the women who would oversee the mikvah when the other women would come. “This was especially important in our community, to choose the most suitable women for this position.”
An Open Home
Miriam and Rabbi Sholom Ber Gordon.
The Gordon home was always open. “So many people would hang out in the house: college students, younger and older people,” recalled their son Rabbi Yehoshua B. Gordon, director of Chabad-Lubavitch of the Valley in California. He said that during the mourning period hundreds and hundreds of people came to their home, or sent letters and e‑mails saying how much she inspired them, “each with a story and memory of how she contributed to their own particular life.”
“They welcomed me into their home and into their life,” said Elana Bergovoy. “Mrs. Gordon was friendly with everyone, and always had a nice word to say to everyone.”
“The people they hosted in their own quiet way were a part of their family,” said her daughter, Bluma Rivkin, co-director of Chabad-Lubavitch of New Orleans.
“I did feel like family,” said Bergovoy, “and until this day we share a family relationship, even with her kids.”
“Mrs. Gordon was a mentor and a mother to me,” community member Sarah Katuna said. “She was always open, available, friendly, and precise with the answers she gave you in Judaism. I felt so comfortable speaking to her.”
Sara Greenberg was sixteen when she arrived with her boyfriend for the first time to the home of the Gordons. “When I walked into the house I froze,” she recalled. “At the time, I could not articulate what I saw. Everything in the house was there for a purpose.”
She said that she came from a well-to-do family and was used to having beauty for the sake of itself, but in the Gordon home, the beauty was with a purpose. “There was an emphasis on books and the things that they needed to do mitzvahs with. It was shocking to me.”
She immediately bonded with the Gordons and felt at home in their house, spending many days there and celebrating the Jewish holidays with them. “You heard about Judaism, but this was meeting Jewish people who embodied Judaism.”
Will to Live
Over the years there were several complications in Mrs. Gordon’s health, yet she did not give up on life, pulling herself out of the most complicated medical situations. “She had an extreme fighting spirit,” said her physician since 1999, Dr. Charles Brum. “You would never know that she had all these medical problems. She would always have a smile on her face, and never wanted to lose her dignity and independence.”
The fighting spirit gave her many years of life. She would say in Yiddish, “A doctor darf men folgen, ober nisht gloiben,” you have to adhere to a doctor’s instructions, but you do not have to believe in his predictions.
About ten months ago a doctor told the family it was a matter of days, but Dr. Brum disagreed, and she pulled through. Looking back, Brum said, “G‑d gave her an extra ten months, and she was able to see more great-grandchildren who were born.”
Rivkin said that during those ten months Mrs. Gordon celebrated many Jewish holidays with her family, including “a summer with many visiting grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She took part in the holidays of Purim, Passover, Shavuot the High Holidays, lit Shabbat and holiday candles fifty-one times with deep feeling, and participated in many joyous events, spending many precious hours together.”
During those ten months Rivkin said that “Chabad.org became her lifeline, where she listened to the many classes and lectures on Jewish subjects. This became her world during those difficult months.”
She said that her mother especially enjoyed listening to her son’s daily classes, Rabbi Gordon Live, on the daily portions of biblical learning, Maimonides’ code of Jewish law and chassidic teachings. “She taught us that you could learn, even though you are not that mobile, it is hard to talk and you are weak, yet you could still study daily.”
During that period she also attended a weekly Shabbat women’s Torah class in her daughter’s home, and when she could not leave her room, the class took place there. “My mother’s spirit and determination to do mitzvahs in the best possible way continues to be an inspiration to all who knew her,” said Frumie Posner, co-director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Alabama.
Bergovoy, who spoke to her many times about her early life, said that Mrs. Gordon was shaped by it, even though “it was not the easiest time [for her]. Yet whatever she went through, it gave her that strength and tenacity. She was very tenacious; she knew how to hang in there through thick and thin.”
Always with a Smile
Miraim Gordon speaks to a member of the Maplewood, N.J., Jewish community.
“She was very strong, very straight, very dedicated,” said Elaine Scherman. “She was an extraordinary person,” giving an example of her dedication to others.
At one point the Schermans were still living in Newark, while the Gordons had already moved to Maplewood. Scherman’s mother could not make it to a very important family event that would take place on Shabbat. Prior to Shabbat, she told Mrs. Gordon how sad she was feeling.
“I was sitting there in the [synagogue’s] front row,” she recalled, “and all of a sudden I hear someone sitting next to me. It was Mrs. Gordon. She walked a good hour and a half to be there with me, because my mother could not be there sitting next to me. I was just flabbergasted at that. This gives you an idea of what kind of person she was.”
Bergovoy remembers her always with a smile on her face. “No matter what was going on, she was always looking at the bright side of things, always with a positive attitude. She was a soft-spoken person, but she had a tremendous amount of inner strength.”
“We must not belittle ourselves and our accomplishments,” Mrs. Gordon once said, “but yet realize our potential and strive for higher levels spiritually, [and to] do it all with joy.” It was a statement that friends and family said she lived with on a daily basis.
Rivkin recalled that wherever her mother was needed in the community, even if she did not necessarily enjoy doing it, she would take on the mission. “The first time she did a taharah she fainted,” she said, using the Hebrew word for the ritual process one does with the deceased prior to burial. “My mother could not stand it, yet she understood that this is what she needed to do. She had a great devotion to the burial society.
“That is what personifies her; she did what had to be done, even if it wasn’t enjoyable.”
“We should not permit our increase in our Judaism, which improves our conduct, to inflate our ego,” Mrs. Gordon once said in a speech. “Instead we should concentrate on humility, which is a great factor in Torah learning and observance of Judaism.” Those who knew her noted that it was a statement that personified who she was.
“She was a straight arrow,” said Elaine Scherman. “You knew that when she said something, she meant it.”
Scherman said that it will take years for the family, and her extended family, to find out all that their mother did. “There are a lot of things that no one knows about, because that is they type of person she was: she never spoke about her accomplishments.”
“The Gordons were always available, receptive and understanding to others,” said Rabbi Moshe Herson, dean of the Rabbinical College of America and director of Chabad-Lubavitch of New Jersey, who noted that the couple was a dynamic team on behalf of Judaism in Essex County. “Everything pertaining to Judaism was very dear to them.”
Shortly before she passed away, sounding very weak, with every word taking great effort for her to say, Mrs. Gordon told her son, Rabbi Yossi Gordon, director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Tasmania, that “every grandchild should prepare for Moshiach by using every minute to influence every Jew they encounter [for the better].”
Mrs. Gordon’s children and grandchildren serve as Jewish leaders and educators in their respective communities. She is survived by her children: Yocheved Baitelman, Brooklyn, N.Y.; Chanie Friedman, St. Paul, Minn.; Rabbi Yehoshua B. Gordon, Encino, Calif.; Bluma Rivkin, New Orleans, La.; Rabbi Yossi Gordon, Melbourne, Australia; Rabbi Mendy Gordon, London, England; Frumie Posner, Birmingham, Ala.; and her many grandchildren and great-grandchildren across the globe.