Rabbi Shaya Gansbourg, 57, co-director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Harlem and the driving force behind that area’s Jewish revival, was remembered as a dynamic, energetic leader who believed that he could do what many saw as impossible: Gather every Jew in Harlem and bring them under the roof of Judaism.
Until the age of 50, Gansbourg was a businessman in the publishing industry. One day on the way back from LaGuardia airport, he decided to get off the bus on a whim and found himself walking the streets of Harlem, which for years had a reputation for poverty, crime and downtrodden streets.
“I started walking around Seventh Avenue and was inspired,” Gansbourg later recalled. “I saw a nice Starbucks, plenty of boutiques, nice shops and businesses.” He noted that the neighborhood had been experiencing a resurgence.
Until World War I, Harlem was an attractive neighborhood with a substantial Jewish population, but overcrowding led to its deterioration, culminating with a riot by residents in 1935. In the late 1990s, however, the situation began to change with the city’s reconstruction of the area’s transportation system, as well as by the renewed popularity and growth at the City College of New York. Fueled by $300 million in grants from the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone, the area embarked on an ambitious revitalization project.
In 1917, Harlem had a Jewish population 150,000; by 1930, it had fallen to 5,000 and had steadily dwindled after that. When Gansbourg arrived, a few hundred Jews lived there, with one functioning synagogue.
Gansbourg was the son of New York businessman Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Gansbourg, who was also very involved in spreading Judaism and in printing the talks of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory.
The younger Gansbourg was involved early in life in spreading Judaism. While studying in Morristown, N.J., for example, he founded the Lubavitch Student Organization, which would organize weekly visits to offices across the state every Friday and on Jewish holidays.
“Shaya was a teenage boy when I met him,” recalled Lis Harris, author of Holy Days: The World of the Hasidic Family. “He and his brother were highly skeptical about the usefulness of having me poking around the Gansbourg home night and day,” she continued. “But in the end, he came around and was a good sport about it and, like the rest of his wonderful family, helped me to better understand the everyday realities of the Lubavitcher world.”
Gansbourg continued to find new horizons where he could reach out to unaffiliated Jews. For many years, he kept up contact with Jews in the states of Wyoming and Montana, and would visit them there during the summer months.
For many years, he also traveled to Norfolk, Va., to assist his sister and brother-in-law, Rabbi Aaron and Rachel Margolin, co-directors of Chabad Lubavitch of Tidewater, during the holidays and their major events.
Rabbi Yosef B. Friedman, director of Kehot Publication Society, the Chabad-Lubavitch publishing arm, said that during Gansbourg's years in the printing industry, he “went beyond just [doing a] job. He was intimately involved in advising, initiating, designing and creating.”
Friedman said that Gansbourg helped the publishing house move into new horizons in Chasidic publishing. One example was Gansbourg’s involvement in Kehot's Chasidic Heritage Series, where he helped to initiate the translation and elucidation of complicated discourses on Chabad philosophy.
The nuances and terminology of more advanced Chasidic discourses are often out of the reach of readers who did have a wealth of background in key concepts and references to other works. The Chasidic Heritage Series “helps the reader build their skills on their own and would make Chasidism easily accessible to them," explained Golan Ben-Oni, vice president for network architecture at IDT, who brainstormed the idea together with Gansbourg for the series.
“Rabbi Gansbourg was a living example of what he had taught,” said Ben-Oni, “ to teach another Jew, bring them closer to our roots, shower them with ‘ropes of love’ and satisfy their intellectual, emotional and spiritual desire. If you can do that, then the opportunities for those acts of kindness to spread will multiply and live on.”
A Harlem Revival
Those opportunities were the first thing Gansbourg said he thought of as he walked through the streets of Harlem that fateful day and said to himself that “there have to be Jews here.” He and his wife, Goldie, started with programs for Jewish students at City College. “I started to explore, looking around and seeing what would happen,” Gansbourg said.
In 2005, they hosted Chabad's first communal Passover seder in Harlem.
"Others will have to pick up his fallen standard, but history will honor him as the founder of the revival of Judaism in Upper Manhattan."—Prof. Jeffrey S. Gurock
“There are other people who go out to communities where there are thousands of Jews,” explained Gansbourg. “Reaching out to 10 percent would be considered a smashing success. But Harlem is different. To succeed, we need the participation of every single Jew. Once that happens, we will count it as a success.”
He envisioned a "complete Jewish infrastructure,” with kosher restaurants, a mikvah, Jewish education and a synagogue with activities around the clock. He and his wife started a Jewish day-care center, and in 2011 began the writing of the first Torah scroll in Harlem in more than seven decades.
“We started writing our own Torah for the community,” said Gansbourg. “We’ll read from it and dance with it. It will illuminate and guide our community.”
He said he was not going to stop there, and when he fell ill, he brought his son and daughter-in-law, Rabbi Yossel and Mushka Gansbourg, to lead the center’s programming.
“It is with his loving message that my heart is warmed,” said Ben-Oni, who is coping with the loss of his mentor. “It is a love which lives on inside of all of us who he touched, and it has provided me with a strong sense of comfort during this difficult time.”
“In the whirlwind of Rabbi Gansbourg’s ceaseless activity, he changed lives forever,” said Ben Goldman, a filmmaker who studied at the college and attended programs at Chabad of Harlem, writing for The Times of Israel. “Through his unassuming, modest, one-room synagogue in Harlem, converted from a ground-floor apartment, he created a community that provided so much of what I found missing [in the city]… unconditional acceptance, and a connection to something beyond oneself. Though I did not know it initially, what the rabbi had created was Jewish life [in Harlem].”
Jeffrey S. Gurock, Libby M. Klaperman professor of Jewish history at Yeshiva University, said that he would always remember Gansbourg as “a leader who fulfilled a mission to which all devoted followers of the Lubavitcher Rebbe are dedicated—to bring the light of Torah to Jews wherever they might live.”
Gurock noted that Gansbourg was a pioneer who was “instrumental in returning Yiddishkeit to Harlem after more than 75 years and to the campus of CCNY after a hiatus of several generations.”
“Others will have to pick up his fallen standard,” said Gurock, author of When Harlem Was Jewish, 1870-1930, “but history will honor him as the founder of the revival of Judaism in Upper Manhattan.”