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'Uncle Yossi': He Loved Teaching Torah, in Person and on the Air

'Uncle Yossi': He Loved Teaching Torah, in Person and on the Air

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Rabbi Yosef (''Uncle Yossi'') Goldstein (center) with his family.
Rabbi Yosef ("Uncle Yossi") Goldstein (center) with his family.

Beloved educator, children’s radio personality, father of 10 and grandfather of hundreds, Rabbi Yosef Goldstein passed away on March 7 at the age of 85, leaving behind an unmatched legacy of innovative education, and a love of Judaism that he passed on to tens of thousands.

He was born in Providence, R.I., on 24 Iyar 5687 (1927) to Moshe Yehuda and Chaya Malka Goldstein. His mother was the daughter of Rabbi Yaakov Yitzchok Goldman, a Torah teacher and shochet (ritual slaughterer), known for his devotion to Torah Judaism.

A printer by trade, Goldstein’s father earned the nickname “Der Shomer Shabbos” (“the Shabbat-keeper”). He took on small print jobs at home, since being with a more established printing house would have necessitated working on Shabbat.

At that time, Chassidic rebbes would travel to the United States to fundraise for their communities back home in Poland and Galicia. On their way from New York to Boston, they would stay with the Goldsteins, where they were assured kosher food and a Torah-centered atmosphere.

Three years after Yosef was born, acting on the advice of the visiting rebbes, the Goldsteins relocated to the Borough Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., to be near other religious Jews. At the height of the Depression, giving up work and moving was seen as sheer folly. But Moshe Yehuda said: “I would rather see my family physically bankrupt than spiritually bankrupt.”

Yossi—as he was called by his family and teachers, and eventually the world—was enrolled in Yeshivas Toras Emes, where he would meet towering chassidic personalities who would shape his life: Rabbis Shmuel Zalmanov and Yitzchak Dovber Ushpol.

Made an indelible impression on his teachers

His relationship to his teachers was more than that of just a student. He revered them, and often went out of his way to help them.

For example, noticing that Rabbi Ushpol would rest his head on his desk after teaching, Yossi discovered that the man lived in dire poverty, without even a bed. He and some friends managed to get him a table, chairs and a bed. Yossi would also bring him a thermos of coffee daily.

At his bar mitzvah, Yossi was given a gold watch by his father; it was worth a small fortune at the time. Upon noticing that his mentor had no watch, Yossi offered him the newly acquired gift. Rabbi Ushpol refused, but eventually Yossi won out and convinced him to take it.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe seving as mesader kiddushin, officiating at the wedding of Rabbi Goldstein.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe seving as mesader kiddushin, officiating at the wedding of Rabbi Goldstein.

After Rabbis Zalmanov and Ushpol left Toras Emes for the new Lubavitcher Yeshivah in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, N.Y., Yossi, who relished their unique brand of Chabad Chassidism, transferred there as well. At first, his parents tried to convince him otherwise because of the distance and expense—carfare was a prohibitive 5 cents each way—but Yossi prevailed, and was soon enrolled in Rabbi Ushpol’s class once again.

Keeping watch at a rebbe’s home

At that time, the Lubavitcher Yeshivah was housed at 770 Eastern Parkway, also the home of the Rebbe Rayatz, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, of righteous memory. Since the rebbe’s family lived upstairs, and the study hall on the lower level was often open all night, Yossi was asked to sleep in a small room on the main floor to keep watch. He moved in with a few changes of clothes and his most precious possession: stencils of Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak’s Chassidic discourses.

Yossi lived a life of Torah and prayer. Rabbi Leibel Posner, a friend from Toras Emes and later a study partner in the Lubavitcher Yeshivah, remembers him to be totally devoted to Torah study. Yossi would often correspond in learning with Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak, as well as his son-in-law—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, who would succeed him as rebbe.

Rabbi Goldstein with the Lubavitcher Rebbe at a Lag BaOmer day parade in the 1950s.
Rabbi Goldstein with the Lubavitcher Rebbe at a Lag BaOmer day parade in the 1950s.

At that time, Rabbi Schneerson oversaw Lubavitch publications and outreach activities. When Yossi learned that he had no one to help stuff envelopes, he volunteered for the task. In return, the future rebbe gave him some galley sheets of Chassidic discourses with his handwritten corrections.

In the winter of 1945, when Yossi was 18, Rabbi Shmaryahu Gurary, who oversaw the United Lubavitcher Yeshivoth, asked the young scholar to relocate to Rochester, N.Y., to teach in the new Jewish day school there. When Rabbi Gurary mentioned that the Rebbe favored that move, Yossi packed up and left.

He later recalled, “I arrived in Rochester, where we rented an old house, which was freezing. There was no electric boiler, just a wood-burning oven. We gathered children and began teaching.”

It was there that his deep love for Torah, and his signature sense of humor and unending patience, came together to teach the young about the basics of Torah and Judaism.

In 1946, he was introduced to Chana Priva Winter. When her mother consulted the Rebbe about Yossi, he replied: “It’s a good suggestion; you ought to agree to the match happily, for your daughter is selecting one of our best students, who is devoted to Jewish education with all of his good heart ... May G‑d bless them materially and spiritually, and may you receive satisfaction from all your children.”

After their marriage, Chana Priva joined Goldstein in his educational pursuits, supporting and encouraging his many endeavors.

For three years, from 1946 to 1948, Rabbi Goldstein went back to his roots and taught in the Lubavitch day school in Providence. He then served as principal in the Yeshivah of Springfield, Mass., in 1949, and as a teacher in New Haven, Conn., from 1950 to 1954.

For the next 15 years—from 1954 to 1969—he was the beloved principal at the Beth Jacob Esther Schonfeld girls’ school on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. He then served as associate principal at the Beth Jacob of Boro Park for 28 years (from 1970 to 1998), impacting thousands of Jewish girls with his devotion to Torah, sense of humor and dose of Chabad teachings.

Goldstein had an ongoing Tanya class for young women in his home on Friday nights. From just a few girls gathered around his desk, the class expanded until the standing-room-only crowd filled the entire living room, infused with the aroma of his wife’s freshly baked challah.

Goldstein's parents, R. Moshe Yehuda and Chaya Malka Goldstein.
Goldstein's parents, R. Moshe Yehuda and Chaya Malka Goldstein.

When the Rebbe began holding children’s rallies and parades in the 1940s, it was natural that Goldstein, together with Rabbi J. J. Hecht, was chosen to lead them, weaving together stories, songs and anecdotes. It was an honor he would treasure for the rest of his life—his iconic accordion and charismatic style uplifting all present.

Goldstein also embraced technology as a means to spread Torah. In fact, starting in 1953, he would bring his clunky recording equipment to the Rebbe’s farbrengen gatherings. It is to his credit that the Torah thoughts and talks from those early years have been preserved.

In 1970, “Uncle Yossi” became a household name in Jewish homes throughout the world when he released his innovative story records. In his signature voice, he narrated stories from the Talmud and Midrash, as well as from contemporary life. A master storyteller, he made sure that each tale was wholesome and entertaining. Even more important was that every story convey a lesson on how to live as a Torah Jew. He often said that he inherited his ability to tell stories from his mother.

In the early 1970s, he directed the Released Time Program, which gave Jewish children from public schools throughout New York City an hour of Torah education every Wednesday afternoon. Under his leadership, the program grew to serve 2,000 children.

“Uncle Yossi” also hosted a Jewish children’s radio show for 11 years. Every Tuesday evening, in thousands of homes on the East Coast, kids would join his hak a chainik (literally, “bang a pot”) dance, as they clanked and marched around their kitchen tables to his singing and accordion-playing. After a full program of songs, stories and more, he would say the bedtime Shema with the kids, and bid them a good night.

A natural musician, songs were a regular feature. In fact, the well-known song popularized by Uncle Moishy, “Hashem Is Here, Hashem Is There ... ” was an “Uncle Yossi” original.

Longtime residents of Crown Heights, the Goldsteins’ open home—like that of his parents—was legendary. Anyone needing a meal or moral support knew that he or she would be welcome.

The proud father of 10 children who serve as Jewish educators and leaders on three continents, Goldstein would often speak and teach in his children’s communities. College students from Ann Arbor, Mich., where his son Aaron leads the Chabad House, still recall the rabbi’s talks and stories, and his leading of the Passover seder.

The Goldsteins relocated in 1998 to Poway, Calif., to be near their son Yisroel, director of Chabad of Poway. They lived there together until Chana Priva Goldstein passed away in the summer of 2000.

Rabbi Goldstein continued to teach Torah to adults at Chabad of Poway until the very end of his life.

He is survived by his children: Rabbi Aaron Goldstein (longtime director of Chabad serving the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Mich.); Rabbi Sholom Ber Goldstein (community activist in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, N.Y.); Rabbi Yitzchok Goldstein (Chabad representative in Madrid, Spain); Rabbi Levi Goldstein (veteran educator and storyteller in Crown Heights); Rabbi Mendel Goldstein (community activist in Crown Heights); Toby Lieder (Chabad representative to Sydney, Australia); Yisroel Goldstein (Chabad representative in Poway, Calif.); Leah Perl (Torah teacher in Los Angeles, Calif.); Shternie Ulman (Chabad representative to the Russian Jewish community in Sydney, Australia); and Rabbi Zalman Goldstein (founder of the Jewish Learning Group, producer of the Chabad Classics music series, and publisher of the Chabad House Companion series and other outreach publications, including the Kotel Siddur, in Monsey, N.Y.); as well as hundreds of grandchildren and great-grandchildren, many of whom serve as Chabad emissaries throughout the world, from New Zealand to Des Moines, Iowa.

A beloved writer, teacher and speaker, Rabbi Yosef “Uncle Yossi” Goldstein was often featured at children’s events and at parades on the holiday of Lag BaOmer.
A beloved writer, teacher and speaker, Rabbi Yosef “Uncle Yossi” Goldstein was often featured at children’s events and at parades on the holiday of Lag BaOmer.


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