He shipped out to the Pacific with the words of his bar mitzvah rabbi still ringing in his ears: “Whatever you do, always put on tefillin.”

And Jules Lassner did just that throughout his service in the Marine Corps during World War II and in the decades that followed. The routine of civilian life fades fast in the blood and mess of war, but Lassner, who passed away on Nov. 27 at the age of 92, never missed putting on tefillin, despite the difficulties.

In June of 1944, Lassner took part in an amphibious assault on the island of Saipan. Almost immediately after landing and taking the beachhead, his unit found itself under heavy artillery fire from the Japanese. They quickly dug foxholes, strapped on their helmets, placed their packs over their heads and held on tightly for nearly 24 hours of bombardment.

At some point, Lassner—a demolitions and munitions expert—felt his backpack take a hit. When the U.S. Air Force finally neutralized the enemy, he climbed out and looked around. To his right and left lay his dead comrades; his pack was blown to smithereens. Only three of his personal possessions had survived: His tefillin, his tehillim and his siddur.

“It was a miracle,” Lassner would later tell Chassidic scholar and author Rabbi Michoel Seligson in an interview. The event became “engraved in my memory; it made an impression on me that’s remained my entire life.”

Over the course of a long life and career, during which he served his country in a variety of positions, including in the Marine Corps, as an influential businessman and an energetic Jewish communal leader, he never forgot his ultimate source of strength.

G‑d was always the ultimate part of his life,” says his son, Jamie Lassner.

Love for Country

Lassner as a U.S. Marine during World War II
Lassner as a U.S. Marine during World War II

Julius L. (Yehuda Aryeh) Lassner was born in New York City in 1922. His parents, Sam (Yehoshua) and Rose (Rochel) were immigrants from Ukraine who had arrived penniless on American shores and worked hard to support their family, eventually buying their own home in Brooklyn, where Jules, as he was known, grew up. Grateful for the opportunity to build a new life in America, the Lassners never forgot their origins, sponsoring immigration for European relatives and maintaining an open-door policy at home. With his bed often occupied by newly arrived immigrants, Jules spent many a night sleeping on the floor.

Gratitude for America and the freedoms it bestowed on his family was instilled in Jules from a young age, and in 1943, in the throes of World War II, he enlisted in the Marine Corps. Lassner was sent to the bloody Pacific theater, where he participated in the deadly beach assault landings on Saipan and Tinian, becoming a captain. He later served the United States in Korea and was part of an early advisory group to go into Vietnam.

“My husband had tremendous appreciation for everything this country had given his family, as it did mine. It was something he never forgot; country was very important to him,” says his wife, Danièle. The couple had met when Lassner walked into a New York publishing house searching for books on politics in South America and was helped by a young assistant there named Danièle Gorlin. They married in 1963.

It was through Lassner’s new in-laws, Boris and Liselotte Gorlin, that Lassner would eventually meet the Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—and Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka, of righteous memory, on more than one occasion. The Gorlins had a close relationship with both the Rebbe and Rebbetzin, dating back to their time together in Paris in the 1930s.

Intercontinental Communal Leadership

A few weeks after their marriage, the Lassners set out for Bogotá, Colombia, where Jules worked for the Seagram Company and other corporations. Seeing a need for better Jewish education in the Bogotá Jewish community, the couple started a Talmud Torah Hebrew school in the city’s Ashkenazic shtiebel. Among their first students were the son and daughters of their friends, Sami and Charlotte Rohr, whom Danièle had met standing in line at the community’s lone kosher butcher shop during her first weeks in South America.

“Danièle is a real dynamo—a consummate, passionate educator—and she would teach one class while the other class would play basketball with Jules,” remembers the Rohrs’ son, George, today a prominent investor and philanthropist in New York. “They brought a very exciting approach, and the kids and parents just loved it.”

Colombia’s Sephardic Jewish community dates back to the 18th century, but much of the Ashkenazic Jewish community there was made up of more recent arrivals—World War II refugees from Germany, Hungary, Poland and Romania. In Lassner they met an American Marine with more than a dash of Brooklyn attitude and a propensity for the salty language Marines are famous for, yet at the same time a religious man who came to synagogue and prayed with the best of them. The European Jews hadn’t seen anything like it before.

“He was called El Gringo at the Ashkenazi shtiebel,” says Rohr. “Here was this charismatic American Marine, but he was rigorously observant and openly sincere in his observance. In the beginning, they just didn’t know what to make of him—and everybody loved him.”

After nine years in Colombia, the Lassners returned to New York, settling near Danièle’s parents on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. The couple immediately got involved in Jewish communal life. Danièle threw herself into Jewish education, eventually becoming dean of admissions and head of the foreign-languages department at Manhattan’s prominent Ramaz Jewish day school, where she remained for 35 years. Meanwhile, Jules followed in his father-in-law’s footsteps and became the president of the Orach Chaim synagogue, a position his son Jamie would later fill as well.

“My father had been a member of the Chevra Kadisha (burial society), and that appealed to Jules very much,” says Danièle, noting how the theme of duty and service repeated itself in her husband’s life. “It’s the idea that you never leave a fallen comrade behind. It appealed to his Marine Corps sense of honor.”

A friendly and welcoming man, Lassner was known to community movers-and-shakers and neighborhood shopkeepers alike on Manhattan's Upper East Side.
A friendly and welcoming man, Lassner was known to community movers-and-shakers and neighborhood shopkeepers alike on Manhattan's Upper East Side.

Despite the high volume of influential leaders on the Upper East Side, Lassner stood out, combining a passionate communal leadership style with an exemplary personal, moral and religious comportment.

“He was a real leader in the community. He threw himself into things, he wasn’t just passive about them,” says Rabbi Ben Tzion Krasnianski, co-director of Chabad-Lubavitch of the Upper East Side. “When something needed to get done, Jules got it done.”

Recalling his own efforts, together with his wife Chanie, to establish a Chabad center in the neighborhood in 1991, Krasnianski says that among their first friends there was the Lassner family.

“Jules was the president of Orach Chaim, and he welcomed us with open arms. That set the tone for the whole neighborhood.”

A friendly and welcoming man, Lassner was known to community movers-and-shakers and neighborhood shopkeepers alike.

“He was the mayor,” says Rohr, whose friendship with the Lassners continued after both of them were living in New York. It was Jules and Danièle who introduced Rohr to his wife Pamela, a Ramaz graduate whom Danièle knew well.

“He was genuinely interested in people and always made them feel he had time for them. He was the best listener I have ever known,” says Rohr. “At Orach Chaim, the first stop for most on Shabbos or Yom Tov was to go over to greet Jules. And that wasn’t just when he became an older man; people showed their respect and affection for him that way 30 years ago, too.”

Rohr says that observing Lassner’s faith in G‑d was itself an education.

“He was a tough Marine who had seen all sorts of things, and his private prayer was like no other,” Rohr recalls. “It inspired anyone who had the privilege of seeing him in synagogue.”

“If one’s religiosity is measured by their constant dialogue with G‑d and their unwavering desire to help others, then my father was the most religious man I ever knew,” attests Lassner’s son Andy.

‘Smiled Ear to Ear’

Lassner’s in-laws, Boris and Liselotte Gorlin, first met the Rebbe and Rebbetzin in 1930s’ Paris, where the Rebbe attended the École Spéciale des Travaux Publics (ESTP) and later the Sorbonne. Although born in Moscow, Boris was fluent in French due to his years living in Paris and helped the Rebbe to fill out his university registration. He also showed the Rebbe around the school, a kindness the Rebbe never forgot.

Years later in New York, writes Seligson in his 1995 article about Gorlin, Boris was at a private audience with the Rebbe together with his grandson. The Rebbe turned to the boy and asked him: “Did your grandfather ever tell you of what he did for me in Paris?”

An engineer, Gorlin had been sent by the French government to New York in 1939 to purchase airplane parts for the war effort, where he remained. When France was about to be invaded by the Nazis, the United States government issued diplomatic visas for Gorlin’s wife Liselotte, their 2-and-a-half-year-old daughter Danièle, Liselotte’s mother and his parents, all of whom arrived in America in 1940. When Boris’ father, Asher Zelig, passed away in New York in late 1948, the Rebbe traveled to the Upper East Side to participate in the funeral.

Gorlin told Lassner that he and the Rebbe would talk often about engineering work during the early 1940s, when the Rebbe worked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. For decades, the Rebbetzin would call the Gorlin home every week before Shabbat to speak to Gorlin’s mother, Sonia Reinin Gorlin.

In 1977, Lassner accompanied his father-in-law for a private audience with the Rebbe. The Rebbe noted that he and Boris could converse in French or Russian, but that Lassner understood neither. Yiddish would work for Lassner, but not Boris. So they settled on English.

The Rebbe soon turned the conversation towards communal activity.

“The first thing he asked about was, ‘What are you people doing for the Jewish women of the Upper East Side?’ ” said Lassner in a 2000 interview with Jewish Educational Media (JEM). “This was 1977, there weren’t many [classes] for women in those days. And we didn’t really have an answer ... ”

The Rebbe also took up the issue of the need for a women’s mikvah on the Upper East Side, which did not have one at the time.

“He felt that there was so much to be done for the women,” recalled Lassner.

“I’ve sat in the offices of heads of state abroad and had the opportunity to sit with the president of the United States in his office. Nothing compared to sitting with the Rebbe. Nothing. There was just the simplicity of the person and knowing you were with this kind of personality,” he concluded.

Lassner took the Rebbe’s words and the entire experience back home with him and labored to bring them to fruition. In the mid-2000s, when Chabad was constructing the first mikvah on the Upper East Side, Lassner was enthusiastically supportive, recalling his own efforts years earlier.

Special Relationship

The Gorlins and Lassners were also among the relatively few who visited Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka at home on President Street in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn. After one such occasion, Lassner found himself deeply impressed by the Rebbetzin’s warmth, hospitality and genuine interest she took in others.

On a Sunday morning not long afterwards, Lassner passed by the Rebbe to receive a dollar and mustered, as he called it, the “chutzpah” to tell the Rebbe: “After meeting your wife, I understand the expression, ‘Behind every great man is a great woman!’

“The Rebbe,” recalled Lassner, “smiled from ear to ear.”

Lassner’s son Jamie remembers another time in the 1980s when his father asked him to drive them and the Gorlins to Crown Heights to visit the Rebbetzin. Jamie had just finished playing basketball and hadn’t yet changed his clothes.

“I dropped them off and drove forward about 100 feet past the house,” recalls Jamie. “Then I see a police car and the Rebbe’s car pull up. Instead of getting out on the sidewalk side to his house, the Rebbe gets out on the street side. He looks at me and walks straight towards me.

“The Rebbe says, ‘Hello Jamie’—the last time I had seen him was eight years earlier for my bar mitzvah. I was very embarrassed; I had just finished playing basketball and was still dressed in shorts. But the Rebbe asked me how I was doing, and we had a short conversation. Then he looked at me and said ‘It’s good to see you’re taking care of your body as well; you need to be strong in order to be able to serve Hashem.’ ”

In the car back to Manhattan, Jules saw that Jamie was being very quiet. “What happened?” he asked his son.

“I told him about what happened with the Rebbe, and my father told me that if I had gotten such attention from the Rebbe, it means that I must be involved in something good that the Rebbe was encouraging.”

“Jules was a very unusual combination,” says Danièle. “He was on the one hand worldly with a boot-camp demeanor. On the other hand, he was a deeply spiritual and religious man. At the end, the only thing he wanted was to be able to look up to Hashem and say, ‘Thank You.’ ”

“G‑d was very real to him, not just an abstract concept,” says Rohr.

In addition to his wife, Lassner is survived by sons Jamie Lassner and Andy Lassner, and five grandchildren. He is also survived by his brother, Joseph Lassner.