Professor of philosophy Dr. Yitzchok (Irving) Block, an expert on Aristotle and Wittgenstein who spread Judaism as one of the first emissaries of the Lubavitcher Rebbe on a college campus, and as a speaker and teacher at Chabad-Lubavitch programs around the world, passed away on Oct. 4. He was 86 years old.

Born in Nashville, Tenn., to Aaron and Rose Block in 1930, young Irving, as he was known, lost his father before his bar mitzvah and attended synagogue regularly to recite Kaddish. This precipitated a fascination with Judaism and Torah that would remain with him for the rest of his life. It also brought him into contact with the late Rabbi Zalman I. Posner, who had been sent to Nashville in 1949 to lead Nashville’s Congregation Sherith Israel. The two began studying Torah together.

In 1950, Posner convinced Block, who was by then studying philosophy in Vanderbilt University and happened to be in New York with family, to visit the Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory.

Block returned in 1952 and remained for weeks, the lanky Southerner studying at the Chabad yeshivah side by side with students fresh from Soviet Russia and the D.P. camps of Europe.

As he continued to explore Judaism, Block wanted to enter the rabbinate. However, the Rebbe advised him to continue studying for his Ph.D. in philosophy, which he earned from Harvard University in 1958.

The following year, he met and married Laya Sklar, daughter of Rabbi Eli Nachum Sklar, a preeminent Chassid who was active in many Chabad organizations in the United States.

Block, left, with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory
Block, left, with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory

In an interview with JEM, Block related how it was the Rebbe’s advice about how he should respond when his doctoral thesis, in which he questioned the established approach to Aristotle, was rejected by a prestigious journal that established his reputation as a “famous philosopher.”

It was also this article that brought the budding young philosopher to the attention of the administration at the University of Western Ontario in London, 200 kilometers southwest of Toronto.

At that time, London had no Orthodox synagogue, no Jewish day school, no mikvah and virtually no kosher food. Only three members of the school’s faculty were Jewish.

The Blocks consulted with the Rebbe, who encouraged them to move to London with their baby son, Chaim. In response to their question of what they would do for their Judaism, the Rebbe assured them that they would find what to do.

And they did. First, they established a Jewish preschool for their son to attend. This grew into a day school, which is still in existence. With just 2,000 Jewish families today, London may be the smallest Jewish community in North America to have a Jewish day school.

With the Blocks leading by example, an Orthodox synagogue, Congregation Beth Tefilah, was soon founded as well. Since 2000, the congregation has been led by the Blocks’ son-in-law, Rabbi Lazer Gurkow.

“Dr. Block was extremely devoted to the shul,” says Gurkow. “Even during the difficult years, he was the one to make sure that there was a minyan, and that there was coffee and cake every morning, and bagels and lox on Sundays.”

‘His Common Touch’

Beyond London, he was a sought-after speaker at seminars and events all over the world. Notably, he was a regular presenter at the Shabbaton pegisha weekends in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y. His slot was the all-night session on Saturday, helping the young attendees internalize the heady spiritual experience of Shabbat with the Rebbe. He also authored “G-D, Rationality and Mysticism,” aimed at addressing two common misconceptions: that belief in G‑d is purely a matter of faith and cannot be supported by rational arguments, and that rationality is incompatible with mysticism.

Block taught Judaism to students, faculty members and lay people. Here, he helps a young man wrap tefillin.
Block taught Judaism to students, faculty members and lay people. Here, he helps a young man wrap tefillin.

An avid sportsman, he played baseball and basketball regularly deep into his 70s. A tall man with a flowing beard, he was often seen around town riding his bicycle.

His day at the synagogue began at 4 a.m., learning Zohar. In his later years, he would continue with a regular session in Chassidic philosophy with Dr. Avraham Brown, Ph.D., of the Robarts Research Institute. While the community would pray, he would prepare the refreshments and then pray at length. By 10 a.m., he would ride off, ready to start his day at the university.

When people would marvel at the stamina it took to maintain his regimen for decades, he would demur: “I’m just an old man, and I cannot sleep.”

“I was very fortunate to have the exposure to a Chassid like Dr. Block,” says Brown. “He was a towering intellectual and an accomplished Chassidic scholar. But it was well balanced by his common touch. Whatever we learned was understandable because of his intellect, but understandable because of his humanity.

“For him, academia and chassidus were one world. He would joke with you and talk about the ballgame, but you knew there was so much more. To him the coffee and cake he’d share after davening were as important as the learning before prayers—all part and parcel of a highly nuanced man.”

‘Learned From the Small Things’

In addition to teaching philosophy at the university for 36 years, Block was the leader of the local Hillel chapter and remained active in teaching Judaism to students, fellow faculty members and lay people.

In 1986, heeding the Rebbe’s call to open more Jewish institutions around the world, the Blocks founded a Chabad House in London, today headed by Rabbi Mordechai and Nechamie Silberberg.

Lighting the menorah at Chanukah time in front of city hall in London, Ontario, Canada (Photo: The London Free Press, December 2005)
Lighting the menorah at Chanukah time in front of city hall in London, Ontario, Canada (Photo: The London Free Press, December 2005)

“I literally owe my current life to Dr. Block,” says Rabbi Mark Zelunka, currently the educational director of Aish Toronto. “When I came to London as a freshman, I attended Shabbat dinner at the Chabad House. I went for social reasons and because I had always had Shabbat dinner growing up.”

Block convinced Zelunka and his roommate, Michael Bloom, also from Toronto, to come to Shabbat services the next morning as well. One thing led to another, and Block soon told the two that he wanted to study Torah with them.

“The scene is still etched in my mind,” said Zelunka in an emotional interview. “Almost everyone in the dorm was not Jewish, many from small towns in Ontario. Our room was at the end of the hall. Soon everyone starts saying, ‘The rabbi’s coming, the rabbi’s coming!’ And there was Dr. Block, standing tall with his beard flowing coming down the hall to learn with us.”

Over the next few years, Zelunka started wearing a kipah, keeping kosher and Shabbat, and eventually, led the synagogue’s NCSY chapter—a move that prompted him to enroll in a yeshivah in Israel, where he would remain for seven years.

“We learned so much from the small things—his calm faith and his ability never to be disappointed when things went wrong,” continued Zelunka. “There was the time he was helping us transport a couch we had gotten in his new car, and the seat tore. He just calmly said, ‘Oh well, with every mitzvah comes an aveirah,’ and that was it. Same thing was when there would be a small turnout to a Chabad House event. He would just shrug and move on.”

Yet under his equanimity was a fiery Chassid. Every Simchat Torah, he would have the entire synagogue dancing in the streets, and it was not uncommon for him to dance upon the tables during the rousing Chassidic farbrengens he would hold.

It was that same flexibility that allowed the bearded Chassid and revered academic to play baseball and basketball, joking with his teammates and sinking three-pointers when he was well into his 80s.

“It all had to do with what was demanded of him right then,” explained Gurkow. “There is a time to be thoughtful, and there is a time to be lively.”

Brown recalls caring for Block after the aging man suffered a brain injury while riding his bike home from synagogue. “We were in the hospital, and he wanted kosher water to wash his hands before he would pray,” marveled Brown, “He was injured and had every reason in the world not to get that water. But he wouldn’t consider it. I supported him as he hobbled down corridor after corridor looking for a sink that suited his needs.”

Block in his later years
Block in his later years

‘A Little Torah Inside’

Marc Halawa, who grew up as a Muslim in Kuwait but had a Jewish grandmother, recalls meeting Block at the University of Western Ontario. “From his dress, he looked Jewish, so I went up to him and asked him straightforwardly, ‘Hi, are you a Jew?’ ”

The two started to converse, and Block informed the student that he was indeed a Jew and invited him to attend Shabbat services at Beth Tefilah. There, the young man found the elder man studying Torah.

“Aren’t you done studying by now?” asked Halawa.

He answered: “Even if I would live another lifetime, I wouldn’t be done learning.”

During another exchange between the two men, after a Shabbat dinner at Block’s house, Block told Halawa that “every Jew is born with a little Torah and a little menorah inside. All it takes is for another Jew to bump into him to light it up.”

With the professor’s guidance, the young man rediscovered Judaism and now lives in Jerusalem.

Block is survived by his children: Rabbi Chaim Block (San Antonio, Texas); Rabbi Levi Block (Westfield, N.J.); Rabbi Mendy Block (Plano, Texas); Chani Zalmanov (Queens, N.Y.); Rabbi Shmuli Block (Brooklyn, N.Y.); Rivkie Baron (Brooklyn, N.Y.); Abraham Block (London, Ont.); Bassie Gurkow (London, Ont.). He is also survived by his sisters, Helen Gordon and Mimi Levin. He was predeceased by his wife in 2013.

As is customary, due to the holiday of Sukkot, a full shiva mourning was not observed. The shloshim (30 days since his passing) will be held on Nov. 1, at 8 p.m., in the United Lubavitcher Yeshivoth, 570 Crown St., Brooklyn, N.Y. Speakers will include Rabbi Manis Friedman, Rabbi Shmuel Lew and others whose lives were impacted by Dr. Block.