Rabbi Mordechai Gurary, a prominent Torah scholar who served as the rabbi of the Chevra Shas synagogue in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., for many decades, passed away on March 28 after being infected with the coronavirus. He was 84 years old.

Gurary was born in Russia. His father, Mordechai, passed away before he was born, and he was named after him.

His parents had a close relationship with Rabbi Levi Yitzchok and Chana Schneerson, the parents of the Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory. In memoirs written by Rebbetzin Chana, she describes how her husband brought Gurary’s father closer to Judaism, followed by his tragic passing and the powerful eulogy that her husband delivered at his funeral.


“Sometimes, he was sent into town on official errands to purchase supplies for the kolkhoz office,” wrote Rebbetzin Chana. “To make some spare cash, his fellow students who accompanied him would bring along some butter and other farm products to sell in town. Mitya, however, sought out Jews living there and inquired as to their religious needs. His briefcase was full of mezuzot, tzitzit, siddurim and alef-bet cards, which he secretly distributed in accordance with the Rav’s directives.”

The Rebbe himself was also well-acquainted with the Gurarys as a young scholar, as evidenced by the fact that in correspondence with Rabbi Yosef Rosen, famously known as the “Rogatchover Gaon,” he signed Gurary Sr.’s name, during years when the Schneerson name needed to be hidden from censors.

After escaping Russia, Gurary studied at the Chabad Yeshiva in Brunoy, France, under the tutelage of the Chassidic mentor Rabbi Nissan Neminov, who was renowned for his piety and abstinence. The Rebbe expressed unique interest in the young boy, sending a letter to Rabbi Nemeinov asking him to keep a special eye on him. The Rebbe also requested that Gurary send him a picture of himself.

Meeting the Rebbe for the First Time

Rabbi Gurary during his years as rabbi of Chevra Shas synagogue.
Rabbi Gurary during his years as rabbi of Chevra Shas synagogue.

In 1958, Gurary arrived in New York for the holidays of the month of Tishrei, where he met the Rebbe for the first time. He often recounted his memories from the Simchat Torah holiday that year, when, following the Hakafot, the Rebbe returned in the early morning hours to the synagogue to teach a haunting Chassidic melody known as “Shamil.”

After marrying his cousin, Lea (Liza) Bronstein, and settling in Crown Heights, Gurary began giving classes in the Chevra Shas synagogue; after a few years, he was appointed as the rabbi of the synagogue. The synagogue, originally established as a center for Lithuanian Jews, quickly attracted many of the famed personalities of Crown Heights, including the communities rabbis and Chassidic mentors.

During the decades that Gurary headed the synagogue, he gained a reputation for being a renowned Torah scholar and a sought-after speaker. His classes in Talmud and Chassidic philosophy were attended by 90-year-olds next to young men, and he was frequently invited to speak and lead Chassidic gatherings in synagogues around the community and beyond.

Gurary also had an ear for music and would lead his congregation in prayer during Selichot and the High Holiday prayers, intertwining heartwarming melodies with the stirring tunes of the prayers.

“He always had a smile on his face” said Rabbi Dovid Meir Drukman, Gurary’s brother-in-law. “He constantly had guests in his house and greeted everyone with a kind word. He followed in the ways of Aharon the High Priest, always pursuing peace.”

His family reported that he had been infected with COVID-19, the disease associated with the virus, only a few days before his passing and was healthy before then. In a video released a little more than a week before his passing, Gurary addressed his congregants and encouraged them to have faith in G‑d even in these trying times.

Gurary with his brother-in-law, Rabbi Dovid Meir Drukman.
Gurary with his brother-in-law, Rabbi Dovid Meir Drukman.

“I can’t believe that I will no longer be able to see my dear brother-in-law,” said Drukman. “It was only recently that we made plans for him to spend Passover at our home in Kiryat Motzkin in Israel. He left me a warm voice note, apologizing for not being able to come, and wishing me and my family health, and hoping to visit at a future opportunity.”

He passed away on Shabbat morning, the third day of Nissan 5780.

He was predeceased by his wife.

Gurary is survived by their children: Chanie Blizinsky and Shaina Zalmanov, both of Brooklyn, N.Y.; in addition to grandchildren and great-grandchildren.