Shortly before Passover, the Jewish world lost one of its most devoted leaders. The Novominsker Rebbe, Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, who dedicated his life to serving the American Jewish community, passed away on April 7 after contracting the coronavirus. He was 89 years old.

In addition to being the fourth Rebbe of the Novominsker dynasty, he served as president of Agudath Israel of America and as head of its rabbinic arm, the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah. He was also the rosh yeshivah (head of academy) of Yeshivat Novominsk-Kol Yehuda, in the Borough Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y. Rabbi Perlow also served on the rabbinical executive board of Torah Umesorah, as well as in many other capacities for various different organizations.

It is difficult to quantify his vast accomplishments in the spheres of education, communal affairs, Torah leadership and Torah scholarship. Yet whoever had the pleasure of interacting with him echoed similar sentiments: Although perpetually busy with a myriad of considerations, he was particular to make time for individuals who sought his advice. When you were in the room with him, it was as if you were his sole concern.

As the Rebbe of Novominsk, he was a scion of a distinguished chain. The Novominsker dynasty emerged in the second half of the 19th century in the town of Novominsk (since 1916, Mińsk Mazowiecki, Poland), 30 miles east of Warsaw, when Rabbi Yaakov’s great-grandfather and namesake, Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, known as the Shufra D’Yaakov of Novominsk (1843-1902), settled there. Rabbi Yaakov descended from the Stolin and Koidinover Chassidic dynasties, and his son, Alter Yisrael Shimon—who would later become the second Novominsker Rebbe, the Tiferes Ish—married Feiga Dina, the daughter of Rabbi Baruch Meir Twersky of Azarinitz, a descendant of the illustrious Chernobyl dynasty.

During World War I, the second Novominsker Rebbe moved to Warsaw, then considered the “capital of European Jewry.” Notwithstanding the fact there were more than 50 Chassidic Rebbes in the city at the time, the Novominsker became known as a “Rebbe’s Rebbe,” someone revered and respected by all. While in Warsaw, the seeds of a warm relationship between the Chabad-Lubavitch movement and Novominsk were sown.

In November of 1928, Chaya Mushka, the daughter of the Sixth Lubavitcher RebbeRabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, of righteous memory—married Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, the future seventh Rebbe, in a grand ceremony held in Warsaw. Among the illustrious guests was the second Novominsker Rebbe.

Rabbi Yosef Wineberg, a Polish-born Chassid who would later become known as Chabad’s “globetrotting ambassador,” would recall an episode that took place at Yeshivat Tomchei TemimimLubavitch in Warsaw. Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak instructed a student in his yeshivah to travel to the area of Warsaw where the Novominsker held court and take care of a certain matter. Since this student was to be in the Novominsker Rebbe’s vicinity for Shabbat (at that time, the second rebbe of Novominsk, the “ Tiferes Ish”), Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak suggested that he visit the Novominsker as Shabbat departed for seudah shlishit. In the Chassidic tradition, this time as Shabbat slips away is especially dear, and many Rebbe’s have the custom to share the deepest mystical concepts.

As Wineberg would retell the story, when the student returned the Rebbe inquired about the Novominsker Rebbe’s talk. Upon hearing that he had shared a complex Chassidic discourse, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak wondered whether the crowd was able to follow the discourse. The Lubavitch yeshivah student replied that in his opinion, most likely could not, to which the Rebbe responded: This is the job of a Rebbe, even if he is afraid that his listeners are not of the stature required, he must still communicate the loftiest of ideas.

On the occasion of Yaakov Perlow’s bar mitzvah, the Sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, sent a letter wishing him a “mazel tov.” In it, he addresses Rabbi Nochum Mordechai as his relative since both were descendants of the Chernobyl Chassidic dynasty.
On the occasion of Yaakov Perlow’s bar mitzvah, the Sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, sent a letter wishing him a “mazel tov.” In it, he addresses Rabbi Nochum Mordechai as his relative since both were descendants of the Chernobyl Chassidic dynasty.

Building Novominsk in America

After the passing of Rabbi Alter Yisrael Shimon in 1933, his son Rabbi Nochum Mordechai, who had by then relocated to the United States, took over the mantle of leadership as the third Rebbe. He established the Novominsker Court in Brooklyn and played an instrumental role in Agudath Israel of America. The third Rebbe of Novominsk soon gained a reputation as an accomplished Torah scholar and a tireless community leader, setting the stage for his son and successor to carry on in this vein.

Yaakov Perlow was born to Rabbi Nochum Mordechai and his wife Beila Rochma on Nov. 16, 1930, growing up in Brownsville, a poor, heavily Jewish Brooklyn neighborhood. Yaakov grew friendly with his neighbor and schoolmate, Yisroel Gordon, son of the veteran Brownsville Chabad Chassid Rabbi Yochanan Gordon. Rabbi Yisroel later recalled that on Shabbat afternoons, after his father would return from attending the gatherings held by the Sixth Rebbe (who had immigrated to the United States in 1940) in nearby Crown Heights, Rabbi Yochanan would gather the children, including the young Yaakov, and retell the stories and insights that he had just heard from Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak.

During these formative years for American Jewry, Yaakov’s father was a regular visitor to Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak. On the occasion of Yaakov’s bar mitzvah, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak sent a letter wishing him a “ mazel tov.” In the letter (reproduced above), he addresses Rabbi Nochum Mordechai as his relative, since both were descendants of the Chernobyl Chassidic dynasty.

As a teenager, Yaakov studied in Yeshivat Chaim Berlin in Brooklyn, growing close to the dean, Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner, who had earned a reputation as someone who synthesized the analytical Talmud study of the Lithuanian style with the mystical ideas of Chassidut.

In early January of 1951, Rabbi Nochum Mordechai made a visit to the Lubavitch court at 770 Eastern Parkway. The Sixth Rebbe had passed away a year earlier, and while his son-in-law, Rabbi Menachem Mendel—known at the time as the Ramash—was already regarded as the new Lubavitcher Rebbe by the Chassidim, he had still not formally accepted the movement’s mantle of leadership. Speaking with Rabbi Nochum Mordechai, Rabbi Menachem Mendel remarked that it may be worthwhile for the Novominsker’s son Yaakov to attend the farbrengen that would mark the first anniversary of Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak’s passing, which was to take place a few weeks later.

Indeed, when the day came, Yaakov was present to witness a truly significant day in Chabad history. On 10th of Shevat 5711 (Jan. 17, 1951) Rabbi Menachem Mendel formally accepted upon himself the position of Rebbe, reciting his first Chassidic discourse, “Basi Legani,” in which he laid out the task at hand for the new generation and changed the course of history. Even decades later, Rabbi Perlow vividly recalled the details of the gathering, and the manner in which the Rebbe carried himself.

A few years later, in 1954, the Lubavitcher Rebbe paid a visit to Rabbi Yaakov’s great-uncle (his grandfather, Rabbi Alter Yisrael Shimon’s brother), Rabbi Yehuda Aryeh Leib Perlow, the Novominsker Rebbe of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, after the passing of the latter’s wife, Esther Reizel. The Rebbe asked the Novominsker Rebbe if he had any published works, when he received a reply in the affirmative, he responded that he would be interested in seeing them, saying “In my hands, the seforim will definitely come to good use.” A few weeks later, the Rebbe wrote to the Novominsker, with notes on the seforim he had been sent.

In 1988, after the passing of the Rebbe’s wife, Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka, the Novominsker paid a shivah call to the Rebbe, during which they had a lengthy discussion regarding the construction of the Third Temple. Each quoting various sources, they discussed whether or not the Temple would be of Divine construction.

After the passing of the Rebbe, on the 3rd of Tammuz 1994, he was one of many illustrious leaders who attended the funeral. He remarked, “How can I not go? The Rebbe was a leader of the nation (manhig haeidah, a reference to Moses).”

A scholar, as well as an educator and leader of American Jewry, Perlow composed a total of seven seforim in his lifetime. Titled “Adas Yaakov,” three volumes contain his notes on Talmudic concepts, three on the festivals and one on Chumash. He also left behind many manuscripts of his Torah insights, which will be published in due course.
A scholar, as well as an educator and leader of American Jewry, Perlow composed a total of seven seforim in his lifetime. Titled “Adas Yaakov,” three volumes contain his notes on Talmudic concepts, three on the festivals and one on Chumash. He also left behind many manuscripts of his Torah insights, which will be published in due course.

A Community Leader, but First and Foremost an Educator

According to Rabbi Lipa Brennan, director of the Yeshivat Novominsk and the Novominsker Rebbe’s trusted aide of many decades, Rabbi Perlow never lost focus: “No matter what pressing communal needs called for his attention, everyone knew that if they wanted to talk to him, they must work around the schedule of the classes he gave at the Novominsk Yeshivah.”

“First and foremost he was an educator,” stated Brennan. “He would often remark, ‘what is the most important word in Yiddish? Geshmak, pleasure. We cannot expect the students to have the desire to excel in their studies, if we do not imbue in them a love for Torah.’”

Brennan recalled that in the Novominsker’s talks to his yeshivah students, he would often quote the central theme of the seminal work of Chabad Chassidut, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi’s Tanya. In language the students could easily relate to, he would describe how life is a constant struggle between the good and evil inclinations: “Imagine your body as a car. Present in the car, is both a passenger and a driver. The driver has full control over the direction and movement of the car, whereas the passenger goes wherever the driver decides. We must make sure that we are the driver and not simply a passenger. One must not allow oneself to be controlled by the desires of the body.”

Rabbi Lipa Brennan, the Novominsker Rebbe’s trusted aide for decades, dances with the Novominsker at the wedding of Rabbi Brennan's son.
Rabbi Lipa Brennan, the Novominsker Rebbe’s trusted aide for decades, dances with the Novominsker at the wedding of Rabbi Brennan's son.

“His copies of Tanya and Likkutei Torah (both works of the founder of Chabad, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi) were well worn,” Brennan attested. “Every few years he would give a class in Tanya, covering the 53 chapters in the course of a year.”

Starting his educational career shortly after his marriage to Yehudis Eichenstein, he taught in Beis Medrash LaTorah in Skokie, before moving back to Brooklyn and settling in Crown Heights. In Brooklyn, he also joined the faculty of Yeshivat Chaim Berlin, before being appointed rosh yeshivah of Yeshivat Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (known as Breuer's). Later, after the passing of his father and his succession to the position of Rebbe, he would establish the Novominsk-Kol Yehudah yeshivah, named after his great uncle, Rabbi Yehuda Aryeh Leib Perlow, the Novominsker Rebbe of Williamsburg.

It was this background, in a wide range of institutions that gave him the rare ability to reach out to a wide cross-section of the community. His fluent English—rare for a Chassidic Rebbe—further enabled him to cast the widest net possible.

A scholar, as well as an educator and leader of American Jewry, he composed a total of seven seforim in his lifetime. TitledAdas Yaakov, three volumes contain his notes on Talmudic concepts, three on the festivals, and one on Chumash. He left behind many manuscripts of his Torah insights, which will be published in due course.

It was his background in a range of institutions that gave him the rare ability to reach out to a cross-section of the community. His fluent English—rare for a Chassidic Rebbe—further enabled him to cast the widest net possible.
It was his background in a range of institutions that gave him the rare ability to reach out to a cross-section of the community. His fluent English—rare for a Chassidic Rebbe—further enabled him to cast the widest net possible.

A Voice of Calm Amid the Coronavirus Crisis

In March, as the coronavirus swept New York, hitting its close knit Jewish communities particularly hard, the Novominsker Rebbe recorded a video message, encouraging all to follow strict social-distancing measures: “We cannot behave the way we did last week or two weeks ago. We’re told that the halachah (law) is that we must listen to doctors, whether it’s about a sick person or Yom Kippur.”

He encouraged the strengthening of religious observance and faith in G‑d. In his last days, sick himself with the virus, he exerted great effort to draft a letter of inspiration to a community preparing for Passover in quarantine. This letter was published the day before his passing and an excerpt is reproduced below:

The state of our fellow Jews weighs heavily upon us. Whether it is those who have passed away, and their mourning families; those who are ill, in need of Heavenly mercy for their recovery; those who are enduring economic hardship in this global economic crisis; or our brothers and sisters who will be in quarantine, alone, this Pesach. We must all follow in the footsteps of Abraham our forefather, to do them kindness and to help them. We are exceedingly grateful to all who are giving of themselves to take care of the needs of their brethren - may G‑d’s blessings rest upon them.

Beloved brothers - it is specifically at this time, specifically now, that we have the obligation to strengthen in unity, like one person with one heart, to declare with conviction to ourselves that we are going out now like we do each generation, from the servitude of Egypt to everlasting freedom. Freedom of the spirit - to learn Torah and perform mitzvot; freedom to honor G‑d and to do kindness to others - the entire purpose of our life; freedom to know and revere G‑d - the hallmark and hope of all creation. It is the service of the soul that needs to be strengthened now, to increase prayer, Torah study, and the giving of charity.

It is obvious that every person is obligated to obey the instructions of the government and medical professionals. Jewish families must be exceedingly careful not to err in issues which could endanger people. Heaven forbid.

Rabbi Brennan relates that on the day before Rabbi Perlow passed away, he asked him if it would be meritorious to participate in the commissioning of a unity Sefer Torah. A Torah scroll where individuals join together, each sponsoring a single letter of the scroll. A group of community leaders had called Rabbi Brennan to ask if it would be possible to receive the Novominsker Rebbe’s backing for this project. When he brought this up with the Novominsker, he responded that he strongly encouraged anything that may help stop this plague. A few weeks after Rabbi Perlow’s passing, enough people joined this project enabling a scroll to be commissioned.

The Novominsker Rebbe was predeceased by his first wife, Yehudis, and is survived by his second wife, Miriam; his twin sons, Rabbi Yehoshua Heschel Perlow and Rabbi Alter Yisrael Shimon Perlow—both of whom he designated to succeed him as Rebbes of Novominsk—and his daughters, Feiga Dina Horowitz and Sarah Chana Traeger.

“First and foremost, he was an educator,” said Brennan. “He would often remark, ‘What is the most important word in Yiddish? Geshmak, pleasure. We cannot expect the students to have the desire to excel in their studies if we do not imbue in them a love for Torah.’ ”
“First and foremost, he was an educator,” said Brennan. “He would often remark, ‘What is the most important word in Yiddish? Geshmak, pleasure. We cannot expect the students to have the desire to excel in their studies if we do not imbue in them a love for Torah.’ ”