As a beloved school principal and director of Chabad of Avital and the Taanach region of northern Israel, Rabbi Yitzchak Yadgar captured the hearts of thousands through his personal warmth and Torah classes filled with humor and optimism, and influenced generations of immigrants to Israel from Iraq and other nations of the Middle East. He passed away on July 19, Rosh Chodesh Av. He was 85 years old.

Rabbi Yadgar gave a charismatic first impression with his long flowing beard and smile that greeted every person with unconditional love, said many of the hundreds of visitors who traveled to his shiva tent each day. They described the rabbi as a people person who acted with humility and simplicity for the good of his community, and helped everyone in need, regardless of background or religious observance. When he spoke, his face would light up with love for G‑d and inspire everyone to see the beauty of Judaism.

“He had a huge heart,” said Rabbi Shneur Guri, who worked alongside Rabbi Yadgar in Avital for the last 17 years. “He paid attention to people, and he cared, and surrounded them with warmth and love. And ‘like water reflects one’s face,’ they all loved him in return.”

The Yadgar family’s small and humble home became the address for thousands of Jews in need of advice and words of wisdom from the rabbi and his late wife, Morah Simcha Yadgar, who passed away late last year.

He especially loved teaching young children and would repeatedly remind the staff of his school that it was the little ones who would be bringing Moshiach.

Yitzchak Yadgar was born in Jerusalem on the joyous holiday of Simchat Torah in 1937 to Kaduri and Malka Leah Yadgar, immigrants from Baghdad.

Rabbi Yadgar was very proud of his family’s connections to the Ben Ish Chai, Rabbi Yosef Chaim of Baghdad (1832-1909), the highly revered Torah scholar and master of Kabbalah who was recognized as one of his generation’s most eminent authorities in Jewish law.

Rabbi Yadgar often told his children and grandchildren a story about his grandmother, who served in the tzaddik’s house. Her duties included escorting visitors to the famed rabbi and serving tea.

Yadgar's maternal grandfather, seated right, middle row, with the Ben Ish Chai, seated left, middle row. - Photo courtesy Yadgar family
Yadgar's maternal grandfather, seated right, middle row, with the Ben Ish Chai, seated left, middle row.
Photo courtesy Yadgar family

One day, she heard a conversation coming from the Ben Ish Chai’s study. She was puzzled, as she hadn’t escorted anyone into the house. But when she peeked inside, she saw three men inside learning with the tzaddik, so she went to get tea for them. However, when she opened the door, she saw only the Ben Ish Chai! Confused, she asked what was going on.

“You merited to see the forefathers: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,” was the response. “But you mustn’t tell anyone until the last day of your life.”

The grandmother guarded the secret closely until she lay on her deathbed, when Rabbi Yadgar and his family listened to her tell the story.

Shortly after his bar mitzvah, Yitzchak met a young Chabad student, Shmuel Elazar Halpern, who introduced him to Chabad Chassidut. Yitzchak was enamored and became determined to attend the Chabad yeshivah in Lod, but his mother was against the idea, mainly because of Arabs who were carrying out terror attacks there and in the surrounding area. Determined as he was, young Yitzchak left home and took small, odd jobs until he gathered enough funds to bus to Lod and join the yeshivah. When the police found the young boy and brought him back home, he repeated the same steps until he was in yeshivah again.

Yadgar continued to study in Chabad yeshivahs and soon adopted a complete Chabad Chassidic lifestyle. When he came of age, a teacher introduced him to a young woman named Simcha, who also had an Iraqi background. The teacher said that “Simcha has a brilliant mind and in-depth knowledge of the Torah and Midrash.”

Simcha and Rabbi Yitzchak Yadgar, Chabad emissiaries to Israel since 1958, share a joyous moment.
Simcha and Rabbi Yitzchak Yadgar, Chabad emissiaries to Israel since 1958, share a joyous moment.

The Rebbe’s Promise: Nothing to Fear

For the first year of their marriage, Yitzchak and Simcha Yadgar lived in Kfar Chabad. Simcha immediately took to the Chabad way of life, and she and her husband wrote to the Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—about their wish to become his emissaries. The young couple listed several options, and the Rebbe wrote back that since Yitzchak had a special talent for teaching and had earned a teaching degree, they should move to the Taanach region in the north of Israel, where he should take a teaching job in a secular school.

The Yadgars found a teaching job in Moshav Avital, where they moved with their baby daughter in 1958. The townspeople, however, were not ready to welcome a religious family, and they greeted them with stones, shaking fists and threats. In hopes that the Yadgars would give up and leave, the Moshav cooperative refused to allow them to rent a house and instead had them sleep on a classroom floor.

Countless visitors seeking wisdom and advice visited the Yadgar home.
Countless visitors seeking wisdom and advice visited the Yadgar home.

With the ongoing threats and hostility, Yitzchak and Simcha became concerned for their safety, and more specifically, the safety of their daughter. They wrote their concerns to the Rebbe and received an encouraging response.

“The leader of the generation has broad shoulders to carry the responsibility of the emissaries and their children,” wrote the Rebbe. “They have nothing to worry about or fear.”

Eventually, the Moshav residents cooled down and allowed the Yadgars to rent a two-bedroom, 68-square-meter (731-square-foot) home, where the couple would raise their children.

Soon, Rabbi Itche Gansbourg opened a local religious school under the Chabad “Ohlei Yosef Yitzchak” network, and the change in local attitude became very visible when most parents chose to send their children to the new school, where the Yadgars began to teach.

In 1963, the Yadgars were joined in Avital by Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak and Sara Rivkah Sasonkin—themselves paragons of Chassidic wisdom and warmth—and for more than six decades, the couples served Jewish communities throughout the north of Israel.

The rabbi assembled an impressive library for students.
The rabbi assembled an impressive library for students.

‘The Poor of Your City Come First’

The early days in an isolated Moshav brought many challenges. The Yadgars would get their own kosher milk from a farm and bring chickens to a local shochet, or ritual slaughterer. Occasionally, Yitzchak would take three buses to Kfar Chabad to bring home a wider variety of kosher food.

Two years after their wedding, Simcha and Yitzchak began building a home in a new neighborhood of Kfar Chabad. As the house neared completion, Yitzchak wrote to the Rebbe about their wish to leave the moshav and move to Kfar Chabad, where they could send their children to Chabad schools.

The Rebbe’s response came with clear instructions. The couple were to stay in Avital, as they were crucial to the community, and “the poor of your city come first.” Of course, the Yadgars listened to the Rebbe and continued to teach in Avital. Yitzchak also began to give Torah classes in the neighboring communities across the Taanach region.

Yadgar with students and staff at the Oholei Yosef Yitzchack school.
Yadgar with students and staff at the Oholei Yosef Yitzchack school.

When the school’s founder and principal—and then his replacement—had to leave, Yitzchak Yadgar was asked to take over the role of principal. By that time, he had become an extremely popular adult educator and was very busy traveling around the region to give Torah classes. Initially, he didn’t want the job as principal and wrote such to the Rebbe. On the phone with the Rebbe’s chief of staff, Rabbi Chaim Mordechai Aizik Hodakov, Rabbi Yadgar overheard the Rebbe in the background instructing Hodakov to insist that Yadgar take the job.

Simcha Yadgar reassured her husband that she would help him run the school, and while she kept the humble title of “secretary,” she ran everything smoothly so that he could continue to teach classes and lead the community.

After the Yadgars’ retirement, their daughter, Rochel Keel, took over the management, while Rabbi Yadgar stayed involved in guiding students and maintaining school’s spiritual atmosphere. In 2013, the school won the national education prize from the Ministry of Education.

Rabbi Yadgar served as a combat soldier in the 1967 Six-Day War.
Rabbi Yadgar served as a combat soldier in the 1967 Six-Day War.

IDF Combat Soldier in the Six-Day War, Then ‘Ambassador to Iraq’

When the Six-Day War broke out in June 1967, Rabbi Yadgar enlisted in the Israel Defense Forces. Among his assignments was laying mines at the entrance to Jenin. He stood out in his unit with his long flowing beard, and many of his fellow fighters began to turn to him for encouragement and support. One such soldier was a young Holocaust survivor named Ephraim Mol, who worked in an engineering unit. Captivated by the rabbi’s smile, Mol requested to be put on nighttime watch duty together with him, thus beginning many night-long talks and the young soldier’s journey to Torah observance.

In 1970, Rabbi Yadgar traveled to the Crown Heights neighborhood in Brooklyn, N.Y., to celebrate the High Holidays and Sukkot with the Rebbe, as he did for many years. That year, the United Nations was holding a week-long conference of ambassadors, which happened to align exactly with the days of Sukkot and Simchat Torah.

On the first day of Sukkot, the Rebbe spoke about the fact that when the nations of the world gather, Jews should also gather together and increase in Torah and mitzvot, which would influence the representatives of the nations of the world not to make decisions that could harm the Jewish people.

That Simchat Torah, during the joyous hakafot dancing, the Rebbe surprised the thousands of people who had come to celebrate by establishing his own “U.N.,” in which the Rebbe assigned a representative to each nation, who would be the baal habayit (“head”) of that country according to the Torah.

Rabbi Yadgar, as a child of an Iraqi family, was appointed by the Rebbe as baal habayit over the nation of Iraq.

At a farbrengen the next day, the Rebbe announced that all of the U.N. representatives should come to the front and make l’chaim. Rabbi Yadgar told the young men in front of him that he was the baal habayit of Iraq, and a path was quickly made for him to walk up to the Rebbe's table.

Turning to Rabbi Yadgar, the Rebbe asked that he say a few words with his l’chaim. Spontaneously, Yadgar spoke, “As the baal habayit of Iraq with the power of the Torah, I request that the Jews of Iraq be freed from captivity, and into freedom!”

The Rebbe responded with an encouraging swing of his arm, and said “with kindness and mercy! L’chaim!”

Several days later, it was reported that 27 families had miraculously succeeded in escaping Iraq and were on the way to Israel.

‘Answer in My Name’

Rabbi Yitzchak Yadgar
Rabbi Yitzchak Yadgar

In the early 1980s, Rabbi Yadgar wrote to the Rebbe of his community’s frustration. Living in a small town deep in northern Israel, their mail arrived very slowly. When they would write to the Rebbe, it often took too long until they received responses in the mail.

The Rebbe sent a letter in response to Rabbi Yadgar and added a handwritten note:

“He will answer in my name to all those who turn to him, in addition to passing their names to me, and he will tell them to take upon themselves mitzvot, etc., and he will become for them a conduit and [channel of] abundance for all who need them.”

When a man living in the Tanach region wrote to the Rebbe about difficulties and doubts he was experiencing, the Rebbe wrote to him: “Turn to Rabbi Yadgar, who understands the characteristics of the soul.”

Rabbi Yadgar soon became known as one to turn to not only for advice but also for blessings. After his passing, many stories were shared about his blessings.

One such story was shared by Aharon and Lilach Ben Shaya, residents of Avital, who were close with the Yadgar family.

Eighteen years ago, Lilach was pregnant and underwent an ultrasound, during which the technician discovered twins; however, she didn’t see a separation between the two babies and explained that this meant they weren’t viable. The technician recommended going to a specific professor who was an expert in the subject to confirm the ultrasound results.

The professor confirmed what the technician had seen and added that if there was no separation at this point in the pregnancy, there was no hope, and termination was necessary.

Devastated by the idea, the couple went to the Yadgar home and told the story to the rabbi.

With complete confidence, Rabbi Yadgar reassured the couple: “The Holy One Blessed be He created mountains and peaks—of course, he will succeed in making a little separation!”

Seeking further comfort, Aharon Ben Shaya walked into the Chabad House and found a book of the Rebbe’s teachings, Sefer HaMaamarim. He opened the book and read the words, “there will be a separation between the upper [worlds] and the lower [worlds].”

Rabbi Yadgar told the couple to go back to the professor and ask for another ultrasound. When they arrived, the professor explained the situation to an intern and sighed, “they still have hope for a positive answer.”

The professor began a third ultrasound, and to his complete shock and disbelief discovered that the babies had separated. The rest of the pregnancy went smoothly, and the twins were born in good health.

Rabbi Yitzchak and Morah Simcha Yadgar in recent years.
Rabbi Yitzchak and Morah Simcha Yadgar in recent years.

‘The Most Important Thing Is to Listen’

Hundreds of visitors came each day to sit in the shiva tent for Rabbi Yadgar, sharing their personal experiences and stories of love, care and miracles born from his prayers on their behalf. Tears flowed freely, as many repeated the same question: How could they go on without their beloved rabbi?

Nir Moyal, who had begun to observe Torah and mitzvot under the tutelage of Rabbi Yadgar, told the room he didn’t know how he would continue on without his teacher, “I wasn’t ready for him to leave me yet. If I would summarize the rabbi’s work, I would say ‘love for every Jew, as they are.’ It’s not for nothing that he left this world on Rosh Chodesh Av, the same day as Ahron the High Priest, who was known for his love for every Jew and bringing peace between people. Rabbi Yadgar always gave me hope. He was the community man. He always gave us strength and encouraged us to overcome any crisis … and now he left us to cope alone in the world.”

Yaron Nega, a pizzeria owner from Afula, related how he first met Rabbi Yadgar in 1995: “A friend encouraged me to go to a Torah class. I went once and was completely enamored by the rabbi, and from then on, attached myself to him for almost 30 years. Now I am left with a deep void in my heart that will only be filled with the coming of Moshiach, when Rabbi Yadgar will be returned to us.”

Guri recalled that “just a month ago, I needed to consult with him about a complicated situation with a man in our community. I needed to know what to say. Rabbi Yadgar said to me, ‘First of all, the most important thing is to listen to him, simply listen to him, without telling him what to do. Just let him speak, and don’t direct him. Only later, call him and tell him what you think.’ ”

When Gershon Balula, right, broke his arm, Rabbi Yadgar came to visit him at home.
When Gershon Balula, right, broke his arm, Rabbi Yadgar came to visit him at home.

Gershon Balula, a friend and helper of Rabbi Yadgar mourned, “I didn’t believe he was going to leave us. Every time he got ill, he fought it and returned to his community work. We truly believed he would keep going until 120, but this time it seems he wanted to return to his wife, who he loved dearly.”

After the week of sitting shiva, Menachem Mendel Yadgar, the youngest of the family, expressed his feelings, “I thought that we were eight siblings, but this week I learned that we are hundreds or thousands of siblings, children of my holy father and mother, of blessed memory.”

Predeceased by his wife, Yitzchak Yadgar leaves behind their children: Shterna Sara Chaibi (Rechovot); Rachel Keel (Gan Ner); Rabbi Shimon Yadgar (Jerusalem); Rabbi Shmuel Yadgar (Beersheva); Rabbi Mordechai Yadgar (Safed); Penina Levi (Migdal HaEmek); Chani Edrei (Jerusalem); and Menachem Mendel Yadgar (Brooklyn, N.Y.). He is also survived by many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.