Throughout the decades of his leadership, the Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—was supported by a core team of close aides who worked in a variety of different roles. There was secretarial work to be done, scholarly work, logistical work, educational work and household work. All of these elements were crucial, and together they enabled the Rebbe to inspire a global Jewish renaissance in the aftermath of the Holocaust.

Shalom Ber Gansburg, who passed away on Nov. 1 (17 Cheshvan) at the age of 86, was one of the less visible members of this cadre.

His was not a life lived in the limelight. Behind the scenes, however, Gansburg was the diligent, resourceful and discrete steward to the Rebbe and his wife, Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka. Those who knew him testify that he was an unwitting model of humility and awe: Every fiber of his being communicated the recognition that he lived in intimate proximity to immense holiness.

From Soviet Oppression to Canada and New York

Shalom Ber Gansburg was born in Moscow on June 20, 1937 (11 Tammuz, 5697), during a time when Chabad-Lubavitch Chassidim suffered intense persecution at the hands of the Soviet authorities. His father, Shneur Zalman (1901-1991), had studied at the Tomchei Temimim Yeshivah in the village of Lubavitch prior to World War I. His mother, Batsheva, was the daughter of Rabbi Yaakov Baruch Karasik (1884-1921), a member of the yeshivah faculty.

The family fled to the Central Asian city of Samarkand, in Soviet Uzbekistan, during World War II, and in 1946 joined “the Great Escape” of Lubavitchers fleeing the Soviet Union via Lvov (today Lviv, Ukraine) using false Polish papers. They spent time as refugees in France before traveling on to Montreal. By this point, Shalom Ber was a teenager, and he enrolled in the Chabad yeshivah there, where he formed a close relationship with the dean, Rabbi Isaac Schwei (1932-1988).

In 1953, the family moved again. This time, they settled permanently in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., where the Chabad court had been re-established in 1940 by the Sixth Rebbe—Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, of righteous memory (1880-1950). By the time the Gansburgs arrived, the Sixth Rebbe had passed away, and his place had been filled by his son-in-law—the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson.

Within a short time, the young Gansburg’s handiness became known to the Rebbe’s mother-in-law, Rebbetzin Nechamah Dinah (1881-1971). His first job for her was mending a broken window shade. He had a knack for fixing things and a discerning eye. Soon enough, he was helping set up and serve at mealtimes, becoming a trusted pair of hands whenever assistance was needed.

A Helping Hand

On festivals, the Rebbe would dine and conduct the Passover Seder in the Sixth Rebbe’s apartment, which occupied the second floor above the central Chabad synagogue at 770 Eastern Parkway. On these occasions, Gansburg would escort the Rebbe’s mother from her apartment, a few blocks away, to the Seder. Then he would descend to the Rebbe’s office, on the first floor of the building, to let him know that everything was ready for his arrival upstairs. Following the Seder, Gansburg would carry the Rebbe’s silver matzah tray back downstairs. “The Rebbe instructed me to walk in front of him,” he later explained, “so that I wouldn’t be pushed by the crowds.”

Then there was the holiday of Sukkot. Concerned that the Rebbe had to go out of his sukkah at 770 in order to ritually wash his hands, Gansburg built a cubicle in one of its corners with a sink and running water. Though the Rebbe’s mother lit the festival candles in the sukkah, she initially didn’t notice the new additions. But the following evening, as Gansburg accompanied her to 770, she said to him: “My son asked if I saw the new additions to the sukkah … he said it’s worth going into the sukkah just to take a look at them!”

After Gansburg’s marriage to Shulamis Hochman in 1969, he started a plumbing business. During the next decade or so, he frequently visited the home of the Rebbe and Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka, who came to rely on him for anything she needed help with.

During this period, Gansburg experienced difficulties in his personal life. In the years to come, the help he was able to extend to the Rebbe and Rebbetzin shored him up amid these travails, providing him with a strong sense of purpose and even a semblance of home.

The Rebbe and Rebbetzin's home on President Street in Brooklyn, N.Y.
The Rebbe and Rebbetzin's home on President Street in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Devoted and Discreet

By the early 1980s, the Rebbe and the Rebbetzin were entering the ninth decade of their lives, and Gansburg’s assistance became increasingly indispensable. He was not only handy, but also resourceful, dependable and discreet. After the Rebbetzin hurt her leg and was briefly hospitalized, Gansburg moved into the Rebbe’s home and dedicated himself entirely to his role as steward of the household.

On a daily basis, he would help prepare and serve meals, and ensure that everything in the house was properly maintained. He built the sukkah each year and assisted the Rebbe as he searched the house for chametz on the night before Passover. To help with the Rebbetzin’s mobility, he designed a bespoke elevator and installed it in a space that originally held a dumbwaiter.

From 1971 until this point, the Rebbe and the Rebbetzin had eaten their Shabbat and festive meals, including the Passover Seder, alone. Gansburg expected that this would continue even after he had moved into their home. On the first night of Passover, he prepared everything they would need and went to participate in the Seder in his parents’ home. Then he hurried back to the Rebbe and the Rebbetzin’s home to serve the festive meal, which takes place towards the conclusion of the Seder. “But when I arrived, I was surprised: The Rebbe and the Rebbetzin were waiting for me, and hadn’t begun the Seder yet!” Gansburg later recalled. The Rebbe instructed him to take matzahs and join them at the table. “I was more astonished than I ever had been in my life!”

Something similar occurred the following Sukkot. During the festival, the Rebbe and Rebbetzin were staying in an apartment in the building housing the Library of Agudas Chasidei Chabad, adjacent to 770, so that the Rebbe would not have to walk back and forth to their home. Gansburg had built a very small sukkah for them to eat in. Under such circumstances, he felt it would be inappropriate to impose his presence on them. But again, the Rebbe and the Rebbetzin both insisted that he sit at the tiny table and dine together with them.

Easing the Burden

One evening, in the winter of 1988, Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka felt unwell. A doctor examined her and, upon consultation, advised that she be hospitalized. The Rebbe asked Gansburg to accompany her and to call him every 15 minutes with an update. That night, the Rebbetzin turned to Gansburg saying, “Shalom! I’m very thirsty. I would very much like to have a bit of water.” After he brought her a glass of water, she recited the blessing affirming G‑d as the one “by whose word all comes to be” and drank the water. She took a deep breath and said, “Oh Shalom! May G‑d give you life, as you have given me life!” Shortly thereafter, the Rebbetzin’s life ascended on high.

At the Rebbe’s request, Gansburg stayed on as his personal steward, and all household concerns were placed in his hands. During the next few years, Gansburg lovingly dedicated himself to every aspect of the Rebbe’s personal needs. At the conclusion of each Shabbat, the Rebbe would perform the Havdalah service in his presence, and together they would read the “vayiten lecha” liturgy, which invokes blessing for the week ahead.

This was a time when hundreds of thousands of people looked to the Rebbe for blessing, advice and leadership. Many were preoccupied with lofty spiritual ideals, and with intense anticipation of the entire world’s final redemption. But Gansburg never lost sight of the Rebbe’s day-to-day needs. As the Rebbe grew older—and with the Rebbetzin no longer there—Gansburg found innumerable ways to discreetly ease the Rebbe’s burden and increase his comfort.

Lessons for All

At one point during this period, Gansburg asked the Rebbe’s guidance about a personal issue. When the Rebbe counseled him to take a particular practical step, Gansburg expressed surprise. “This was when the Rebbe was constantly speaking of the imminent arrival of Moshiach, so I said, ‘Moshiach’s already about to arrive, to what end should I burden myself with this?’ ” The Rebbe responded by referring to the example of his predecessor: “On the one hand, he insisted that ‘immediate teshuvah [repentance]’ would bring about ‘immediate redemption.’ On the other hand, he instructed that we build more institutions and more institutions.” Complete faith in the messianic redemption, in other words, does not absolve us of our obligation to take practical steps to alleviate the darkness of the current exile.

For many years, Gansburg’s customary discretion prevented him from revealing anything about what he saw and heard in the Rebbe’s house. Many of the anecdotes related above only came to light due to the efforts of Rabbi Mordechai Shmuel Ashkenazi (1943-2015), the longtime rabbi of Kfar Chabad, Israel. Rabbi Ashkenazi would often spend time with Gansburg when he visited New York, and persuaded his friend to share his memories and edit them for publication. The personal experiences and stories of Shalom Ber Gansburg, he emphasized, hold important lessons for everyone.

Shalom Ber Gansburg is survived by his wife, Shulamis Gansburg, and their children, Chanie Wiesel and Levi Yitzchok Gansburg. He is also survived by siblings Yitzchok Gansburg, Mendel Gansburg, Chaya Sara Zarchi and Rivkah Majeski.