Rabbi Yitzchak Vorst, a child survivor of the Holocaust who went on to become the founding Chabad-Lubavitch emissary in the Netherlands and influence Dutch Jewry through his writings, personal warmth and loving acceptance of everyone he met, passed away on Wednesday night, 28 Elul (Sept. 14). He was 85 years old.

Moshe Yitzchak Vorst was born in 1938, in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, to Rabbi Levi and Tzipporah Chana Vorst. When he was 5 years old, his family was rounded up and sent to the Westerbork transit camp in the Netherlands before being deported to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany.

While living in subhuman conditions, the young boy witnessed many examples of selflessness by his parents. His father, an acclaimed scholar, would quietly gather together children in the camp and teach them Torah. His mother Tzipporah Chana, whose youngest child died in the camp, nursed other infants whose mothers could not. She perished in the final weeks of the war, May 1945, on what came to be known as the Lost Transport. Yitzchak, three of his siblings, and his father survived and returned to the Netherlands, where Rabbi Levi Vorst became the chief rabbi of Rotterdam.


Dutch Jewry had numbered 140,000 before the war but had been reduced to a mere 30,000 by the time it ended. “Very few were comfortable to publicly identify as Jews and assimilation was rampant,” wrote Rabbi Vorst in Compass Magazine in 2021. “My father believed there was no real future for Yiddishkeit [Judaism] in Holland and encouraged anyone who was interested in more traditional Yiddishkeit to emigrate to Eretz Yisrael. There was no Jewish day school in Rotterdam so my Jewish education consisted of a few hours of Hebrew school each week and the occasions my father was able to learn with me. As a teenager, I served as a madrich [mentor] for the Bnei Akiva chapter in Rotterdam and it was clear to me that my future was in Eretz Yisrael.”

After attaining a degree in engineering, the young scholar took his father’s advice and moved to Israel. He was preparing to enter the army and decided to learn in a yeshivah for a few months to help bolster his Jewish knowledge as he was waiting to be accepted into the army.

“Although there was no official Lubavitch presence in Holland at the time, and I knew nothing about Chabad, there was a young student in Rotterdam, Reb Daniel Meijers, who was in the beginning stages of becoming a Lubavitcher,” wrote Vorst. “He impressed me with his integrity and with the [heartfelt] way he davened (prayed). He once lent me some records of Lubavitch melodies, and the niggunim (Chassidic melodies) made a great impact on me. For this reason, I felt it was proper for me to begin my formal yeshivah education in Lubavitch.”

Thus when his brother-in-law, R’ Dovid Morozov of Kfar Chabad, encouraged him to spend some time in Chabad’s Yeshivat Tomchei Tmimim in Lod, he headed straight there.

Most of the teaching and farbrengens at the yeshivah were in Yiddish. “I did not understand a word that was spoken,” Vorst recalled, “but the niggunim they sang made a strong impression upon me.”

Vorst’s love of Chassidic music was with him throughout his life, and he became a prolific and popular composer of Dutch-language songs for Jewish children.

Making a Choice

Rabbi Levi Vorst became the chief rabbi of Rotterdam after surviving Bergen-Belsen.
Rabbi Levi Vorst became the chief rabbi of Rotterdam after surviving Bergen-Belsen.

Vorst had spent a number of months learning in the yeshivah when the Israeli government announced a major project to build a port in the coastal city of Ashdod. Vorst, holding a European degree in engineering, applied for a job there but wondered if he should still spend more time in yeshivah. A number of friends encouraged him to first seek the advice and blessing of the Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory.

He wrote to the Rebbe but did not receive a reply. The famed Chassidic mentor Rabbi Shlomo Chaim Kesselman, suggested that the letter may have gotten lost in the mail and advised him to write again. Vorst again wrote to the Rebbe and again received no reply. He recalled telling Rabbi Kesselman that he was still not getting a response. Rabbi Kessleman looked at him thoughtfully and said, “I think the Rebbe is waiting for you to decide for yourself if you want to continue learning in yeshivah.”

The young man concluded that it was indeed important for him to spend more time in yeshivah before entering the workplace and asked for the Rebbe’s blessing, receiving in reply the first of many letters from the Rebbe. In that first letter, Vorst later recalled, “the Rebbe referenced the fact that it was clear from my letter that I only wished to seek work if it would not compromise my ability to keep Torah and mitzvot.” At the letter’s conclusion, the Rebbe wrote:

Since you are at the age when your character is molded for life, it would be very appropriate to dedicate all of your time for at least another two years exclusively to learning our holy Torah diligently without distraction. Additionally, the fact that you are in an environment permeated with the fear of Heaven will pay off in dividends in days to come, in the form of a structured, fortunate life, as long as you live.

In September 1962, Vorst traveled to Brooklyn, N.Y., with fellow students to celebrate the High Holidays with the Rebbe. At the end of his first yechidus (private audience) with the Rebbe, the young man conveyed a message on his father’s behalf that a Chabad emissary was desperately needed to meet the needs of Dutch Jewry. Vorst recalled that the Rebbe replied, with a smile: “I have not yet found the appropriate person who is both willing and able to take this position.”

Vorst stayed in Brooklyn to continue his studies at the Central Chabad yeshivah at 770 Eastern Parkway. A year later, in September of 1963—having spent exactly two years studying in yeshivah, per the Rebbe’s instructions to him when he was still back in Israel—he received his future life’s mission from the Rebbe, who wrote:

Since it is very important for Yiddishkeit and Chassidus to be disseminated in Holland, your goal should be to settle there (either immediately or after some time), since you know the language, etc.

Regarding your continued study in yeshivah: Taking your age into consideration (as the time has come for you to find a match and, by extension, to think about a source of income), you should only [continue learning in yeshivah] if you will be able to master a specific field in a short time (such as rabbinic ordination, shechitah, or Jewish education).

A few months later, Vorst became engaged to Doba Rubinson of Brunoy, France. Before the wedding, the couple had a private audience with the Rebbe.

“In addition to the blessings for our wedding and new life, the Rebbe spoke to us about our work in Holland,” wrote Vorst. “The Rebbe told me that there are plenty of engineers in the world, and that my mission in the Netherlands was ‘lehafitz hayahadus vehamaayanos bechol makom she’efshar,’ (to disseminate Judaism and Chassidism in every possible place.) To my wife the Rebbe said, ‘Zee zol oisnutzen ihre kishronos,’ she should utilize her talents in this area as well.”

‘He Never Wanted Attention or Honor’

Vorst was the camp rabbi at Tikvatenu, the Jewish summer and winter camp of the Dutch kehillah, for almost 60 years. - Credit: Jenny E. Wesley, Jewish Historical Museum Amsterdam
Vorst was the camp rabbi at Tikvatenu, the Jewish summer and winter camp of the Dutch kehillah, for almost 60 years.
Credit: Jenny E. Wesley, Jewish Historical Museum Amsterdam

The Dutch Jewish community goes back centuries with strong Ashkenazic and Sephardic traditions and customs, having been a welcoming point of arrival for Sephardic Jews following the expulsion from Spain in 1492 and the subsequent banning of Judaism in Portugal.

The Rebbe encouraged the young rabbi to look for a position where he would have the opportunity to strengthen Judaism in the Netherlands. Accordingly, Vorst took on jobs such as teaching in the local Jewish high school and teaching Torah to university students.

Shortly after arriving in the Netherlands, he became the unofficial rabbi of the synagogue in Amstelveen, a town near Amsterdam. When he arrived, the shul only sporadically had a minyan on Shabbat morning, but owing to Vorst’s openness to Jews of every background and level of knowledge and observance, the congregation began to grow.

Sef van Ments was one of the many young Dutch Jews impacted by the rabbi. “It is unlikely that I would now be living in an Orthodox community in Jerusalem if it were not for Rav Vorst,” Van Ments told Chabad.org.

According to Van Ments, who together with his wife grew up in post-war Amstelveen, there were perhaps 25 Jewish families in the town after the Holocaust. Though they had a synagogue and some Jewish classes, Jewish life in Amstelveen was not highly developed.

“One day in 1964, a new, young rabbi came to live in Amstelveen with his family: Rabbi Vorst,” recalled Van Ments. “Rav Vorst had a unique style. With a great sense of humor, an attitude of always giving and never taking, and being firmly rooted in the traditions of Dutch Jewry, he and his dear wife Doba conquered the hearts of the entire kehillah (community), and therefore also our hearts. I went to shul every Shabbat as a teenager and stood next to the amud (lectern) while he prayed. He taught me what it means to be Jewish.

Beloved by all, the rabbi stands with players on Yom Hafootball. - Credit: Han Singels Collection, Jewish Historical Museum Amsterdam
Beloved by all, the rabbi stands with players on Yom Hafootball.
Credit: Han Singels Collection, Jewish Historical Museum Amsterdam

“I hung on his every word when he talked about the Baal Shem Tov,” van Ments continued. “When I went to college, I started a kosher household. I became shomer Shabbat. My wife and I, both from the same kehillah built by him, were brought under the chuppah by him.

“Rav Vorst shaped us in our Judaism from our early childhood until now.”

Rabbi Vorst eventually became an official member of the rabbinate of the Ashkenazic kehillah of Amsterdam. As his community grew, so did its needs. Once, during the early years, someone in the crowd called out in the middle of Yom Kippur services: “Perhaps you can announce where we are holding?” Vorst realized that the machzorim were pre-war relics and not very user-friendly for most of the attendees. In response he prepared booklets with practical information and instructions for the High Holiday services.

The booklets were such a hit that several years later, when the Dutch kehillah decided to publish a new and improved user-friendly Dutch machzor for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, they recruited Vorst to serve as the editor of the project.

Another pressing need felt by Vorst was to provide some kind of Jewish education for children who had little or none. Tikvatenu is the Jewish summer and winter camp of the Dutch kehillah, attended by children from a broad spectrum of the community. In 1965, Vorst became camp rabbi and served there every year for close to 60 years, during which time he developed lifelong relationships with thousands of Jewish children.

Rabbi Vorst was able to inpire Jewish people of all backgounds to learn Torah and do mitzvahs.
Rabbi Vorst was able to inpire Jewish people of all backgounds to learn Torah and do mitzvahs.

Response to Tragedy

In 1976, tragedy struck Vorst and his wife when their 3-year-old son, Boruch, was killed in a car accident. The boy had been named after his uncle, Vorst’s younger brother, who had died as an infant during the Holocaust.

Reaching deep into Chassidic tradition to find faith and comfort amid the loss, the rabbi chronicled his journey through grief and acceptance in writing, coming to the conclusion “that a Jew should always try to sing, even in sorrow.”

The resulting slim volume, first published in 1982 and in Dutch titled Overpeinzingen: Over Pijn Zingen (a Dutch play on words that translates as “Thoughtful Thinking: Singing About Pain, has since been translated into English, Hebrew, French, Spanish, Russian and Portuguese. (The English version Why? is available here.)

“My father was a doer who connected with people of all ages, until the very last months of his life, with devotion and creativity,” said his son, Rabbi Yehuda Vorst, rabbi of Rotterdam and director of Chabad of Rotterdam. “Whether speaking at World War II commemorations in the presence of the Prime Minister of the Netherlands; authoring Baderech (1981), a book serving as a guide to practical Jewish life blended with Chassidic thought, photos and graphics; giving lectures on Torah and science to university students; putting on tefillin with men on Yom Hafootball (football day) from its start 40 years ago until the 40th time this last May when he was already ill; creating Bar Mitzvah Race, a popular game full of Jewish knowledge or telling stories at Shabbat programs for young children, my father never stopped reaching out to every Jew.”

“Late in life, after decades of teaching in classrooms, he began giving Torah classes on YouTube, and there are a total of 500 to 600 classes online. His influence on Jewish life in the Netherlands cannot be overstated.”

Today, there are 22 Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries, almost all of them either native Dutch Jews directly influenced by Rabbi Vorst since childhood, or their children or students.

“Even though his base was in Amstelveen and Amsterdam, and Amstelveen today has four synagogues, my father was always mindful of the Rebbe’s initial directive to him to influence Jews throughout the Netherlands, especially children,” continued Rabbi Yehuda Vorst, noting that his father and mother jointly founded Tzivos Hashem branch, supervised weekly Shabbat programs for kids, and ran a day camp with hundreds of children, many from outside Amstelveen and Amsterdam. “He has impacted thousands of Jewish lives, many of them Jewish families active in their communities and many of them rabbis leading their communities, both in and outside of the Netherlands.”

“Rav Vorst was a modest man; he never wanted attention or honor,” concluded Van Ments, today of Jerusalem. “But he was a great person and always made others great. His legacy, what he leaves behind in the Jewish Netherlands and beyond, will continue to exist. Our beloved Rav Vorst was nothing less than a true tzaddik.”

In addition to his wife, Vorst is survived by their children: Chana Kalmenson (Aubervilliers, France); Rabbi Dovid Bentzion Vorst (Brunoy, France); Rabbi Yehuda Vorst (Rotterdam, the Netherlands); Sara Katzman (The Hague, Netherlands); Menucha Romano (Israel); Nechama Cohen (Jerusalem); Rabbi Menachem Vorst (Charlotte, N.C.); Bracha Leah Weingarten (Lansing, Mich.); Chaya Benjaminson (Brooklyn, N.Y.); Rivkah Galperin (Windsor, Ontario); Devorah Esther Levine (Nijmegen, Netherlands); and Mushky Lent (Manchester, United Kingdom).