Rabbi Yitzchok Dovid Groner, a passionate educator who devoted more than 50 years of his life to Australian Jewry, passed away July 7. He was 83.

A man whom politicians and Jewish community officials credited with shepherding a Jewish population whose numbers swelled after World War II, Groner originally intended his 1958 move to the continent from New York to be temporary. Sent at the behest of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, for at least three years, Groner ended up calling Melbourne home for five decades. In that time, he built a school system serving some 1,500 students.

“Australian Jewry has lost one of its noblest personalities,” said Isi Leibler, who led the Executive Council of Australian Jewry for close to 20 years. “History will record that Rabbi Yitzchok Groner was beyond a doubt, the greatest Australian Jewish leader of the past century.”

“Rabbi Groner’s work is shown most of all by the institutions he has fostered,” echoed Michael Danby, a member of the Australian House of Representatives. “When he arrived in Melbourne, he saw a community increasing in size due to post-war immigration, and he gave very strong support to Jewish education, in order that the community would be able to survive in a secular society such as Australia.”

Danby saw Groner’s greatest achievement in Melbourne’s Yeshiva Centre and the schools he headed, Yeshiva College and Beth Rivkah Ladies College, “two of the most highly regarded Jewish schools in Australia or anywhere,” he said.

“His towering achievements and charismatic presence at all communal levels played a major role in transforming Australian Jewry into one of the finest communities in the Diaspora,” added Leibler. “The extraordinary expansion of Chabad-Lubavitch educational institutions positively influenced the growth of Torah education and day schools throughout the entire Jewish community.”

Learning to Care

Rabbi Yitzchok Dovid Groner, right, presides over a gathering for Australian Jewry in the late 1950s.
Rabbi Yitzchok Dovid Groner, right, presides over a gathering for Australian Jewry in the late 1950s.

Born on April 18, 1925, Groner was the fifth of eight children born to his parents, who immigrated to the United States from what was then the British Mandate of Palestine.

With a lineage traced back to the first Chabad Rebbe, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, Groner vividly recalled the New York arrival of the Sixth Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, of righteous memory, from war-torn Europe in 1941. In a rare newspaper interview shortly before his 80th birthday, Groner described the Chasidic gathering that took place four days later at the Rebbe’s hotel over the holiday of Purim.

“Hundreds and hundreds of people came from all walks of life because they wanted to hear what’s going on in Europe,” he told Dan Goldberg of the Australian Jewish News. “I remember how the Rebbe said gut yom tov,” a traditional celebratory greeting.

“And then he said, ‘How can I say gut yom tov when my brethren are being burnt?’ ” continued Groner, pointing out that while the Rebbe experienced the greatest joy at coming out of Europe alive, his heart was still with the Jews suffering there. “That talk killed me.”

As a student, Groner enrolled in the Tomchei Tmimim Lubavitch yeshiva that was established soon after the Rebbe’s arrival. Though he kept strictly to the school’s learning schedule, he also immersed himself in the time-consuming outreach activities headed by the Rebbe’s son-in-law and future successor, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

Under the future Rebbe’s guidance, Groner helped organized a grand children’s parade down Brooklyn’s Eastern Parkway, then the center of a sprawling secular Jewish community. With hundreds of children singing Jewish songs at the top of their lungs, residents would look back at the parade as a quintessential moment of Jewish pride that served as a catalyst for similar events.

After yeshiva, Groner began traveling to rural communities to assist in the building of Jewish educational institutions. At the age of 22, the Sixth Rebbe sent him and his newly married wife Devorah on a spiritual tour of Australia and New Zealand. The trip to Melbourne, which took 55 hours, was the Groners’ first connection to a community that would end up adoring their fearless and unabashed dedication to Jewish activism, and their boundless love for every single Jew.

“I came in there and saw 100 people [in the small synagogue],” Groner said of his first visit to the city. “I went to the corner and I started to cry. The next day I wrote a letter to the Rebbe, ‘You should know there’s Judaism here.’ I was so impressed.”

He later visited Australia in 1953 as an emissary of the seventh Rebbe.

Education at his Fingertips

Rabbi Yitzchok Dovid Groner, left, met with Sir John Grey Gorton, Australia’s 19th prime minister, at Melbourne’s Yeshiva Centre in 1968.
Rabbi Yitzchok Dovid Groner, left, met with Sir John Grey Gorton, Australia’s 19th prime minister, at Melbourne’s Yeshiva Centre in 1968.

In the years following the Groners’ 1953 visit, the local Jewish community implored both Groner and the Rebbe to establish a full-time presence there. At the time, Groner refused to relocate, giving the Rebbe a litany of reasons why he couldn’t pick up and move. And although he finally acceded to the Rebbe’s encouragement, he held open the option to one day move back to New York.

“I was a naughty boy,” he said in an interview with Jewish Educational Media.

“You have the freedom to decide whether you wish to continue your work in Australia,” the Rebbe wrote to Devorah Groner in 1960. “The important thing is that if the task is to be done successfully, the work must be carried on willingly, without compulsion and without considering it as penal servitude or deportation.”

When the Groners arrived, the Melbourne community was debating if it should open a Jewish day school. Groner recalled that at the time, he viewed the school as “the only thing that will preserve any Judaism in the community.”

An anecdote relayed at the dinner honoring his 80th birthday captured Groner’s focus on education as the foundation of society: One year, the Chabad institutions in Melbourne were facing bankruptcy and the Commonwealth Bank was threatening to foreclose on their headquarters’ mortgage.

A number of community officials and business figures scheduled a meeting with David Murray, the head of the Commonwealth Bank. Many of them knew Murray personally, and they trusted that he would be swayed by their argument that their day school was vitally important for the Jewish community.

Murray, however, was accompanied by a man commonly known as John “the Hatchet” Edwards, who was in charge of bad accounts and chaired the meeting. Right at the outset, Edwards made it known that he was an atheist who harbored no sympathy for any religion. On the contrary, he thought that organized religion was the bane of society, and that everyone would be better off if children went only to public schools.

As far as Edwards was concerned, the yeshiva was nothing more than a client, and a particularly bad client at that. If the school couldn’t pay, it would face the same fate as any other business in default.

After about a minute, Groner – a very big man – got up to address Edwards, something the businessmen at the table were unable, or unwilling, to do.

“Hello,” he said. “Your name is John. My name is Isaac. How do you do?”

With that, Groner placed his hands on Edwards’ shoulders.

“I don’t think you understand what we do here,” he said. “We make mentschen. Do you know what a mentsch is? A mentsch is a person who has respect for all other human beings. A mentsch is a person who cares about others. A mensch is a person who is a good civic citizen. Australia needs mentschen, and we produce them.”

Groner and the other officials walked out of that meeting with a compromise deal. Today, a chain of similar schools operates across Australia. Over the years, they have trained a whole generation of Orthodox rabbis who occupy the pulpits of synagogues across the city and the rest of Australia.

Groner’s “life was education,” said Rabbi Shimshon Yurkowicz, co-director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Malvern with Groner’s daughter Rivkah. “Even in the hospital, he was involved in the day-to-day activities of the Yeshiva Centre.”

Leibler noted that Groner regularly counseled hundreds of visitors seeking advice and answers to complex questions in Jewish law.

“Although unyielding on halachic principles,” said Leibler, “he exemplified the best traditions of Chabad outreach and compassion. Despite his towering presence and erudition, he was a modest man who spurned materialism and inspired a love and respect by all sections of the community, non-observant as well as religious.”

“Today the Lubavitchers are the most dynamic influence on Australian Judaism,” said Danby, giving the credit to Groner. “He is a great scholar, a great preacher, a great educator and a great inspiration to all who meet him. His influence reaches far beyond the Lubavitcher community into all corners of Australian life, and even an imperfectly observant Jew like me has felt his inspiration.”

On the occasion of his 80th birthday, Groner paused for a moment to reflect on the sea change in Australian Jewish life.

“It causes me a certain satisfaction,” he remarked. “But by the same token, it causes me a certain feeling that it wasn’t accomplished enough, and we have to go ahead.

“The Rebbe was never satisfied to rest on his laurels,” he continued. “He always pushed for more and more.”

He added that he felt the most satisfaction when he could “help other people, because the whole community comes here.”

“If I can help them both in a spiritual way and in an educational way, and in a moral way and in a physical way,” he said, “that’s my greatest satisfaction.”

At his request, Groner will be buried in Israel. He is survived by eight children, as well as dozens of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.