A father figure to thousands of Jews in the southern Israeli city of Arad, Rabbi Ben Tzion Lipsker passed away Wednesday at the age of 65. The sudden loss of one of the city’s two chief rabbis comes just a year before the slated completion of a massive complex to house institutions Lipsker personally founded over a career spanning more than three decades.

A member of Israel’s Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbinical Court, Lipsker and his wife Sarah opened the desert town’s central Chabad House 31 years ago after moving to the city at the suggestion of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory. Since then, he presided over the opening of two religious schools, a synagogue, soup kitchen, numerous Jewish ritual baths, and several learning institutes for immigrants and elderly citizens.

But after his burial Thursday, the rabbi – who in addition to his wife, leaves behind four daughters and dozens of grandchildren – was most remembered by locals as a spiritual guide and benevolent mentor to generations of Arad’s children and adults of all ages.

Speaking at a funeral service before a procession carried Lipsker’s body to Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives cemetery, Arad Mayor Gideon Bar-Lev said that the rabbi’s most prominent feature was the care and dedication he displayed to countless individuals of all backgrounds.

“He had a warm heart, a big heart,” said Bar-Lev. “That was the thing that stood out about him: his heart. It was huge.”

Twice a year, before the holidays of Yom Kippur and Shavuot, Lipsker gathered of the city’s nursery school children and bless them at his synagogue. Over time, it became a much-awaited ritual, and just before he passed, the rabbi made arrangements for the ceremony to continue in his absence.

“He wanted to make sure that there would be enough candies,” recalled Rabbi Shimon Elharar, director of Chabad of the Dead Sea. “Throughout the years, he worried about every little thing, like a father.”

Rabbi Ben Tzion Lipsker passed away at the age of 65. (File photo: Tina Fineberg)
Rabbi Ben Tzion Lipsker passed away at the age of 65. (File photo: Tina Fineberg)

The funeral procession stopped in front of each of the institutions that Lipsker founded, as well at the city’s non-religious ORT high school, where the entire student body waited on the sidewalk and recited Psalms in memory of the man who taught them about each upcoming Jewish holiday.

“He would tell them stories; he would sing to them,” said Rabbi Avraham Zalmanov, manager of Arad’s Chabad House. “There was practically not one child in Arad who didn’t know him.”

A Light in the Fog

For those who wanted, Lipsker served as a bar mitzvah tutor to junior high boys at the ORT high school, taking large groups once a year to celebrate at the mountaintop fortress of Masada.

“Everyone in the school appreciated him,” said Elharar, who worked with Lipsker for seven years and helped arrange the bar mitzvah celebrations.

For a development town and population culled from large swaths of immigrants, Lipsker was there in some of the toughest of times.

When local reporter Yisrael Goldman first heard that the rabbi was in the hospital, a man told him that when the army notified him of his son’s death in the army, Lipsker was the first to arrive.

“He came to the house and as soon as he saw me, he hugged me and sobbed,” the man told Goldman, according to a column published in Arad’s local newspaper, Hatzvi. “He completely shared my grief; we cried together in an embrace.”

Arad Mayor Gideon Bar-Lev: “That was the thing that stood out about [Lipsker]: his heart.” (Photo: Hana Levi Julian)
Arad Mayor Gideon Bar-Lev: “That was the thing that stood out about [Lipsker]: his heart.” (Photo: Hana Levi Julian)

Eliezer bar Sade, former editor of the newspaper, even composed a poem about Lipsker.

“You were a spiritual experience for me.” he wrote. “You were a lit flashlight in the fog to me. You were a rabbi and father to me.”

Family members spent the first day of their weeklong mourning observances welcoming a stream of well-wishers who came to pay their respects.

“We can’t digest it. It’s a shock,” said Rabbi Yaakov Mendelzohn, Lipsker’s son-in-law and assistant director of the Ohel Levi Yitzchak and Chana family of educational institutions that Lipser founded. “We lost a father. We lost a good person.”

One elderly woman came to the family house before the funeral in tears. Each Friday afternoon for years, Lipkser delivered home-cooked food so that she could enjoy Shabbat.

“He always tried to help those in the community who were weak,” stated Eliyahu Berdugo, a lay-leader of the local Chabad synagogue. “This is a great loss for all of us.”

Uncompromising Faith

Lipsker, who in the years following the fall of the Iron Curtain, went door to door to teach new Russian immigrants about their heritage, was also known for his scrupulous adherence to Jewish law. He provided kosher supervision to food plants in the area, and joined contractors on job sites to ensure that Jewish ritual baths in the region were built to the highest of standards.

One year ago, he was photographed walking the iron mesh that would form the reinforced floors and walls of the new Ohel Levi Yitzchak and Chana complex. When it opens next year, it will accommodate a synagogue for 600 worshippers, a soup kitchen, classrooms and two ritual baths.

Residents of all backgrounds came to pay their respects. (Photo: Hana Levi Julian)
Residents of all backgrounds came to pay their respects. (Photo: Hana Levi Julian)

“He wouldn’t compromise on anything,” said Zalmanov. “But he did everything with a smile, with an enormous heart.”

“When Communist Russia collapsed, and Russian Jewry was arriving by the masses, we made sure that their spiritual needs were answered,” Lipsker said last year. “We ordered tefillin by the thousands, and arranged traditional Jewish wedding ceremonies for couples who were denied that right by the Soviets.”

Rabbi Yosef Albo, Arad’s chief Sephardic rabbi, said that he missed his colleague.

“We worked hand in hand for 32 years to spread Torah and Judaism,” said Albo. “He had a lot of energy to spread Judaism as much as possible, to strengthen people.”

Yossi Rachamim remembered Lipsker as a close friend and teacher.

When the 61-year-old man first started to explore his heritage, he was referred to Lipsker, who began a one-on-one Shabbat morning study session in Chasidic thought. The two kept at it for 20 years, until just before Rosh Hashanah last week.

“It is really a vacuum without him,” said Rachamim. “It is not easy.”

“He did so much for Arad,” echoed Lipsker’s friend and neighbor, Menachem Bloi. “We will continue in his path.”

Rabbi Ben Tzion Lipsker is survived by his wife Sarah Lipsker; daughters Chanah Mendelzohn, a Chabad-Lubavitch emissary in Arad, Israel; Esther Druk, Ruth Hillman and Nechama Dina Kozlovsky; and several siblings.

Hana Levi Julian contributed to this article.