The last time I saw Rabbi Shaya Gansbourg was on the second night of Chanukah, a few months ago. I had just completed my army service in the IDF, and my wife and I were on our last night in New York City after traveling abroad for several weeks. The next morning, we would be returning to our home in Israel.
It was a bitterly cold and quiet night in New York, but when I opened the
door to the Chabad of Harlem, I was greeted with the warmth and jubilant laughter of several dozen children, all of whom had shown up with their parents for a Chanukah party being held by the rabbi and his family. The children excitedly busied themselves decorating donuts, building lego menorahs, and playing spin the dreidel. Some kids danced, others chased each other through the legs of adults, and several posed for pictures with “Yehuda the Maccabee” — an orthodox Jew and US army officer who has served multiple tours in Afghanistan.
At a certain point the menorahs were lit, and I joined hands with the rabbi as we danced in a circle while singing “Hashanah haba’ah b’Yerushalayim” — “Next Year in Jerusalem.”
It is somewhat fitting that my last memory of Rabbi Shaya Gansbourg is from Chanukah, the holiday where we celebrate light being found in the most unlikely of places. For me, Chabad of Harlem was the epitome of this idea. But it wasn’t just remarkable for its unlikely location, but also for the absolute potency of the light produced by Rabbi Gansbourg as a leader of the community. He was, in all senses, the candle that burned miraculously, despite all odds, and whose light reached corners both dark and distant.
In his 8 years dedicated to the revival of the Jewish community in Harlem, Rabbi Gansbourg and his wife Goldie managed to open Chabad of Harlem, organize a chabad club on the campus of City College of New York, start a Jewish daycare, and punctuate all of Judaism’s numerous holidays with an event. Chanukah parties like the one above were not the exception, but the rule.
And in the whirlwind of Rabbi Gansbourg’s ceaseless activity, he changed lives forever.
When I first moved to Harlem four years ago, I was in many ways awash in the sea of impending adulthood without a life raft. I was in my final year of university and preoccupied with the development of my career; my interest in God was minimal, my observance nonexistent, and I was prepared, as so many other young Jewish Americans are, to abandon most of my heritage.
Rabbi Gansbourg changed this, not through indoctrination, but through example. Through his unassuming, modest one-room synagogue in Harlem, converted from a ground-floor apartment, he created a community that provided so much of what I found missing in the secular world — meditation, human bonding, unconditional acceptance, and a connection to something beyond oneself. Though I did not know it initially, what the rabbi had created was Jewish life.
What began for me as the occasional attendance at Friday night services developed rapidly into regular, almost perfunctory ritual, and within a matter of months, Shabbat evening and morning services were beating out bars, clubs and parties for my attention — even before I had adopted observance. I perceived something wholesome to the environment, something healthy and soul-enriching. I perceived something invaluable.
The world that Chabad of Harlem opened up to me was a beautiful one, but it was also a revolutionary one. Rabbi Gansbourg exposed me to a world where friendly faces, home cooking, and a little wine could produce an exponentially greater happiness than an American Express Black Card at the finest club in Manhattan. He created a world where job title could be checked at the door, and one could be appreciated for who they are, rather than what they do. It was a world where a person could reflect on himself, on life, and on God, and in the process learn more about the universe than any textbook could provide.
It was an alien world, and a fantastic one, and it was incredible enough to change the course of my life.
I am happy and unbelievably privileged to say that I knew Rabbi Gansbourg, who passed away earlier today, and I thank God everyday for having introduced the two of us — and for showing me this new world. I thank him for inspiring me to move to Israel, where I could pursue both career and spirituality, and where I later met my wife, who I love with all of my being, and with whom I have now started my own Jewish life.
And I thank Rabbi Gansbourg for what he taught me both in life and now in death; that the material world is fleeting, that ultimately the universe unknowable and the ways of God are mysterious, and that the only thing we can do is to live a good life, do what’s right, be kind to others and walk as closely along the path that God set out for us as possible, because life is too precious to live in any other way.
Rabbi Gansbourg, thank you for everything. I will always miss you.
Baruch Dayen Emet