23 Cheshvan is the yahrzeit of Reb Zvi Hirsh Gansbourg, a printer at trade who dedicated his life to the Rebbe, and was in charge of leading the niggunim at the Rebbe’s farbrengens.
By Rabbi Michoel Seligson
Adapted from the book “Portrait of A Chossid”
Hachossid Reb Zvi Hirsh Gansbourg was born to Reb Moshe Dovber and Mrs. Doba Gansbourg in Moscow on the 27th of Elul, 1928. Reb Moshe Dovber’s father, Reb Simcha Gansbourg was a student of the mashpia, Reb Moshe Dovber Lechvitzer. He in turn was a student of Reb Yisroel Ber Vellizer, one of the renowned students of the Tzemach Tzedek and the Mitteler Rebbe. Reb Simcha had unique abilities, as reflected in the fact that he received smicha on all four components of the Shulchan Aruch at age 18. The family lineage traced back to the Alter Rebbe’s Chassidim and the hidden tzadikim who were disciples of the Baal Shemtov. Early ancestors were connected to Shimon Ginsburg who is mentioned in Seder Hadoros.
Reb Moshe Dovber Gansbourg’s brother, Reb Menachem, was six years older than him and studied in Lubavitch during the first years of the yeshiva’s establishment. When the Rebbe Rashab would go for long walks, he would at times take Reb Menachem. Reb Menachem was a student of Reb Levi Yitzchak Schneerson, the Rebbe’s father and the Rav of Dnepropetrovsk. In 5699 (1939), the Soviet authorities arrested the Rebbe’s father and the Rebbetzin Chana, the Rebbe’s mother, had no means of support. Despite the danger, Reb Menachem saw to it that she was given whatever help possible. The Rebbetzin mentioned him in her diary, Eim HaMelech.
Reb Moshe Dovber studiedin Lubavitch from 1900 to 1903, at which time he was drafted into the Czarist army. He served in the army for many years and was captured by the Germans during WWI. Upon his release, he returned home and organized the Jewish self-defense program that protected Jews against the pogroms that ravaged the Ukraine after WWI.
Reb Tzvi Hirsh’s mother, Mrs. Doba Gansbourg was the daughter of Reb Yehudah Leib and Mrs. Nechama Dotlibov. He was a Rav in the village of Verchnedneiporovsk in the Ukraine. Their children studied in Lubavitch and many of them were nifter in sanctification of G-d’s name.
Mrs. Dotlibov came from the Shapiro family in Slavita who were descendants of the famous tzadik, Reb Pinchos of Koritz. Rav Pinchos’ sons, Reb Shmuel Aba and Reb Moshe were the esteemed printers of the renowned Slavita edition of the Talmud. Because they were framed in a blood libel, they were sentenced to pass through two rows of Cossacks who would rain heavy blows upon them with their bludgeons. The yarmulka of one of the brothers fell off during the ordeal. Rather than proceed bare headed, he ran back to pick it up, though he subjected himself to further blows.
After WWI, there were terrible pogroms against the Jews in the Ukraine and White Russia. Several raiding groups led by Petliura, Denikin, and others murdered Jews throughout the region and plundered their homes. ‘These mobs came to the village were Reb Yehudah Leib and Nechama lived. When they entered their home, one of the Cossacks raised his rifle to shoot Reb Yehudah Leib. His daughter Doba jumped in front of him shouting, “Shoot me instead.” This show of bravery embarrassed the Cossack and caused him to retreat.
‘The Revolution of 1917 and the ensuing tumultuous years of war left Russia and Eastern Europe in turmoil. The Soviet Union was established in 1922 and along with the shifts in Russia’s political and social scene, the face of Russian Jewry began to change dramatically as well. While Jewish life under the czars was in no way easy, under the Soviet regime it became downright unbearable, threatening Russian Jewry to its very core.
With prophetic vision, the Previous Rebbe created an underground educational and social network to ensure the survival of Jewish life in the Soviet Union. Thousands lost their lives so that Yiddishkeit could survive. Yet, the Chassidim stood strong, despite the constant cloud of Stalinist fear and death that hung over them.
In Moscow, just a few blocks from the Kremlin, the headquarters of all things Soviet, Reb Moshe Dovber and his wife Doba lived with their children. Doba Gansbourg, a woman of fine character traits and self-sacrifice, was renowned for her hospitality. The Ganbsourg home was always open, offering food and shelter, a stronghold for every Jew that entered. Religious, secular, Chassidim, Misnagdim, it made no difference; all were welcomed with open arms. Remarkably, Doba and her husband were able to raise Chassidic children in a Russia under Communist rule. Despite the danger of arrest and execution, Reb Hirsh and his brothers grew up in a profoundly Chassidishe home. It was a home infused with Torah and Mitzvos, dedicated to helping others in every way possible.
Settling in Israel
After unceasingly visiting the Kremlin day after day, Doba miraculously received permission to leave the Soviet Union. In 5698 (1937), Reb Moshe Dovber and his family left for Israel. He was the primary founder of the Lubavitch yeshiva in Tel Aviv. He also helped found Reshet Oholei Yosef Yitzchak, the organization of primary schools. Moshe also owned a book store, where Reb Hirsh developed his love for the written word.
On the 19th of Nissan, Chal Hamoed Pesach 1960, Reb Hirsh’s father, Reb Moshe Dovber was nifter. He was buried in Tzfas next to the Rebbe’s brother, Horav Hachossid Reb Yisroel Aryeh Leib. Four years later in 1964, Reb Hirsh’s mother, Mrs. Doba Gansbourg, was nifter on the 3rd of Shevat.
Working for the RaMaSh
In 1947, after ten years in Israel, Reb Hirsch traveled to New York to be near the Previous Rebbe and study in Yeshiva Tomchei Tmimim. While in yeshiva Reb Hirsh began to work for the Previous Rebbe’s son-in-law, the RaMaSh, who headed the Chabad publishing arm. Reb Hirsh helped the Ramash produce the Previous Rebbe’s Sichos, Maamorim and kuntreisim. His passion for publishing Chassidic texts and teachings would become a lifelong endeavor.
On Yud Shevat, 1950, the Previous Rebbe was nistalek and exactly one year later, his son-in-law, the RaMaSh became the seventh leader of Chabad Lubavitch. Reb Hirsh continued working closely with the Rebbe, assisting in preparing the various publications for print.
In 1952, Reb Hirsh was married to Miss Rasha Denberg of Montreal, Canada. Six years later, with the arrival of a daughter and a son, the young family moved to Brooklyn where they were blessed with three additional children. Reb Hirsh resumed working in the printing houses of Balshon and Shulsinger Brothers. Chabad sforim would be typeset at these printings shops. Years later, along with Reb Mordechai Chein, he founded Empire Press.
The printing house served many different organizations, who would publish their books at Empire Press. There is an interesting anecdote regarding something that took place at the printing shop and ignited a spark in the heart of a customer. On one occasion, a Jew who identified himself with a Yiddishist group that published books at Empire Press came to the shop. While waiting his turn, he began reading Sefer Hasichos (5700 pg. 18) of the Previous Rebbe. Suddenly Reb Hirsh heard a loud sigh and the following. “Oh! I haven’t put on Tefillin for fifty years. Please give me a pair of Tefillin.” This Jew had read a story in the Sicha about someone who had neglected the Mitzva of Tefillin. After his passing, his grave was opened. ‘The area of the head and the arm where Tefillin would normally be placed was rotted and filled with worms.
Reb Hirsh became involved in many of Chabad’s communal affairs and educational systems, particularly Beth Rivka School for Girls. He was one of the founding members in 1955 of ‘Tzierei Agudas Chabad (Tzach), Lubavitch Youth Organization in New York, and remained dedicated to its growth for the rest of his life.
Chazering Chassidus in Shul
For decades he visited synagogues in surrounding neighborhoods. He would walk great distances on Shabbos to teach Torah with Chassidic dimension, and to provide encouragement and inspiration wherever it was needed. An example of his success was the result of the ongoing contact he maintained over the years with a young man who would hear him speak in shul on Shabbos. This individual became a youth director with significant influence. In the 1980’s, the Lubavitch Organization, Tzivos Hashem needed support in its programs for young children and contacted this individual’s organization. He was happy to help out, as a result of his experience and respect for Rabbi Gansbourg. Reb Hirsh was a role model who was mkarev young men, many of whom became Chabad Chassidim and settled in Crown Heights.
In the late 1950’s, Reb Hirsh, whose father was a violinist in the Russian army during WWI, began leading the Niggunim at the Rebbe’s Farbrengens. He was also a founding member of NiCHoaCH, an acronym for Niggunei Chassidei Chabad, the organization for preserving and recording Chabad Niggunim. To this day, many of the NiCHoaCH recordings feature Reb Hirsh’s soulful voice.
The Baal Menagen at the Rebbe’s Farbrengens
Rabbi Hirsh Gansbourg had a beautiful voice. Gentle and soothing, it echoed from the depths of his soul, and with great sensitivity penetrated the hearts of the listeners. This was the voice that led the Chassidim in song as they stood before the Rebbe at the Farbrengen where Chassidic melodies poured forth in between the Rebbe’s talks. This was the voice that united and uplifted multitudes of guests at the Shabbos table, responded to questions, told stories, warmed and welcomed, and wove a tapestry of Jewish life for the newly acquainted with Judaism
Directly prior to the Six-Day War in 1967, the Rebbe initiated the well known Tefillin campaign, declaring the power this mitzvah held in fortifying the Holy Land. Reb Hirsh took this to heart and for the rest of his life would encourage many Jews to don Tefillin.
Following the Chassidic teachings that were imbued in him as a child in Soviet Russia, that a Jew is always obligated to help his fellow no matter how dire the circumstance, Reb Hirsh would visit Jewish Army and Air Force personnel and share with them the joy of the holidays.
On the holiest days of the year, Reb Hirsh would forgo his personal needs. He would leave his wife and children, his Rebbe and community to spend Yom Kippur, Purim and Chanukah in various prisons and military bases, bringing a ray of light to the Jewish prisoners and military personnel.
Ona Purim, during one of his visits to a prison, he announced that every person should put on Tefillin. Some of the inmates lined up to put on the Tefillin, but there were those that hesitated. Reb Hirsh declared, “In jail nobody has a choice. Everyone needs to follow the orders of the authorities.” Immediately the remaining inmates lined up to put on Tefillin.
Thus he spent the High Holy Days for over thirty years, leading the prayers for Jewish prisoners and military personnel. He inspired countless students in their quest for meaning, and ignited the Jewish spark in the hearts of families and individuals
On the second day of Sukkos 5730/1969, the Gansbourg family was dealt the unthinkable. Mrs. Rasha Gansbourg Reb Hirsh’s wife, then just 37, was returned to her Creator, leaving him to raise his five young children. On Simchas Torah, an exceptional event took place. Prior to the shiva which began after Sukos, Reb Hirsh went on tahalucha with his sons to shuls in other neighborhoods to encourage Jews to rejoice in the Hakofos.
Inspiration for the Shechuna
Reb Hirsh was an eloquent speaker and people were inspired by his words. On one occasion, a few of the communal leaders approached Reb Hirsh to speak to members of the community to encourage them to invest money in CHEBRA shares, to strengthen the shechuna. Reb Hirsch felt that he was not the appropriate person. Especially that this was in the period after the ptira of his wife when he needed to attend to many matters. Eventually he was persuaded. Reb Hirsh’s words inspired many and thus brought about a large participation of community members.
On Lag B’omer 1975, Reb Hirsh married Mrs. Hensha Stone of Cleveland, Ohio. Just like his parents’ home in Moscow, Reb Hirsh and his wife’s home on President Street in Crown Heights, directly across from the home of the Rebbe and Rebbetzin, was always open.
Thousands of guests from different backgrounds and walks of life came through their doors. For many, this marked the beginning of a new stage in their spiritual journey.
One such guest, Liz Harris, a writer for New Yorker magazine, spent five years in the Gansbourg home, and her classic book, Holy Days, is based on her experiences there.
In 1984, Reb Hirsh, accompanied by his wife, returned to Soviet Russia for the first time since his childhood. He was on a mission for Ezras Achim, a Jewish organization dedicated to helping Jews behind the Iron Curtain.
In the summer of 2000, Reb Hirsh and his wife moved to Boca Raton, Florida, where they became prominent members of the Jewish community and were deeply involved in Chabad outreach and educational activities.
On the 23rd of Cheshvan 2006, at the age of 78 years, Reb Hirsh was nifter after suffering an illness.
In glancing back on Reb Hirsh’s life and his accomplishments, the words and blessing that the Rebbe gave him during a Yechidus in 5711/1950 come to mind. “May you grow to be a Chossid, G-d fearing, and a scholar. May the Rebbe’s [Previous Rebbe] blessings be fulfilled. May a portion of the Rebbe’s projects that he sought to accomplish, be accomplished through you.”
Yehi Zichro Boruch!
May Reb Tzvi Hirsh, a legendary Chossid totally, and selflessly committed to the Rebbe’s activities, a talented person in word and song who utilized his potential and inspired many people to whom he reached out with prayer and Chassidus, who with his elegant and smooth pen edited the Rebbe’s talks for publication, wrote speeches, articles and personal diaries brimming with wisdom, memories and insight, and who as the Rebbe’s soldier devoted himself in a self-less manner and spent high holidays, Purim and Chanuka encouraging and uplifting military personnel and prisoners with his genuine heartwarming smile, and spiritual nourishment; inspire us to fulfill and use our talents to the fullest potential for the benefit of the world around us, expressing compassion to one’s fellow man and commitment to all things holy and good.
We should speedily witness “The ones who dwell in the dust will awaken and rejoice” with Horav Hachossid Reb Tzvi Hirsh Gansbourg among them.