She Understood Humanity: Rebbetzin Devorah Groner

From N’shei Chabad Newsletter – reprinted with the permission

My grandmother was not the loud passionate shlucha, looked up to in today’s world, who forged her way across the world. To describe her that way would diminish her powerful quiet strength, femininity, sensitivity and resolve that accomplished far greater things. There is not one person who has a bad thing to say about her or had a negative interaction. She understood humanity. That is an enormous testament to who she was. – Chanchkie (Yurkowicz) Slavin

From Lubavitch to New York

Devorah was born in Smolensk, Russia, in 1926, to Reb Chaim Tzvi and Mrs. Bryna Konikov. Her father was originally a talmid of the Chofetz Chaim. He was vigilant about shmiras halashon so when he heard negative things being said about Lubavitch, he went to investigate for himself. That Friday night in Lubavitch, he saw the Rebbe Rashab, and was awestruck by his kingly demeanor.

He wrote to his father that “new wellsprings have opened up” and enrolled in Tomchei Tmimim. He dormed at the Frierdiker Rebbe’s house, which was attached to the Rebbe Rashab’s house. After their wedding, her parents moved to Smolensk where her father served as a Rov in two shuls, amongst other jobs he held. His official job was working for the government as a chemist.

One of Devorah’s earliest memories was at a train station, where chassidim had gathered to bid farewell to the Frierdiker Rebbe. Her father lifted her, high above the crowd and said, “Look, look! It’s a holy face! Remember his face!”

As was typical of men who were obviously frum Jews in communist Russia, her father was persecuted terribly, and there are many miraculous stories of how his life was saved. In 1929, Bryna’s family in America sponsored them to leave Russia, and so Devorah, at the young age of four, made her way across the world. They first settled in New Jersey, and then Williamsburg, as Reb Chaim Tzvi held various rabbinical positions.

The family was desperately poor. They had three children, Moshe Yitzchak and Devorah, who were born in Russia, and ybl”ch Velvel, born 11 years later in America. Their home was infused with warmth and chassidishkeit and her parents had outstanding emunah. Reb Chaim Tzvi taught his only daughter, Devorah, the meaning of shivisi Hashem lenegdi samid, to remember that we are always standing before Hashem, and that we need to live our lives with that knowledge always. He lived his life every day with tremendous ahavas Yisroel.

Bryna used to cry as she painstakingly recited kapitlach of Tehillim. Devorah often spoke of her mother’s multiple pregnancies, miscarriages and stillborn children. Her greatest fear growing up was that her mother would not come home from the hospital. Between her and her younger brother, her mother had six stillborn children. Only when she grew older did she understand how devastating this must have been to her parents.

Chassidishe Influences in Her Youth

Devorah entered kindergarten without knowing a word of English and was teased by the other children. She then attended public school, and was thrilled when she turned 14 years old, the required age to join an afterschool program called Achos Hatemimim. This program was taught by Rabbi Yochanan Gordon and Rabbi Yisroel Jacobson, established by the Frierdiker Rebbe in Riga, Latvia, in 1937 and then continued in New York in 1940, to teach Chassidus to Lubavitcher girls.

The few Lubavitcher girls at the time were isolated, and this was a chance for them to get together and feel like part of a group. It was rare to see a man with a beard on the street, and here they were learning with one! The Frierdiker Rebbe was still in Otwock, and the only connection the girls had with him was the sichos that were sent. Devorah’s father also taught her Tanya. They lived close to the Lubavitcher shul in Williamsburg, and so they hosted many visitors, who influenced her outlook on life.

Once Reb Itche der Masmid stayed at their house when he came to collect money in America. He was a true oved Hashem. Devorah remembered that as a young girl when she was going for her afternoon nap, he was still davening b’avodah. He only made kiddush late Shabbos afternoon. After him came Reb Mordechai Chefetz, and then Reb Shmuel Levitin. Devorah remembered a lot of meetings to bring the Frierdiker Rebbe over from Europe, and vividly recalled his arrival in 1940 and the publicity surrounding it.

In the paper that week, they showed a photo of him with the caption, “These eyes have seen the war,” as there was a lot of speculation about what was going on in Europe. The first thing the Rebbe did was to establish the Vaad Hatzalah to save his students and chassidim stuck in Europe. The second thing he did was to organize mosdos chinuch for American children.

At the Rebbetzin’s Tisch

The Frierdiker Rebbe gave over a ma’amar Chassidus once a week on Tuesdays. Both women and men attended, but there was very limited space. For those who couldn’t fit inside, there were tape recorders playing outside. It was hard to understand the Frierdiker Rebbe as he was paralyzed, and his breathing was very heavy. He always spoke about ahavas Yisroel, especially to immigrants from faraway places.

Many people only saw the Rebbe on Rosh Hashanah. Yechidusen were rare and very short. Women never went in on their own – they were accompanied by their husbands or families. The Frierdiker Rebbe farbrenged in his dining room, which was connected to his wife the Rebbetzin Nechama Dina’s dining room, where the women congregated.

The Rebbetzin often opened the door during farbrengens to check on the Frierdiker Rebbe’s health. While he had a farbrengen, she had a tisch, always set beautifully. Devorah Konikov went in often, together with the other girls. The Rebbetzin was deaf, so other than Shabbos and Yom Tov you had to write to communicate with her, and she could read lips well. She was very dignified and refined, even regal.

Devorah never forgot the scene she witnessed one time when she walked to Crown Heights from Williamsburg on Yom Tov and joined the Rebbetzin’s tisch. The farbrengen was packed, and an overflow of bachurim was waiting outside the door in case someone would leave and they could squeeze in. When the farbrengen ended and everyone walked out, the Frierdiker Rebbe allowed the bachurim who had been waiting outside to come in to see him briefly, and say l’chaim.

This time, there were about 300 people packed in the small area. Devorah remembers the nurse outside in the hall was frantic with worry about the Frierdiker Rebbe and kept calling the doctor. Finally, the door opened, the bachurim came pouring out and the women who were at the Rebbetzin’s tisch could see from the other door. The Frierdiker Rebbe was saying “Gut Yom Tov” to everyone. The Frierdiker Rebbe did not appear to be tired at all.

As the chassidim went down the stairs, the ladies remained with the Rebbetzin, since now the stairs were blocked. Once the chassidim had all departed, the Frierdiker Rebbe sighed with exhaustion as his daughters helped wipe the sweat from his brow, and loosened his tie. The nurse kept taking his pulse. The women were stuck there watching for 10-15 minutes. Later, Devorah would conclude: “The Frierdiker Rebbe has such mesiras nefesh for his chassidim. While they were there, he didn’t show one iota of exhaustion. The minute they left you could see how terribly tired he was.”

Release Time and Pioneering Shlichus

The Frierdiker Rebbe encouraged all Jewish children in public schools to attend an afterschool cheder program, beginning at 4 pm. Devorah was involved in this initiative. Aaron Popack rented a storefront, and Devorah’s father Reb Chaim Tzvi Konikov arranged a teacher.

One day, one of the parents asked why her child should come at 4 pm, when the Christian children would go out to learn about their religion during school hours at 2 pm. So Reb Chaim Tzvi got the parents to sign permission slips so that the Jewish children could also leave school at 2 pm. Within a few weeks, there were 50-60 Jewish children coming, far too many for the storefront. They had to rent a shul for space, and hire more teachers. Devorah, then 15, helped out as much as she could.

Within a few months the weekly program grew to 200 children. Reb Chaim Tzvi corresponded with the Frierdiker Rebbe about this growth. The Frierdiker Rebbe very much encouraged it, and sent bachurim to teach, ultimately establishing the National Committee for the Furtherance of Jewish Education, led by Rabbi J.J. Hecht, who took over managing it all. This program continues until today, and is known as Release Time, Wednesday Hour or Jewish Hour.

In 1941, the Frierdiker Rebbe’s son-in-law, the soon-to-be-Rebbe, arrived in the U.S. from Europe. His father-in-law immediately entrusted him with many responsibilities, including (but not limited to) managing the chinuch of Lubavitcher girls, Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, and Machne Yisroel. After graduating public high school in 1943, Devorah, one of the few English-speaking Lubavitcher girls at the time who worked for the Rebbe and was blessed to have a close relationship with the Rebbe, embarked on her lifelong mission as a shlucha. She was sent to numerous places as a teacher, especially to fledgling Lubavitch schools.

By the age of 18 she had started teaching at Chadrei Torah and Torah Umesorah kindergarten, and was instructed by the Rebbe to move around and work in Fort Green Navy Yard; Bayonne, NJ; Richmond, Philadelphia; and then to Providence, Rhode Island. This was also the beginning of her remarkable mesiras nefesh as a shlucha. She let the Rebbe know that moving around was difficult for her especially since it entailed leaving her mother.

Once, while on the phone with the Rebbe after being informed of yet another relocation, this time from Philadelphia to Providence, she hung up the phone in mid-conversation, not wanting him to hear her cry.

Marriage to Rabbi Yitzchok Dovid Groner

Back in the 1940s, there were very few Lubavitcher girls to marry. Devorah also happened to be very beautiful, and was very sought-after as a match. Hashgachah pratis and the Rebbe’s planning had it that while working as a teacher in Providence, Rhode Island, she noticed a tall, dark handsome young man, Yitzchok Dovid Groner, who was also conveniently sent by the Rebbe to work at the school. She didn’t know his family well since he grew up in Brownsville and his family came from Israel, whereas she spent more time with the Russian families.

Their first conversation went something like this: She saw Yitzchok Groner looking shocked and asked him if everything was alright. “You look like your long-lost brother just died,” she said. Indeed, he had just received the news that his brother Shlomo Groner, missing in action while serving in the U.S. Air Force in Japan, had been found dead.

Devorah Konikov and Yitzchok Groner eventually got engaged with the guidance and blessings of the Frierdiker Rebbe and the Rebbe. In 1946, they got married, with the Rebbe as mesader kiddushin.

In their first year of marriage, the Frierdiker Rebbe sent Rabbi Groner on his first visit to Australia and New Zealand, leaving Devorah back home for an extended period. Devorah was supportive of his shlichus, and stoically stayed behind, living at her mother-in-law’s apartment at 709 Eastern Parkway for six months, working at Bais Rivkah in Crown Heights, until he returned. During this time, the Rebbe approached her after a farbrengen to inquire after her husband and herself. She always felt that the Rebbe was very devoted to anybody doing his shlichus, to the extent that he showed strong interest and even felt responsible for their welfare.

Throughout her life, the Rebbeim sent her husband on many trips, each time leaving her behind to hold down the fort. Rabbi Groner travelled to the Philippines, Japan, Egypt, Panama, Columbia, Peru, Hong Kong, Italy, England, Cuba, India, Iran, Brazil, Singapore, Israel and many places within the United States, all on the Rebbeim’s behalf.

Once, the Rebbe gave him 26 $10 bills, each for a different shlichus, to be completed along the way. One of the missions was to buy his wife a gift. He bought her a beautiful sari from India, which she wore to her son’s wedding.

In 1948, the Frierdiker Rebbe sent them both to Buffalo, New York, to work in the school and community. One of Devorah’s proudest achievements was the building of the mikvah there; she helped organize, fundraise and manage the project.

During all of this, the children started arriving: Sholom Ber, Miriam, Yossi, and Shterna. After eight years in Buffalo, they returned to Crown Heights. Upon arrival, Devorah had an extended yechidus with the Rebbe. She described the struggles they were facing in Buffalo and how everything seemed to be an uphill battle, never reaching a plateau where she could rest for a minute.

For over 45 minutes, the Rebbe listened attentively to everything she said. Then the Rebbe, distressed by what he heard, started coughing and couldn’t catch his breath. Devorah looked around for a button to ring or someone to call, but to no avail. After a minute, the Rebbe caught his breath and the yechidus was over. From then on, Devorah decided never to burden the Rebbe with her difficulties in person, only through written correspondence.

During the next few years in New York, Devorah was heavily involved in N’shei Chabad, and their first convention in 1955. In 1956, the unthinkable happened. Much to Devorah’s shock and grief, her beloved father, Reb Chaim Tzvi Konikov, passed away at the young age of 57. She rarely spoke about the struggle of losing her father at such a young age. Her next two children, Chaya and Chaim Tzvi, were named for him.

Leaving to Australia: “The Will of the Rebbe”

After much discussion over the years, at the behest of the Rebbe, Rabbi Yitzchok and Rebbetzin Devorah Groner agreed to go to the ends of the earth—Melbourne, Australia, to help support the growing Jewish community there. Rabbi Groner had already visited twice, and the local community had asked the Rebbe to send him permanently.

He left first in 1958, to get things ready for the family’s arrival. His wife stayed in New York with six children; the youngest was one month old. Six months later, alone with her six children, she embarked on the long journey down under. They flew to Los Angeles, where they stopped at the home of the shluchim Rabbi Shmuel Dovid and Rebbetzin Leah Raichik. Mrs. Raichik cooked six chickens, and armed with them and her six children, Devorah boarded a boat for an almost three-week journey to Australia.

On the boat she was allotted fridge space, freezer space, and fresh fruits and vegetables. True to her uncomplaining style, she said the journey was lovely and the food they had was sufficient, but the children remember some terrible seasickness and a long journey for a mother to take alone with small children. When asked how her mother and parents in-law felt about them moving to Australia, Devorah recalled that her mother-in-law, Mrs. Menucha Rochel Groner, wasn’t happy her children and grandchildren were leaving her.

In those days, when you went to Australia, you were truly gone. Overseas travel and even telephone calls were prohibitively expensive and not practical. All you could do was write letters and enclose photos which took a week or more to arrive. So Menucha Rochel let the Rebbe know exactly how she felt, and cried. And Bryna, Devorah’s mother? How did she, a widow, feel about her only daughter, one of her precious three children to survive, leaving her to an unknown world without any real form of communication or date of return? Devorah said about her mother: “This was the will of the Rebbe, and my mother didn’t complain.”

Coming from New York to backward Australia took some adjusting. Settling in was hard. It was very cold inside the house, and they had an outhouse. Imagine trying to explain to your nine-year-old New-York raised son that he now has to walk outside in the cold every time he needs to use the bathroom. There were horses delivering milk every morning.

In 1964, Devorah traveled to New York for a visit. Rebbetzin Chana heard she was in town and asked to see her. Devorah went although it was Thursday night, and delivered letters to Rebbetzin Chana from the Rebbetzin’s Kluwgant cousins, the sisters, l’arichus yamim v’shanim tovos, Mrs. Sima Paltiel and Mrs. Assia New. This was on a Thursday night. Shabbos, Vov Tishrei, Rebbetzin Chana passed away.

In the winter of 1975, Devorah made plans to travel to Worcester, Massachusetts, where her mother Mrs. Bryna Konikov lived, near her son Rabbi Velvel Konikov. She was eager to visit her mother. On the day she was to depart Australia (23 Teves 5735), she received the news that her mother had passed away. She sat shivah in Melbourne.

In Australia, Devorah struggled, and relied heavily on the Rebbe for inspiration and encouragement. Some of the letters she received have become well known, and provide support to shluchos who read them to this day. [See nsheichabadnewsletter. com, home page. The letters are there, as well as an article written by Devorah about her shlichus that was published right here in the NCN in 1982. –Ed.]

“Who Is the Captain of This Ship?”

Rebbetzin Devorah Groner frequently poured her heart out to the Rebbe and he recognized and valued her significant contribution to his cause, which became her own. They had a deep connection, and he seemed pained by her struggles.

Rabbi Aharon Eliezer Ceitlin recollected that when he was a shliach in Yeshiva Gedolah in Melbourne, he became ill and moved into the Groners’ home for two months while recovering (extended house guests were a common occurrence). While living there, he watched Rebbetzin Groner cry while listening to recordings of the Rebbe’s farbrengens that she had missed while living in Australia. Far away from everything familiar to her, she knew that the Rebbe was there with her, giving her strength and supporting her.

The Rebbe made sure to include her whenever he addressed her husband: “Rabbi and Rebbetzin Groner, my shluchim to Australia.” There were instances when he corrected documents to reflect this. On visits to New York from Australia, the Rebbe paid her particular attention. One time while visiting New York, while she waited for her newly engaged son to exit 770 for a shopping trip, Rebbetzin Groner tried to remain inconspicuous, not wanting to draw attention to herself. She turned away from the entrance as she waited for her son. When she turned around, she saw that the Rebbe was standing behind her waiting to greet her.

Another time, on their way back to Australia after a trip to New York, a call came through from the Rebbe’s office. The Rebbe had sent a $2 bill with a brachah for her continued success in shlichus. When asked when she wrote to the Rebbe to receive this response, she said she didn’t write a physical letter, but thought about it in her mind. Such was her hiskashrus with the Rebbe.

On another trip, when leaving Crown Heights for Australia, the taxi was being loaded and emotional farewells were being said in front of 709 Eastern Parkway, the home of her mother-inlaw, Mrs. Menucha Rochel Groner. Across Eastern Parkway, without their noticing, the Rebbe had stopped across the street, and watched. He only continued on his way once her taxi had departed.

Here are two brief excerpts from Rebbetzin Devorah Groner’s speech to her family at her 90th birthday party: “When we first came to Australia, it was too expensive to leave to go and visit the Rebbe, and it wasn’t until three years had passed that Zaidy [Rabbi Yitzchok D. Groner] was able to go to New York. Zaidy first went to Bogota, Colombia, to daven for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and then he went to New York for Sukkos.

“While he was away, there was a fire in the Yeshiva. We went to see it, and it was an awful scene… all the papers were on the floor and the shelves were burned. Someone there told me, ‘The ship is sinking, and the rats are the first to leave the sinking ship.’ I got very upset by what this person said as I felt he was accusing my husband of running away. I wrote the Rebbe a letter, and asked him, ‘Whose ship is this? Who am I working for?’ The Rebbe replied that he was surprised at my question, because obviously the ship was his father-in-law’s, the Rebbe Rayatz [the Frierdiker Rebbe], and that tzaddikim have an even greater impact in this world after their deaths… We have to remember that the Rebbe is the captain of our ship, and he is steering us in the right direction…

“One Shabbos morning, a little while after Gimmel Tammuz, I had a dream. I was standing on the seashore in the sand. There was a big cliff looming above me. A car was driving along a road at the top of the cliff, and it looked like it was going to drive off the road. At the last minute, the car stopped and the Rebbe got out and started climbing down the cliff. For me, knowing that the Rebbe had been paralyzed at the end of his life, to see him moving now was very emotional, but I was afraid that at any moment he would fall. He came down and stood on the ground, and looked me in the eye and smiled. He said, ‘[Ess iz] shverlich…’ [He was saying to me:] It’s hard work, things won’t be easy, but it can be done. I realized there was a message for me… like Reb Meir of Premishlan said, if someone is connected above he won’t fall below.”

Rebbetzin Devorah Groner was a stalwart shlucha of the Rebbeim until her dying day.

Humility, Modesty and Selflessness

How does one complete a shlichus that is very challenging, with many obstacles along the way? A husband who is barely home to help with the eight children (their youngest two children, Rivkah and Mendy, were born in Australia), while seemingly helping everyone else? A house streaming with guests, visitors, and people in need all hours of the day and night? Hosting weekly shiurim for women, and countless meetings and shiurim given by her husband? House guests staying for months on end? No family support, children who do not get to meet their grandparents, aunts, uncles or cousins?

There is only one way Rebbetzin Devorah Groner accomplished all this—bittul, self-nullification. With a combination of humility, modesty and selflessness, Rebbetzin Groner set her “self” aside in order to achieve something of greater value. With tremendous inner strength, she committed to this when arriving in Australia in 1959, and for the next six decades, she fully kept that commitment.

Personality

Rebbetzin Groner was a lover of humanity. In a message to her family, she once said, “The Rebbe says that goodness and kindness will bring Moshiach. That’s all I can say. Goodness and kindness. We all have to be kind—kind to each other, and find the good in each other.” She never judged people for their level of observance, or their viewpoints, accepting each individual as he or she was.

She had an extraordinary ability to create space for others. Whoever was with her felt that she was completely present and listening to them. She didn’t bring her views, assumptions, or judgments into the conversation. She just listened, and reflected on what she was being told, only adding her opinions when asked for them. So many people met her and spoke to her, and she knew a lot of their problems, family stories and struggles in life, but very rarely did she project her own onto anyone else. It wasn’t about her when you were with her.

She had a wonderful sense of humor, and didn’t take herself too seriously. Very rarely did she get personally offended. In almost every single photo of her she is smiling or laughing. Indeed, her giggles were legendary. At family gatherings, once she started laughing, the room would be infected with her hysterics, so that even her husband, Rabbi Yitchok Groner, couldn’t maintain control. She always managed to have fun with life, regardless of what it threw at her. Which grandmother in her 70’s, 80’s and even 90’s loves sleepover parties with her grandchildren?

She had a childlike curiosity and ability to be silly like no other adult. You would often find her on the floor with some of the little kids, singing outdated nursery rhymes and Yiddish songs. She knew each of her many family members, what they were up to, their struggles and worries, and how they were doing. She was always there for a chat, and genuinely interested in everyone’s lives. This extended to people beyond her family. She knew the family trees of almost everyone she met, and made sure to inquire about them all.

Prayer

Rebbetzin Groner also had a very special relationship with Hashem. She spoke of Him as though he were a friend. She would say things like, “I told Hashem Yisborech…,” and, “The Ribono Shel Olam will help me…” If you ask anyone who ever spent a morning at 80 Hotham Street, her home, how she started her day, they would tell you it was with her morning brachos.

Each morning she said her brachos aloud, in her New-York-accented Hebrew, with deep concentration and gratitude to Hashem. She wouldn’t start her day or eat without someone saying amen aloud to each brachah, and so as a family, we had to make sure someone was there each morning to loudly affirm her blessings. And her prayer didn’t end there. She davened shacharis, minchah and maariv each day. In her last days, she was soothed with the words of davening, and with her last strength, she davened to her dear friend, Hashem Yisborech.

My beloved grandmother Rebbetzin Devorah Groner passed away just over a year ago, on 13 Sivan, a few days after celebrating her 92nd birthday on 3 Sivan surrounded by her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. She is buried alongside her husband on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. She is sorely missed by her family, friends and community.

Yehi zichrah baruch.

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