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Rabbi Tzion Tzubary

10 April 2023

I was born in Yemen in 1944, and five years later my family emigrated to Israel. Our material circumstances were harsh; brought from one migrants’ camp to the next, we lived in tents that let in the winter rain. I remember once, in the middle of the night, that our entire tent simply flew off into a powerful storm, leaving us exposed to the rain.

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Nor were the spiritual conditions straightforward. There wasn’t yet a well-organized public religious education system, and so although we all came from observant homes, the authorities put us Yemenite children into classes combining boys and girls, with nonobservant teachers. Additionally, they attempted to draw us away from our faith. For example, they cut off our long peyot, under the pretext of a scalp ringworm outbreak. Once, they even tried to make us desecrate the Shabbat, but we refused and ran off. Eventually we left the school, and stayed home, where we received a traditional education.

In time, I attended the Porat Yosef yeshivah in Rechovot until 8th grade, before moving to another yeshivah high school in Kfar Haroeh. In my last couple of years there, Rabbi Yissachar Meir came to teach our class. He had been one of the first students of the well-known Ponevezh Yeshivah in Bnei Brak, and before joining us, he spent some three years in Morocco, setting up boys’ and girls’ Torah institutions.

Before our graduation, Rabbi Meir convinced our class to join him in forming the nucleus of a new yeshivah in Netivot which became known as the “Yeshivah of the Negev.” I ended up spending ten years there, through to 1968.

A year before that, in 1967, I got engaged and the question of where my wife and I would live came up. Of course, I wanted to remain in Netivot and continue my studies close to Rabbi Meir, to whom I had become attached. But my wife wanted to be in Rechovot so that she could live near her parents and help care for her sick mother. Having learned in the Chabad institutions of Rechovot, she had a connection with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, as did Rabbi Meir. With his guidance, we decided to write to the Rebbe, seeking advice on our dilemma.

Although Rabbi Meir did not belong to any chasidic group – he was more connected to the Lithuanian religious tradition – he had great respect for chasidut, in general, and Chabad, in particular. I also knew that he held the Lubavitcher Rebbe in great esteem as a Torah sage. He would frequently cite the Alter Rebbe’s Code of Law and held a weekly class on his Tanya. I recall speaking with my wife about the Tanya after our wedding; with her Chabad education, she was of course intimately familiar with the book, but she was surprised to discover that I was also well-versed in its themes from my studies with Rabbi Meir.

We had the privilege of receiving a reply from the Rebbe, and we’ve kept that letter until today. Although, generally speaking, the Rebbe often advised couples to follow the wife’s preference when deciding where to live, in our case he recommended that we live in a place where I could continue to advance in my learning. So, we stayed near the yeshivah for one more year, although we had to move to Rechovot after that on account of my mother-in-law’s medical condition. Once there, I joined a new kollel, a Torah institution for married men, founded by the rabbi of Rechovot.

Sometime after our move and alongside my own studies, I founded another kollel for newly observant men in a nearby town. To support it, I would occasionally make fundraising trips to several Jewish communities in North and South America. At around the same time, I received an offer to serve as the head of a yeshivah in Canada. With the encouragement of my wife, I decided to take advantage of one of my trips to New York to consult with the Rebbe – this time face to face – about this proposition.

When I entered his office, the Rebbe was engrossed in some papers and letters, but on noticing me, he extended a bright and a joyful welcome and invited me to sit down. He asked about my background, and showed great interest in everything about the immigrants from Yemen. I could see the pain on his face when I told him about the attempts that some of us had experienced to drive us away from our faith and customs. It was clear that he was well acquainted with the matter, and was deeply concerned with the spiritual state of the Yemenite Jews who had arrived to Israel. He wanted as many of the migrant children as possible to be brought to religious schools where they could continue to practice Judaism as they had in their country of origin.

The Rebbe also made the wonderful suggestion that I study Tanya regularly, which I still do, and inquired about which Torah subjects we were studying at the kollel and whether I was satisfied with my studies. I answered in the affirmative, and the Rebbe blessed me to continue learning diligently, with fear of G-d and with joy, and to influence those around me in this direction. When I told the Rebbe about the various institutions I had helped found in Netivot, Rechovot, and other towns, and how we tried to promote just this kind of learning, the Rebbe seemed very pleased, and he blessed me with success in carrying on this work.

Then I asked about the job offer in Canada. By all accounts, it was a good offer for a respectable position that would ensure our financial security. But the Rebbe’s answer was clear and unequivocal: “Stay in the Holy Land. You will succeed more there.”

We accepted the advice gladly, and we stayed in Israel. At first, we encountered some hardship, but I persisted with my studies for several more years, completed my ordination as a rabbinic judge, and then dedicated myself to teaching. After some time, representatives of Gedera, an agricultural moshav, approached me about becoming the village’s rabbi. We have been there ever since, and thank G-d we have been able to promote Torah study and spirituality in Gedera and the surrounding area; in this, we have witnessed the fulfillment of the Rebbe’s blessings.

After that first visit, I made a point of visiting the Rebbe’s synagogue every time I was in New York. I would meet him when that was possible, and I participated in his farbrengens. Despite not understanding Yiddish, which he spoke, I sat at these gatherings for hours, looking on in awe as this person cast the faith he lived with out on to others. At one farbrengen, in a special gesture, the Rebbe asked that I be given a cup of spirits to say “L’chaim!”

After his passing, I continue visiting his holy resting place. In my eyes, the Rebbe was an angel of G-d, who lit up the world with his blessings, guided even those who were not his followers, strengthened their faith, and brought the Jewish people closer to their Father in Heaven. I personally consulted with the Rebbe many times over the years, and I thank G-d for being so fortunate to have the Rebbe share his light, his teachings, and his spirit with me.

Rabbi Tzion Tzubary served as the Rabbi of Gedera for over thirty years. He passed away in March of 2015 and was interviewed at home ten months earlier, in May of 2014.