The New Yorker Rebbe

The New Yorker Rebbe, Joseph Hayyim Gelberman, ztvk"l (1912-2010)

By Rabbi Robert dos Santos Teixeira, L.C.S.W.

Boston, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and New York have something in common. Each was or is home to a Hasidic spiritual master, a grand rabbi, a rebbe. There's the Bostoner Rebbe, the Clevelander Rebbe, the Pittsburgher Rebbe, and the New Yorker Rebbe.

Grand Rabbi Joseph Gelberman, the New Yorker Rebbe, the Father of Modern Hasidism, was born on 27 April 1912 / 10 Iyar 5672 in Nagyecsed, Hungary1. His father, David, and his mother, Esther, who gave him the name Hayyim, immersed him, the ninth of seventeen children, and his sixteen brothers and sisters in the teachings of Hasidism2.

"My background was totally Hasidic," he says. "My father, bless his soul, was a Hasid, and his father was a Hasid. All my masters in the yeshiva were Hasidim."3 At seventeen, he made his way to Frankfurt am Main, Germany, where he undertook a course of yeshiva study,4 and in 1930 he was ordained to the rabbinate.5 The Satmar rabbi from his hometown gave him semicha.6

Soon after, he married, and less than a year later his wife, Yolan, gave birth to a baby girl, Judith.7 In 1939, in response to rising anti-Semitism, he came to the United States in hopes of finding a pulpit, which would have enabled him to bring his family from Europe.8 "One day," he said, "the letters stopped, and no one answered the telephone."9 Tragically, his wife and daughter, his family, indeed, much of his hometown, had been rounded up by the Nazis and sent to Auschwitz, where most of them perished.10 Some of his siblings, however, miraculously survived.11 This tragedy marked a turning point in his life.

He began to scrutinize his Orthodox worldview. "Judaism is called the Etz Hayyim, 'the Tree of Life,'" he writes. "The Orthodox pictures this tree with a circle around it, suggesting 'only this is Judaism,' that is, only the Orthodox way is Judaism. The circle is like an enclosure, and its implication is clear: if you are inside this circle you are Jewish. If you are outside, you are not. I never left the circle, though it was uncomfortable for me. Instead I began to explore my roots, to expand the circle. I asked, 'Who am I? How much of Jewish tradition can I keep and still be a modern man living in this century?'"12

He also journeyed inward, studying psychology (as well as other subjects) at City College of New York, Yeshiva University, and Columbia University, and went on to become a psychotherapist.13 And he traveled far beyond himself. Having experienced the consequences of people viewing one another as "the other," he began searching for what unites people, what enables people to see one another as "us." His search led him to appreciate the spiritual threads that run through the great religious traditions of the world, which kindled his interest in both interfaith dialogue and Eastern spirituality. The Rebbe once admitted, proudly, "I've been a Yogi for 45 years and a Kabbalist for 75 years."14

In 1968, the New Yorker Rebbe together with Sri Swami Satchidananda, Brother David Steindl-Rast, and Eido Tai Shimano established the Center for Spiritual Studies, where each month spiritual leaders from different faith traditions would come together to study and talk.15 Joined by Roshi Prabhasa Dharma (Gesshin), Father Robert Beh, and Murshida Taj Inayat, the three participated in a historic interfaith worship service, the Yoga Ecumenical Service, in 1977.16

In 1979, the Rebbe opened the New Seminary, the first interfaith seminary in the world, which has ordained nearly two thousand men and women as interfaith ministers. The seminary gained Special Consultative Status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), as a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO), in 2001.

In time, the Rabbinical Studies Department of the New Seminary evolved into the Rabbinical Seminary International, which has been described as a school of ministry in the neo-Hasidic tradition. Indeed, the New Yorker Rebbe has said of himself, "I am a modern Hasidic rabbi."17 A graduate of the seminary, among other things, is expected to serve as "a spiritual guide for people searching for a greater spiritual consciousness in Judaism."18

The Rebbe was the author of several books, including I Believe; Israel, As I Saw It; Kabbalah As I See It: An Introduction to the Joy in Jewish Mysticism; Kabbalah in Motion: Journeys into Consciousness; Kabbalah: The Mystic Path to Health, Awareness, Power, and God (in nine lessons); Our Quest for Love; Pearls and Wisdom; Physician of the Soul: A Modern Kabbalist's Approach to Health and Healing; Spiritual Truths: A Companion to Meditation for Everyday of the Month; Thanksgiving Haggadah; The Quest & Other Essays; and Zen Judaism: Teaching Tales by a Kabbalistic Rabbi. He was also the creator of the New Kabbalah Cards, twenty-two cards that are used as "an oracle system based upon the life principles of the Kabbalah."

In his later years, the New Yorker Rebbe served as rabbi of the New Synagogue and as president of All-Faiths Seminary International, both of which he founded. He remained an active teacher, sharing his light and wisdom with literally everyone he met. His own aphorism, "Never Instead, Always In Addition," continued to infuse his work and that of his Hasidim.

On 9 September 2010 / 1 Tishri 5771, on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, at ninety-eight years of age, the New Yorker Rebbe drew his last breath, dying peacefully at his home in New York City.

Notes

1 Physician of the Soul: A Modern Kabbalist's Approach to Health and Healing, page 17. Here, the name of the Rebbe's hometown is spelled Nageyched, which I am guessing is the Yiddish pronunciation. Other sources give the spelling Nagyecsed.

2 Physician of the Soul: A Modern Kabbalist's Approach to Health and Healing, page 17.

3 Kabbalah: The Mystic Path to Health, Awareness, Power, and God (in nine lessons), page 6.

4 In a telephone conversation with the Rebbe (on 30 April 2009), he told me that he was seventeen years of age when he went to Frankfurt am Main, Germany, to study at a "Hasidic yeshiva."

5 In a telephone conversation with the Rebbe (on 30 April 2009), he told me that he was eighteen years of age when he was ordained.

6 In a telephone conversation with the Rebbe (30 April 2009), he once again told me that one of the three rabbis who gave him semicha was the Satmar rabbi from his hometown whose surname was the same as the Satmar Rebbe at the time, Joel Teitelbaum (1887-1979). In an earlier conversation (25 July 2008), the Rebbe told me that this rabbi was the Satmar Rebbe's son or nephew.

7 Kabbalah: the Mystic Path to Health, Awareness, Power, and God (in nine lessons), dedication page. The names of the Rebbe's father, mother, wife, and daughter appear in the dedication. In a telephone conversation with the Rebbe (on 30 April 2009), he told me that after he received semicha he got married and "nine months later" his wife gave birth.

8 Physician of the Soul: A Modern Kabbalist's Approach to Health and Healing, page 18.

9 The Rebbe spoke these words in public at a Yom-Ha Shoa observance at the Actors Temple, New York, New York, on 17 April 2009.

10 Physician of the Soul: A Modern Kabbalist's Approach to Health and Healing, page 18.

11 The New York Times article, "Economy & Business; Far From Corner Offices, Scrimping and Improvising," by Amy Cortese, 16 December 2002. The author states that the Rebbe "lost his first wife and child, as well as his father, mother and 12 of his 19 brothers and sisters, at Auschwitz." If the Rebbe was indeed the ninth of seventeen children, which he writes in Physician of the Soul, page 17, Cortese should have written he lost "12 of his 16 brothers and sisters," which means only four survived, assuming she was correct to begin with in stating that twelve of them had perished.

12 Kabbalah As I See It: An Introduction to the Joy in Jewish Mysticism, page 3.

13 Physician of the Soul: A Modern Kabbalist's Approach to Health and Healing, page 18, and Kabbalah: The Mystic Path to Health, Awareness, Power, and God (in nine lessons), back cover.

14 Daily Breeze article, "Rabbi combines yoga with Hebrew mantras and teaches that 'God is in each of us,' Founder of nation's first interfaith institution comes to Torrance to demonstrate his latest teaching, a blend of Jewish mysticism and yoga," by Sandy Cohen, 23 October 2004.

15 Webpage: Lotus, Light of Truth Universal Shrine, Interfaith Pioneer, http://www.lotus.org/docs/interfaithpioneer.htm.

16 Webpage: Integral Yoga Magazine, http://www.iymagazine.org/catalog/product_info.php?cPath=33&products_id=85.

17 Kabbalah: The Mystic Path to Health, Awareness, Power, and God (in nine lessons), page 6.

18 Webpage: Rabbinical Seminary International, http://www.rabbinicalseminaryint.org/rsi.htm.

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