Rabbi YY Jacobson has a message that can ignite the genuine seeker inside us all.
Interview enough talented people and you notice how they all seem to answer questions from a preassembled box of answers: the counterman at a fast-food joint serving up a burger spicy fries and large Coke from the fountain.
Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Jacobson is more like a chef creating a fresh dish sampling ingredients and spices rethinking measurements adjusting and fine-tuning: the answers are different every time uniquely his. He owns them. It’s evident in the way he grows excited at the more challenging questions his expression that of a cleanup hitter eyeing a slow-moving curveball.
His conversation like his formal lectures fuses intellectualism — he offers copious and detailed sources for each idea — with kumzitz-style banter jokes chassidic tales. Even notes of song creep in.
He can do a lot of things maybe because he is a lot of things — an Ashkenazi who’s really a Sephardi a master of the mussar works who’s really a chassid; he can explain a shtickel Reb Chaim with the same eloquence as a piece of Tanya. His calendar is dotted with appearances in LakewoodKiryatJoel and Yeshiva University. It’s a paradox hinted to by his surname.
Jacobson doesn’t sound like a Sephardic surname because it’s not — but it’s also not really his name.
When the Time is Right
Nearly a century ago in 1918, Simon Yakubashvili, a wealthy young man from Georgia, was en route to Italy, where he planned to learn the fur trade in the hub of the fashion industry before returning home to join the family business.
The holiday of Rosh Hashanah forced him to break shortly after he embarked on his journey; the closest Jewish community was in Rostov, where he joined the Lubavitcher Yeshivah for tefillos. It wasn’t even close to what the youngster was used to; back home, the prayers were loud and intense, warm-hearted Sephardic Jews giving full vent to their emotions. In Chabad, everything was kept inside, almost nothing visible on the outside during prayer.
Though the visitor wanted the chance to observe the Rebbe, Rav Sholom Dov Ber, the chassidim looked uncertainly at the clean-shaven foreigner in the stylish white suit, and prevented him from penetrating the close circle surrounding their leader.
In the moments before tekias shofar, the air in the beis medrash was heavy with tension; unable to contain himself, the Georgian bochur pushed forward to the Rebbe, anxious to see his face. The chassidim tried to move him away, but the Rebbe waved his hand, indicating that they should leave the boy alone.
Motzaei Rosh Hashanah, the visitor was granted an audience with the Rebbe. The Rashab, as he was known, preferred not to speak Russian, and the bochur spoke no Yiddish.
“Where are you going?” the Rebbe asked in lashon kodesh.
The boy explained that he was on the way to Italy, to study the fur business.
“You will indeed go to Italy,” the Rebbe said, “but only when the time is right. Now is the time to sit and learn.”
Accepting the Rebbe’s words, the bochur put his plans on hold and joined the yeshivah, Tomchei Temimim.
Until the Final Drop
The years moved on. In 1920, the Rashab passed on and was succeeded by his son, Rav Yosef Yitzchak — the Rayatz. In 1924, Vladimir Lenin died and was replaced as Soviet leader by Joseph Stalin; a dark new era had begun, the Society of the Godless in firm control. Perceiving what was about to happen, the young Lubavitcher Rebbe gathered a close circle together, nine loyal chassidim. He looked each one in the eye. “We are forging a bris damim, a covenant in blood,” he told them. “I need nine people who are ready to spread Yiddishkeit with mesirus nefesh, ad tipas dam acharonah, until their final drop of blood.”
They understood that it wasn’t mere drama: they were playing for high stakes. They shook hands and set out to work — those nine chassidim, and the chassidim they inspired would create some six hundred underground schools in the next two decades, the Soviet wave of oppression generating more yeshivos, chadarim, and mikvaos than ever.
Simon Yakubashvili, one of the nine, went back home to Georgia, using daring and ingenuity to keep the flame alive. In 1938, during Stalin’s Great Purge, Simon was arrested, tortured, and exiled to a remote Siberian Gulag for 25 years of hard labor. Toward the end of World War II, he bribed his way to freedom and fled Russia with his wife and two sons, using false Polish passports.
In 1946, the Rebbe Rayatz, then living in New York, sent fresh instructions to his chassid. The Rebbe wanted Simon to head to Italy and save Jewish children, war orphans, from the monasteries.
Simon didn’t hesitate, following the Rayatz’s command, and fulfilling the Rashab’s assurance: “You will indeed go to Italy… when the time is right.”
A Brother You Keep
Simon Jacobson — he’d changed his name in order to leave Russia — was married and settled in Toronto, Canada, when he fell ill and passed away in 1953 at age 53, a life filled with activism and mesirus nefesh cut short. The heartbroken widow, just 44 years old, died a year later, and three orphans remained without a single relative to take them in, as the rest of their family was back in Russia.
The eldest son, 20-year-old Gershon, a talmid at the Lubavitcher yeshivah in Crown Heights, was charged with raising his two younger siblings. The middle brother Betzalel was 14 and could live in yeshivah, but the baby brother, Sholom, needed a home and nurturing family. Gershon was pressured to give up his baby brother for adoption. The Lubavitcher Rebbe thought otherwise. “A bruder,” a brother, the Rebbe said, ‘‘gibt men nisht avek,” one doesn’t give away. The Rebbe suggested that Gershon find a Jewish family with children that would be willing to take in the young orphan, and Gershon, who would pay a monthly stipend, would be able to visit the child regularly. The Rebbe even gave Gershon part-time work in the chassidus’s publication division so that he could keep his family together.
Gershon found the Lipsker family. They’d fled Stalin’s Georgia and moved to a farm in Hightstown, New Jersey, before finally opening a grocery store in Crown Heights. The kindhearted mother, Mrs. Teibel Lipsker, welcomed the infant, but, though impoverished, refused the offer of funds. She provided Gershon with the best possible solution; he would be free to visit his brother and spend time with him while she attended to the child’s needs. “The same Ribbono shel Olam who provides for nine mouths in this home will feed one more,” Mrs. Lipsker would say.
Gershon would never forget her kindness: within a year he, too, would join the family when he married the eldest Lispker daughter, Tzivia (Sylvia).
Gershon Jacobson finally had a home of his own, but he didn’t take the time to enjoy newlywed life. He discovered an aptitude for journalism: curiosity, passion, determination, and a rich sense of history propelled him forward. He was hired as a writer for the secular Jewish daily, Tog Morgen Journal, which at the time boasted a readership of 250,000. Later, he would work for the New York Herald Tribune and eventually replace Yedioth Ahronoth’s New York correspondent, a Holocaust survivor named Elie Wiesel.
Like his father, who’d returned to Soviet Georgia with a mission, the gifted journalist found his calling.
He Handled It
“My father was not without critics,” Reb Yosef Yitzchak reflects. “He didn’t work within the heimeshe sphere and his positions weren’t always the classic shtiebel attitudes, but he had one supporter, and that was enough for him: the Lubavitcher Rebbe. The Rebbe cherished him because he was a ticket to the hearts and minds of secular Jews, a shaliach with a huge audience.”
In time, many frum newspapers courted New York’s preeminent Yiddish journalist, but Gershon Jacobson wasn’t comfortable being boxed in. Finally, in 1972, after the Tog Morgen Journal abruptly closed, he established his own newspaper. The Algemeiner Journal, an overnight success, was a study in contrasts, news laced with opinion, flavored with controversy and debate. The Lubavitcher editor-in-chief wouldn’t, as a matter of principle, censor letters or opinions, so anti-Chabad rhetoric regularly appeared in the pages of a journal that featured a complete transcript of the Rebbe’s weekly sichah (paid for as an advertisement by a chassid). Avid rightists and fervent leftists talked over each other in its columns.
The editor himself, with his stylish gray hat and ever-present cigar, moved easily between groups, comfortable attending Agudah conventions or sitting upfront at the left-wing rabbinic conferences and United Nations briefings. He covered the Ecumenical Council at the Vatican, the Eichmann Trial in Jerusalem, and was the first Jewish journalist to visit Egypt after the Six Day War to cover the “losing side.”
“I remember walking into shul with him, any shul,” Reb Yosef Yitzchok says, putting a brave face on what can’t be a completely pleasant memory, “and there would be a small crowd around him within a moment, people shouting opinions at him.
“My father,” says the son, whom no one has ever accused of lacking poise, “was just so confident. He handled it, maybe even enjoyed it. He was truly comfortable in his own skin—a rare phenomenon.”
Does the World Exist?
It was in the middle of a Shabbos afternoon farbrengen in Crown Heights in 1985. The Lubavitcher Rebbe would begin the Shabbos gatherings at 1:30 p.m., and, over several hours, deliver long in-depth talks, with singing in between. In the middle of one of his Rashi talks, the Rebbe paused. His eyes searched the crowd and rested on a child, Yosef Yitzchak Jacobson, son of the Algemeiner’s editor. The Rebbe looked at him and asked this question: “Fun vanet veist du,” how do you know, “az ess iz doh a velt,” that there is a world?
Time stood still as the Rebbe’s eyes bore into the child. Young Jacobson had the good sense not to answer, and the Rebbe continued, answering his own question: “So the child answers, ‘Because the Torah says Bereishis bara Elokim es haShamayim v’es ha’aretz!’ ”
With the clarity of hindsight, the immensely popular rav understands that he was receiving marching orders. “Today, as I travel the world, talking to Jews and sometimes non-Jews from all walks of life, I must remember that Torah is the blueprint for the universe, as the Midrash puts it. If you want to understand the world, you need to master the Torah. The roadmap for the future and the deepest perspective on every dilemma in life lies in the Torah, not the New York Times.”
The teenage Yosef Yitzchak was welcomed into an elite group. “My older brother, Simon, was one of the ‘chozrim,’ those charged with repeating the Rebbe’s sichos for others and transcribing them after Shabbos, under the leadership of Rav Yoel Kahn shlita. He took me into that chaburah.”
Each Motzaei Shabbos, the nervous new chozer was charged with repeating the Rebbe’s Shabbos sichos via hookup to chassidim across the globe. “The pressure was enormous,” he recalls. “The Rebbe would speak for hours, and could cover literally hundreds of topics, combining halachah, aggadah, pilpul, chassidus, all with practical lessons and current events. It was a journey into a different world — and we had to retain it all in our memories.
“Sometimes, over Yom Tov, the Rebbe would hold four fabrengens, each one lasting for hours, and all that Torah had to be memorized and transcribed. The strain was incredible, but the excitement just as colossal, the thrill of capturing that style, originality, and breadth.”
When Yosef Yitzchak was 20 years old, his Rebbe had a stroke: the glory days were over. The voice that had continuously inspired and guided was still; then two years later, in Tammuz 1994, the Rebbe returned his soul to its Maker.
“It was a painful time. My friends and I were struggling to find our way. I continued learning in yeshivos, in Boston, New York, and Morristown.”
A few years later, still a bochur, Yosef Yitzchak joined the Algemeiner staff, writing a Torah column, a weekly review of newly published Torah works and articles on history and machsheves Yisrael.
A reader of the column, Rabbi Yosef Shanowitz of Highland Park, Illinois, might well supplement his meager income as a Chabad shaliach by working as a talent scout: he had the idea of inviting a young YY Jacobson to come speak in the Windy City.
“I was accustomed to transmitting the Rebbe’s talks, but I wasn’t really a public speaker and I wasn’t sure what he wanted.”
Rabbi Shanowitz persisted and the inaugural performance went well; when Boro Park’s Heichal Menachem wanted to launch an English language Tanya shiur, they turned to him as well.
And he never really stopped speaking.
All Colors and Streams
We sit in Rabbi Jacobson’s office surrounded by cameras and lighting equipment, the tools through which his shiurim are streamed across the world. An immensely popular speaker, he’s visited some 600 communities over the last 15 years.
Some time ago, the Pentagon invited him to offer the religious keynote to all of the chief chaplains of the US Army. Then the National Security Agency invited him to address their employees on the vision of Judaism for a peaceful world. He jokes about the experience. “I love Jews, but I have to admit, there is a pleasure in speaking to an audience that actually shuts off their cell phones when told to do so…”
In preparing for the interview, I listened to and watched many more shiurim than necessary, finding myself addicted to his message and style of speaking, a mix of folksy maggidus with the penetrating depth that gives Chabad its name. Listen to his singsong and you hear notes of chassidim huddled around the oven at the Russian inn, sharing vodka and maisehs; but also the quiet hum of the scholarly maskil, the chassid standing at noon, tallis over his shoulder as his mind soars to places far beyond the confines of the room, of the universe, preparing for Shacharis.
I wonder if he’s building on the path of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, or if he’s creating his own path. The Rebbe, I suggest, generally stuck to quoting his predecessors, rebbes of Chabad, while Rabbi Jacobson easily quotes from the Vilna Gaon and Nefesh HaChaim, the Chofetz Chaim and Brisker Rav, the Ishbitzer and Sfas Emes. (Although, when quoting Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz in a recent shiur, he couldn’t resist adding, “Those familiar with the teachings of chassidus can really appreciate what the Mirrer rosh yeshivah is saying.”)
Rabbi Jacobson takes issue with my comment. “I am happy for the opportunity to correct a misconception. Open up any sichos of the Lubavitcher Rebbe published in Likkutei Sichos, and you will see hundreds of sources: honestly, you’ll be hard-pressed to find an acharon who brings from so many diverse sources. One lomdus sichah will typically quote around 400 references to all types of works outside of Chabad. It is quite amazing. He quotes almost every single Acharon from previous and recent generations—from Avnei Neizer to Reb Chaim, from the Maharsham to the Kli Chemdah, from Sfas Emes to the Ohr Samei’ach, Rav Ovadiah Yosef, Tzitz Eliezer, and of course his favorite—the Rogatchover Gaon. To appreciate the world and Torah of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, you need to be well versed in the entire literature of Torah, from all streams and colors.
“My impression,” Rabbi Jacobson continues, “has its roots in a simple fact.
“Now, when the Rebbe spoke chassidus, he quoted mostly from Chabad because Chabad chassidus is a very serious, comprehensive, and self-contained system, developed meticulously over seven generations, with its own style, methodology, paradigms. It’s not just a collection of inspiring vertlech. It would be disingenuous to mix in from others. When you are learning a Griz or Birchas Shmuel, you won’t suddenly throw in Kli Yakar. It is ‘min b’sheino meno.’ It is a different genre.”
Unlike most other chassidic dynasties, which are limited in the amount of printed works they’ve produced, Chabad is drowning in seforim. Each of the Chabad rebbes was a prolific writer; the Baal HaTanya has 35 seforim. The Tzemach Tzedek wrote 70, in kabbalah, chassidus, halachah, and philosophy.
“It’s a system of thought constructed by seven generations of geniuses, each building on their predecessors,” Rabbi Jacobson says. “It’s not something that you can toss into a cholent. That said, the Rebbe did find opportunity to quote most of the chassidic works, even if not regularly.”
“What about Rebbe Nachman of Breslov?” I challenge. “Did the Rebbe ever quote him?”
Rabbi Jacobson doesn’t hesitate.
“Sure,” he says, and names the date. “There were guests at the farbrengen from Eretz Yisrael and the Rebbe turned to them and said: ‘Rebbe Nachman translates the pasuk of ‘Kechu m’zimras ha’aretz’ as instructions to bring back a song from the Holy Land. Nu, let’s hear an Eretz Yisroel’dige niggun…’
When the Rebbe urged people to celebrate their birthdays, he quoted a Rav Tzaddok of Lublin, in Resisei Layla. “This was in the 1960s, when very few people were familiar with Rav Tzaddok’s name. After the Rebbe’s passing, they discovered his private journals and I saw that, way back in the 1930’s, he already quoted this Rav Tzaddok.”
Not Good at PR
Much more painful — and Rabbi Jacobson makes no secret of it — is the perception that chassidus glorifies am ha’aratzus, not giving Torah study the place of honor it occupies in the yeshivah world.
“It’s a sad misconception. I’ve read pretty extensively and I can tell you that it’s hard to find someone who extolled the importance of limud hanigleh like the Baal HaTanya and his successors. Learn Hilchos Talmud Torah of the Alter Rebbe, which, incidentally, he published even before he authored the Tanya and the rest of his Shulchan Aruch. This was his first chibur. Read the Kuntres Acharon there; it’s fire. In many of his ma’amarim he explains that the deepest intimacy with Hashem is during Torah study — learning Torah b’iyun is the pinnacle of avodas Hashem in the world of the Baal HaTanya. If you learn the ma’amarim in Likutei Torah about how the deepest intimacy with Hashem is experienced in Torah study, how Torah b’iyun in the pinnacle of Divine service, your heart can melt in ecstasy.”
Rabbi Jacobson is clearly agitated. “Do you know that to join one of the chadarim the Baal HaTanya created for yungeleit who wanted to learn under him, you had to know Shas by heart with Rishonim? He had many chassidim who would finish Shas each year.”
Rabbi Jacobson stands up and leads me outside, pacing through the gravel parking lot in front of his shul. “I remember how, in his final years, the Rebbe underwent eye surgery. He agreed to the procedure because he felt his eyesight was poor. How did he define poor? He told one of his gabbaim that he could no longer read the small letters of the Hagahos HaBach —so it was time for surgery. I don’t remember a single farbrengen in which the Rebbe didn’t urge an increase in learning Torah.”
He stops walking, “Ay, so you’ll ask how come Chabad has that reputation?” He ponders this for a moment. “You can give two reasons. First, Chabad is a kiruv powerhouse so they are known for their efforts in that area first and foremost. The second reason might surprise you.”
He looks at me seriously. “Chabad isn’t very good at PR.”
I smile, waiting for the punch line. It never comes.
“I mean it. Chabad is great at marketing Torah life to secular Jews, but doesn’t do a great job of selling its lomdim, the serious talmidei chachamim coming through its system. Not just to the world, but even to its own children, to themselves; we need to work harder to make it clear that you’re not really a chassid if you’re not entrenched in the world of limud haTorah.
“Even when we share the Rebbe’s legacy, we need to talk more about his focus — nay, his absolute otherworldly dedication, to learning. The Rebbe received some 400 letters a day, led hundreds of mosdos, counseled hundreds of thousands of people, and was involved in every single Jewish community in the world, yet spent most of his day and night learning! You had to see the geshmak of the Rebbe when he made a hadran on a masechta, which he would do around six times a year. I once heard from the Rebbe: “My interest in life is explaining a ‘shvere Rambam,’ a difficult Rambam. I have no other interests.” The Rebbe’s entire outreach work was a result, a child, of his entrenchment in Torah, because for him, Torah — — as a blueprint for humanity — must be spread to the entire world.”
A story to illustrate the idea: Gershon Jacobson was observing a 1971 meeting of the Moetzes Gedolei Torah of Agudath Israel when he heard Rav Shneur Kotler suggest that the government proposal to draft yeshivah bochurim for the Vietnam War was a gezeira because not enough Torah was being learned in the yeshivos. “The solution,” he said, “is to dramatically increase our limud haTorah.”
The journalist shared the comment with the Rebbe, who really appreciated it. At the Purim farbrengen, the Rebbe quoted Reb Schneur and concluded, “men darf nemen di velt mit limud haTorah”, it is time to conquer the world through Torah learning.”
The Right Balance
Along with speaking and writing, Yosef Yitzchak found time to marry; Rebbetzin Esti, from Pittsburgh, joined her husband’s shlichus. The couple settled in Crown Heights, where Reb Yosef Yitzchak was asked to serve as a rosh yeshivah in Yeshivah Chovevei Torah and rav of a local shul, Beis Shmuel. Though the bulk of his time was spent teaching Gemara b’iyun to talmidim and mispalellim, he was finding a new language with which to reach people.
It took work, he concedes, to find the correct balance of entertainment and meaning, to learn the language of a superficial generation, the means of capturing minds already hostage to handheld iPhones.
“The cell phone challenge is easy to address,” Rabbi Jacobson says, laughing. “Before I start, I politely ask the people in the audience to please turn off their cell phones. But how can you ask someone to turn on their mind, to open their heart?”
Though jokes are among the tools in his arsenal, Rabbi Jacobson remarks that they aren’t always necessary. “Male audiences need the jokes to keep them engaged; the women are ready and waiting for substance.”
The challenge, he agrees, is elevating the jokes, using truths concealed in jest to make real points. “At a dinner, the Ponevezher Rav once said, ‘All of the previous speakers spoke about Torah, but they meant money. I will speak about money, but I mean Torah.’ Jokes are only a means of transmitting a message.”
If success is any indication, he’s triumphed, creating a new brand of oratory uniquely his own. Whether he’s enthusing donors, crying with survivors, empathizing with sufferers, or simply teaching the masses, the same message comes through — there is a Ribbono shel Olam — and we are His ambassadors, empowered to transform our personal world and that around us.
Along the way, Rabbi Jacobson has become a sought after mentor for disaffected youth and their families, an advocate and guide to molestation victims, and a counselor to those finding their way back from addiction.
“Toras hanefesh is something a person has to learn, to really study,” he says, as he stops walking and sits down on a low wall in front of the empty shul. “But the foundation, I received from the Rebbe.
“The Gemara in Maseches Bava Kamma (daf 24 and daf 40) speaks about how a shor muad — an ox considered dangerous, since it damaged three times — can revert back to being a shor tam, an innocent ox, not seen as prone to damaging. This can be achieved in two ways: Either the owner rigorously disciplines his animal until its disposition is transformed, or he can sell the animal or give it as a gift to someone else. With a new owner, new patterns and schedules, the halachah assumes that the animal will return to its inborn domestic nature.
“The Rebbe saw in this sugya — as he saw in every word of Torah — a guide to healing. Each of us possesses an animal within. Yet, there are two distinct types of ‘damaging human animals.’ There is one whose moments of aggression are seen as unusual deviations, a ‘shor tam,’ and one for whom these destructive patterns have become common behavior, a ‘shor hamuad.’ If a husband continuously shouts at his wife or children, if a person in a position of leadership shatters the lives of the people he is responsible for, if one cannot control their addiction, this is a ‘shor hamuad.’
“There are two paths to recovery, the Rebbe explained. The first is the rigorous process of self-refinement, in which your animal learns to confront and challenge its deepest fears and urges, and it painstakingly de-beasts its abusive character. Yet even before you manage to work through all of the dark chambers of your wild animal, you have another alternative: change the jurisdiction of the animal. Take your animal and submit it to the higher power, to the property of Hashem. Even before complete therapy, surrender to the higher reality. Take your rage, your addictions, your depression, your fear, and submit them to Hashem.
“Talk to your animal and reflect together on the following truth: Yes, I know that you have a complicated past and I am not denying that, I know you believe that you are prone and addicted to all types of behavior. But right now, my dear animal, let us look and live in the present. You and I were just created anew, with a clean slate. So let us finally begin to live. For real. If you are serious, your animal will listen.
“This was such a beautiful lesson how a Divine law, chochmas haTorah, is the blueprint for true recovery.”
One year ago Rabbi Jacobson felt the time was right to take his shlichus beyond familiar Crown Heights. It wasn’t an easy decision for the family, but the opportunity it presented was a dream come true. It’s not just in the literal sense that Monsey offers wide open spaces. The shul Rabbi Jacobson leads is part of the Ohr Chaim community (under the leadership of Rabbi Aron Lankry and Reb Leizer Scheiner), the most impossible-to-pin-down kehillah you’ll ever find, mispallelim united only by a shared desire to grow.
Rabbi Jacobson also runs an online yeshivah, Theyeshiva.net, where many of his shiurim and speeches are featured, finding time to counsel, write, and of course, lecture. It’s the speeches that have brought him into the homes, cars, banquet halls, and convention centers of Klal Yisrael.
There is something in his personality and demeanor, a certain gravity and seriousness that doesn’t jibe with his podium persona. As we walk back and forth on Forshay Road, a passing driver pulls over and rolls down his window.
“Rabbi Jacobson!” he exclaims, not quite sure what he wants to say. Finally, he settles on, “I love your speeches,” before driving off. Rabbi Jacobson acknowledges the comment with a nod, the celebrity’s smile and a wave unnatural to him. He watches the car disappear with an uncomfortable expression.
Not About You
I wonder if the sudden burst of publicity has caught him by surprise. “Publicity is a strange cat. It can turn you into a narcissistic nut, and you become one big fake. There is nobody left behind the mask.
“But if I remember that publicity is simply an opportunity to disseminate Torah, then I may not become one more charlatan out there. There is one goal: ‘Yafutzu ma’ayonosecha chutzah,’ to allow the wellsprings of truth to come forth.
The rock star status is harder to deal with. “When I started speaking publically, I asked my brother how it’s possible to address others. ‘How can I face people three times my age — many of whom have endured tough lives — and preach to them?’ He answered something so helpful. ‘Yosef Yitzchak,’ he answered me, ‘If you feel like you’re sharing your own brilliance, then you takeh have no right to speak. But if you understand that you’re conveying Hashem’s Torah, then you’re not younger than them, because you’re just a mouthpiece for an age-old Torah.’ ”
He pauses reflectively and pulls out a perfect story from his endless supply. “After the passing of the Mezritcher Maggid, the chassidim were pushing the Baal HaTanya to serve as a rebbe, but he was hesitant, feeling unworthy. One day, he was sitting by the window looking outside at the chassidim walking toward him. Reb Schneur Zalman turned to his wife and with a big sigh said: ‘What do they want from me? This is not for me!’
“His rebbetzin, a clever woman, understood that he was ready to give up. She turned to her husband and said: ‘You think they are coming to hear you? No! They just want to hear what you heard from your rebbe!’ The Baal HaTanya looked up. ‘Really? Oib azoi, vel ich gebben uhn gebben, uhn gebben. If so, I will give and give some more…’ I heard this story from the Rebbe.”
And in Rabbi Jacobson mode, he quickly takes the chassidic story and grounds it in reality. “I spoke in Binyanei Ha’umah a while back to thousands of women. It was a major production, lights and sound and drama. I felt special, right? Five thousand people giving you a standing ovation is nice. When the speech was over, there was a crowd of women waiting to ask questions. My cell phone was ringing, but women were still speaking to me, ‘Rabbi Jacobson, you changed my life,’ and ‘Rabbi Jacobson, I never heard anyone so inspiring.’ The phone hadn’t stopped ringing so I looked down and it was my wife, calling from America, so of course I answered.
“ ‘Hi, YY,’ she quipped, ‘I’m so happy you’re inspiring everyone else, but your own kids will need therapy because their father is across the world changing lives.’
“ ‘Esti,’ I said, ‘give me one second.’
“ ‘Rabbi Jacobson,’ a woman called out, ‘would you consider coming to Israel to speak once a month? You’re amazing!’ ”
He laughs heartily. “And that’s real life, that’s what chassidus is supposed to prepare you for. To never allow your ego or insecurities to create a false substitute for truth. To remain a simple, vulnerable human being.”
A Broken Generation
Speaking, for Rabbi Jacobson, might be sort of a shlichus, but the real world is in his small office downstairs from the Monsey shul where he welcomes all sorts of people, hears all sorts of problems.
“We have a generation of teenagers who are desperate for guidance, for support. It takes great humility to work with them because it means admitting that we’ve been wrong. We’re a broken generation and we’ve made mistakes.”
He goes in to full lecture mode. “The truth is,” he says, “this is not a superficial generation. It is a very deep generation, and in many ways, today’s kids are more honest than ever before. You need to know how to touch their hearts. Our youth today crave three things: They are looking for a Yiddishkeit that shows how they can change the world, an experience of the universe meeting them and declaring, with them, Yisgadal v’yiskadash Shmei Rabba! Our youth can change the world, but they need to see Torah not as a tribal thing, aiming at keeping them locked up and repressed, but as the most refreshing revolution ever.
“Second: They need to discover a Torah that shows them their infinite power and their endless goodness and potential. The Rebbe once said that the yetzer hara of our generation is that people say, ‘mi ani u’mah ani,’ I am a nobody. Our generation is wounded inside. People hate themselves and are ashamed of themselves. Don’t tell your kids they are an embarrassment. They already feel that way, more than you know. Tell them that they are infinite Divine powerhouses. Tell each of them: Hashem loves you the way you are, and takes pride in what you can be!
“Third: Our youth needs experiential Yiddishkeit. They yearn for an intimate relationship with Hashem. No slogans, no PR, no social conformity. They want raw truth. They want to feel G-d in their kishkes. They are fed up with empty Judaism, based on status, self-accolades, and shidduchim. Reb Shimon Shkop once said that in the last generation of galus we will be like Avraham Avinu. Our kids will need to discover their own relationship with Hashem, and not only rely on their fathers and zeides.
“There is no question that before we shout about technology and all the nisyonos, we need to empower our youth and allow them to understand that Torah is not here to crush them, but rather to help them become the greatest human beings ever and touch Heaven! They need to hear about the soul of Yiddishkeit. They have a neshamah, a ‘chelek Elokah mimaal mamash,’ but they need to feel it.”
As if reading from a list, he continues with his own version of the rights of every teenager.
“Every teenager deserves a home with shalom bayis, a functional family unit. They deserve complete safety in their schools. They deserve teachers and rebbeim who welcome their questions and make them feel comfortable sharing what’s on their minds and hearts — and only once we’ve given them that can we have expectations from them. A broken person cannot thrive.”
In a sense, this is a big part of Rabbi Jacobson’s mission. In order to live with the ideals of Yahadus and chassidus — simchah, bitachon, bittul, dveikus — a person needs to be whole. “If we can just bring the people to the point that they feel whole —happy and fulfilled — the rest will come naturally.”
“We need to trust our youth,” he maintains. “They are incredible people. If we really trust them, they will shine. I remember one summer Shabbos in 1991, the Rebbe shared a gevaldige yesod of Reb Chaim Brisker in Hilchos Temidin U’musafin, that the geder of the mitzvah of lighting the menorah was not the act of lighting the candles, but rather that that the candles should burn — not the gavra but the cheftza. And then he explained that this can reframe our entire outlook on how to kindle the neshamos of our children. Don’t try to kindle your children; what you want to do is make sure they are burning on their own. It is not about what you do, it is all about what remains with them inside their own heart after you can’t force them anymore.”
“It did not only teach me how to view chinuch; it also taught me how to learn Reb Chaim in a new way…”
Close to a century ago, a young Georgian man, white suited and clean shaven, was sent forth bearing the torch of chassidus. His son was charged with a task even more innovative, using the white space between the lines of the secular Yiddish press to convey eternity — sparks of truth in a world of falsehood.
Keeping with tradition, his son is doing it his way, facing an enemy more daunting then Soviet oppression or secular derision — that of cynicism and apathy.
And like his fathers before him, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Jacobson is winning.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 593)