In September 1929, as the United States was slipping into the Great Depression, R’ Yisroel Eliyohu Dubin, an upholsterer by trade, made a decision to leave Philadelphia and move to New York to enroll his son in yeshiva. This was at a time when the Upholsterer’s Journal had taken out a full-page ad that month warning upholsterers not to come to New York to look for work, as there were no jobs available.
Although by no means wealthy, R’ Yisroel Eliyohu had been able to support his family in Philadelphia — but he was undeterred. As he wrote in his autobiography: “I decided that if I wanted to save my children from being assimilated amongst the gentiles and learning their ways, then I must, immediately, leave Philadelphia. My oldest son would be six years old on Shemini Atzeres. If not now, when?”
R’ Yisroel Eliyohu understood the only way to ensure that his children would remain frum was to move to New York, where there were proper yeshivos for his children. R’ Yisroel Eliyohu rented an apartment just down the block from Yeshiva Chaim Berlin. He always said that the day that he enrolled his son in Chaim Berlin was the happiest day of his life.
The son who would be turning six years old on Shemini Atzeres was Rabbi Ovadiah Dubin zt”l, who was niftar last Wednesday, on the 24th of Shevat.
Rabbi Dubin’s life was a testament to his father’s vision and foresight. He lived his entire life within the bounds of a yeshiva — as a student at Yeshiva Chaim Berlin and Yeshiva Torah Vodaas; as a rebbi in Yeshiva Chaim Berlin, Salanter Yeshiva, HILI, and other day schools and Talmud Torahs; and in his later years, as a mentor to talmidim in Yeshiva Shor Yoshuv. In Reb Yisroel Eliyohu’s later years, when he was a patient at the Betzalel nursing home, Rabbi Dubin would visit him every day and study daf yomi with him.
A Master Mechanech from a Young Age
Rabbi Dubin learned in Yeshiva Chaim Berlin, where he had a close relationship with both Rav Yitzchok Hutner and Rav Yaakov Moshe Shurkin, a talmid of the Chofetz Chaim. He not only learned Torah from Rav Shurkin, but also absorbed his pedagogical methods and approach to chinuch. Rav Shurkin once remarked to a talmid that Rabbi Dubin was a “velt’s ganiv.” When the person expressed surprise that Rav Shurkin would speak that way, he explained: “He literally took everything from me! Exactly how I explain a sugya and how I talk to talmidim…”
Rav Hutner recognized Rabbi Dubin’s potential as an educator from a young age. When Rabbi Dubin was a bochur — approximately 21 years old — Rav Hutner called him into his office and informed him that one of the rabbeim in the Chaim Berlin mesivta (Rav Meir Pam, father of Rav Avrohom Pam) had taken ill, and he wanted Rabbi Dubin to take over the class. Rabbi Dubin protested that he had no experience, and he wouldn’t be able to control a classroom of high school boys only a few years younger than he was. But Rav Hutner insisted, and Rabbi Dubin was left with no choice. Rabbi Dubin taught the class for several months and had an astounding degree of success.
After Rabbi Dubin’s marriage to Susi (Sarah Ettel) Beller, he sought a job as a rebbi. Rav Hutner arranged a job for him teaching at the Salanter Yeshiva in the Bronx, where he was very successful.
Several years later, Rav Hutner sent an immigrant bochur from Eastern Europe, who he felt had potential in chinuch, to take a job at the yeshiva, and he told Rabbi Dubin to help him. At the time, Rabbi Dubin was teaching sixth grade, where he had successfully implemented his disciplinary system, and the bochur had been assigned to teach the third grade. Rabbi Dubin sensed that if the bochur would begin by teaching third graders, he would not last long in chinuch. Feeling that if the bochur would teach sixth grade, after the boys had already started learning Gemara, he would better be able to become a successful mechanech, Rabbi Dubin offered to switch classes with him.
That bochur was Rav Chaim Segal, later a master mechanech and the menahel of Yeshiva Chaim Berlin mesivta. Rav Chaim always credited Rabbi Dubin with getting him started as a mechanech, and was happy to be able to repay the favor by being the shadchan for Rabbi Dubin’s oldest son.
From Salanter Yeshiva, Rabbi Dubin moved on to HILI, a day school in Far Rockaway, and then to various day schools and Talmud Torahs. After years of teaching at yeshivos and day schools, he was offered a position as a public-school teacher, where he made an impression on hundreds, if not thousands, of Jewish students, keeping a set of tefillin and a small library of seforim in his social studies classroom. He was on a committee that wrote the Hebrew Regents, and took pleasure in including his children and grandchildren’s names on the exams they would be taking.
He was an expert baal korei, and took pride in the fact that his sons and many of his grandchildren and great-grandchildren were expert baalei kriah as well. It didn’t hurt that he bought a Megillas Esther for any grandchild who learned how to lein the megillah (and actually leined it)!
One of his grandchildren, Dr. Reuven Minkowitz, once leined at a medical convention in Los Angeles, in the distinctly expressive and careful way he had been taught by his grandfather. Subsequently, another doctor attending the convention came over and asked where he had learned to lein. The physician told him that he reminded him of his teacher, Mr. Dubin. Another doctor overheard and remarked that he had also had a teacher — a Rabbi Dubin — who had leined in the same distinctive manner.
Not only did his students remember him years later, he remembered every one of his thousands of students, which class they were in, and whether they were good students — a direct result of the love and closeness he felt for every one of them.
Retirement — A Return to Yeshiva
After the tragic death of his wife in a car accident in 2001, Rabbi Dubin’s world was shattered. He had shared an exceptionally close relationship with his wife and felt her loss keenly, and found solace by returning to yeshiva full time. He began to spend his entire day at Yeshiva Shor Yoshuv in Far Rockaway, exhibiting tremendous hasmodah in his learning. The rosh yeshiva, Rav Naftoli Jaeger, described at the levayah how Rabbi Dubin served as a model for the bochurim.
He would arrive at the yeshiva every day at 8:00 a.m. after having davened and attended Rabbi Kalisch’s daf yomi shiur, where he was referred to as “Rabbeinu Ovadiah,” in deference to his encyclopedic knowledge. Whenever the maggid shiur was absent, Rabbi Dubin would deliver a shiur without any advance notice or preparation, and the members of the shiur knew they could always rely on Rabbi Dubin to provide the precise location and wording of any posuk in Tanach that came up during the shiur. He would learn at the yeshiva until 6:00 p.m., taking only a brief break to eat and to do some exercise for his health.
Bochurim would approach him and request to learn with him, and he would always answer, “Sure!” He would then ask what they wanted to learn, and agreed to anything they wanted — Gemara, Chumash, Nach, halacha, or dikduk. He was totally committed to those sedorim; when children or grandchildren would call and ask if they could visit, he would only allow them to come during times when he did not have a seder with a talmid at the yeshiva.
Rabbi Jaeger said that his love for each and every bochur in the yeshiva overflowed, and they felt it. They would vie for the privilege of driving him to and from yeshiva, and even gave him brachos under the chuppah at their weddings.
Fluent in Shas and Tanach
Rabbi Dubin was fluent in Shas and Tanach. One of his sons recalled spending Yom Kippur in a rehab facility with him when he was in his 90s. During the afternoon, his son took out a Gemara and began to learn. Rabbi Dubin asked him what masechta he was learning and which daf he was on, and then began to learn with his son from memory.
His knowledge of Tanach was exceptional. He was constantly quoting pesukim from every sefer in Tanach and knew almost all of it by heart, a quality he learned from his father. One of his sons said at the levayah that he was “as fluent in Iyov as most people are in Ashrei.”
One of his grandsons hosted him for Pesach when he was in his mid-90s and wheelchair bound. A minyan was arranged in the house, and Rabbi Dubin was honored with maftir. Naturally, he leined the haftorah, but because he had limited use of his fingers in his later years, someone had to turn the pages for him. About halfway through the haftorah, the person turning the pages mistakenly turned two pages instead of one, but Rabbi Dubin finished off the next 10-15 pesukim as if nothing had happened. The same thing happened many times in the weekly Nach shiur that he gave until about three months before his petirah.
Rabbi Dubin had an exceptionally wide range of knowledge of many other areas of Torah, especially those that others do not pay much attention to. He was exceptionally fluent in Hebrew language and dikduk, even giving shiurim in dikduk in Shor Yoshuv. He was also incredibly well read in Jewish history. His son-in-law Rabbi Yitzchok Shurin described how Rabbi Dubin would give shiurim on the mesorah gedolah and mesorah ketanah in Tanach, a subject many people don’t even know exists.
The Quintessential Mechanech
Rabbi Dubin was not just an educator in his various teaching positions — his very essence was that of a mechanech. He used every opportunity to teach, often quoting from Tanach and Gemara to make a point.
His sons recalled that when they were less than eight years old, their younger sister went missing on Shabbos. Rabbi Dubin called them over and said, “Watch, I am going to call the police now because there is a possibility of pikuach nefesh.” After he was informed that his daughter was safe at the police station, he told his sons he was going to walk to the station, but only because he was told that she was happy. If she would have been crying or upset, he would have driven, as the halacha requires. Rabbi Dubin turned the incident into a teaching moment, despite his natural anxiety about his missing child.
One grandson recalled staying with him when he was an onein, upon the death of his brother, and how Rabbi Dubin called him over to show him how he was eating without a brocha because he was an onein.
A great-grandchild related that as a young boy, he couldn’t pronounce the “ches” sound in his name. Rabbi Dubin told him that the Gemara says that Rav Chiya also couldn’t pronounce the “ches” sound, and then proceeded to teach that child to correctly pronounce his own name.
One of his sons described how Rabbi Dubin had a tutoring session with a boy from the neighborhood on Shabbos afternoon. Rabbi Dubin would always invite his son to join them in their learning. Years later, Rabbi Dubin told him he had arranged the tutoring session for the sole purpose of being able to invite his son to learn with them because Rabbi Dubin felt that his son would be more receptive to learning with him in this manner.
He knew how to teach in a gentle manner without causing embarrassment. One of his grandsons recalled that when he was newly married and with Rabbi Dubin on Shemini Atzeres, he made kiddush in the sukkah and mistakenly made the brocha of leisheiv basukkah. Rabbi Dubin, who was then in his 90s, did not tell him he should not have made the brocha, so as not to embarrass him in front of his new wife. He merely quoted the words of the Gemara: “Yisuvei yasvinan, bruchi lo mivarchinan,” knowing his grandson would understand the words of the Gemara, but that his wife would not.
The lessons he taught penetrated because of the love and closeness he had with his family. He knew each of his grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and was familiar with all the details of their lives. He knew which ones had strep and which one had received an award in yeshiva — even when he was well into his 90s. He never forgot the birthday of a child, grandchild, or great-grandchild.
During their 54 years of marriage, Rabbi Dubin and his wife were role models for shalom bayis, respecting and looking up to each other, and fostering a positive, happy atmosphere at home. Sundays would find extended family (children and grandchildren) regularly making the trip to Far Rockaway from Brooklyn and beyond — it was a joy to be in that house.
A Final Lesson in Kibbud Av
Rabbi Dubin’s grandchildren were zoche to an unforgettable, awe-inspiring lesson in kibbud av, to a level unknown and unseen by most. Rabbi Dubin’s children were held up as a lesson by a prominent rosh yeshiva, who used them to demonstrate that there are Jews today who know what kibbud av is. His children changed their entire life around to take care of their father with great mesirus nefesh during his final years.
Rabbi Dubin is survived by his sons, R’ Avrohom and R’ Gershon, and by his daughters, Goldie Minkowitz, Aliza Rabinowitz, Esther Shurin, and Debbie Schuss, as well as many grandchildren and great-grandchildren following in his ways.
Yehi zichro boruch.