Photo Credit: Sam Davidowicz

Not since the Lubavitcher Rebbe died in 1994 at age 92 has there been an outpouring of grief and sorrow for an American spiritual leader. The Novominsker Rebbe, Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, died on April 7, at approximately 5:30 a.m., at age 89. That afternoon he was buried at Mt. Lebanon cemetery in Iselin, NJ with a small gathering of people at the gravesite.

The difference this time was Perlow’s dedicated flock of supporters and followers, including students, could not demonstrate a large outburst of anguish for the Rebbe’s passing due to social distancing concerns of the coronavirus, which is what ultimately the Rebbe succumbed to.

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“Had this been a regular day, he would have had 100,000 people or more at his levaya,” said Chaskel Bennett, a board member of Agudath Israel of America. “I didn’t go [to the kevurah]. The Rebbe would not have wanted me to go in this current environment. I did not go. That’s the way we could show him a final honor.”

The morning of the Rebbe’s passing, Governor Andrew Cuomo sent a message to the charedi community when asked by The Jewish Press about the possibility for a mass gathering for those who are in mourning.

“I understand religious gatherings. I understand the Jewish Orthodox community,” Cuomo said. “I’m very close to them and I have been for many, many years. Now is not the time for large religious gatherings. We’ve paid this price already. We’ve learned this lesson. Now is not the time. You do no one a service by making this worse and infecting more people.”

Rabbi Perlow held three prominent positions. He was the third Novominsker Rebbe, a chasidic sect that began in Poland with its founding by Perlow’s grandfather, Yaakov. He was the rosh yeshiva of the Yeshivas Novominsk-Kol Yehuda, which Rabbi Perlow founded in 1976. And in 1998 he was appointed to the position of president of the Agudath Israel of America, where he led Agudah’s Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah. (The family of Rabbi Perlow’s grandmother founded the Agudath Israel in Poland.)

“We are devastated and broken-hearted to report the petirah of the Novominsker Rebbe HaRav Yaakov Perlow,” read a message from the leadership of the Agudath Israel of America. “The Rebbe was a longstanding member of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah of America, and served as Rosh Agudas Yisroel for the past 22 years. The loss to Klal Yisroel, and Agudas Yisroel, is incalculable.”

“As a Rebbe, rosh yeshiva, and as the Rosh Agudath Israel, the Noviminsker Rebbe changed tens of thousands of lives for the better,” said Assemblyman Simcha Eichenstein (D – Midwood / Borough Park). “Through decades of leadership, Torah and chesed, there is but a void left in the place of the Rebbe on the dais of gedolei Yisrael.”

Rabbi Perlow married Yehudis Eichenstein, the daughter of the Grand Rebbe Avrohom Eichenstein of Ziditchover-Chicago. Assemblyman Eichenstein told The Jewish Press he was unaware of a close lineage to the Rebbe’s wife’s family and said they are probably distant cousins.

The Rebbe and his wife have twin sons, Yisroel and Shia, and a daughter, Faigie. It is unclear whether the line of succession will continue with a family member or continue without a definitive spiritual leader.

Approximately two weeks prior to his death, Rabbi Perlow recorded a video warning to take this disease seriously. “Klal Yisrael, and the entire world are now confronted by a medical crisis, by an eitz tzorah, the kind of which was never seen before,” Rabbi Perlow said in a strong voice.

“We must be informed about the facts of this disease and what the rofei momchim, the infectious disease specialists, are telling us, in a unanimous way… the batei midrashim have been emptied, and that itself is a major tragedy for us. Daven with kavanah, learn as best as you can separately or on the telephone with others.

“And have in mind that the Ribono Shel Olam is a rofei ne’eman and the Ribono Shel Olam should relieve us from all this tzaar, from all these gezeiros, and show us the right path in life b’gashmius, b’ruchniyus. Vehi ratzon that Hakadosh Baruch Hu be mekabel our tefillos. With teshuvah, with tefillah, u’tzedakkah maavirin es ro’a hagezeirah.”

Bennett lamented his personal loss as he personally knew Rabbi Perlow the past 15 years. The Rebbe always had an open door and a lifeline of sorts for Bennett.

“When you met with the Rebbe, when you spoke with the Rebbe, you came away smarter when you left,” Bennett recalled for The Jewish Press. “He was fearless. He was principled. He was beloved by his flock and universally respected by everyone. He was a force to be reckoned with. He wasn’t enamored with the position that had been bestowed upon him. His words wielded enormous weight and yet he was as real a person as you can get.”

As an advocate for the Orthodox Jewish community in Washington and Albany, Bennett said he would ask the Rebbe how to hone his message to federal and state lawmakers.

“We discussed how I could get a better understanding about how to articulate our position. The value of yeshivas, the contributions of the Orthodox community to society at large, and how to make our case in a more real and humanistic way that would resonate. He was very much a worldly person. His Torah brilliance, knowledge of the issues, and command of the English language were legendary. His speeches always left an impression. He was a towering figure and his loss is devastating.”

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Marc Gronich is news director of Statewide News Service. He also operates the website JBizTechValley.com. He has been covering government and politics since 1981. His Albany Beat column appears monthly in The Jewish Press.