A diverse crowd gathered last month at Yeshiva Yesodei HaTorah in Toronto to pay their respects to Rabbi Menachem Mendel Aronow, a renowned teacher and mentor, who died on June 15 at age 93.
The group ranged from the city’s foremost Torah scholars to those of minimal religious observance. All came to pay homage to a man they deeply respected.
Rabbi Mendel, as he was known, was born to Rabbi Yehoshua Zelik and Chava Aronow in Orsha, Belarus. Mendel belonged to a family of Lubavitcher Hasidim who steadfastly clung to their religious laws and customs in the face of intense persecution from the Communist regime. When Mendel was just four years old, his father was arrested in the middle of the night and sentenced to years of hard labour in Siberia for teaching Torah to children.
During the years of his father’s imprisonment, Mendel’s mother was forced to move a number of times because the family had been branded as an enemy of the state.
There were times when Mendel was kept indoors during the day because his mother refused to send her son to the state school where he would be taught to hate his heritage. Only after nightfall did she allow him to go out for fresh air. During this period, his grandfather would come and tell him stories about his great ancestors and instil Jewish pride in him.
After his father’s release, life did not return to normal for Mendel and his family. With the invasion of the Nazis in 1941, the Aronows fled and journeyed first to Tashkent and later to Samarkand, in Soviet Uzbekistan. Although Uzbekistan was also under Communist rule, the authorities there were slightly less rigorous in their persecution of religion. It was in Uzbekistan that Mendel was able to attend a number of clandestine Torah groups that were run by young Lubavitch Torah scholars. During those formative years, he studied the laws of kosher slaughter and how to become a Torah scribe.
However, this period was far from idyllic. Torah groups were still illegal and Mendel and his friends were in constant danger. On multiple occasions, he was arrested and nearly drafted into forced labour battalions. Once he was already on a train headed to a labour camp, when he realized that he had not yet put on tefillin. Determined not to miss a day, he jumped off the moving train, risking his life should he be discovered.
He later reflected on the fact that most of his companions on that train ride ended up perishing—and credited the mitzvah of tefillin for his survival.
With the conclusion of the war, the Soviets began repatriating Polish citizens and many Russian Jews saw this as an opportunity to escape. Thus, the Aronows, together with many other Russian Jews, escaped the oppressive Soviet regime with forged Polish passports. After a harrowing journey, Mendel and his family arrived in a displaced persons camp in Poking, Germany, travelling afterwards to France.
After brief stints of working as a kosher slaughterer in Ireland and England, Mendel met his soulmate, Golda Minkowitz, also a Soviet refugee, in France. Following their marriage, they immigrated to Toronto after being sponsored by one of Golda’s aunts.
In those early years, there were challenges to living the life of his choosing. Well-meaning individuals implored him to shave off his long beard, claiming that he would never make it in the New World if he did not relinquish the old trappings.
Rav Mendel would never hear of it. If his father and his teachers were ready to be sent to Siberia in order to retain their traditions, how could he abandon them for financial comfort or to feel more accepted?
His son, Rabbi Zelik, related that he was once walking with his father on a Shabbat afternoon when a number of youths began to shout “look at the Santa Claus!” referring to his father’s beard (which wasn’t even white at the time).
In a similar vein, Rabbi Mendel refused to give his children English names, a practice that was then common.
Rabbi Mendel worked as a slaughterer of kosher meat and as a scribe who would prepare tefillin and other holy items. In later years he began to sell printed Torah books, matzah for Passover, and lulavim and etrogim for Sukkot.
His involvement with each of these trades was a lesson in integrity. If a customer brought him tefillin or a mezuzah to inspect that turned out to be invalid because the ink had cracked or faded, he would refuse to sell the customer new ones. He did not want the desire for business to influence his judgment about the scroll’s validity and would refer the customer to other reliable scribes.
Rabbi Mordechai Ochs of the Toras Emes Congregation related how whenever the Aronows would have a celebration, Rabbi Mendel would slaughter the meat himself, ensuring that everything was up to his standards.
When new customers would come his way, he would inquire where they usually shopped, not wanting to take away business from others. If they were, in fact, transferring vendors, he would encourage them to stay with their regular seller.
His customers also related how, even though it was clear that they did not adhere to the same level of religious observance that he did, Rabbi Mendel always made them feel comfortable.
Although none of his trades were financially lucrative endeavours, Rabbi Mendel never seemed to mind. His lack of capital and his strict adherence to his religious customs and principles did not weigh on him as a burden. On the contrary, he always remained a happy individual: a twinkle in his eye and a smile on his face.
For close to seven decades Rabbi Mendel taught a small group of students in his home. They would study the classical Torah texts as well as the works of the different Grand Rabbis of Lubavitch; works that he was an expert on.
Rabbi Mendel was a member of the Shlomei Emunah/Alte Yesodei HaTorah congregation—where he would pray daily. In his later years, he began to pray on Shabbat at the newly founded Lubavitch yeshiva near his home. Those who prayed with him related how, early in the morning and even in his later years, he always seemed vigorous and energetic.
A younger member of the community related how, even though Rabbi Mendel was a distinguished scholar and decades his senior, he would make a point of regularly connecting with the younger man. On Friday mornings after prayers, Rabbi Mendel would often turn to him with a smile and humorously ask if his Shabbat kugel was ready.
Rabbi Mendel Aronow’s wife, Golda, died on May 1 at age 89. He is survived by six children and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren, who have followed in his ways.