Reflecting on the life of Rabbi Jerome “Jerry” Acker z”l, Yaakov ben Ephraim Fishel, whose levayah took place on March 30, evokes a wholesome feeling of a compassionate man who dedicated his days to the voice of the Torah and the Jewish community of Kew Gardens. Rabbi Aryeh Sokoloff, mara d’asra of Congregation Adas Yeshurun, a.k.a. the Kew Gardens Synagogue (“The Big Shul”), remembered Rabbi Acker for his remarkable attributes. “Rabbi Acker was the standard-bearer for the minhagim and nusach of our beis ha’k’neses, who from a young age represented the values of our shul,” said Rabbi Sokoloff.
“Rabbi Acker earned the admiration and affection of all who knew him. He respected people even though he may not have agreed with their opinions,” related Rabbi Yaakov Lonner, a brother-in-law of Rabbi Acker. “One may summarize the essence of his life with words of Hillel, who said, Hevei mi’talmidav shel Aharon – oheiv es ha’briyos ‘um’karvan laTorah (Pirkei Avos 1:12) – he was good to people and friendly with them, while bringing them closer to the Torah. He endeared himself to his students and so many people with whom he came into contact.”
Early in life, Rabbi Acker had minimal connection to what it means to be a religious Jew. Growing up in Woodside, Queens, Rabbi Acker strived for deeper meaning and was quickly drawn to the spirit and enthusiasm of The Big Shul. “He was a genuine m’vakeish who built his own path,” explained Rabbi Sokoloff.
It was at this pivotal early stage that Rabbi Acker met Rev. Cantor David Hirsch, the shamash of The Big Shul. Within a relatively short amount of time, the two became extremely close to the point that Rabbi Acker became a ben bayis in the Hirsch home. There, Rabbi Acker studied with extreme clarity the nuances of t’filah from dikduk to nusach. “Rabbi Acker was introduced to the real thing by Rev. Hirsch, and he grabbed on to it, ultimately changing the path of his life,” noted Rabbi Sokoloff.
Rabbi Paysach J. Krohn, the noted mohel, author, and magid, is also a longtime Kew Gardens resident, and was keenly aware of this special relationship. “Rabbi Acker spent many years with the Hirsch family, staying there many Shabbasos,” said Rabbi Krohn. “Rabbi Acker was a prized baal dikduk on the nusach of t’filah in both German and Austrian. He knew how to pronounce words and where to find their corresponding pasuk. Rabbi Acker was m’dakdeik in his reading of t’filah and Tanach, and these values reflected in his midos and overall characterH,” added Rabbi Krohn. “You knew where you stood with Rabbi Acker; he was a very straight, honest person.”
Shortly after marriage, Yaakov Serle, co-publisher of the Queens Jewish Link, lived in Kew Gardens. Each evening, he joined the Minchah/Maariv minyan at The Big Shul where Rabbi Acker delivered a Chumash shiur. “I was in the beginning of my appreciation for the depth of the Torah and was thirsty for more. Partaking in Rabbi Acker’s lectures was a truly enjoyable experience that inspired me to learn further, ultimately leading to me making a siyum haShas in the last Daf HaYomi cycle. I credit much of my early understanding to Torah to Rabbi Acker.”
By representing the standard of the shul, Rabbi Acker took upon himself leading the shul’s youth minyan where he had an unbelievable hashpaah on the young men under his charge. Jeffrey Geizhals is one such adoring talmid from the beginning days of this minyan. “I have known Rabbi Acker since I was ten years old, and ever since, I have watched as he led by example; he was the definition of the Sefer HaTodaah by Rabbi Eliyahu Kitov that covers meaning for all of the year,” said Geizhals. “Our minyan had a functioning president and gabbai, and it was here in this structured environment that Rabbi Acker taught the boys how to lein from the Torah, always making sure to surround their mistakes with a complete education to fully understand how to grasp the nusach.” Geizhals evoked the journey of life as Rabbi Acker educated him on how to make tzitzis, blow a shofar, create a lulav ring, and pick the arbaah minim. “Rabbi Acker was the first person to bring me to a Simchas Beis HaShoeivah and later taught me how to lein the Megillah. Once, he even created a tape of Eichah so I can read it properly while away for the summer,” said Geizhals. “He was an overall father figure, whom I consider my rebbe muvhak.”
Geizhals was reminded of the Ackers’ open home, and their involvement with Tomchei Shabbos. “Rabbi Acker was part of the chevrah kadisha for the shul and Mrs. Acker remains active on the bikur cholim.”
Rabbi Acker was the type of person who meant all that he said and did. He sincerely came across as a gentleman who really cared. For his love of the shul, he and his wife were honored on June 16, 2016, as the Guests of Honor at the shul’s dinner. In the journal, roughly 150 local families shared their love and admiration for the special couple, but the message from the Rabbi Emeritus, Rabbi Dr. Bernard Rosensweig zt”l, who was niftar just a few days ago on March 25, 2021, is quite poignant, “When I came to Kew Gardens in 1968, Jerry was already here. He was involved in many aspects of the shul – and he remains the guardian of that tradition to this day.”
Not only did he care for his peers, but for the younger men, too. According to Rabbi Sokoloff, as the shul’s designated bar mitzvah teacher, Rabbi Acker gave the boys he taught a full sense of Yiddishkeit and explained what learning Torah is all about. “The boys gained a sense of purpose and took his lessons very seriously. He was not the kind of bar mitzvah teacher who did his job and was done; he made expectations for the boys and watched with nachas as each talmid grew,” said Rabbi Sokoloff.
The Kew Gardens Synagogue was privileged to have Rabbi Acker as their baal t’filah for the Yamim Nora’im. Onlookers noticed how Rabbi Acker had extreme sensitivity to every word uttered. Rabbi Acker was knowledgeable in various languages but had a special place in his heart for Lashon HaKodesh. He knew the translation of every word and understood the depth of what the words meant. Rabbi Sokoloff added, “Rabbi Acker appreciated each of the piyutim, and he was noticeably hurt when the shul opted to discontinue saying them, because ultimately he knew the underlying meanings.”
Rabbi Acker was also remembered for delivering a unique Tish’ah B’Av shiur each year in the shul. “Rabbi Acker would choose to expound on a different kinah each year. “He took on the historical, grammatical, and poetic aspects of the message, and delivered a riveting lecture all without ever having a real rebbe or yeshivah upbringing,” noted Rabbi Sokoloff.
From each of Rabbi Acker’s interactions, absorbing the essence of the Yiddishe neshamah was always of paramount importance. He, as well, had tremendous respect for those who were talmidei chachamim. In a similar vein, Rabbi Acker excitedly participated in the Daf HaYomi shiurim delivered by those many years his junior. It ultimately was at one such shiur where the venerable scholar suffered a final devastating stroke.
Rabbi Acker was quite famous for his Purim reading of Megillas Esther. Rabbi Acker combined his various techniques and styles in his rendition, creating what became known as the shul’s nusach. People would flock from all over to enjoy this reading.
Rabbi Acker was a consistent presence at Rabbi Sokoloff’s Shabbos afternoon Pirkei Avos lectures. The necessity to quarantine during the pandemic stopped Rabbi Acker from attending these classes, but not from learning the words of each mishnah. Mrs. Gitty Acker, his beloved eishes chayil and a longtime Bais Yaakov of Queens teacher, recollected to those at shiv’ah that together the couple studied Pirkei Avos on Shabbos afternoons during COVID. It was quite apparent that those moments will live on as uniquely special.
Rabbi Acker’s levayah was held during Chol HaMoed, when there are no hespeidim. In lieu, Rabbi Sokoloff prepared 100 T’hilim sheets for those who would gather outside the shul. “The impact of Rabbi Acker was apparent by the hundreds of friends and students who came out to pay a final respect,” explained Rabbi Sokoloff. “I honestly could not fathom the turnout.”
Throughout his years, Rabbi Acker held various teaching positions at Shaarei Bnos Chayil – Shevach High School, the Yeshiva of Central Queens, and its since-closed high school (the Yeshiva High School of Queens), Yeshiva Shaar HaTorah-Grodno, and Queens College. His students of Chumash, Navi and the Hebrew language were often moved by his teachings and remembered his impact enough to return to the house of shiv’ah to share their thoughts.
Avi Cyperstein, a 2002 student from Shaar HaTorah, recalled his ongoing connection to Rabbi Acker. Cyperstein kept up his relationship ever since learning the Hebrew language, always greeting and sharing happenings with his teacher. Avi last shared a warm hello with Rabbi Acker on the morning of his p’tirah. “Rabbi Acker was a caring and kind teacher, one of the most patient men who taught both dikduk and Hebrew. I never knew Rabbi Acker to raise his voice, and only saw him giving attention to each and every student,” said Cyperstein.
For 18 years, the Shmidman family were neighbors with the Ackers. Their relationship, as well, flourished, and a sense of deep respect was established. “Our exchanges were always wonderful; I most recall Rabbi Acker’s undying patience,” said Rabbi Yehuda Shmidman. “Recently, we needed assistance with writing the text for a family matzeivah and I thought of Rabbi Acker as the most knowledgeable in Lashon HaKodesh. Through a chain of emails, Rabbi Acker understood our vision and helped to get the wording presented properly.” In another instance that showcases the strength of the Acker family, Rabbi Shmidman recalled how their daughter Naomi Stein became a spectacular therapist for his son who suffers from autism. Rabbi Acker is remembered as an approachable man who would rarely feel imposed by others. “If we needed help, it was natural for Rabbi Acker to respond, even if he did not completely agree with my viewpoint.” Rabbi Yehuda and his wife Chevy were privileged to have Rabbi Acker teach their three sons their bar mitzvah leining. “Today, you can feel Rabbi Acker carrying the mesorah and you can pick it up. He taught our children their parshah at no charge, as it was natural for him to take on this task so gladly and willingly, as if we did not owe him in return.”
Dr. Paul Brody, now of Great Neck, remembers Rabbi Acker as “The Rav.” “We affectionately gave our rebbe, teacher, and mentor this title for his everlasting care and concern to his students. My class graduated in 1964 from YCQ, and to this day we kept in touch. I spoke with Rabbi Acker just ahead of Purim,” said Brody. “As the chairman our 50th class reunion in 2014, I made a special effort to ensure Rabbi Acker attended. He was the only educator at the time to serve in both the Hebrew and English departments for YCQ – I had him for Jewish History and Tanach,” reminisced Brody. “There was a close-knit group of boys who lived in Kew Gardens Hills. Each leil Shavuos we trekked to Kew Gardens to learn with Rabbi Acker at Adas Yeshurun. Our relationship was strong to the point that he read the T’na’im at my wedding, and I was able to celebrate at his wedding at the Aperion Manor in Brooklyn.” Dr. Brody, in part, credits his unique capability to read the Megillah to Rabbi Acker and believes that his nusach and legacy remains alive in the many students that Dr. Brody has trained.
Rabbi Acker had a special love for Eretz Yisrael and made it a point to spend his summers in Yerushalayim. “Rabbi Acker understood the holiness of the land, and while it was extremely hot, he never wore shorts on its streets,” added Brody who met his rebbe in 1970 while at school at Hebrew University.
Rabbi Acker, who taught until his final day, will forever be remembered in the shul he loved so dearly by the menorah that rests at the amud where he loved to lead the congregation in song. The menorah bears his design and is an everlasting legacy. In the words of Rav Kalman Epstein about Rabbi Acker, “There is nobody left to ask my questions to.” He is survived by his wife Gitty, and the home of Torah and mitzvos that they built for their children Efraim Acker, Dena Ambinder, Shira Meltzer, Naomi Stein, and Rena Weiner.
By Shabsie Saphirstein