In honor of Yud Shvat, we present to our readers a monumental tribute to the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Schneersohn, which was written after his passing by his personal secretary, Rabbi Nissan Mindel.
Rabbi Mindel’s connection with the Previous Rebbe and the Rebbe, besides being a trusted and able servant and chossid, was also on a personal level. He related that he felt as a son to a father with the Frierdiker Rebbe and a younger brother and student with the Rebbe’s son-in-law (the Ramash, as our Rebbe was referred to in his early years in America).
The tribute was made available to us by Rabbi Mindel’s son-in-law and daughter, Rabbi Sholom and Frida Schapiro, directors of Nissan Mindel Publications. May the merit of the many stand them in good stead.
TRIBUTE TO THE LATE LUBAVITCHER RABBI – JOSEPH I. SCHNEERSOHN
By NISSAN MINDEL
There were no speeches, no public show of lament and tears, nor heart rendering eulogies at the funeral of Rabi Joseph Isaac Schneersohn, the late Lubavitcher Rabbi, who died of a heart attack on Jauary 28th, Shabbath Parshath Bo. Mute mourning gripped the thousands of Jews from all walks of life who crowded into the large area between the residence and the Yeshivah of the leader of Chabad Chassidism who had suddenly passed away. Massed there were famed figures and “plain Jews,” Chassidim and non-Chassidim; there were Rabbis, Rebbes, yeshivah bachurim, college students, workers and professionals. They had come in sleek Cadillacs and dilapidated Fords, by subway or trolley, by railroad, buses or planes, the rich and the poor, men, women and children, all had come to pay their last respects to the man who had stood out in our days as a veritable giant of another, a greater generation of leaders of whom nine Is left.
On March 10th it would have been ten years since Rabbi Joseph I. Schneersohn had come to the United States to help prepare the ground for a new home of Torah and Yiddishkeit while the old one was going up in fire, flames and blood. He was then already close to sixty years old and suffering from an illness that had incapacitated part of his physical movements. Most other men in his condition would gladly have settled for a life of peaceful withdrawal and dedication to his broken health. But not so the Lubavithcher Rabbi, who had faced Czarist oppression, Bolshevik prisons, death sentences and deportation, who had just escaped from the annihilation of Warsaw’s Jews and the bombings and terror of the Nazis. To Rabbi Schneersohn this last phase of his life was just another chapter in his long pilgrimage of dedication to the spread of Torah that had started while he was yet a child.
RABBI JOSEPH ISAAC SCHNEERSOHN was born in Lubavitch, Russia, on the twelfth day of Tammuz 5640 (1880c.e.). He was a scion of the Schneersohn dynasty, founded two hundred years before by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Ladi, the founder of Chabad Chassidism, whose descendants formed an unbroken chain of great leaders, scholars and thinkers. Joseph Isaac was barely fifteen years old when his illustrious father, Rabbi Shalom Dov-Ber Schneersohn appointed him his personal secretary and initiated him into the vortex of religious, communal, political and scholarly activities that revolve around the world leader of the Chabad movement. For, ever since the invasion of Russia by Napoleon, when Rabbi Schneur Zalman and his followers had rendered valuable support to the Russian cause, the Lubavitcher Rabbis enjoyed the status of privileged citizens.
Each in his own generation had been able to use this extraordinary relationship to the Czarist court for the benefit of the oppressed Jewish masses in Russia. Thus they had been given grants of land for large agricultural settlements and they had been able to better the lot of the Jewish artisans who till then both officially and socially had been treated as pariahs. In true Chassidic tradition, which is concerned with the physical and spiritual welfare of the worker as well as the scholar, the Lubavitcher Rabbis organized trade schools, developed new occupations and fostered economic and social equality for the masses, besides providing them with a thorough religious training and communal standing.
When the brilliant young son of Rabbi Shalom Dov-Ber Schneersohn entered Jewish public life as his father’s secretary, he had ample opportunity to watch from the inside the tremendous organizational tasks facing the leader of all these religious, communal and diplomatic activities. Soon he graduated from the role of observer to an active part in important projects. Immediately after his marriage to Nechamah Dina Schneersohn, a relative, at the age of seventeen, his father put him in charge of his most important enterprise, the newly founded Lubavitcher Yeshivah Tomchei Tmimim.
It was perhaps here, in his apprenticeship, while still under the guidance of his great father, that the young Rabbi Joseph Isaac became imbued with the central idea and theme of his life work – the need of spreading the light and knowledge of Torah as the very basis of all other Jewish activities.
The teachings of the Chabad ideology came to full bloom in the curriculum of the first Tomchei Tmimim Yeshivah which, in contrast to other lines of Chassidic tradition, combined Talmudic with Chassidic learning. Soon its fame spread and it attracted students from all of Eastern Europe. Encouraged by the success of this parent institute, Rabbi Schneersohn was instrumental in establishing a network of Tomchei Tmimim Yeshivoth throughout the main Jewish centers of Russia. In due time similar institutions of Torah and Chasidic learning, modeled on the first Yeshivah of Lubavitch, sprang up in other countries of Eastern Europe, in Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and ultimately all over the world. Under the guidance of the Lubavitcher Rabbi they flourished and developed, their center moving along with Rabbi Joseph I. Schneersohn wherever he went, from Russia to Latvia, to Poland and then to the United States.
Another pet project that Rabbi Sholom DovBer Schneerson entrusted into the hands of his inspired and gifted son, one which was to become symbolic of the outlook and direction of his social and economic activities, was the establishment of a large textile factory in the industrial center of Dubrovna, exclusively run and worked by orthodox Jews. To carry out this vast enterprise that was to provide over two thousand people with a livelihood and with a skilled trade, Rabbi Joseph Isaac Schneersohn had to enlist the support and active help of outstanding spiritual leaders from all camps of the Jewish community – Mitnagdim as well as Chasidim. Among them were such immortals as Rabbi Chaim of Brisk and Rabbi Chaim Ozer of Vilna and his constant collaborators, the venerable Rabbi David of Karlin and Rabbi Elia Chaim of Lodz. Financially he was generously supported by such outstanding philanthropists as the brothers Jacob and Eliezer Poliakoff.
The success of the establishment of this industrial centre for orthodox Jews was of far-reaching importance. The Dubrovna factory set the pattern for many similar enterprises and removed the stigma of social inferiority from those who worked in factories or in skilled trades. There was thus established a new social vista for the masses of Russian-Polish Jewry who, long the victim of an economic and religious oppression which aimed at their ultimate extinction, were thus enabled to find a place in the industrial economy which belatedly took rise in the Czarist realm. This was a particular value later on, when the Soviet regime demanded that everyone turn into a productive worker, either in agriculture or in industry. It was then that many hundreds of trained religious Jews were able to stay together and to work together, thereby checking the Bolshevik attack upon their spiritual existence. Even now in Eretz Yisroel large colonies of Chabad Chassidim flourish, where the farming and industrial skills and experience which they had gained in the agricultural and textile centers organized by the late Lubavitcher Rabbi and predecessors, are put to good use and produce astonishing results.
Another activity in which Rabbi Joseph I. Schneersohn became engaged while yet under the direction of his father, one that was to recur throughout his life, was the supplying of Jewish soldiers at the war fronts or in garrisons far from Jewish centers with matzoth and wine for the Seder. When he was twenty four years old, he organized the shipping of Passover provisions to the Jewish soldiers who fought in the Russo-Japanese war in the Far East. Less than ten years later he did the same for Jews who fought in World War I and thirty two year later, safe in the United States, he shipped kosher food, as well as periodic messages of encouragement, pamphlets, brochures and reading material – all in all 50,000 pieces of literature, highly appreciated spiritual food, together with the physical necessities, through “Machaneh Israel” , one of his large organizations.
Of a more difficult nature were the frequent diplomatic missions which carried the young scion of the Schneersohn family to the Czarist court. Persecution and discrimination brought untold misery to Russia’s Jews. The Czarist regime or its underlings, the governors of the various districts, indulged in the anti-Semitic policies and acts, as often without as with legal pretext. Time and again Rabbi Joseph Isaac was called upon to travel to the capital or to the seat of district governments to intercede on behalf of his Jewish brethren. Whereas the good standing of his family with the court helped him at first to gain his objectives, his constant attempts to alleviate local or national difficulties or illegal privations finally evoked the displeasure of the Russian government. Four times during a period of ten years he was thrown into prison. Yet all the malevolent ingenuity of the Czarist forces could not find any legal incrimination or means of suppressing his work on behalf of the suffering Jewish masses.
Rabbi Joseph I. Schneersohn even went outside of Russia to famous statesmen of Germany and Holland to induce them to intervene with the Russian government, when widespread pogroms swept the “Pale of Settlement” in the wake of the October Revolution of 1905. Though then only twenty five years old, Rabbi Joseph Isaac accomplished his mission beyond all expectation and proved thus his capacity of becoming a modern “shtadlan” on the international Jewish scene.
The call to take over the mantle of full leadership of the world Chabad movement and of the tremendous responsibilities connected with the position of the Lubavitcher Rabbi, came to Rabbi Joseph I. Schneerson in Nissan 5680 (1920c.e.) after his father’s death, at a moment of utter crisis. Russia was in the throes of the aftermath of the Revolution. The world was suffering the consequences of the bloodiest war history had ever known and the Jews were, as usual, the victims of the clashing currents and cross-currents of world upheaval. In Russia itself the Bolshevik regime loosed its wrath on the Jews. Seeing them as both the typical middle class and the personification of religious belief, the Communist government impoverished the Jews, deprived them of their means of livelihood to an even greater extent than had the Czarist rulers and beyond that, set out to annihilate Judaism as a religion.
Spearheaded by the ruthless “Yevsektzia,” the notorious “though police” comprised of Jewish renegades, later on dismantled when its evil smell became unbearable even to the thick-skinned Soviet government, the Bolshevik’s conducted a merciless warfare against the strongest center of Torah life and Torah study in the world. Rabbi Joseph I. Schneersohn, now the official head of Chabad, stood up fearlessly to combat the efforts of the Yevsektzia. While shifting some of his best leaders and scholars to Poland and other countries to assure perpetuation of their work through new Yeshivoth and other centers of Chabad activities in Poland, the United States and other countries, he himself remained in the U.S.S.R., facing death day in and day out, battling the Soviets both on the economic and on religious fronts.
His own example of unyielding faith and fearlessness inspired the numerous emissaries whom Rabbi Joseph Isaac sent to the centers of Jewish Orthodox life, to the outlying districts, cities and towns, to teach and preach and to counteract the Yevsektzia’s efforts to make Jewish youth forfeit their religion.
To an official who threatened him at gun point, he remarked calmly: “This little toy can intimidate only the kind of man who has many gods, passions – but one world, this world. Because I have only one G-D and two worlds, I am not impressed by this toy.”
In due time he was thrown into the worst prisons of the Soviets, was banished into exile in the Urals and only the intervention of foreign statesmen saved him time and again from death. After seven years of harrowing fight against the Bolsheviks, Rabbi Joseph I. Schneersohn left the country with his family and settled in Riga, Latvia where he built a new fortress of Torah and Chassidism. In 1929 he set out on a journey through the Jewish world. He traveled to the Holy Land and then to the United States and was everywhere received and honored by huge throngs.
After his return, the Lubavithcher Rabbi moved his residence to Warsaw. There his presence further strengthened the Tomchei Tmimim Yeshivoth of Warsaw and Otwock and projected them into world prominence. Although he had ample opportunity to escape the holocaust that broke in over Poland with the invasion of the Nazis, Rabbi Schneersohn remained to take care of his Yeshivoth and to help alleviate the plight of his suffering brethren even through the bombardment and siege of Warsaw. Then only at the urgent request of his followers the world over, he permitted himself to be taken to the safety of the United States where he was welcomed by tens of thousands of admirers and supporters of the Chabad movement.
Although Rabbi Schneersohn was broken by years of suffering, the ten years that have passed since his arrival in this country to the moment of his death on January 28th, have seen remarkable accomplishments.
It was to be expected that thousands of his followers would flock to him day and night to seek advice, counsel, inspiration and guidance. It was to be anticipated that he would build a large central Yeshivah of Tomchei Tmimim as he had done every place he went and that his central Yeshivah would foster numerous other Yeshivoth throughout the United States and Canada and schools and Talmud Torahs for boys and girls, whose registers would count in the thousands. But hardly anyone of the huge crowd that greeted the Lubavitcher Rabbi at the New York harbor ten years ago could have realized that this no longer young, and physically weakened man would revolutionize and activate the views and positive elements of Jewish life in this country to a degree never known heretofore. He, more than any other man, led the battle for the recovery of the lost Jewish youth in America with the help of all methods and means of modern pedagogy, of formal and informal education and social activities. He dared to go out into the streets, into localities, towns and cities that had already abandoned hope for a revival of Yiddishkeit, gather the stray lost sons and daughters of Israel and lead them gently back to the sources and fountainheads of Torah life.
Under his constant personal guidance, organizations were built to carry out his projects for a renaissance of Torah-true Judaism. One has only to consider the accomplishments of one of these, the Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, the Central Bureau of Jewish Education, to appreciate the scope of the Lubavitcher Rabbi’s work.
Among the manifold activities of Merkos is the Publications Department which has printed and distributed more than a million copies of books, textbooks and fiction, pamphlets, magazines, brochures, newspapers and last but not least, “Sefarim.”
Translated into four languages, every one of these literary weapons helped to carry the spirit of Jewish youth and adults everywhere. Starting with an Aleph Beth chart and culminating in works of the most intricate Kabbalistic nature, they created and are still creating the total perspective which is vital for the survival of the Jewish spirit. Other departments of the Merkos, inspired and directed by Rabbi Joseph I. Schneersohn, are the Overseas Department (Relief Work), the Mesiboth Shabboth, youth clubs, Farmer Division, Servicemen Department, the Consultation and Information Service, the Statistical and Research Department, the Religious Release Hour organization and numerous divisions which, in the past ten years have carried the Lubavitcher Rabbi’s offensive on the national and international front. Although copied by many other Jewish organizations since, it will be difficult to emulate the dynamic force and intense, selfless devotion that emanated from Rabbi Joseph I. Schneersohn and carried over to the hundreds of his disciples and co-workers.
It would however be wrong to judge the great personality of the late Lubavitcher Rabbi only by his educational, religious and communal activities, by the light and enlightenment he provided in the form of Yeshivoth of schools for boys and girls, of training centers publications, colonies in Eretz Yisroel and all the other projects too numerous to mention. An important, though less conspicuous phase of his creativity is his work as a scholar and leader of the Chabad religious movement. The pen of the late Lubavitcher Rabbi never stopped producing works of education, commentaries, letters of inspiration and exhortation to the thousands of his followers throughout the world. Taken up day and night with his activities on behalf of the physical and spiritual welfare of his brethren in Russia, Poland and other European lands and in the United States and after the war, in the war-torn countries in DP camps and new settlements of their inmates, he still found the time to publish 741 works – amongst them such major works as his sixty-four “Likkutei Diburim” – selected speeches and sermons, his “Likutei Hamaamorim”- selected dissertations , the “Sefer Hasichoth” – his Talks, the “Sefer Hazichronoth” – the first volume of his popular Memoirs and his “Kuntresim” – his commentaries on the various phases of Chassiduth as they apply to the Jewish year, the Jewish individual at all times, particularly in our own days, year in, year out, his writings provided thus enlightenment and clarification of the Torah viewpoint and Chabad teachings – bringing to bear great erudition in all phases of Jewish learning.
Besides several works, new volumes of “Maamarim,” “Sichot” and “Zichronoth” soon to be published, there are still hundreds of manuscripts that remain to be sifted and prepared for publication. It will take years until the literary heritage left by Rabbi Joseph Isaac Schneersohn, the great scholar and thinker, will be brought to light. One can only dimly envision the full extent of the deep loss that all Israel is now mourning with the passing of this giant of the spirit and master of religious, communal and educational organization.
This tribute is from the forthcoming book by the Nissan Mindel Publications: Chabad in America Through the Folders of Nissan Mindel.