Remembering One of the World's Greatest Jews

Jews around the world are commemorating the 13th anniversary of the death of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

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Hillel Fendel,

Jews around the world are commemorating the 13th anniversary of the death of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

Rabbi Schneerson, generally known simply as the Rebbe, is widely considered to have been one of the most outstanding Jewish personalities of modern times. The seventh leader of the Chabad-Lubavitch dynasty, he is described on one Chabad website - with little argument from non-Chabad Jews - as "the one individual more than any other singularly responsible for stirring the conscience and spiritual awakening of world Jewry."

The Rebbe was born on Nissan 11, 5662 (April 18, 1902), in Nikolaev, Russia, to Talmudic scholar and Kabbalist Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneerson and his wife Chana. He was named after his direct paternal ancestor, the third Lubavitcher Rebbe. Considered a child prodigy, young Menachem spent his teenaged years immersed in the study of Torah. When World War I refugees began streaming into the interior of Russia, his parents opened their home and undertook to provide for them, ransom the captives, and intercede with the government on behalf of the accused - at great risk to themselves. Years later, the Rebbe recalled the deep and lasting impression the devotion of his parents, and particularly of his mother, had upon him.

At age 21, young Menachem Mendel met the leader of world Chabad, the 6th Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn. The latter was in the midst of leading the struggle to keep Judaism alive in Communist Soviet Russia, and Rabbi Menachem joined him in this work, establishing underground schools, mikvahs, and supply lines of financial aid and kosher food. In 1928, after a small group of Chabad leaders was allowed to leave Russia, the Rebbe married Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak's daughter, Chaya Mushka. The couple never had children; Chaya Mushka died in 1988.

The Rebbe studied in the University of Berlin and then, after the Nazi ascent, at the Sorbonne in Paris. Among his classmates were Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik and Nechama Liebowitz. It was during this period that his formidable knowledge of mathematics and the sciences began to blossom.

In June 1941, the Rebbe and his wife arrived in the United States. He became a top deputy to his father-in-law in leading worldwide Chabad, running Lubavitch's educational arm, its publishing house and its social services organization. When Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak died in 1950, Rabbi Menachem reluctantly - a year later - assumed the leadership of the Lubavitch movement, headquartered at the famous 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, New York.

In 1953 the Rebbe founded the Lubavitch Woman's Organization, "opening a revolutionary chapter in the history of Jewish and Chassidic womanhood," according to the Chabad.org site. "The Rebbe addressed his teachings equally to both genders... When he sent a young married couple out to the frontlines of his war on assimilation, he expected the wife to wage the battle alongside the husband, reaching out to fellow Jews and reintroducing them to their heritage. When he sent the students of the Chabad yeshivot out into the streets to put on tefillin with Jewish men, he also sent the young women to shopping malls, schools and hospitals to distribute Shabbat candles to Jewish woman... The Rebbe effected his '[feminist] revolution' by a return to tradition... [He taught that the woman should] venture out to develop the world into a 'home for G-d.' But she is to do so in her characteristically feminine way: not as a 'conqueror,' but as a nurturer; not by 'transforming darkness into light' but by revealing the divine luminance implicit within all of G-d's creation."

[Audio: Malkah Fleisher speaks about the Lubavitcher Rebbe on the "The Eyshet Chayil Show"  Listen Now or Download]

Under the Rebbe's leadership, Chabad truly became a worldwide movement, with his hand-picked husband-and-wife emissaries living and acting in hundreds of locations throughout the world. He established Chabad houses on college campuses and world-wide communities, serving as a "home base" for a wide range of Jewish needs, both physical and spiritual.

Among the campaigns he led were: 'Who is a Jew', demanding to amend the Law of Return to define Jews in accordanced with Jewish Law; helping Soviet Jewry; Mitzvah Tanks and encouragement of observance of basic laws such as kashrut, tefillin, Shabbat, and family purity; observance of the Seven Noachide Laws among non-Jews; distribution of dollar bills to thousands of followers on Sunday afternoons to encourage charity; Redemption-and-Messiah awareness and activism; and more.

The Rebbe suffered a stroke in 1992, leaving him partially paralyzed and unable to speak, and on Tammuz 3, 5754 (June 12, 1994), he passed away. The ongoing inter-Lubavitch controversy as to whether the Rebbe is/will be the Messiah, and/or whether to publicize this, has generally not over-shadowed his phenomenal reputation as the man who has likely done the most in recent memory to spread Judaism throughout the world.

In 1995, the Congressional Gold Medal was awarded posthumously to Rabbi Schneerson, engraved with the words Benevolence, Ethics, Leadership, Scholarship, and "to repair the world."

Many stories have been told about the Rebbe. A small sampling:

*** A young girl in an observant Jewish family began to experiment and become involved with other religions. Her wealthy father consulted an emissary of the Rebbe, and in response to their plea, the Rebbe advised the man to check the kashrut of this mezuzot (Torah passages written precisely on a parchment and placed on doorposts in accordance with Biblical law). After checking his many mezuzot, and doing so yet again several weeks later, no improvement was noted. Finally, one day, the father and the emissary were strolling on the father's seven-acre property when the rabbi noticed a small, nearly-forgotten hut at the edge of a field. After recalling that even this hut was adorned with a mezuzah that had been placed there many years before, the two removed and checked it - only to find that the word "One," referring to G-d in the cardinal Shma Yisrael prayer, had been slightly rubbed out and now read "Other." They immediately replaced the mezuzah with a kosher one, and the following morning the daughter woke up crying, saying, “Daddy, I’m sorry. I don’t know what happened to me. I don’t know what got into me. But I want to return. I want to come home to Judaism.” (Rabbi Aaron L. Raskin)

*** In 1959, the Rebbe prophetically wrote to then-Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion as follows:
"...It was once fashionable in certain circles to suggest that Jewish religion and religious observances were necessary for those living in the Diaspora as a shield against assimilation - but that for those who can find another 'antidote' in place of religion, particularly for those living in the Land of Israel among Jews, where the atmosphere, language, etc. (apparently) serve as ample assurances of national preservation, the Jewish religion was superfluous... But the [recent] trend of developments in the Land of Israel has increasingly emphasized the opposite view - that religion is needed even more for the Jews in the Land of Israel. One of the basic reasons for this is that it is precisely in the Land of Israel that there exists the danger that a new generation will grow up, a new type bearing the name of Israel but completely divorced from our people's past and its eternal and essential values - and even hostile to it in its world outlook, its culture, and content of its daily life..." (Letters from the Rebbe, Vol. 1, New York, 1998)

**** Prof. Herman Branover of Ben Gurion University of the Negev and head of the Center for Magneto-Hydrodynamic Studies, met up with Chabad emissaries in Russia, became observant, and made Aliyah to Israel in 1972. He recounts:
"During a lecture tour in the U.S. in 1973, I was on my way to the University of Pennsylvania when I was able to have a private visit with the Rebbe. He took interest in my plans, and commented, 'While you're in Philadelphia, don't forget to introduce yourself to a local professor who is interested in your field of study.' I was very surprised, as I knew the American professors involved in magneto-hydrodynamics and I knew none who lived in Philadelphia... After a long search, I finally met up with Prof. Hsuan Yeh, and we enjoyed a sophisticated discussion with a person who was clearly knowledgeable in the field. He then told me that six weeks from then, a Magneto-Hydrodynamics Energy Convention would be held at Stanford University in California, and that though the program was already finalized, he would insist that my name be added to the list of lecturers. When I expressed puzzlement as to how he could manage that, he smiled and said, 'You see, I am on the program committee.'

"Though I appreciated the professor's offer, I graciously declined, explaining that my wife and I were anxious to return home to Israel. I returned to New York, and before leaving for Israel, I wrote the Rebbe about my encounter with Professor Yeh. Once again, the Rebbe made an unexpected statement. He advised me to reschedule my plans and to accept the invitation, as the convention presented an important opportunity. Taken by surprise but acquainted enough with the Rebbe to value his advice, I called Professor Yeh, who was happy to arrange for me to deliver a lecture.

"The significance of my participation at the convention became clear very rapidly. I met two representatives of the Office of Naval Research in Virginia who had read about my work, and who were prepared to finance further research. They added, 'We understand that you want to establish your laboratory in Israel, and we are willing to provide you with funds for your work there.'  As a result, I set up a laboratory in Be'er Sheva, which has gained worldwide recognition for its magneto-hydrodynamics research. My contract with the Office of Naval Research has been renewed six times since that original grant. I could not have imagined at that point how valuable and far-reaching the Rebbe's advice had been... This year, 1993, marks twenty years since the Stanford convention. My project has just been awarded a $15 million grant by the United States government to further research and development of this energy technology."

**** Yisachar Weiss, a wealthy businessman from the West Coast of the U.S., relates:
"In 1976, a group of Belgian diamond dealers offered me a million-dollar investment that appeared to be a golden opportunity. But, to their astonishment, I reminded them that I make no investments without the Rebbe's blessing. In my next meeting with the Rebbe, I explained to him the offer. 'Don't invest,' he told me. 'A military coup is going to happen in Liberia.' I was very surprised, since Liberia was known as the 'Switzerland of Africa.' But the Rebbe was firm, saying, 'The political situation there is not stable. Don't make any long-term investments there. Only an immediate-return deal should be entertained.' ... A short time later, I invested $50,000 in a deal in which I instructed my broker to buy Liberian diamonds very quickly and to quickly leave the country... But soon afterwards, the coup that the Rebbe had foreseen broke out, and I was able to recover only part of my money. But of course I was comforted that I had not been enticed to invest a million dollars..."