Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, the sixth rebbe of Chabad-Lubavitch, was one of the most remarkable Jewish personalities of the twentieth century. In his seventy years, he encountered every conceivable challenge to Jewish life: the persecutions and pogroms of Czarist Russia, Communism's war on Judaism, and melting-pot America's apathy and scorn toward the Torah and its precepts.
The Rebbe was unique in that he not only experienced these chapters in Jewish
history -- as did many of his generation -- but that, as a leader of his people,
he actually faced them down, often single-handedly, and prevailed.
Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak was the only son of Rabbi Sholom DovBer, the fifth Rebbe of Chabad, whose devotion to the child's education is lovingly chronicled in Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak's voluminous writings. While still in his teens, the young Yosef Yitzchak he served as the right hand of his father. As the personal secretary of the Rebbe, Yosef Yitzchak's responsibilities included administrating the many civic and communal activities in which the Rebbe was involved. The young
Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak, in full-length chassidic garb, was a familiar figure in
the receiving rooms of the government officials, ministers, and nobles of Moscow
and Petersburg. In 5655 (1895) the young rabbi participated in the great
conference of religious and lay leaders in Kovno, and again in the following
year in Vilna. At times soft-spoken and with words coming from the heart, at
times audacious and threatening, but always fearless and determined, he demanded
the repeal of anti-Jewish decrees, the stopping of pogroms and the cessation of
the government's program of forced "enlightenment" of traditional
On Elul 13, 5657 (1897), at the age of seventeen, Yosef Yitzchak married
Nechamah Dina, daughter of Rabbi Abraham Schneersohn and granddaughter of the
Tzemach Tzedek, the third Chabad rebbe. During the week's celebrations that followed the wedding ceremony, Rabbi Sholom Dovber announced the founding of Tomchei Tmimim, the Lubavitch yeshivah, and the following year appointed his son to be its executive director. It was there, in the hamlet of Lubavitch in
pre-soviet White Russia, that Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok trained the army of the
faithful torchbearers who, under the impossible conditions of the decades to
come, would literally give their lives to keep the flame of Jewish life ablaze
throughout the Soviet Union.
Upon his father's passing in 1920 Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak assumed the leadership of Russian Jewry just as Communism's all-out war on Jewish life was moving into high gear. His fight to preserve Judaism was characterized by his all-consuming mesirat
nefesh - an unequivocally selfless devotion to the physical and spiritual
needs of a fellow Jew and unshakable faith in what he stood for. He dispatched teachers and rabbis to the farthest reaches of the Soviet Empire, establishing a vast underground network of schools, mikvaos, and lifelines of material and spiritual support. Stalin's henchmen did everything in their power to stop him. In 1927 he was arrested, beaten, sentenced to death
and exiled; but he stood his ground, and by force of international pressure he was finally allowed to leave the country. But in leaving the boundaries of the Soviet Union he left his emissaries and their infrastructure of Jewish life behind; these continued to function and thrive, preserving and even spreading
the teachings of Torah and chassidism to this very day. When the all-powerful
communist regime began to crumble in the closing years of the '80s, Rabbi Yosef
Yitzchak's network of children's schools, outreach centers, and supply lines of
kosher food and religious services simply moved out of cellars and attics into
emptied Communist Party buildings.
Upon arriving in New York after his rescue from Nazi-occupied
Warsaw in 1940, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak took on a no less formidable challenge: the
frigid spiritual atmosphere of the western world. There was no telling Rabbi
Yosef Yitzchak that his was a losing battle; from his wheelchair, he rallied the
Jewish young of America under the cry that "America is no different,"
that also in this bastion of materialism the timeless truths of Torah can take
root and flourish. He established yeshivas and day schools, a publishing house
for Jewish books, a social service organization and community support networks
throughout the country. By the time of his passing in 1950 he had laid the foundation
for the global renaissance of Torah-true and chassidic-flavored Jewish life,
heralded by his son-in-law and successor, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson.