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The Chabad Shtetl Schedrin

The Chabad Shtetl Schedrin

Working the Earth, Looking to Heaven

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The Rebbe’s Shtetl

Confined to the pale of settlement and subject to forced military conscription from the age of seven, the Jews of 19th century Russia were barred from various trades and occupations and subject to countless official and unofficial persecutions. Yet they were allowed, and at times even encouraged, to establish agricultural settlements in certain districts of Southern Russia.

Newly unearthed records show that Schedrin was established by Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch (1789-1866), the third rebbe of Chabad.
Newly unearthed records show that Schedrin was established by Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch (1789-1866), the third rebbe of Chabad.

A cache of records recently discovered in St. Petersburg’s Russian State Historical Archive detail the founding of one such storied settlement, Schedrin (Щедрин), which lies a little to the south east of Babruysk, Belarus. The discovery was made through the research of Jewish Educational Media, and published in a new volume of the Tzemach Tzedek’s correspondence (Igrot Kodesh Admur Hatzemach Tzedek, Kehot Publication Society 2013) by Rabbi DovBer Levin, head librarian of the Central Library of Chabad-Lubavitch in New York.

Significantly, the newly unearthed records show that Schedrin was established by Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch (1789-1866), the third rebbe of Chabad, who is commonly referred to as “the Tzemach Tzedek.” The finds cast new light on some of the ways that Rabbi Menachem Mendel and other Chabad leaders responded to the problems faced by the Jewish community during these troubled times.

In 1846, records show, Rabbi Menachem Mendel purchased the 17.5 square kilometer estate of Schedrin in 1846. He settled sixty Jewish families on the land, provided them with building materials and other necessary equipment, and ceded them each a rent free agricultural allotment for a period of 25 years. The newly discovered documents also invoke a little known law entitling anyone who settled more than a hundred Jews on their own land to seek Hereditary Honored Citizenship. Accordingly, the Governing Senate of the Russian Empire ultimately nominated Rabbi Menachem Mendel a Hereditary Honored Citizen in 1851.

Hereditary Honored status made generations of Chabad leaders more effective ambassadors for Judaism in the offices of Imperial bureaucracy.

This hereditary status would protect generations of Chabad leaders from the draft as well as from other forms of personal persecution, but more importantly it also enabled them to act as more effective ambassadors for Jews and for Judaism in the offices of Imperial bureaucracy.

Moreover, in advocating that Jews look to the earth and the heavens as their source of livelihood, the Tzemach Tzedek was following a path well-trodden by his predecessors. From 1805 and on, the government had shrunk the pale of settlement, expelling vast numbers of Jews from areas where they had previously been allowed to live and work. Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi and Rabbi DovBer of Lubavitch, the first and second rebbes of Chabad, were at the forefront of the effort to resettle the destitute refugees in rural areas, encouraging them to retrain themselves and their families so that they could sustain themselves through farming and craftsmanship.

Bastion of Chassidic Spirit

During the tenure of Rabbi Menachem Mendel himself a whole new set of challenges had arisen, which are likely to have further encouraged him to settle his followers in rural areas. In 1843 the government had convened a special commission in St. Petersburg in an effort to impose a program of russification on the Jewish community. Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch was summoned to participate in what he saw as a battle for the soul of Judaism.

Archived document signed by residents of Schedrin testifying that the Tzemach Tzedek had setteled them on his land, rent free, and provided for their agricultural needs.
Archived document signed by residents of Schedrin testifying that the Tzemach Tzedek had setteled them on his land, rent free, and provided for their agricultural needs.

Schedrin was not established only for economic and political purposes, but also to shield its chassidic inhabitants from the detrimental advances of russification and other currents of cultural and religious change. Schedrin was a rural community, populated only by pious Jews, and over the course of subsequent decades it would remain largely unaffected by the political divisions and cultural wars that fractured more urban communities. Relative isolation and economic stability allowed the inhabitants more freedom to focus on spiritual and devotional concerns. The Chassidic settlement at Schedrin, founded as it was by the Tzemach Tzedek himself, came to be seen as a chassidic oasis where the concerns of transcendent heaven and imminent earth met in idyllic harmony.

In 1862, a traveler named Chaim Yishinovski came across Schedrin. He was so struck by its utopian calm and familial spirit that he penned an appreciative account of his visit in the Hebrew weekly, Ha-carmel, published in Vilna:

I passed through streets between beautifully built homes and saw a splendid prayer house of handsome appearance… I was surrounded by a crowd, all of our Jewish brethren, calling out in welcome and receiving me with friendship and love… I said “How good and how pleasant is this place...tell me please, who are you and how did you come to be here, for the name of the town Schedrin I have never heard until today.”

“There is nothing good on earth except to work the land and see blessing in the work of your hands."

And the people answered me, “we are workers of the earth… our master, the Rabbi and genius, Reb Mendel of Lubavitch, gathered us, and gave us this steppe… saying ‘strengthen your hands and gird yourselves with your work, and G‑d will bless you in the work of your hands’ ...and the good G‑d has poured his blessing on the work of our hands, there is nothing that we lack… Among our fellowship are also scholars learned in Torah, and they impart to us and to our children knowledge of the Torah of Moses, of Mishnah and also Talmud…” Hearing their words I said, “There is nothing good on earth except to work the land and see blessing in the work of your hands, to be happy with one’s lot. This is wealth and this is goodness.”

Despite this blissful picture, the people of Schedrin often had to work hard to make ends meet, and not all were content with lowly agricultural labour. Some found a more lucrative source of income in the large lumbering business run by the wealthy Golodetz family, whose patriarch Chaim purchased part of the Schedrin estate from Rabbi Menachem Mendel in 1865. Others were less fortunate, but the equalizing chassidic spirit pervaded despite the emergence of a class divide.

Growth, Demise and Enduring Legacy

By 1897, the Jewish community in Schedrin had grown to 4,022 souls, making up 95% of the town’s residents. Despite the rise of various competing ideologies, the town had successfully preserved its uniquely chassidic atmosphere through the years, and several new prayer and study houses had been built to accommodate the growing population. Each year an emissary would visit from Lubavitch and stay for an extended period to share the Rebbe’s teachings and inspire the townsfolk with chassidic stories and melodies. The more committed chassidim would journey to Lubavitch in turn, in the earlier years by foot or horse drawn wagon, and later by rail. They would be joined at each way stop by fellow travelers from other villages and towns, so that the journey itself became a vehicle for brotherly companionship and celebration. Due to the town’s unique pedigree, residents of Schedrin held a special place in the hearts of successive Chabad rebbes and were welcomed in Lubavitch with particular warmth.

In 1909 the special preparatory school of Yeshiva Tomchei Temimim Lubavitch moved to Schedrin, and the town’s status as a bastion of chassidic life was reaffirmed and reinforced.

In 1909, Rabbi Menachem Mendel’s grandson, Rabbi Shalom DovBer Schneerson, known in Chabad as the Rebbe Rashab, moved the special preparatory school of his yeshiva, Tomchei Temimim Lubavitch, to Schedrin, and the town’s status as a bastion of chassidic life was reaffirmed and reinforced. In the memorial book for Babruysk and its environs, Yaakov Gorelik recorded many rich memories of “the Chabad shtetl, Schedrin” during this period. Among them he recalls how the young yeshiva students would sing Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi’s famous “melody of four stanzas” on Shabbat afternoon:

They would begin low, pianissimo (very soft), then steadily higher and higher, until it ascended the loftiest heavens. ‘The Rebbe’s nigun’ was not only sung by the yeshiva students but also by the village folk. For the entire week the shtetl and all its laborious works were busy, toiling greatly. But when Shabbat came all the worries of livelihood were forgotten, each took in the ‘extra soul,’ the soul of Shabbat, and hummed ‘the Rebbe’s melody.’ On Shabbat evening, between the afternoon and evening prayers, the town’s rabbi, Rabbi Raphael Ha-cohen, a Lubavitcher chassid, would deliver a Torah discourse at the long table in ‘Elkanah’s Synagogue,’ and there they would also orchestrate ‘the Rebbe’s melody.’ Somebody would begin low, with quite fervor, and everyone would join in and sing together.

Following the communist revolution, the new authorities did much to stamp out Schedrin’s chassidic spirit, but it lived on in the hearts and minds of the students who had studied there. It was primarily due to the resolute dedication displayed by the students of Tomchei Temimim that Chabad-Lubavitch survived the communist onslaught. Students who studied in Schedrin during the last years of the Imperial regime were at the forefront of the underground battle to preserve Jewish life and learning in the face of Soviet oppression. Some of them sacrificed their lives. Others escaped and were instrumental in rebuilding the Chabad center in Warsaw during the 1930s. Those who survived the holocaust went on to build families and new communities in America and Israel. Many of their descendants continue to lead Jewish communities and head Chabad institutions across the world.

Sources:

Rabbi DovBer Levin, Igrot Kodesh Admur Hatzemach Tzedek, 2013

Rabbi Yehoshua Mondshine, Kerem Chabad Vol. 3, 1987

Yehuda Slutsky, Bobruisk Memorial Book, 1967

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Ann Lake June 24, 2014

Here's something else that i read and found fascinating - Schedrin. Will try to find more general info Reply

The life and times of Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch (1789-1866)