Raskin, an immigrant from the Soviet Union who, as chairman of the Lubavitch
Youth Organization, spearheaded many educational campaigns instituted by the
Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous
memory, passed away Tuesday at the age of 84.
Babruysk, Belarus, Raskin grew up in a Jewish home infused with religious
dedication and self-sacrifice, but under the constant watch of Soviet
authorities. His parents, Rabbi Yaakov Yosef and Draizah Raskin, were forced to
move the family to Leningrad, Russia, today known as S. Petersburg, after his
father – a ritual circumciser who performed secret circumcisions in
contravention of official prohibitions on Jewish religious practice – was
imprisoned for his dedication to strengthening Judaism.
Raskin’s father took up a job in a factory, but in keeping with his religious
beliefs, refused to work on the Sabbath.
“They wanted me
to just come to work,” the elder Raskin recalled in an interview, “and be there
without working. I refused. What if others would see me there and think that I
was working on the Sabbath” and consequently learn from [my] actions?
The boss fired
him, putting him at risk of poverty and arrest. Later, he obtained a permit to
work as a wood cutter, an occupation that allowed him to remain far from the
prying eyes of supervisors.
“It gave me the
freedom to not work on the Sabbath and the holidays,” the father said.
of self-sacrifice provided a model for how the younger Raskin lived his life.
As a child, he also benefited from the spiritual influence of Rabbi Shalom Ber
Chein, who was active in the underground Lubavitch school system that operated
behind the Iron Curtain.
“I remember him
going to immerse himself in the water of the sea prior to morning prayers,”
Raskin recalled, referring to the Jewish custom of daily immersing in a ritual
bath or natural body of flowing water. “Many times the water was frozen, and he
would break a hole and jump in.”
encouraged Raskin to memorize and internalize portions of the 18th century
foundational work of Chabad Chasidic thought known as the Tanya. This practice
helped the young man discipline himself mentally and spiritually, providing a source
of strength during the harshest times of Communist rule, and through journeys
that took him to underground Jewish schools as far away as Uzbekistan.
War II and the infamous Siege of Leningrad, the family miraculously made it out
of the city. They moved to Alma Ata, Kazakhstan, and while there, helped take
care of the Rebbe’s father, Rabbi Levi
Yitzchak Schneerson, during his final months of life. A chief rabbi and scholar who
composed myriad glosses on Kabbalah, he had been exiled there for his steadfast
commitment to Judaism.
“Once I was
called in to the offices of the KGB, and they began to interrogate me,”
Raskin’s father detailed in an interview. They asked him: “Why do you have
dealings with Schneerson?!”
war, the Raskins fled Russia with falsified Polish passports and made it to the
displaced persons camp in Pocking, Germany. From there, they traveled to Paris,
where Raskin was chosen to join a group of students in the Lubavitch yeshiva high
school in Brooklyn, N.Y. He set out by ship in 1950.
Rabbi Dovid Raskin (Photo: Lubavitch Archives)
Activist at Heart
two weeks before the passing of the Sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef
Yitzchak Schneersohn, of righteous memory, Raskin brought his penchant for communal
activism with him from the Soviet Union.
“He was always
very active from the time he was an older student in the Lubavitch underground
school system in Uzbekistan,” said Rabbi Shlomo Zarchi, a relative and
co-worker in the Lubavitch Rabbinical Seminary.
Raskin organized Chasidic gatherings of students presided over by an elderly
mentor sharing words of wisdom. On one particular occasion in the year between
the passing of the Sixth Rebbe and his successor’s public acceptance of
leadership, the Rebbe addressed the gathering, saying in Yiddish that “everyone
needs to invest in their personal growth, and in addition, everyone needs to influence
at least one other individual.”
The concept of
influencing individuals was revolutionary to Raskin and the other students, as
until that time, Lubavitch outreach on the whole had been focused on creating
educational institutions and publications.
“When there is
a fire, no one makes calculations,” the Rebbe explained, pointing to the
assimilation rampant among Jewish communities in the United States as
necessitating radical approaches to outreach.
Half a year
later, this time speaking to a wider audience, the Rebbe encouraged everyone to
have a direct influence on at least 10 Jews.
individual is an entire world,” the Rebbe stressed.
Raskin took the
message to heart; during inspirational gatherings with his students, he would
emphasize that after their regular study time, they should try to influence as
many Jews as possible.
Rabbi Dovid Raskin helps a man don the Jewish prayer boxes known as tefillin. (Photo: Lubavitch Archives)
In 1955, Raskin
joined the board of the Lubavitch Youth Organization, a nascent body whose
mandate was to bolster spiritual activities within the Lubavitch and wider
Jewish communities. A founding member, he later was appointed as its chairman.
that our first activity would be to go to college campuses and bolster Jewish
life there,” said board member Rabbi Pesach Goldman.
In a Hebrew
letter to Raskin, the Rebbe wrote that “the thirst of the youth for Judaism is
great, and it is the prime time to reach out to them.”
organization also coordinated projects spearheaded by the Rebbe, including the
distribution of special handmade matzah before Passover and public Sukkot holiday
“Crown Heights and
the outlying neighborhoods once had the most hospitals per square mile in the
entire United States,” said Goldman. “Rabbi Raskin would organize visits to the
hospitals, especially to those patients who did not have the possibility to be
with their families or go to synagogues on Jewish holidays.”
looked up to him as a leader, Raskin never saw himself as one and instead dived
right in with everyone else, explained Goldman.
“He was hands
on,” he said, “organizing everything that needed to be done.”
When the Rebbe
initiated 10 public campaigns focusing on different Jewish practices, Raskin
led the charge. During Chanukah, he spearheaded the creation of low-cost
menorah made of tin that could be distributed to people easily. In the first
year, 60,000 were produced; today, people receive more than 350,000 each year,
leading The New York Times to refer to “the sight of the tin menorahs”
as signaling the holiday’s arrival.
Raskin was also
a faculty member of the Lubavitch yeshiva and was later appointed to the boards
of Agudas Chasidei Chabad, the Chabad-Lubavitch umbrella organization; Merkos
L’Inyonei Chinuch, the educational arm of Chabad-Lubavitch; Machne Yisroel, the
social service arm of Chabad-Lubavitch; and the Beth Rivkah girls school.
With the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, beside him, Rabbi Dovid Raskin, right, reads from the Torah during a weekly service at the synagogue in Lubavitch World Headquarters. (Photo: Rabbi Shlomo Friedman/Lubavitch Archives)
In all of his
pursuits, he tried to adhere to the Rebbe’s vision and guidance.
immensely dedicated to the teachings of the Rebbe,” said renowned Chabad
scholar Rabbi Yoel Kahn, who described a traditional Chasidic gathering where
luminary Lubavitch leaders would stand for many hours listening to Raskin
inspire the crowd.
“Every year, he
would describe the same details of a directive of the Rebbe,” Kahn said. He
could have spoken of lofty worlds and spiritual realms, but “he chose to speak
about action. This is what exemplified him. He was a man of action.”
In his personal
life, Raskin kept the focus on others.
his entire life to communal work,” said Rabbi Kasriel Kastel, program director
of the Lubavitch Youth Organization. “He never acquired anything for himself. He
never owned a car; he never had a fancy home or wore expensive clothes.”
Most of the positions
that he held were volunteer posts; his sole salary came from the school.
As an educator,
Raskin was not only a teacher, but a caregiver. For those who came to town from
far away and did not have family in the community, he provided health care and
table was always filled with students who didn’t have families to eat by,” said daughter Devonya Rubin.
“For all of the
40 years that we worked together, I never heard him say, ‘I have a headache,’ or,
‘My foot hurts.’ He never said that he didn’t feel good and was missing
school,” said Zarchi. “On the other hand, he was always the first person to
tell someone else to rest and take care of himself.”
For those he
met on the street, he was ready with a smile and advice.
“I remember as
a young girl being annoyed that it took so long to arrive home,” said his
daughter. “I later learned to appreciate the need he was filling for the many
that stopped him and those who constantly called him at home.”
And despite great
difficulties that included family health concerns and the passing of several
children at a young age, Raskin would not complain.
complete faith in what G‑d destined for him,” said Zarchi. “He accepted all his
challenges with love.”
was a legend in his time,” said Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, vice chairman of Merkos
L’Inyonei Chinuch. “In his mere being he was a paradigm of dedication, of
devotion to reach every Jew. He was a true example of the principle that out of
adversity comes strength, and as such, is an inspiration to Chabad-Lubavitch