Rabbi Menachem Mendel Morosov, the oldest living Lubavitcher chassid, passed away on Jan. 17 in New York. He was 101 years old, just six weeks shy of his 102nd birthday.

Morosov, known affectionately as “Reb Mendel,” was born in the White Russian village of Lubavitch, the cradle of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, on March 18, 1916, and lived through a century of Chabad history. Following three successive Rebbes from the movement’s eponymous village of Lubavitch in the Tsarist era, to Rostov and Leningrad under Soviet rule, he ultimately made it to New York, where under the leadership of the Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—Chabad would be transformed into an international force.

His own life began just as traditional Jewish life in the Russian Pale of Settlement was coming to an end, just as World War I and the Russian Revolution were about to unleash lawlessness, pogroms, famines and disease throughout the region. He experienced two World Wars and the darkest days of Stalinist terror, when his father, older brother, and countless other friends and relatives were arrested and taken away forever.

Against all odds, he survived, leaving the Soviet Union with falsified Polish papers in 1946 before settling in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1953.

His father was Rabbi Elchonon Dov “Chonye” Morosov, secretary of the fifth and sixth Rebbes—Rabbi Shalom DovBer and Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, of righteous memory—and a key figure in the sixth Rebbe’s network of underground synagogues, yeshivahs and schools in the Soviet Union.

Reb Elchonon Dov “Chonye” Morosov
Reb Elchonon Dov “Chonye” Morosov

It was by virtue of the position of Morosov’s father that Reb Mendel was able to witness pivotal moments in the Lubavitcher movement’s history, retaining a storehouse of memories that he shared copiously and entertainingly with generations of listeners.

Growing up in the Soviet Union under Stalin, danger was an overarching part of life for Morosov, who witnessed his father’s first arrest in 1927, from which he returned, and second arrest in 1938, from which he did not. His father, Reb Chonye, was tortured together with one of Morosov’s older brothers, Shmuel. Both were executed in April 1938.

An internal state file confirming that Reb Chonye Morosov's sentence, as handed down by a "Troika" of the NKVD, was fulfilled on April 9, 1938. Morosov, his son Shmuel and nine others who were part of his case were all executed that day in a forest outside Leningrad.
An internal state file confirming that Reb Chonye Morosov's sentence, as handed down by a "Troika" of the NKVD, was fulfilled on April 9, 1938. Morosov, his son Shmuel and nine others who were part of his case were all executed that day in a forest outside Leningrad.

The Energy and Charm of a Mischievous Child

One might expect someone as venerable as Reb Mendel to bend beneath the weight of the past, to be grave of character, to be critical and stern. Not so Reb Mendel. On the contrary, he exuded the energy and charm of a mischievous child—a charm that sparkled in his eyes and was enhanced by the sprightly white beard that framed his face. If there was one serious lesson that he constantly sought to impart, it was this: Never take yourself more seriously than you ought to. In Chabad, self-abnegation is an ideal often associated with the hard work of contemplative prayer—toil of the heart and mind. But Reb Mendel personified a self-abnegation that was at once lighter and more profound.

In his later years, he would often share a self-deprecating anecdote of his own devising (needless to say, this works much better in Yiddish):

I recently received a notification from above. They said they needed me. I asked, why would they want me? And they responded that above they are looking for a chassidic mentor, a mashpiah. Said I, there are many great mashpe’im there already, R. Nissan [Nemenov, d. 1984], R. Shlomo Chaim [Kesselman, d. 1971] etc.; why do they need me? No, they responded, they don’t need a mashpiah in heaven, they need one in hell.

Many of his anecdotes had punchlines that made a similar point. Never take anything for granted. We are all limited; we are all fallible. If we are placed on a pedestal, we should never lose sight of the distinction between our real selves and our public image. None of us knows everything there is to know about anything. Complacency is egotism. So is over-seriousness.

With his sharp wit and wealth of knowledge, Morosov inspired generations of students. (Photo: Mordechai Lightstone)
With his sharp wit and wealth of knowledge, Morosov inspired generations of students. (Photo: Mordechai Lightstone)

Despite the extremes of adversity that marked his life, Morosov was a joyous man. Sharp of intellect and wit, he was the life and soul of Chassidic celebrations well into his 90s, outdancing and outsinging people many decades his junior. In New York, he served for decades as a teacher and mentor of chassidus at the Oholei Torah Yeshiva, which he helped found, staying involved in the day-to-day operations of the massive school even after his retirement.

In his later years, while his body began to show signs of age, his mind did not. When he could no longer make it to synagogue on Shabbat, family members arranged a weekly minyan to come to his home. Instead of it being a somber affair, “Mendel Morosov’s minyan” became a popular destination for anyone in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn on a Shabbat morning, where they could share a hearty l’chaim with Reb Mendel while hearing him teach a new song or hold forth on a century of Lubavitcher history.

One of his favorite melodies—a vibrant dance tune that his father would sing and which Reb Mendel popularized—captures something of his vibrant spirit:

Revolution, Privation, Persecution, and Slaughter

For 102 years and two months, the village of Lubavitch served as home and headquarters of the Lubavitch movement. It was in the fall of 1915, as World War I rapidly approached the White Russian village, that the fifth Rebbe—Rabbi Sholom Dov Ber (1860-1920)—evacuated the seat of four generations of Chabad Rebbes and headed east to Rostov-on-Don.

At that time, “Lubavitch ceased to be the seat of the Lubavitch Rebbes and the center of Chabad,” wrote Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak. “But the name ‘Lubavitch’ will always be bound up with Chabad Chasidism and will ever awaken sweet memories, and portray a wonderful chapter in Jewish history.”

An artist's rendering of the town of Lubavitch.
An artist's rendering of the town of Lubavitch.

It was just as this long era came to an end that Reb Mendel was born, and over the next century he would serve as a link, a bridge of sorts, to the days when Lubavitch was in Lubavitch. Yet it was just as his life began that a new world was being violently birthed around him, one that would herald brutality and murder never yet known to man. He was born in a village where Jews had lived more or less peacefully for hundreds of years, though around the bend were revolution, privation, persecution and slaughter.

Reb Mendel was the first of Elchonon Dov (“Chonye”) and Chaya Bracha Morosov’s four children, born on the 13th of Adar II 5676 on the Jewish calendar (Reb Chonye’s first wife, with whom he had five children, passed away in childbirth a year prior to Reb Mendel’s birth).

Reb Chonye himself came from a non-Chassidic background, but when Rabbi Sholom Dov Ber opened his yeshivah, Tomchei Temimim, in 1897, he became one of its first students. Rabbi Sholom Dov Ber described his new institution in military terms, explaining that by incorporating Chassidic philosophy and the Chassidic outlook on life into the curriculum of the school, he was building a spiritual army, young men who would be ready to take on all of the hardships—both material and spiritual—that lay in the tumultuous times ahead. Reb Chonye would turn out to be not merely a foot soldier, but a commanding officer.

Reb Chonye served as Rabbi Sholom Dov Ber’s secretary for about a year-and-a-half until the Rebbe left the village. Reb Chonye, however, could not go with the Rebbe because his wife was expecting a child, Mendel. The latter would often chuckle that he was to blame for his father’s lost employment with the Rebbe.

Not long after Mendel was born, the Morosov family relocated to the Ukrainian town of Kremenchug, and then to Yekaterinoslav, today Dnipro (Dnepropetrovsk), Ukraine. As refugees fleeing the frontlines, they were taken in by the city’s chief rabbi and his family, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak and Rebbetzin Chana Schneerson, parents of the Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory.

In an interview with Jewish Educational Media’s “My Encounter with the Rebbe” oral history project, Morosov recalled their arrival in Yekaterinoslav: “At that time there was very great hunger. I remember it. My feet became swollen from starvation, they just lay there, and I couldn’t walk. We were children . . . ”

“One time, during the years the Morosovs lived in Yekaterinoslav, Rebbetzin Chana complained to Mrs. Morosov that her eldest son [the Rebbe] does not eat enough,” according to the recently published Early Years. “Mrs. Morosov chided the [future] Rebbe, ‘Mendel, you must eat. If you eat, you will grow!’ ” Many decades later, when Mrs. Morosov first came to the United States, she had an audience with the Rebbe. When she entered his study, the Rebbe stood to greet her, exclaiming: “Nu! Have I grown?!” Morosov recalled seeing the future Rebbe during these years, but noted that he was too young to understand who he was or to remember any specific encounters.

Morosov receives dollar bills from the Rebbe. (Photo: JEM/The Living Archive)
Morosov receives dollar bills from the Rebbe. (Photo: JEM/The Living Archive)

During the three years that the Morosovs lived in Yekaterinoslav, Reb Chonye would make the dangerous journey to Rostov to see his Rebbe often. The Russian Civil War was in full swing, and although Judaism and Jewish life would suffer unspeakable horrors under Bolshevik rule, during those years of Civil War the opposing White Army and its supporters killed and maimed Jews in their path no less than their Red opponents. On one occasion, as he returned home from Rostov, Reb Chonye was seriously injured when White sympathizers threw him off of a train. It was for this reason, Reb Mendel would explain over the years, that although he lived during the lifetime of Rabbi Sholom Dov Ber, he was never able to see him.

In 1920, Rabbi Sholom Dov Ber passed away, and was succeeded by his son, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak, who the next year summoned Reb Chonye from Yekatrinoslav to become his secretary. The Morosov family moved into the Rebbe’s own home, and as a young boy, Reb Mendel’s play area was not a schoolyard, but the study of Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, who was moving with alacrity to mobilize Russian Jewry in the face of the Bolshevik crackdown.

“When I was a child . . . I must have been six years old, I would sneak into the yechidus room [the Rebbe’s own office]. I’d pull at the door handle and if it was open I’d go running in!” Morosov recalled in an interview with Jewish Educational Media’s “My Encounter with the Rebbe” oral history project. “In Rostov this was the largest room in the house and there I had plenty of space to run. The Rebbe would be sitting near his desk and I’d be running up and down.

“One time, I ran into the room and the Rebbe was sitting on a chair, right in the middle of the room—not at his desk, just in the middle. He called me over and he asked me: ‘Where is your yetzer tov [good inclination]?’ I pointed here, on the right side. ‘Where’s your yetzer hara [evil inclination]?’ I pointed here with my finger, on the left side. ‘And where is your neshamah [soul]?’ I pointed here, at my head. Then he asks me, ‘And what do you have inside your soul?’ I don’t know, I replied.

“ ‘You should know: Inside your neshamah, your soul, is a kleiner neshomoleh, a little soul.’ ”

Running out of the room, Morosov was accosted by several yeshivah students who had been standing there and, as Morosov recalled, might have even witnessed the scene through the room’s glass doors. They picked him up and asked what the Rebbe had told him, and he repeated it. Thereafter, they had a conversation regarding the meaning of the Rebbe’s words, one saying the Rebbe must have meant the yechida sheb’nefesh—“the quintessence of the soul,” and another saying it was the G‑dly spark found within each person.

“I was a small child, but I still remember those words,” Morosov would say.

Another incident from this period that remained fixed in Morosov’s mind concerned Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak’s daughter, the future spouse of the Rebbe, Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka, who was already a young adult. She and her friends would sometimes play with the younger children, but what stood out in his mind was one occasion when she read the evening Shema together with him.

Watch Reb Mendel himself share his, and his sister’s, memories of their encounters with Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn of Lubavitch:

Underground Life

In mid-1924, when Reb Mendel was around 8 years old, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak was threatened with arrest by Soviet authorities and forced to relocate to Leningrad. The Rebbe’s move and Reb Chonye’s key position in the Lubavitch movement’s underground Jewish network meant that the Morosovs went there as well. With his father busy working for the Rebbe, and no cheder in Leningrad available to them, Mendel and his younger brother, Hirshel, were sent to study in Nevel.

“I remember we studied in a big hall,” he recalled in a 2015 interview. “In the center of the room was a great table, and we would sit around it and study. Our class had quite a large number of children. We studied chumash, although I don’t recall whether we learned it with Rashi or not, but what I remember for certain was that we had a Chassidic teacher, for on Fridays and Shabbos we did not study at all and instead he would tell us Chassidic stories. At night we’d fold up the table and move the chairs around, throw some rags over them, and go to sleep.”

The yeshivah headed to Leningrad for the month of Elul 1925, with 9-year-old Mendel and 7-year-old Hirshel among them. While there, Hirshel had developed an infection, which kept growing worse; on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, he passed away. After that, Mendel’s mother refused to send her surviving son back to Nevel, so he stayed in Leningrad.

A portrait of the sixth Rebbe—Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, of righteous memory—taken shortly before leaving the Soviet Union in 1927.
A portrait of the sixth Rebbe—Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, of righteous memory—taken shortly before leaving the Soviet Union in 1927.

During these years, the Yevsektzia, the Jewish section of the Communist Party, working hand in hand with the G.P.U., kept tightening the noose around Jewish life and tradition in the Soviet Union, attempting to suffocate it so that the next generation of Russian Jews could not follow in the footsteps of their parents. While mocking old people who believed in or were faithful to their ways, they were mostly left alone. It was those who taught Jewish children and young people who were rightly seen as the biggest threats, and so Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak, assisted ably by Reb Chonye, and his network were viewed as a problem.

Mendel was 10 years old when, standing not far from his family’s apartment in Leningrad, he was asked by a man walking together with a local building supervisor where Elchonon Morosov lived. Sensing danger, Mendel told them that he had no idea and promptly ran home to warn his father that people had come to arrest him. After initially waving away his son’s fears, Chonye led him into his office and gave him packets filled with letters and documents, the Rebbe’s correspondences and papers relating to Jewish work in the country that Chonye had been working on, telling him to take the papers and run. There was soon a knock on the door—this was Feb. 23, 1927. He was arrested, and shortly thereafter, sentenced to three years of internal exile, returning in the fall of 1929 after an amnesty had been declared.

A few months later, the Rebbe himself was arrested, and while at first sentenced to death, he was eventually freed and allowed to leave the country for Riga, Latvia. Reb Mendel and his youngest brother, Sholom, were there the day the Rebbe left the Soviet Union for the last time, receiving blessings from him. Throughout, Chonye’s wife, Chaya Bracha, continued to receive her exiled husband’s paycheck from the Rebbe. This ended when Chonye returned from Siberia, at which time he promptly began sending the sum back in its entirety.

Upon his return, Reb Chonye attempted to make Elchonon Dov Morosov disappear, and obtained identity papers for one certain Berko Leibovich Pevzner, under which he continued to live. The family moved to Polotzk, where Mendel enrolled in a secret branch of the yeshivah where his father also taught.

By 1931, the family moved back to Leningrad, where Reb Chonye continued to live in the shadows while his family resided in a separate apartment assigned to Mendel’s name. Although the Rebbe was gone, he continued to correspond with him in various ways and still played an important role in making sure a semblance of Jewish life continued in the Soviet Union. One of these projects was the Tiferes Bachurim yeshivah, which had been founded by Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak as a yeshivah for young men who were already working. It was directed by Rabbi Yaakov Landau until he left the country in 1929, after which responsibility for its maintenance fell upon Reb Chonye.

“While there are yeshivahs,” Sarah Raskin, an eyewitness, would later quote Reb Chonye as saying, “our flag will not be lowered, even in the hardest times.”

 Blueprints of Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak's home, synagogue and headquarters in Leningrad, annotated based on testimony given by Reb Mendel Morosov, who remembered the home from his childhood. A) Mokhovaya Street, B) Synagogue, C) Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak's study, D) Room of Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka (the Rebbe's wife) and her sister, Rebbetzin Sheina, E) Apartment entrance, F) Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak's son-in-law and daughter, Rabbi Shmaryahu and Chana Gurary's room, G) Inner courtyard. (Photo: Jewish Educational Media/Early Years).
Blueprints of Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak's home, synagogue and headquarters in Leningrad, annotated based on testimony given by Reb Mendel Morosov, who remembered the home from his childhood. A) Mokhovaya Street, B) Synagogue, C) Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak's study, D) Room of Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka (the Rebbe's wife) and her sister, Rebbetzin Sheina, E) Apartment entrance, F) Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak's son-in-law and daughter, Rabbi Shmaryahu and Chana Gurary's room, G) Inner courtyard. (Photo: Jewish Educational Media/Early Years).

Once back in Leningrad, Reb Mendel too began working and took an active role in managing Tiferes Bachurim in the city.

By late 1937, the G.P.U., by this time known as the NKVD, was circling Lubavitch activities in Leningrad—Tiferes Bachurim, in particular—arresting various functionaries associated with it. On Feb. 3, 1938, Chonye and nine other Chabad leaders in the city were arrested; during his very first interrogation, he was forced to admit that he “had actually received from Schneersohn letters, advice and prayers which he had circulated among believing Jews.”

A few weeks later, the secret police came back and arrested Mendel’s older brother Shmuel, who was by then married with children, and attempted to take his brother Pinchas, who managed to escape via his building’s roof and flee the city. It is assumed that Reb Mendel himself was a target at the time, and after going into hiding for a while with his mother, they fled to Moscow.

It would be a lifetime before Reb Mendel ever learned of his father’s or brother’s true fate; his father and the nine men arrested at the same time, as well as Shmuel, were sentenced to death and shot on April 9, 1938, their bodies buried in a mass grave.

War, Marriage, Freedom

Despite not knowing his family’s whereabouts, Reb Mendel had to continue to survive. Not believing those in Moscow within the Jewish community arguing that the advancing Germans were the better of the two sides, Morosov took his mother and fled east to Tashkent, Soviet Uzbekistan. The war years were difficult, and his older brother Pinchas, who had evaded the NKVD, succumbed to wartime hunger, leaving behind a family.

In Tashkent, a match was cooked up by his mother and future mother-in-law, Maryasha Shagalov, and in 1944, Reb Mendel married his wife, Rosa (their first child was born there). Like him, Rosa was a victim of Stalin’s terror; her father, a Lubavitcher chassid who served as rabbi of Gomel, was shot in 1937/38.

By war’s end, Morosov once again displayed his knack for survival. In Uzbekistan, while most people did not yet know what to do, Morosov purchased Polish documents and headed west to Lvov, the only way out for “Polish” citizens wishing to be “repatriated.” By early 1946, the Morosovs were out of Russia, making a long journey that eventually got them to a DP camp in Germany. After living for a time in France and then Dublin, Ireland (where he worked as a shochet, a ritual kosher slaughterer), Morosov moved his family to New York in 1953, settling in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn near the new, seventh Rebbe.

Addressing the audience at a wedding. (Photo: Mordechai Lightstone)
Addressing the audience at a wedding. (Photo: Mordechai Lightstone)

After practicing shechitah, he went into business for a time before helping his close friend Rabbi Michoel Teitelbaum found Oholei Torah in the 1960s. A decade later, it opened a high school, and Morosov became its founding principal, eventually expanding it into a full-fledged yeshivah for students of all ages.

More than almost anything else, it was his infectious humor and a certain twinkle in his eye that drew people of all ages into his orbit. The older he got, the more apparent it became that he was an elderly man forever young in spirit. Up until just a few years ago, it was not uncommon to see one of his children or his wife come to a late-night farbrengen to convince him it was time to leave the party, where he was most often found center stage.

Chassidic niggunim were also something that were precious to him. His father had played a pivotal role in saving for posterity the 10 tunes of the Alter Rebbe, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, when at the behest of Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak he hired an old Russian chazan to listen to him sing them and write out the notes.

He knew how to draw a crowd, and he did not disappoint. Reb Mendel’s ultimate hero was his father, and as his father once upon a time prayed at length for many long hours straight, Reb Mendel would from time to time emulate him. Praying at length, davening b’arichus as it’s known, is a Chassidic trait—an innovation introduced by the Baal Shem Tov himself. On one Shabbat about 10 years ago, Morosov was doing just that, and as the minyan concluded and the kiddush farbrengen began, Morosov swayed under his tallit, softly reading the words to a heartfelt melody.

After some time, one of the farbrengen participants got up and walked over to Reb Mendel, observing that he was still in the beginning of his prayers. “This is a little selfish of you,” the participant jocularly challenged, “there’s a whole table of people waiting to hear you.” Reb Mendel looked out from under his tallit and winked in response. Within an astonishingly short amount of time, he was finished praying and sitting at the head of the table, ready to once again share his stories and witticisms of the distant past, which all of a sudden didn’t seem so long ago.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by their children: Rabbi Zalmen Marosov (Montreal, Canada), Rabbi Hershel Morosov (Brooklyn, N.Y.), Rochel Goldberg (Brooklyn, N.Y.), Sterna Lesches (Monsey, N.Y.), Esther Friedman (Overland Park, Kan.), Leah Goldman (Brooklyn, N.Y.) and Henya Milecki (Sydney, Australia); in addition to hundreds of grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great grandchildren.

Some of these stories and information have been adapted with permission from JEM’s “My Encounter with the Rebbe” oral history project, which is dedicated to recording first-person testimonies documenting the life and guidance of the Rebbe.