Born into the heart of Communism, Rabbi Joseph I. Schneersohn fought for Russian Jewry on all fronts, ensuring the survival of Judaism in the Old World. Then, he came to America and revolutionized and reinvented Judaism for the West

The Early Years

Rabbi Sholom Dovber, the fifth leader of the growing Chabad movement, was constantly kept busy by the growing number of public meetings, conferences and important Rabbinical convocations which he had to attend.

The endless stream of Chassidic delegations, people seeking his advice and guidance, the need to supervise and instruct his followers in addition to his personal need for Biblical and Chassidic study, made increasing inroads into working days which already stretched from early morning until late at night.

He decided to appoint a personal secretary to relieve him of part of this enormous burden. His choice was his fifteen-year-old son, Rabbi Joseph Isaac Schneersohn. Born on Tammuz 12, 5640 (1880) in Lubavitch, Russia, the young man had proved his ability in the field of study and was already acknowledged as a brilliant scholar. He was soon to prove himself to be a no less brilliant administrator with an outstanding talent for communal and civic activities.

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.

On Elul 13, 5657 (1897), at the age of seventeen, Rabbi Joseph I. Schneersohn married Nehamah Dinah, the daughter of Rabbi Abraham Schneersohn, a prominent man of great scholarship and piety (and the great-granddaughter of the Tzemach Tzedek).

During the week’s celebrations that followed the wedding ceremony, Rabbi Sholom Dovber announced the founding of the famous Lubavitch Talmudic seminary Yeshivah Tomchei Tmimim, and the following year appointed his son to be its executive director. Under the able direction of Rabbi Joseph I. Schneersohn and guided by his ever-watchful father, the Lubavitch Yeshivah flourished and developed and many branch seminaries were formed throughout Russia.

The first two decades of the twentieth century were to test the young Rabbi’s unbounded energy, zeal and ability to the full. Only the briefest mention can be made here of even the most important of the events contained in those twenty years.

As part of the strenuous efforts being made to improve the economic status of the Jews in Russia, Rabbi Joseph I. Schneersohn was delegated by his father to conduct an intensive campaign for the establishment of a textile factory in Dubrovna.

This campaign, in the year 5661 (1901), took Rabbi Schneersohn to Vilna, Lodz and Koenigsberg. He obtained the co-operation of leading Rabbis and of the famous philanthropists, the brothers Jacob and Eliezer Poliakoff, and the textile factory was duly established with some 2,000 Jewish employees.

Intercession on Behalf of Russian Jewry

We already know of the difficult position of the Jews under the Czarist regime and how the Lubavitcher Rebbes continually interceded on behalf of their brethren, both with the Government and with the Court. Rabbi Joseph I. Schneersohn undertook many such missions and often traveled to the capital of St Petersburg and to Moscow.

When the Russo-Japanese war flared up in the Far East in 5664 (1904), Rabbi Joseph I. Schneersohn became active in the campaign inaugurated by his father to provide the Jewish soldiers on the Far East front with matzos for Pesach.

In the widespread unrest that followed in the wake of that war, a new wave of pogroms swept the Pale of Settlement. Rabbi Joseph I. Schneersohn was sent by his father to Germany and Holland, and was successful in obtaining the intercession of prominent statesmen on behalf of Russian Jewry.

In the year 5668 (1908), he again participated in the Rabbinical convocation in Vilna. In the following year, he went to Germany to confer with Jewish leaders there. Upon his return, he took part in the preparation for the next Rabbinical convocation in the year 5670 (1910).

His energetic and far-reaching public activities, his watchful defense of the rights of Russian Jewry and his constant fight against the local and central authorities aroused the displeasure of the Czarist regime at that time.

Between the years 5662 and 5671 (1902-1911), Rabbi Schneersohn was arrested in Moscow and St Petersburg on four occasions. Since Government enquiries elicited nothing incriminating in his activities, he was released each time with a stern warning.

These incidents did not deter Rabbi Schneersohn from continuing his work, but spurred him to even greater efforts. In the years 5677 (1917) and 5678 (1918) he again took a leading part in the assembly of Rabbis and laymen in Moscow and Kharkov.

Dealing with the Communist Authorities

Upon his father’s death on Nissan 2, 5680 (1920), Rabbi Joseph I. Schneersohn was requested by the entire Chabad world to accept the leadership of the movement and become the next Lubavitcher Rebbe.

By that time conditions had greatly changed. As a result of the war and the October Revolution, Russia was in a state of constant internal strife. As usual, the Jews suffered most.

In those days Rabbi Schneersohn found himself practically alone, facing a task that required superhuman effort - the rehabilitation of Jewish communal and religious life in Russia.

He fought his struggle on two fronts, the material and the religious. Russian Jews had been reduced to the most abject poverty and suffering, and the future of traditional Judaism was gravely threatened by the policy of the G‑dless Yevsektzia. (The Jewish branch of the Soviet Communist Party, responsible for anti-Jewish activities. It was subsequently dissolved by the Soviet Government.)

During his single-handed fight for the preservation of traditional Judaism in Russia against overwhelming odds, Rabbi Joseph I. Schneersohn realized that a new country would have to supersede Russia as a great Torah center. He therefore founded a Lubavitch Talmudic seminary (Yeshivah) in Warsaw, in the year 5681 (1921), and helped many students and staff of his Russian seminary to make their way to Poland and continue their work there. The Lubavitch Yeshivah in Poland, like its counterpart in Russia, rapidly developed into a whole system of seminaries, and hundreds of students were enrolled in its many branches.

In the meantime, Rabbi Joseph I. Schneersohn fearlessly conducted his work in Russia, establishing and maintaining seminaries, Torah schools and other religious institutions.

At that time Rabbi Schneersohn had his headquarters in Rostov on the River Don, but because of libelous accusations it was necessary to move from there. He took up residence in Leningrad (St Petersburg) from where he relentlessly continued to direct his activities. He organized a special committee to help Jewish artisans and workers who wished to observe the Sabbath, and he sent teachers, preachers and other representatives to the most remote Jewish communities in Russia to strengthen their religious life.

Realizing the necessity of organizing Chabad communities outside Russia, the Lubavitcher Rebbe formed the Agudas Chassidei Chabad of the United States of America and Canada, and maintained regular contact with his followers in the New World.

In 5687 (1927) the Rebbe founded the Lubavitch seminary in Uzbekistan, a remote province of Russia.

His stand against those who wanted to undermine the Jewish religion became even more perilous. The Yevsektzia was determined to stop him, and even resorted to intimidation and mental torture.

“One morning, when the Lubavitcher Rebbe was observing yahrzeit for his father, three members of the Yevsektzia rushed into his synagogue, guns in hand, to arrest him. Calmly, the Lubavitcher Rebbe finished his prayers and followed them.

Facing a council of armed and determined men, the Lubavitcher Rebbe again reaffirmed that he would not give up his religious activities, whatever threats might be made. When one of the agents pointed a gun at him, saying: “This little toy has made many a man change his mind”, the Lubavitcher Rebbe calmly replied: “That little toy can intimidate only the kind of man who has many gods-passions, and but one world-this world. Because I have only one G‑d and two worlds, I am not impressed by your little toy.”

His struggle came to a head in the summer of 5687 (1927), when the Rebbe was arrested and placed in solitary confinement in the notorious Spalerno prison in Leningrad. He was sentenced to death, but the timely intervention of leading foreign statesmen saved his life. Instead of being executed, he was banished to Kostroma, in the Urals, for three years.

Giving way to further pressure by these statesmen, the authorities decided to release the Lubavitcher Rebbe. He was informed of this decision on his birthday, Tammuz 12. The next day he was permitted to leave and settle in the village of Malachovka, in the vicinity of Moscow. Further intervention resulted in permission for the Rebbe to leave Russia for Riga, in Latvia. The day after the holiday of Succos, together with his family and the bulk of his valuable and historic library, the Rebbe left for Riga.

Without pausing to rest, he renewed his activities, beginning by establishing a Talmudic seminary in Riga. In the years 5688 and 5689 (1928 and 1929) he ensured the provision of matzos for the Jews of Russia.

World War II Erupts

In the year 5689 (1929) the Rebbe visited the land of Israel and afterwards proceeded to the United States. In New York he received a civic welcome and was granted the freedom of the city. Hundreds of Rabbis and lay leaders welcomed the Rebbe and sought personal interviews with him. During this visit, he was received by President Hoover at the White House.

Returning to Europe, he continued his various activities, but in order to have better facilities for his work he took up residence in Warsaw in 5694 (1934). The activities of the Lubavitch seminaries in Poland had by now gained considerable momentum. The central seminary in Warsaw and nearby Otwosk attracted many hundreds of scholars from all parts of Poland and other countries, including the United States. Two years later the Rebbe took up residence in Otwosk and directed all his activities from there.

At the outbreak of the Second World War in September, 1939 (5699), the Rebbe refused every opportunity to leave the inferno of Warsaw until he had taken care of his seminaries and done everything possible for his suffering brethren in the Polish capital. He remained there throughout the terrible siege and bombardment of Warsaw and its final capitulation to the Nazi invaders.

Even during this time he managed to evacuate a great many of his students to safer zones, and all the American boys who had been studying at the Lubavitch seminary at Otwosk were safely transported back to their homes in the United States.

His courage and fearlessness (he had a Sukkah built and observed the mitzvah of “dwelling in the Sukkah” at the height of the bombardment) were a source of inspiration to the suffering Jewish community of Warsaw.

With the cooperation of the Department of State in Washington, the Rebbe’s friends and followers worked incessantly to arrange his journey from Warsaw to New York. Finally, the Lubavitcher Rebbe and his family were offered safe conduct to Berlin and thence to Riga-Latvia was still neutral at that time. Once there, the Rebbe continued to help the numerous refugees who had succeeded in escaping from Poland to Lithuania and Latvia.

On Adar Sheni 9, 5700 (March 19, 1940) the Rebbe arrived in New York on the S.S. Drottningholm. He was enthusiastically welcomed by thousands of followers and many representatives of various organizations, as well as civic authorities.

Arrives in America

The Rebbe upon his arrival on American shores did not waste anytime in establishing a relief fund for Jewry across the sea. He contacted government officials and the state department, placing immense pressure to validate as many visas as possible as the war grew more dangerous and more gates and avenues of escapes were closed. He worked with humanitarian organizations to try and secure aid for many of the camps, prior to the knowledge of the mass genocide.

Special emphasis was placed on Jewry in the Baltic States and the Soviet Union where millions fled to safety. These refugees had no food, a place to live or where to run to. The Russian government was either executing them or deporting them to Siberia, where millions were vanishing. The Rebbe sent food packages and religious items secretly to these Jews through his underground operations, as he officially campaigned together with other prominent Rabbis and Jewish organizations to receive official permission and access to the Soviet Union throughout during the duration of the war.

The Rebbe responded to the many requests from Jewish refugee camps during the war, shipping to them vital religious items and sending to them his representatives to encourage not to give up and that there is a future to the Jewish nation.

The decade that had elapsed between the Rebbe’s first and second visits to the U.S.A. had left its scars on his constitution. But, although his health had become greatly undermined by suffering and martyrdom, Rabbi Schneersohn devoted himself at once to his new mission of making America into a vibrant Torah center.

The Central Talmudic Seminary “Tomchei Tmimim Lubavitch” was soon established, and it became the forerunner of many seminaries and day schools throughout the United States. The Rebbe continued his efforts on behalf of his war-afflicted brethren overseas, and at the same time concentrated on his avowed intention to bring about a religious revival in the United States.

After a short stay in New York City, the Rebbe moved his headquarters to Brooklyn. The first issue of the monthly Hakriah Vehakdusha made its appearance as the official organ of the World Agudas Chassidei Chabad and continued throughout the war.

During the ten years of his life in America, the influence and accomplishments of Rabbi Joseph Isaac Schneersohn in strengthening Judaism, furthering Jewish education, and establishing institutions of Jewish learning were so great, that Judaism and Torah learning in America, and subsequently in other countries, took on an entirely different complexion.

In addition to the establishment of the Lubavitch Yeshivos Tomchei Tmimim in the U.S.A. and Canada, the Rebbe founded Machne Israel, Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, Beth Rivkah and Beth Sarah schools for Jewish girls, and the Kehot Publication Society, dedicated to the issue of books in the true spirit of Torah and tradition.

Mesibos Shabbos groups for boys and girls were also established, to make Jewish children and teenagers conscious of their great spiritual heritage. Meeting every Sabbath in a congenial atmosphere, and led by a young person of their own age and from their own neighborhood, these children are imbued with the fundamentals of the Jewish religion, of the sanctity of the Sabbath and other precepts.

A short while before his death, Rabbi Joseph I. Schneersohn turned his attention to the needs of North African Jewry. The foundation was laid for a network of educational institutions, including seminaries, elementary schools for young girls and boys, all of which have continued to flourish under the name “Oholei Yosef Yitzchak Lubavitch.”

A similar network of educational institutions was established in Israel, and day schools in Melbourne, Australia.

Many Jewish communal workers and leaders have taken heart from the successful work of Rabbi Joseph I. Schneersohn and have redoubled their own efforts. New organizations and institutions have sprung up in the field of Jewish education and Sabbath observance, and their influence is making itself increasingly felt. It can be truly said that this great man was one of the pillars of world Jewry in our generation.

Rabbi Joseph Isaac Schneersohn passed away on the Sabbath, the tenth of Shevat, 5710 (1950), after thirty years of indefatigable endeavor as head of Chabad and a leader of world Jewry.

News of his death saddened Jews all over the world, and they mourned with a sense of personal loss the passing of so eminent, devoted and inspiring a leader. However, they find comfort in the knowledge that his spirit lives on in the unbroken chain of Chabad leadership; and that the institutions which he founded continue to thrive and expand under the leadership of his successor, the present Lubavitcher Rebbe and leader of Chabad movement, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory.