Everyone knows of Chabad-Lubavitch’s work on behalf of Jews across the globe today, but the phenomenon is nothing new. When most of the world’s Jews lived within the Russian Imperial Empire, the leaders of Chabad-Lubavitch were consistently the leading activists for the concerns of the broader Jewish community. They represented the Jews before the Tsar and government officials, and organized rabbis, communal leaders, and benefactors to work together for the common good.

Rabbi Shalom DovBer Schneersohn, the fifth Chabad rebbe, known as the Rebbe Rashab, led the movement through a painful period of pogroms, blood libels, war, and revolution throughout 1883–1920. Aside from writing many volumes of profound and intricate treatises in the genre of Chabad thought, he also traveled extensively, organizing the rabbis of the empire into a vocal body and caring for many other communal needs.

Here is a timeline of his principal communal activities:

1895 - Supported the Community in Israel

Beit Romano, a large campus purchased by Rabbi Shalom DovBer in the holy city of Hebron.
Beit Romano, a large campus purchased by Rabbi Shalom DovBer in the holy city of Hebron.

The rebbes of Chabad were constantly mindful of the plight of the Jews who had settled in the Holy Land. The first rebbe of Chabad, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, founded Colel Chabad in 1788—a charitable institution formed specifically to address the needs of the communities in Israel. The subsequent Chabad rebbes, including Rabbi Shalom DovBer, continued this legacy.

Beginning in 1895, Rabbi Shalom DovBer devoted significant time to spiritually and physically strengthening the community in Israel.1 This included sending funds and emissaries, purchasing the “Bet Romano” mansion (1909), and establishing Yeshivat Torat Emet in Hebron (1911).

1897 - Founded the Yeshivah Tomchei Temimim

While there were many yeshivahs in 19th-century Russia, Rabbi Shalom DovBer observed that the needs of the youth were not being met. As the winds of “Enlightenment” and socio-political revolution swept through the Jewish world, he realized that a radical new institution was needed. It was no longer sufficient for chassidic texts to be the occasional supplement; instead, Chassidism had to be integrated into the curriculum of the yeshivah and taught thoroughly, by qualified instructors, with the same discipline and rigor as Talmud. Such was the purpose of the new yeshivah: “To ensure the wholeness of the revealed and hidden parts of the Torah.”

See From Lubavitch to Shanghai: The History of Tomchei Temimim in 11 Images

Circa 1895 - Protected the Integrity of the Popular Rabbinate

A page from the Rebbe Rashab’s internal passport, as published in Me-beit Ha-genazim, 22.
A page from the Rebbe Rashab’s internal passport, as published in Me-beit Ha-genazim, 22.

Seeking to integrate the Jews into Russian society, the government supported the works of the Society for the Spread of Enlightenment (known by the Hebrew acronym ChaMaH) which shared its goals. To this end, ChaMaH sought to establish a rabbinical school in St. Petersburg to train rabbis who could further the Tsar’s agenda. Rabbi Shalom DovBer recognized the danger inherent in such an institution. He organized a campaign to oppose this plan and arranged for petitions from Jewish communities across Russia to be sent to Baron Günzburg, one of the Society’s founders. Evidently, these petitions had the desired effect, and the planned seminary did not go ahead.2

In 1893, the government secretly appointed their own private rabbinical commission, attended almost entirely by government-sanctioned rabbis. The commission resolved to disqualify all rabbis who did not hold an academic diploma and have them removed from their posts. These traditional rabbis—who were of the people and worked on behalf of the people—represented the vast majority of the empire’s Jews. Rabbi Shalom DovBer exposed this resolution in 1897 and led the successful campaign to prevent its legislation, defending the rights of communities to retain and appoint rabbis who lacked a diploma from a government institution but were steeped in Jewish scholarship.3

1900 - 1902 - Redirected French Funds, Including to a Factory in Dubrovna

Another scheme of ChaMaH was to replace the traditional Jewish schools (“chadorim”) with schools of their own, modeled on the Prussian system. Sensing that these new schools were tools for the widespread assimilation of Russian Jewry, Rabbi Shalom DovBer spared no effort to protect the traditional schools from foreign influence.4

In 1900, the Jewish Colonization Association (JCA), an organization run out of Paris that gave funds to various Jewish projects, pledged one million francs to ChaMaH’s school network. The Rebbe argued that the money would be much better used for projects that would help Russian Jewry financially. After a few years of constant pressure, 600,000 of the original one million was diverted to other projects.5

One of these projects, a factory for weaving and spinning wool, provided some 2,000 Jewish families in the city of Dubrovna, Belarus, with their livelihood.6

1904 - 1905 - Chinese Matzah Campaign

Jewish Soldiers of the Russian Army, Passover 1905
Jewish Soldiers of the Russian Army, Passover 1905

During the Russo-Japanese War of 1904 - 1905, Rabbi Shalom DovBer realized that the Jewish soldiers sent to the Far East would not have matzah for Passover. He orchestrated a massive effort to arrange for matzahs to be available. This involved gathering support from the general Jewish population, raising a significant amount of money, acquiring the required permits from the Minister of the Interior, and finally, organizing the logistics of baking and transporting an enormous amount of matzah to the front. All these aspects were overseen and coordinated by Rabbi Shalom DovBer himself.

For an extensive account see, The Chinese Matzah Campaign of 1905

1909 - Convened the Russian Empire’s First Conference of Orthodox Rabbis

For many years, Rabbi Shalom DovBer worked to arrange a meeting of a core group of traditional rabbis—who represented the bulk of rabbis in the empire—with the consent of the Russian government. Finally, in the month of Iyar 5669 (May 1909), this conference took place in Vilna. The circumstance that allowed this to happen was the upcoming Rabbinical Commission, which was to be held in St Petersburg during the winter of 1910, overseen and directed by government agents. The Rebbe used this opportunity to unite the traditional rabbinate so that they could present a unified front at the upcoming commission.7

1910 - Played a Leading Role in the Rabbinic Commission

Every so often, the Russian government would convene a commission to discuss Jewish religious affairs. Often, those invited were not the rabbinate, but prestigious and influential individuals. However, it was decided that the rabbinate should be invited to the sixth convention. Although the government mainly invited the “enlightened” rabbis, this time several Orthodox rabbis —including Rabbi Shalom DovBer—were invited as well. The Rebbe was instrumental in all aspects of this commission. Working with Rabbi Chaim of Brisk and Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinski, he ensured that the rabbis elected to represent the various communities were G‑d-fearing. The commission took place from the 4th of Adar II to the 6th of Nissan 5670 (1910).8

1910 - Saved the Romm Publishing House From Collapse

Baron David Günzburg
Baron David Günzburg

During the Commission, Rabbi Shalom DovBer took the opportunity to reach across the ideological divide and convince Baron David Günzburg to purchase a 75% stake in the famed Romm printing press. This press was vital to the Jewish world, supplying the classic volumes of Talmud, Midrash, Chumash, and Siddurim, as well as printing the Tanya. Due to considerable debt, the press was on the brink of bankruptcy. Thus, the timely investment of the Baron saved one of world Jewry’s indispensable assets.9

1913 - Helped Coordinate the Defense of Mendel Beilis

When Mendel Beilis, manager of a brick factory, was accused of the ritual murder of a Christian child, those in on the conspiracy concocted a story involving an acquaintance of Beilis, Faivel Shneerson. Shneerson was chosen due to his illustrious last name, which was the same as the rebbes of Chabad. With this in hand, they fabricated a tale that linked the rebbes of Chabad, specifically the grandfather of Rabbi Shalom DovBer, the third Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel, to this conspiracy. Due to this, Rabbi Shalom DovBer became involved in the trial, providing key arguments to the lawyers, to the point that he considered traveling to attend the trial.10

For an extensive account, see: The Tsar’s Scapegoats: Beilis, the Chassidim and the Jews

1916 - Protected Rabbis From the Draft

During the early stages of the First World War, with the rapid advance of the Germans, the Russian government sought to expand the draft. To that end, the regional governments were instructed to compile lists of the rabbis in their districts. Immediately, Rabbi Shalom DovBer traveled to St Petersburg to intervene and secure an exemption for the rabbinate. After much back and forth, the Rebbe successfully prevented this catastrophic plan from being carried out.11

1916 - 1918 Assisted Refugees During the First World War

In 1916, as the Germans rapidly advanced into Russia, the government forced the Jews living near the front to vacate their homes with little or no notice. This forced thousands of Jews to move deeper into Russia beyond the borders of the Pale of Settlement. Since Jews had been banned from settling there until this point, there was no Jewish infrastructure. During the war years, Rabbi Shalom DovBer traveled extensively—at significant personal risk—to Moscow and St Petersburg to petition on behalf of these refugees.12

1916 - Sent Emissaries to Georgia & Uzbekistan

Rabbi Shalom DovBer paid particular attention to the Jews of the Asian extremes of the Russian empire, who, due to their remote location, lacked spiritual guidance. He sent various rabbis, including Rabbi Chaim Naeh and later Rabbi Shmuel Levitin, to rejuvenate Jewish faith and heritage through immediate rescue efforts and the establishment of educational institutions, thereby ensuring the continuity of Jewish practice among these remote communities.13

1917 - Encouraged People to Vote During the Provisional Government

The Provisional Government of the Russian Republic, March 1917.
The Provisional Government of the Russian Republic, March 1917.

The period directly after the February Revolution of 1917 saw a brief glimmer of hope emerge for Russian Jewry. After unrest broke out in Petrograd, Tsar Nicholas abdicated and a provisional government took over. Rabbi Shalom DovBer welcomed these events and hoped that the new body would hold free and fair elections. Shortly thereafter, there was talk of establishing a Russian Jewish Congress. This body was to comprise individuals elected by the Jewish community. Rabbi Shalom DovBer sought to gain a majority for the traditionalist segment by presenting a united front. He wrote to various Jewish leaders, encouraging them to support this endeavor and work with him to gain the requisite number of votes. Unfortunately, this idyllic vision was quickly shattered by the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917.14

1918 - Printed Siddur Tehillat Hashem

Siddur Tehillat Hashem according to the Ashkenazi liturgy. Rostov 1918. (As reprinted in 1924.)
Siddur Tehillat Hashem according to the Ashkenazi liturgy. Rostov 1918. (As reprinted in 1924.)

Rabbi Shalom DovBer did not cease working on communal initiatives even during this time of tremendous upheaval. Just days before the outbreak of the October Revolution, he set out for Petrograd to lobby in support of the Jewish Congress. En route, he learned of the Revolution in Petrograd via telegram and was forced to stop in Moscow. As unrest spread to Moscow, he hastily convened a meeting of prominent members of the community who navigated an active war zone to be present. The Rebbe spoke about the desperate need of the refugees who had been displaced by years of violence and lacked basic building blocks of Jewish life. He proposed printing and distributing a new prayer book to those in need. Upon his return to Rostov—where he had relocated shortly after the outbreak of World War I— he acquired a printing press and printed the Siddur Tehillat Hashem in both the Ashkenazi liturgy and the Arizal liturgy according to the custom of the chassidim.

For an extensive account of this period see, Purim in Petrograd, 1917.

For more on the legacy of Rabbi Shalom DovBer, see: Giving Chabad New Life.