There was a war raging over in Europe, and anyway, America was supposed to be different. The sons and daughters of American Jews went to public school; Jewish day schools hardly existed in the United States circa 1940, and Jewish schools geared for girls had been a novelty even in the old world—the one that was in the midst of getting destroyed.

Yet when Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, of righteous memory, escaped from the European inferno and arrived in New York in March of 1940, he immediately set about establishing Jewish schools, ones that would raise the level of religious observance across the vast spectrum of American Jewry.

After replanting his famous yeshivah Tomchei Temimim in New York, the first Beth Rivkah girls’ school opened its doors in 1942.

On Jan. 16—Tu B’Shevat, the New Year of the Trees—nearly 2,300 students and staff of the central Associated Beth Rivkah Schools gathered at Lubavitch World Headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., to mark a century since the 1914 passing of the school’s namesake, Rebbetzin Rivkah Schneersohn, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak’s grandmother.

“We want the girls to better understand and be proud of the fact that they study at Beth Rivkah,” explains Rabbi Bentzion Stock, the school’s administrator. “The Previous Rebbe founded Beth Rivkah, and he placed the [Lubavitcher] Rebbe [Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory] in charge of the school.”

At a Beth Rivkah dinner back in 1946, the Rebbe, who was Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak’s son-in-law and would become his successor, addressed the gathering as the school's chairman. He said people ask “whether it is our intention to create a school that will graduate rebbetzins. Our goal is that every student ... understands her responsibility as a part of the nation of Israel, as a builder of a future home in Israel, and as a mother in Israel."

Founded under the umbrella of Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, the educational arm of Chabad-Lubavitch, Beth Rivkah welcomed its first class in a small house on Riverdale Road in East New York, Brooklyn. Over the next few years, branches popped up in Boston and Springfield, Mass.; Providence, R.I.; Bridgeport and New Haven, Conn.; Buffalo, N.Y.; and in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, Penn. Additionally, a Beth Sarah school—named for Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak’s mother, Rebbetzin Shterna Sarah, who had passed away in New York in 1942—was established in Newark, N.J.

As the school grew it changed locations, and from Riverdale Avenue moved to occupy the second floor of a synagogue on Stone Avenue in Brownsville, Brooklyn. When demographic changes in the neighborhood made it too unsafe for the girls’ school to remain there, a suitable building was found on Church Avenue and Bedford—the former Yeshiva University High School of Brooklyn building—where the school moved in 1967.

The first Beth Rivkah girls’ school opened its doors in 1942 in Brooklyn, N.Y. It was soon followed by branches on five continents.
The first Beth Rivkah girls’ school opened its doors in 1942 in Brooklyn, N.Y. It was soon followed by branches on five continents.

Staff at the school describe how over the years, guided by the Rebbe’s directive that no Jewish child be turned away from a Jewish education, tens of thousands of girls have walked Beth Rivkah’s halls, including an influx of hundreds of girls of Iranian-Jewish heritage in the aftermath of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, as well as thousands of Russian girls from the former Soviet Union.

Today, Beth Rivkah is located at two separate sites in Crown Heights, with the elementary school in the modern Campus Chomesh building that was completed in the mid-1990s. The campus was named after the Rebbe’s wife, Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka Schneerson, of righteous memory, and the groundbreaking took place within 30 days of her passing in 1989.

On his way to visit the Rebbetzin’s resting place, the Rebbe stopped by the groundbreaking and presented Rabbi Abraham Shemtov with a contribution in the amount of $470, the numerical equivalent of the Rebbetzin’s Hebrew name. The Rebbe asked that Ronald O. Perelman, the principal benefactor of the project, be informed that the Rebbe “wished to be a partner in building the campus.”

Sister schools sharing the name Beth Rivkah can be found in such cities as Montreal, Canada; Kfar Chabad, Israel; Paris, France; and Melbourne, Australia.

A Shining Example

Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak named his school after the mother of his father and predecessor, Rabbi Shalom Dov Ber of Lubavitch. Rebbetzin Rivkah was born in the Belarussian village of Lubavitch in 1833; she herself was of distinguished lineage, having been the great-granddaughter of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, founder of the Chabad movement, and granddaughter of Rabbi Dovber Schneuri, Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s son and successor.

Rebbetzin Rivkah passed away on the 10th day of Shevat in 1914. She is buried in the Lubavitch village cemetery, near the graves of her husband and father-in-law.
Rebbetzin Rivkah passed away on the 10th day of Shevat in 1914. She is buried in the Lubavitch village cemetery, near the graves of her husband and father-in-law.

Speaking to the girls, Rabbi Leibel Newman, dean of education at Beth Rivkah, shared many anecdotes from Rebbetzin Rivkah’s life. Orphaned at an early age, she was raised by her maternal grandmother, Rebbetzin Sheina, and in 1849 married her cousin, Rabbi Shmuel Schneersohn, of righteous memory, who would become the fourth Chabad Rebbe.

When she was widowed in her early 50s, she threw herself into caring for the sick and needy. And when her son, Rabbi Shalom Dov Ber founded the Yeshivah Tomchei Temimim in Lubavitch in 1897, she dedicated herself to caring for the students’ well-being. She oversaw food preparations, made sure the students’ needs were met and was even known to monitor their scholastic progress.

Her grandson, young Yosef Yitzchak, would often visit her, and she would tell him stories of past generations of Chabad Rebbes and Chassidim, many of which he would commit to writing and eventually publish for the benefit of generations to come.

Girls from the Beth Rivkah Schools in Brooklyn, N.Y., marked the 100th anniversary of passing of Rebbetzin Rivkah, after whom the school is named, with a specially prepared video presentation on her extraordinary life.
Girls from the Beth Rivkah Schools in Brooklyn, N.Y., marked the 100th anniversary of passing of Rebbetzin Rivkah, after whom the school is named, with a specially prepared video presentation on her extraordinary life.

She passed away on the 10th day of Shevat in 1914. Since her son—the Rebbe at that time—was out of town, her grandson Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak made arrangements for her funeral and interment. She is buried in the Lubavitch village cemetery, near the graves of her husband and father-in-law. (Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak would later pass away on the very same date in 1950).

“It was very interesting to hear about her life,” reflected 10-year-old Sarah Gurevtich, who attended with her fifth-grade class. “I guess I can learn from her, and the way she welcomed guests and cared for others.”

“The Previous Rebbe used to go to Rebbetzin Rivkah’s home every day on his way from cheder,” explains Leah Jacobson, a principal at Beth Rivkah. “We know that those stories had a tremendous effect on him. The Previous Rebbe said when he came to America that ‘America is nisht anderesh—‘America is no different.’ He meant that the traditions must be upkept and that a woman, as the nurturer of a Jewish home, has a tremendous opportunity to do that.

“We gathered today to remember who this special woman was—a woman of kindness and knowledge. She is the namesake of our school, and we strive to continue her legacy.”

Girls from the Beth Rivkah Schools attended a special gathering at Lubavitch World Headquarters in Brooklyn, N.Y., to mark the 100th anniversary of passing of Rebbetzin Rivkah, after whom the school is named.
Girls from the Beth Rivkah Schools attended a special gathering at Lubavitch World Headquarters in Brooklyn, N.Y., to mark the 100th anniversary of passing of Rebbetzin Rivkah, after whom the school is named.