When Rabbi Shneor Zalman Schneersohn first arrived as the Chabad-Lubavitch emissary in the small town of Rovno, western Ukraine, in 2004, he didn’t think much of the ancient synagogue where he took up his position as the town’s lone rabbi. Known as Rovne in Yiddish, Rovno in Russian, and today, in Ukrainian, as Rivne, the town had once been the thriving heartland of the heavily Jewish Volhynia region. But for Schneersohn and his wife, Rachel, there was too much work to do reviving Jewish life to focus on history.

“I knew the synagogue was old, but to be honest I didn’t think much about it,” Schneersohn told Chabad.org. “It was only after living here some time that I began delving into history, and the more I learned, the more interested I became.”

Some 250 years ago, Rovno was home to the great Chassidic master Rabbi Dovber (d. 1772), famously known as the Maggid (preacher) of Mezritch, the primary disciple and successor of Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov, who founded the Chassidic movement in the mid-18th century and initiated the Jewish renaissance felt to this day.

The Maggid was already a great scholar and mystic when he first traveled to the town of Mezhibuzh (Medzhybizh, Ukraine) to meet with the Baal Shem Tov in the summer or fall of 1752—an encounter that would change the course of history. While the Maggid’s name is most associated with Mezritch, it is known that he served as a preacher in Rovno before and after his time in Mezritch (which is about 50 kilometers east of Rovno). Among his students were the greatest of Chassidic masters, known as the Chevraia Kadisha (Holy Brotherhood), including Rabbi Zusha of Anipoli and his brother, Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk; Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev; Rabbi Aharon of Karlin; Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk; and Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of Chabad-Lubavitch. As they journeyed to Mezritch to visit their master, the Maggid’s disciples came to Rovno, and it’s known that both the Chozeh (“Seer”) of Lublin and Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk commonly referred to him as the Maggid of Rovno.

Little did Schneersohn know that the synagogue building out of which he has worked for the last 17 years was, in fact, the Maggid’s own. It was there that his disciples would gather, his teachings—in the words of the introduction to a compilation of the Maggid’s teachings—entering their “hearts like a flashing fire, enthusing their souls to the service of the Creator” and changing the world forever.

How Schneersohn—a descendent of Rabbi Schneur Zalman and a distant relative of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Shneerson, of righteous memory—came to discover this is a story of its own.

Rabbi Shneur Zalman Schneersohn, center, reviews old maps of the city with members of the Rovno Jewish community.
Rabbi Shneur Zalman Schneersohn, center, reviews old maps of the city with members of the Rovno Jewish community.

The Making of a Spiritual Giant

Rabbi Dovber’s exact date of birth is unknown and details of his early life are relatively obscure. Tradition has it that he was born in the early 1700s to Avraham and Chava in the village of Lokachi (Lukatch), about 130 kilometers west of Rovno. One famous story, cited by Rabbi Shlomo Yozef Zevin in his Sippurei Chassidim anthology of Chassidic tales, tells how when the Maggid was 5 years old, his parents’ home burned to the ground. When he saw his mother overcome with grief, he asked whether it was truly worthwhile for her to cry so much for the loss of physical possessions.

“Heaven forfend,” she replied, as rendered by Rabbi J. Immanuel Schochet in The Great Maggid (Kehot Publication Society, 1974). “I do not grieve over the loss of our home but over the document of our family tree that was burned with it. For this document traced out descent to Rabbi Yochanan HaSandler who was a direct descendent of King David!”

“If so,” the young boy replied, “I shall start for you a new dynasty.”

Rabbi Dovber was a teacher and town preacher in Turchin before he met the Baal Shem Tov. According to Chassidic tradition, even after hearing of the Baal Shem Tov’s fame, Rabbi Dovber at first resisted visiting him. Finally, he relented, traveling to Mezhibuzh, where he expected to hear profound expositions on Torah. Instead, the Baal Shem Tov began telling a seemingly odd story about his travels and his gentile wagon driver.

On his second day, the Maggid heard more of the same and decided to return home. At midnight, just as he prepared to head out, the Baal Shem Tov summoned Rabbi Dovber into his room and began expounding on a difficult passage in Etz Chaim, a collection of teachings of the 16th-century Kabbalist, the Arizal. Although it was said that there was not a single exoteric or esoteric text of Torah that Rabbi Dov Ber did not review at least 101 times, the Baal Shem Tov nonetheless awed him with his explanation.

The town of Rovne is located in what had once been the thriving heartland of the heavily Jewish Volhynia region.
The town of Rovne is located in what had once been the thriving heartland of the heavily Jewish Volhynia region.

The particular passage references the terms of various angels. Rabbi Dovber would later recall that as the Baal Shem Tov spoke “the whole house was filled with light, a fire blazing up all around him, and we actually saw the angels referred to!”

Following the passing of the Baal Shem Tov in 1760, his son, R’ Zvi, assumed leadership of the Chassidic movement. But on the first anniversary of his father’s passing, he rose and announced that his father had appeared to him in a dream, revealing his wish that Rabbi Dovber take his place and lead the nascent movement. It was primarily Rabbi Dovber who was responsible for disseminating the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov to Jewish communities throughout Eastern Europe although, unlike his teacher, he rarely traveled. Instead, he would send his students to convey the teachings and philosophy of Chassidus to Jews in towns throughout Russia, Poland, Galicia and Lithuania.

During the years of Rabbi Dovber’s leadership, the persecution of Chassidim by their opponents, the misnagdim, led by the famed Gaon of Vilna (Rabbi Eliyahu ben Solomon, 1720-1797), came to a head. Throughout these trials and tribulations, the Maggid counseled his followers not to react or respond. Following the ban placed upon Chassidim and Chassidism by the Gaon and his followers in 1772, the Maggid’s disciples called a meeting in Rovno to present their case for fighting back. But even after Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev read out a letter describing the suffering his family was enduring in their hometown of Pinsk, the Maggid refused to budge. “Truth stands, falsehood does not stand,” he said.

Believing it was their duty to protect their holy master, the Maggid’s followers eventually pronounced a counter-ban on the misnagdim. When the Maggid found out, he was dismayed by what they had done, intimating that while victory would eventually be theirs they would lose their “head” in the process.

“The disciples had achieved a victory but at a costly price,” Schochet writes. “Within half a year they would lose their head, the crown of Chassidism … .”

Rabbi Dovber, the great Maggid, passed away on the 19th of Kislev, 1772, and was buried in the village of Anipoli (Hannopil). Meanwhile, the battle continued. As a result of the machinations of the opponents of Chassidism, 26 years later the Maggid’s student Rabbi Schneur Zalman was arrested on false charges of subversive activities against the Russian czar. He eventually prevailed, being released on the anniversary of his teacher’s death, the 19th of Kislev. So began a new chapter of the expansion of the Chassidic movement, one that would see Chassidism become the dominant stream throughout Eastern Europe and revive a broken people.

A Polish tax map pointing to the location of the Alter Kloyz, the old study house.
A Polish tax map pointing to the location of the Alter Kloyz, the old study house.

Rovno’s Jewish Community Under Soviet Rule

Following the Second Partition of Poland in 1793, Rovno became a part of the Russian Empire, remaining so until after the 1917 Communist Revolution, when it once again became Poland. Until World War II, Rovno was a prosperous town boasting at least 38 synagogues and Jewish communal properties, many of them grand and ornate. Among them was the approximately 10,000-square-foot Great Synagogue, which took 35 years to build and was completed in 1874.

Traditional Jewish life in Rovno came to an abrupt halt following the region’s annexation by the Soviet Union after the 1939 Hitler-Stalin Pact, with the new Communist authorities confiscating most Jewish communal properties. Then came the Holocaust, when the Nazis invaded and together with local collaborationists murdered the vast majority of Rovno’s 40,000 Jews. Only a tiny handful of Rovno’s original Jewish inhabitants returned after the war, living together for a time in the Great Synagogue complex out of fear of Ukrainian nationalists roaming the region. Under the leadership of Soviet premier Nikita Khrushev came a revival of state-sponsored anti-Semitism, and in 1959, the Great Synagogue was commandeered by authorities, leaving Rovno without a legal synagogue for the first time in centuries.

Around 1989, in a very different Soviet Union, authorities attempting to curry international favor offered Rovno’s greatly diminished Jewish community a synagogue building. Local Jews saw no need to seek the restoration of the former Grand Synagogue, which would have been costly to heat and upkeep, instead opting for a much smaller synagogue that likewise had been confiscated by the Communists.

“My mother came to this synagogue when it was the Soviet Union,” said Victoria Chymshyt, a Rovno-based historian and genealogist. “Back then it was a library, and the synagogue hall was the reading room.” Under the watchful eyes of the KGB, it later became a secular Jewish cultural center before being returned to the community, and Schneersohn has served as its rabbi ever since he arrived in Rovno.

The post-war memorial book of the Rovno Jewish community includes accounts of furniture used by the Maggid of Mezritch still being there in the early 20th century, including his lectern, chair and the table from which he taught.
The post-war memorial book of the Rovno Jewish community includes accounts of furniture used by the Maggid of Mezritch still being there in the early 20th century, including his lectern, chair and the table from which he taught.

As time went on and the rabbi’s own interest in history grew, he began reading anything he could get his hands on about Jewish Rovno and the Maggid. Various historic sources state that the Maggid’s synagogue had been a structure known as the Alter Kloyz; there are eyewitness testimonies from Holocaust survivors who recalled that until the beginning of the 20th century, the ancient synagogue even contained the original furniture. “Even during this century children would climb up to the attic of the Alter Kloyz to see the Maggid’s original lectern and bench that were kept there,” states the post-war memorial book to Rovno’s lost Jewish community. A 1927 fire gutted the building, destroying the old wooden furnishings inside, including the table where the Maggid’s students had once gathered. But the stone building with its three-foot thick walls remained. Schneersohn began suspecting that this old synagogue was the very same one.

Not long ago, Schneersohn got a call from Rabbi Moshe Eliezer Rothenberg, a Jew from Toronto, who told him that while he had never yet been to Rovno, he felt he was from there. Rothenberg’s grandfather and namesake, Rav Moshe Eliezer Rothenberg (late 1880s-1941) had been the last Chassidic rabbi in Rovno before the war, and Rothenberg had grown up with stories from that distant place. Among them was that his father’s older brother, Rabbi Dovid Rothenberg, had taught Torah at the very same table where the Maggid had taught the Holy Brotherhood generations earlier. The elder Rothenberg was murdered by the Nazis in 1941 together with his community, while the younger one, R’ Dovid, who was by then rabbi of a small nearby town, was murdered together with his. The father of Rabbi Moshe Eliezer Rothenberg from Toronto escaped to Vilna and then on to Shanghai, China, before eventually settling in Canada.

Around this time Chymshyt, the historian, began searching in city archives, where she discovered a detailed Polish-era tax map of the city denoting each plot—the names of every synagogue included. While Schneersohn had always known that the Alter Kloyz was somewhere in the vicinity of the Great Synagogue, the old map clearly named his synagogue as the Alter Kloyz (Stara Kloiz in Polish). Documents pertaining to the building further testified that it was already in existence in 1760, although it was likely built earlier, and that it was reincorporated following a fire in 1927.

Schneersohn’s hunch had proven correct.

Rabbi Schneersohn teaches a group of high school students about Judaism and the history of Rovno’s Jewish community.
Rabbi Schneersohn teaches a group of high school students about Judaism and the history of Rovno’s Jewish community.

Discovery Brings New Light to Rovno

While Schneersohn is excited that the discovery has confirmed his long-held suspicion, he also feels it sheds a new light on his mission in the city.

“In hindsight, the decision by the community to retain the synagogue seems to have been driven by the Divine hand of G‑d,” says Schneersohn. “We were actually thinking about upgrading from the old building. It was small and falling apart—the interior structure mostly dating to the Soviet-era—and could no longer serve the needs of local Jewish life, which has, thank G‑d, grown in recent years. We felt we needed a newer, more modern building.”

But this revelation has changed everything.

“The very foundations of the Chassidic movement are reflected in this building, it’s all here” says Schneersohn. “Imagine being able to come here, to the Maggid’s own synagogue, and see and feel what these holy leaders saw and felt.”

Previous reconstruction plans for the synagogue have been shelved as Schneersohn currently works on carefully restoring the building to its former glory. Efforts have already begun on strengthening its foundations, and Schneersohn is now focusing on raising the funds necessary for a full restoration. Pre-war testimonies state that the original mikvah (ritual bath) used by the Maggid’s students was located just off the Alter Kloyz’s entrance hall, and Schneersohn hopes to begin excavating there in the near future.

“My wife and I always felt that Rovno is a special place—that there was something beautiful about our old synagogue and the Jews of all ages who come here to participate in Jewish life. We’ve felt honored to live and work here,” he says. “Now we see that it was from this place that the Maggid and his students changed the world, and it’s clear that by following in their ways, it’s in our hands to do the same.”

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The rabbi is working on carefully restoring the building to its former glory. Efforts have already begun on strengthening its foundations, and he is now focusing on raising the funds necessary for a full restoration.
The rabbi is working on carefully restoring the building to its former glory. Efforts have already begun on strengthening its foundations, and he is now focusing on raising the funds necessary for a full restoration.