With his debonair looks and mischievous smile, Rabbi Gershon Mendel Garelik never quite fit the mold of pulpit rabbi. Instead, from the moment he arrived in Milan, Italy, in late 1958, he blazed a new role: that of emissary. This was the part Garelik was born to play, and in the deeply devoted, ever-joyous way that he filled it for more than 60 years, he wasn’t just a pioneer, he was a star.

Garelik, who passed away on Feb. 13 at the age of 88, and his wife, Bassie, were newlyweds when the Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—sent them to establish and direct Chabad-Lubavitch of Milan in December of 1958. There were barely more than a handful of emissaries throughout the world at the time. He was Soviet-born, having by his 14th birthday lived through religious persecution, his mother’s death, the privation of war and illegal escape through the Iron Curtain. She, on the other hand, was an American, born and bred with many of the amenities Americans naturally take for granted. Yet from the first day of their marriage, they knew all they wanted to be were the Rebbe’s emissaries to whatever corner of the earth he’d send them. Together, they’d become the archetypical Chabad emissary couple, to be followed by generations of emissaries.

For a Chassidic couple living in New York in the 1950s, Italy was as far away and foreign as the moon, but to the Gareliks, the place that would be their new home was incidental compared to the mission. He first got word of his posting from the Rebbe’s chief secretary, Rabbi Chaim Aizik Mordechai Hodakov, after casually bumping into him in Lubavitch World Headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, N.Y.

“I was walking into 770, and as I arrive, Rabbi Hodakov comes over to me and says, ‘The Rebbe wants you to go to Europe,’” Garelik would recall in an interview with Jewish Educational Media’s (JEM) My Encounter with the Rebbe oral-history project. “I asked, ‘Where in Europe?’ and he says, ‘What’s the difference? Let’s say Italy—Milan.’ ” Within two months the couple was on their way.

What at the time for them was but a distant dot on the map was, in fact, a Jewish community consisting mostly of Holocaust survivors—good, hard-working Jews who had lived through the worst of humanity and understandably believed that it was probably best not to wear their Judaism on their sleeves. The men and women in Italy knew Jewish life was important—after all, it was they who first asked the Rebbe to send them a young rabbi—but in the Gareliks, they got something unexpected. Instead of a rabbi who stuck to ceremonials and a rebbetzin who quietly supported him, they discovered a dynamic couple who over the course of more than half a century would reshape the very meaning of Jewish life in Italy.

“The European Jewish communities were devastated after the Holocaust,” says Walker Meghnagi, a prominent Italian businessman and past president of the Jewish Community of Milan. “Rav Garelik took Milan and built Jewish life up from scratch. He had an ability and capacity to interact with everyone, different people, but with each one in a very deep way.”

“You can see what an impact he had from the reaction to his passing from Italian Jews of all types,” adds Loni Mevorach, current president of the Ohel Yaakov synagogue Garelik led since 1958. “He always had a big vision, an unbelievable vision. He always saw the possibilities—both in the people around him, and in what Jewish life in Italy could look like. And even when he was 10 years ahead of everyone else, he was always right.

“We miss him already.”

Garelik is remembered by Italian Jews as a man of vision, who did not see Jewish life in post-war Europe as it was, but as it could be. Pictured here (center, left) together with then-Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel Rabbi Yitzchak Nissim on the latter's visit to Camp Gan Israel Italy in the mid-1960s.
Garelik is remembered by Italian Jews as a man of vision, who did not see Jewish life in post-war Europe as it was, but as it could be. Pictured here (center, left) together with then-Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel Rabbi Yitzchak Nissim on the latter's visit to Camp Gan Israel Italy in the mid-1960s.

Hunger, War and Escape

The fourth of five children of Rabbi Chaim Meir and Rivkah Leah Garelik, Gershon Mendel Garelik was born on May 14, 1932 (8 Iyar, 5682) on a Jewish agricultural settlement in Crimea, Soviet Ukraine. Crimea had served as an early iteration of the plan for a Soviet Jewish homeland, and with the dawn of Stalin’s project of forced collectivization, many Jews were resettled there and taught to farm. Rabbi Chaim Meir was among a number of Chabad Chassidim sent to Crimea by the Sixth Rebbe—Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, of righteous memory—to risk their lives by serving its religiously orphaned Jewish farmers as rabbis and shochatim. By the time the younger Garelik was born, famine brought on by collectivization had swept through Ukraine, and hunger was a routine part of his youth. During those years, an older brother of his passed away.

In the late 1930s the family moved to Kharkov, where just before the outbreak of World War II, Garelik’s mother fell ill and passed away. Years later, after the fall of Communism, Garelik returned to the city in the hopes of finding his mother’s burial place. He never did.

Following Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union in June of 1941, the surviving members of the Garelik family fled Kharkov for Soviet Central Asia. Garelik would later recall that at some point during the long and unpredictable journey, the train stopped alongside a field of strawberries. Starving, the children—Gershon Mendel among them—began collecting the berries, but before they could eat them, their father stopped them. The poverty of Communism meant that he wasn’t familiar enough with strawberries to know whether they grew on what would be considered a tree or a bush, and so he had to ascertain what blessing one is to make on them.

Their first stop was the city of Alma-Ata (Almaty), Kazakhstan, where the young Gershon Mendel first crossed paths with the Rebbe’s parents, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak and Rebbetzin Chana Schneerson. Rabbi Levi Yitzchak had five years earlier been sentenced to exile in a barren village in Kazakhstan, where he was joined by his wife, before being allowed to move to Alma-Ata in early 1944. Much to his everlasting regret, the younger Garelik never saw Rabbi Levi Yitzchak—his father did not want to take so young a child to prayers with the rabbi for fear of the Soviet secret police—though he would eventually form a close relationship with Rebbetzin Chana. When, years later in 1960, he and his wife named their first son Levi Yitzchak after the Rebbe’s father, Rebbetzin Chana sent Bassie Garelik a warm note of thanks.

From Alma-Ata, the Gareliks headed to Tashkent, Soviet Uzbekistan, where Garelik’s bar mitzvah took place in the spring of 1945. While the celebration consisted of a small group of Chassidim sitting down after morning prayers with a small bottle of spirits and some herring, the simple scene of Chassidic brotherly love would be forever etched in his mind.

Rabbi and Rebbetzin Garelik distributing candy to students of the Chabad day school in Milan, Italy.
Rabbi and Rebbetzin Garelik distributing candy to students of the Chabad day school in Milan, Italy.

Between the Soviets’ preoccupation with the war effort and the backwater nature of Central Asia, Jewish life was somewhat easier there, but it did not come without fear nor danger. Garelik, a student in Tashkent’s underground cheder, was once caught by a police officer transporting black market wool intended to help his family survive, resulting in his being taken to a holding cell and kept there for hours. His education in the Jewish underground served him well, and he refused to respond to any questions regarding his name, age, family or friends; eventually, he was bailed out by another member of the Tashkent’s Chassidic community. Towards the end of their time in Uzbekistan, Garelik traveled to Samarkand and joined the city’s clandestine branch of the Tomchei Temimim—Lubavitcher yeshivah that had been established at the beginning of the war. He remained there until the beginning of 1946, when together with most of his family he traveled to Lvov, Ukraine, in the hopes of escaping Russia forever.

This was the era of the Great Escape, when some 1,000 Lubavitcher men, women and children escaped Russia using purchased or doctored Polish identity papers. Among the masterminds of the vast operation was R’ Leibel Mochkin. That summer of 1946, as the Gareliks stood in Lvov’s train station hoping to soon board and escape to the West, Mochkin approached Garelik’s two sisters, Hadassah and Yocheved, and asked that they both take a taxi immediately to an apartment in town to help escort an elderly woman to the station. The girls were shocked by the thought of delaying their escape by a moment, but agreed. At the apartment, they found another of the organizers, Sarah Katzenellenbogen (known as Mumme Sarah), trying to convince the aristocratic-looking woman to make the dangerous journey. Seeing the young women enter her room, the elderly woman turned to them and asked who they were.

“We are the daughters of R’ Chaim Meir Garelik, the Rebbe’s emissary to Crimea,” Garelik’s sister Yocheved Zalmanov would later recall responding. “Suddenly, her noble countenance brightened and she said, with conviction ‘With these children I’ll go! … .’ ”

The woman was Rebbetzin Chana, who would end up traveling with them all the way to the displaced persons camp in Pocking, Germany. There young Gershon Mendel and a friend worked hard to make sure she would be as comfortable as possible under the still-difficult conditions.

Though Gershon Mendel and his family were free, an older brother, Bentzion, was stuck behind. Bentzion would only be granted permission to leave the USSR in 1972.

Together, the Gareliks became the archetypical Chabad emissary couple paving the way for future generations.
Together, the Gareliks became the archetypical Chabad emissary couple paving the way for future generations.

From Israel to New York

Around 1949 the Gareliks arrived in Israel, settling in the newly-founded village of Kfar Chabad, with Gershon Mendel enrolling at the yeshivah in nearby Lod. He spent four years studying in Israel, during which time Garelik also worked at reaching out to his fellow Jews, particularly within the immigrant Yemenite community. Garelik had always wanted to travel to New York so that he could see the Rebbe for himself, but found it nearly impossible to obtain an Israeli exit visa. In the mid-1950s he finally wrote a long letter to the president of Israel, Yitzchak Ben-Zvi, eloquently describing his Chabad upbringing in the Soviet Union and requesting help in his effort. “It is not a secret that the living force behind the [dangerous] Lubavitcher [underground] enterprise was the Lubavitcher Rebbe … ,” he wrote. “[I]t is my strongest desire to have the privilege of my life and meeting my spiritual father, the Rebbe … .” The sympathetic response from Ben-Zvi’s secretary did not help and merely referred him to the proper authorities, but Garelik did end up receiving permission and arrived in Brooklyn in 1955.

The years that Garelik spent in the immediate vicinity of the Rebbe would be life-defining ones for him. Back then, the crowds at 770 were incomparably smaller, and the students studying at the yeshivah had a front row seat as the Rebbe set about building upon his vision to change the world. Like Garelik, many of the young students had lost parents or family in Europe, and the bonds they formed with the Rebbe reflected his deep care and attention for each of them.

Garelik excelled in his studies, eventually being appointed a Chassidic mentor at the Chabad yeshivah in Newark, N.J. In 1958, he married Bassie Posner, whose parents had been sent to Pittsburgh by the Sixth Rebbe to establish the city’s first yeshivah day school. The Rebbe officiated at the chuppah ceremony in New York, and then the immediate family flew to Pittsburgh where the rest of the wedding celebration took place.

Though historically the concept of being sent as an emissary by the Rebbe was by no means a new one in Chabad, during this period the Rebbe began stressing it in a new way, laying out the foundations of his revolutionary model of shlichus as the world knows it today.

“A Jew cannot suffice with just bringing light into his own home,” the Rebbe explained in Yiddish at a gathering in the winter of 1958. “But he must reach out to one Jew, and another Jew and yet another Jew.”

With the Rebbe now sounding the theme of young couples being ready to be sent out to serve Jews anywhere in the world, the newlyweds immediately signed up.

Garelik (right) together with his lifelong friend Rabbi Leibel Raskin (himself a pioneering emissary in Casablanca, Morocco) in the early 1940s in Tashkent, Soviet Uzbekistan.
Garelik (right) together with his lifelong friend Rabbi Leibel Raskin (himself a pioneering emissary in Casablanca, Morocco) in the early 1940s in Tashkent, Soviet Uzbekistan.

The Call of Ufaratzta

The Gareliks might have known little of Milan, but Milan’s survivor Jews had already established a connection with Lubavitch by way of the Zippel family. The four Zippel brothers—Shlomo Yosef, Chaim, Avraham and Gershon—were Polish Jews who had lived in Italy, spent time before the war in Germany and then returned to Italy. They survived the war by escaping into Switzerland on foot before deportations started. After the Holocaust, during which they had lost one sister and her children, who had been turned back by Swiss authorities, they established a little synagogue in Milan called Ohel Yaakov. Milan was already home to a Lubavitcher shochet, and Ohel Yaakov’s rabbi was an elderly Lubavitcher Chassid as well. When the rabbi left for Australia, the Zippels turned to the Rebbe, asking that he send them a new rav for their small community.

While both Gareliks yearned to serve as emissaries, the enormity of moving so far from the Rebbe was difficult to grapple with. This was especially so for the young rabbi, who had longed so much to be in the Rebbe’s environs and thrived when he had finally gotten there. It was the Rebbe’s promise that those who agreed to do the burgeoning work of Lubavitch—no matter the geographic distance—who would be closest to him that sealed the deal.

A young Rabbi Garelik at a Torah-scroll completion ceremony in Milan.
A young Rabbi Garelik at a Torah-scroll completion ceremony in Milan.

On November 23, 1958—the day the Gareliks headed to the airport—they first had a private audience with the Rebbe, who then saw them off. On December 1, that year corresponding to the 19th of Kislev, an auspicious day on the Chassidic calendar, the Gareliks arrived in Milan to begin their work.

“Harav Gershon Mendel Garelik arrived today in Milan and is marking the 19th of Kislev there,” the Rebbe announced at the farbrengen gathering in New York. “Is there a close relative here who can say l’chaim on his behalf?”

For the next year at least, a farbrengen would not pass by without the Rebbe publicly evoking the Gareliks by name, telegraphing to everyone in the room and beyond that in his book, there was no higher calling than serving their fellow Jews, even or especially if they were overseas and far away. It was his call for ufaratzta, or “to spread out,” in the words of Bereishit, “westward and eastward and northward and southward.”

A Torah class at Chabad's new Jewish school in Milan in the mid-1960s.
A Torah class at Chabad's new Jewish school in Milan in the mid-1960s.

Thinking Big

Daniella Mevorach is Loni’s wife and Avraham Zippel’s daughter. To hear it from her, there were two chapters of post-war Italian Jewry: pre-Garelik and post.

“Initially, my family’s Judaism was that of the survivors,” she explains. They were observant, much more so than many other Jews around them, but in a prudent and unassuming way. “Then Rabbi Garelik came and he had a special vision. It is one thing to be Jewish in your little shtiebel, where you only see and are seen by those who come there, but Rabbi Garelik came with his Chassidic garb and said, ‘This is how I am going to go meet the president of Italy.’ That was the atmosphere we ended up growing up in.”

The Gareliks, Rabbi Gershon Mendel especially, thought big. When the Zippels, who undertook to cover the young rabbinic couple’s expenses from the start, showed the Gareliks a two-bedroom apartment, Bassie thought it was perfect for a newlywed couple. But the rabbi took a look and immediately said no.

“So they took us to show us another apartment,” Bassie Garelik recalled in an interview with JEM. “It was very big, in terrible condition, very primitive. We walk through the house and my husband says, ‘This is more ufaratztadik [i.e., expansive].’ I [just] got two [long] tables and 50 chairs, this way we should be able to host gatherings.”

Garelik had many natural traits that helped the mission along. He had a magnetic personality, glimmering eyes and a genuinely kind soul. He did not care for petty arguments and did not engage in them. Daniella Mevorach recalls some early synagogue politics, when newcomer Polish Jewish survivors who prayed using the Chassidic Sfard prayer rites did battle with the older generation who sought to continue using the Ashkenazi rites the synagogue had used from its establishment. “Rabbi Garelik was above all such things,” she says. “These were not his problems.”

Morning line-up in the ancient sun-baked courtyard at Camp Gan Israel Italy, which since 1976 has been hosted at Villa Bozio, sculptor Jacques Lipchitz's former home and workplace in Tuscany. (Photo: Batsheva Helena Goldreich for Chabad.org).
Morning line-up in the ancient sun-baked courtyard at Camp Gan Israel Italy, which since 1976 has been hosted at Villa Bozio, sculptor Jacques Lipchitz's former home and workplace in Tuscany. (Photo: Batsheva Helena Goldreich for Chabad.org).

His concern was the highly acculturated and increasingly assimilated nature of Italian Jewry. The Rebbe’s secretary, Rabbi Hodakov, had instructed the couple to focus on Jewish education for youth, but when Bassie sought to expand her successful new preschool into a full day school, it was met with resistance.

“It was all uphill,” she told Chabad.org in a 2018 interview. “A full Jewish school was seen as something from the past; it was just too much.” When she sought to open a Jewish summer camp in the summer of 1959, she found herself facing the same attitude. With her husband’s full support, she persisted. Mevorach’s uncle Shlomo Yosef (Carlo) Zippel purchased a vacation home on Lake Lugano and that summer the first Camp Gan Israel in Europe opened its doors. It had a grand total of 10 campers, but back in New York, the Rebbe was lauding the pioneering work.

“From this we are able to see how much can be impacted,” the Rebbe said, speaking in Yiddish about the Gareliks’ general mission in Italy. “ ... A lone couple sets out, they establish a school for boys and a school for girls, teach classes to adults ... [She is] a young woman born in America, [he] a young man born in Russia, G‑d Almighty ... introduces them to each other in the United States, and after that they’re sent—farshikt [exiled], so to speak—to Magna Graecia, and there they accomplish all there is to accomplish, and their ‘arms remain outstretched [to accomplish more]’ ... .”

Avraham Zippel, one of the four Zippel brothers who played a key role bringing the Gareliks to Milan and sustaining Jewish life there for decades, sits alongside Rabbi Garelik at a family gathering. Credit: Zippel family.
Avraham Zippel, one of the four Zippel brothers who played a key role bringing the Gareliks to Milan and sustaining Jewish life there for decades, sits alongside Rabbi Garelik at a family gathering. Credit: Zippel family.

Indeed, the summer camp, which since 1976 has been hosted at Villa Bozio in Pieve di Camaiore, Tuscany—the former home and workshop of the famed Jewish sculptor Jacques Lipchitz, whose family donated it to Chabad of Italy after his passing—has had a deep impact on generations of Italian Jews. “The experience [of Jewish summer camp] stays with you,” Amy Tesciuba of Rome said in 2018 of his years in Gan Israel beginning in the late 1970s. “It grows with the person.”

The Rebbe saw what would eventually be, and, recognizing the difficulties that came with starting something new, constantly sent his warm encouragement to the Gareliks. In a 1965 letter to Bassie Garelik, the Rebbe underlined the difference between seeding and planting. Planting a tree is a much more laborious effort than seeding, but the results are longer lasting; the same is so in all human endeavors. “If, therefore, it sometimes takes longer for the effort to come to fruition, this is no reason for discouragement,” the Rebbe wrote in English. “On the contrary, the reason may well be that it is a case of ‘planting,’ where the ultimate results will be infinitely greater.”

Garelik was beloved by young and old, pictured here with students at the Jewish school in Kharkov, Ukraine. (Credit: Jewish Community of Kharkov)
Garelik was beloved by young and old, pictured here with students at the Jewish school in Kharkov, Ukraine. (Credit: Jewish Community of Kharkov)

While Rabbi Garelik’s easy-going personality endeared him to the Jews of Milan and helped him connect with individuals and officials of all backgrounds, Daniella Mevorach recalls that he was immovably firm in his beliefs.

“Especially in the beginning, Rabbi Garelik knew what he wanted and wouldn’t budge,” she says. “If he thought it was important, or a standard he could not break, it was finished.”

Mevorach credits Bassie Garelik with the unique ability to communicate some of this to the Milanese Jews, who were not necessarily used to so staunchly devout a rabbi. “They worked as a perfect team,” she says. “In general, they were the model of a couple. Rabbi Garelik was an example to all men on how to respect your wife, how to treat her. Their relationship warmed your heart.”

Every Jew Has an Individual Mission

When Loni Mevorach first met his future wife in high school, he was a Sephardic boy coming from a non-observant background. As they got older and the prospect of a serious life relationship came up, Daniella asked him to begin learning more about Judaism. That’s when Mevorach first met Rabbi Garelik.

“I was impressed from when I first met him,” he says. Garelik, says Mevorach, was the rabbi one went to “when you needed to discuss family, business, your children, how to behave, the meaning of life, he was the man. He was the leader to give you that direction.”

He did it on the personal level and he did it on the communal one, over time showing all those around him that every Jew has an individual mission and is part of a collective one, at all times and all places—beginning in Milan.

“He taught everyone that we can be Jewish on the streets and in the squares, this was his big message, his big vision, and everything here changed because of him,” says Mevorach.

Today, there are more than 30 Chabad emissary couples serving Jews across the entire boot of Italy, and Milan itself is home to a vibrant Jewish community.

Garelik's magnetic personality, glimmering eyes and genuinely kind soul drew people to him. (Credit: Jewish Community of Kharkov)
Garelik's magnetic personality, glimmering eyes and genuinely kind soul drew people to him. (Credit: Jewish Community of Kharkov)

From the beginning, the Jews of Milan understood that their wise and farsighted rabbi was a reflection of the man who sent him to Italy: the Rebbe. Garelik himself knew this better than anyone, and he lived with this deepest of all convictions. Through Garelik, countless Italian Jews formed their own relationships with the Rebbe, changing the course of whole families and communities. As for himself, from the moment Garelik landed in Milan he sought any valid excuse to cross the ocean and see the Rebbe again. Eventually he even made good on a prediction he made to his wife in the late 1950s, that there would come a time when he’d visit the Rebbe once a month.

Sometimes, he himself couldn’t explain how it came together. Like the time he lacked the funds to travel to New York, so he just headed to Milan’s airport with the plan of doing his part in the travel. As he sat there, a wealthy Jewish Milanese businessman spotted him. “Ruv,” the man called out in his Galician Yiddish, “where are you going?” “New York,” responded Garelik. “If you haven’t bought a ticket yet, don’t,” said the man. “I’m paying.” And off Garelik went.

At times, this constant travel might have even annoyed some of his congregants. When he once flew to New York against their wishes for the anniversary of the passing of the Rebbe’s father, he stood at the door of the Rebbe’s office hoping to catch a glimpse as the Rebbe went in after the farbrengen. The Rebbe came upstairs to his office, and, seeing Garelik and one of his sons in the vestibule, turned to them and said, “Thank you for coming.” Garelik immediately called Milan to ask his wife to pass on the words to his congregants. When they got the message, they found they could no longer be upset with him. They understood.

The emissary and he who sent him were one.

In addition to his wife, Garelik is survived by their children: Rivki Hazan (Milan, Italy); Rabbi Levi Garelik (Brooklyn, N.Y.); Soshi Shaikevitz (Milan, Italy); Sori Krinsky (Brooklyn, N.Y.); Chani Greenberg (El Paso, Texas); Rabbi Yossi Garelik (Brooklyn, N.Y.); and Moshe Garelik (Brussels, Belgium). He is also survived by many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.