Rabbi Shlomo Matusof, who was one of the leaders of the Chabad-Lubavitch educational activities in Morocco for close to 50 years, died Saturday night in New York. He was 91.

The news came as a shock to the thousands of Lubavitch emissaries who had gathered in New York for their annual international conference.

Matusof, a Russian native and veteran Lubavitch emissary who endured imprisonment at the hands of Soviet authorities before being sent to Morocco in 1950 by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, worked tirelessly to shepherd the Jewish community in North Africa. Through the years, the Lubavitch network of yeshivas counted some 70 separate institutions, producing thousands of graduates, including current Chief Rabbi of Israel Shlomo Amar.

In his letter appointing Matusof as an assistant to Rabbi Michoel Lipsker, the Rebbe highlighted the public nature of a Lubavitch emissary.

Instead of private individuals, emissaries are "candles that illuminate all their surroundings and … people who live and grant vitality to another person, another two people, another three, etc.," the Rebbe wrote in Hebrew in a letter dated Aug. 9, 1950. "The fruits [of these efforts] will produce fruit and further generations of fruit for eternity."

"The shluchim came there to build a Jewish education system," said Rabbi Eliyahu Matusof in describing the work of his father and associates, which was designed to buttress the ethnic customs of the Sephardic Jews living in Morocco. "They worked hand in hand with the rabbis there."

When he received the Rebbe's letter, Matusof was engaged to be married, and lived in France after a life of hardship under Communism in Russia. But instead of settling down, the assignment to Morocco saw the rabbi once again display an inordinate amount of self-sacrifice.

A Life of Self-Sacrifice

Rabbi Shlomo Matusof in his later years.
Rabbi Shlomo Matusof in his later years.
Matusof was born on Yom Kippur in 1917 in Vitebsk, Belarus. As a small child he learned in the Lubavitch network of underground schools. The locations would change daily, sometimes moving from city to city, according to autobiographical chapters at the end of Matusof's book, Rishmei Biurim, a collection of scholarly explanations of key Talmudic passages.

When he was a teenager, the yeshiva moved permanently from his home town and from that time on, he did not see his parents much.

Later, he traveled for five days to Kutaissi, Georgia, where the local government was somewhat less severe in its approach to the Jewish community. Matusof writes that his life was relatively easy in his year in Georgia: "We at least had fruits and vegetables to eat and a place to sleep. … We accepted everything with joy."

But an undercover operation undertaken at the behest of the Soviets saw Matusof behind bars. A group of Jews had presented the young man the opportunity to escape the Soviet Union through the Turkish border. Matusof, who had two brothers already living in what was then Palestine, arranged for a visa there and paid to be smuggled out of the country.

The men who were supposed to aid Matusof, however, turned out to be informants. After his imprisonment, Matusof, homeless, wandered for months from house to house, subsisting on morsels of food. Finally, he found out about a school opening near Moscow in the city of Malakhovka.

But in 1935, the administration of the underground school feared that they were under surveillance by the secret police. Consequently Matusof, joined by his classmates, once again moved, this time to Marina Roshtza in Moscow. Matusof writes that he found in the city a good place to sleep, "on a shelf in a small room in a factory of someone I knew."

One day, news of some students' arrests forced Matusof to run once more. After packing up his personal belongings and exiting from the factories gates, he was tapped on the shoulder by a gentleman who ordered Matusof to follow him. The destination was the secret police, where he was interrogated about the existence of the yeshiva.

After answering a litany of questions mainly dealing with his connection with the family of the Sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, of righteous memory, and the identity of his classmates, Matusof was thrown into jail and later transferred to a facility for political prisoners.

Throughout his time in jail, he prayed three times a day, a practice he continued when a few months later he was exiled to Kazakhstan. After a few years there, he started to build up his life again until he was thrown into jail anew after being caught learning a book of Chasidic thought.

He was released in 1940.

In 1946, he joined the great migration of Polish citizens out of the Soviet Union using a forged visa, making his way to Germany. A year later he traveled with fellow yeshiva students to France to learn.

"It was the first time that I was able to sit and learn as a free Jew and with no obstacles," he writes.

In a Muslim Land

A new chapter of his life began in the winter of 1950, with the Rebbe's assignment.

After getting married a short while later, the new couple arrived in Morroco in the spring of 1951. What they encountered was a proud Jewish community in a predominantly Muslim country dealing with fallback from the establishment of the state of Israel three years prior.

"He got the locals to do activities themselves," said Eliyahu Matusof. When he started, "the education was very poor in Morocco. The Jews were very poor."

But the Matusofs devoted themselves to the cause, eventually developing a very good relationship with Morocco's royal family.

To this day, the Jewish community remaining in Morocco continues to be protected by the state.

Matusof leaves behind his wife Pessia Matusof and sons Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Matusof, a Lubavitch emissary in Toulouse, France; Rabbi Yehuda Leib Matusof, a Lubavitch emissary in Cannes, France; Rabbi Eliyahu Matusof; Rabbi Yona Matusof, a Lubavitch emissary to the University of Wisconsin in Madison; Rabbi Reuven Matusof, a Lubavitch emissary in Paris, France; Rabbi Shmariyahu Matusof; Rabbi Menachem Mendel Matusof, a Lubavitch emissary to Alberta, Canada; and daughters Baila Paltinski of New Jersey and Aidaleh Nemenov of New York.