Rabbi Dovid Raskin, an immigrant from the Soviet Union who, as chairman of the Lubavitch Youth Organization, spearheaded many educational campaigns instituted by the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, passed away Tuesday at the age of 84.

Born in Babruysk, Belarus, Raskin grew up in a Jewish home infused with religious dedication and self-sacrifice, but under the constant watch of Soviet authorities. His parents, Rabbi Yaakov Yosef and Draizah Raskin, were forced to move the family to Leningrad, Russia, today known as S. Petersburg, after his father – a ritual circumciser who performed secret circumcisions in contravention of official prohibitions on Jewish religious practice – was imprisoned for his dedication to strengthening Judaism.

In Leningrad, Raskin’s father took up a job in a factory, but in keeping with his religious beliefs, refused to work on the Sabbath.

“They wanted me to just come to work,” the elder Raskin recalled in an interview, “and be there without working. I refused. What if others would see me there and think that I was working on the Sabbath” and consequently learn from [my] actions?

The boss fired him, putting him at risk of poverty and arrest. Later, he obtained a permit to work as a wood cutter, an occupation that allowed him to remain far from the prying eyes of supervisors.

“It gave me the freedom to not work on the Sabbath and the holidays,” the father said.

Such instances of self-sacrifice provided a model for how the younger Raskin lived his life. As a child, he also benefited from the spiritual influence of Rabbi Shalom Ber Chein, who was active in the underground Lubavitch school system that operated behind the Iron Curtain.

“I remember him going to immerse himself in the water of the sea prior to morning prayers,” Raskin recalled, referring to the Jewish custom of daily immersing in a ritual bath or natural body of flowing water. “Many times the water was frozen, and he would break a hole and jump in.”

Chein encouraged Raskin to memorize and internalize portions of the 18th century foundational work of Chabad Chasidic thought known as the Tanya. This practice helped the young man discipline himself mentally and spiritually, providing a source of strength during the harshest times of Communist rule, and through journeys that took him to underground Jewish schools as far away as Uzbekistan.

During World War II and the infamous Siege of Leningrad, the family miraculously made it out of the city. They moved to Alma Ata, Kazakhstan, and while there, helped take care of the Rebbe’s father, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneerson, during his final months of life. A chief rabbi and scholar who composed myriad glosses on Kabbalah, he had been exiled there for his steadfast commitment to Judaism.

“Once I was called in to the offices of the KGB, and they began to interrogate me,” Raskin’s father detailed in an interview. They asked him: “Why do you have dealings with Schneerson?!”

Following the war, the Raskins fled Russia with falsified Polish passports and made it to the displaced persons camp in Pocking, Germany. From there, they traveled to Paris, where Raskin was chosen to join a group of students in the Lubavitch yeshiva high school in Brooklyn, N.Y. He set out by ship in 1950.

Rabbi Dovid Raskin (Photo: Lubavitch Archives)
Rabbi Dovid Raskin (Photo: Lubavitch Archives)

An Activist at Heart

Arriving just two weeks before the passing of the Sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, of righteous memory, Raskin brought his penchant for communal activism with him from the Soviet Union.

“He was always very active from the time he was an older student in the Lubavitch underground school system in Uzbekistan,” said Rabbi Shlomo Zarchi, a relative and co-worker in the Lubavitch Rabbinical Seminary.

In Brooklyn, Raskin organized Chasidic gatherings of students presided over by an elderly mentor sharing words of wisdom. On one particular occasion in the year between the passing of the Sixth Rebbe and his successor’s public acceptance of leadership, the Rebbe addressed the gathering, saying in Yiddish that “everyone needs to invest in their personal growth, and in addition, everyone needs to influence at least one other individual.”

The concept of influencing individuals was revolutionary to Raskin and the other students, as until that time, Lubavitch outreach on the whole had been focused on creating educational institutions and publications.

“When there is a fire, no one makes calculations,” the Rebbe explained, pointing to the assimilation rampant among Jewish communities in the United States as necessitating radical approaches to outreach.

Half a year later, this time speaking to a wider audience, the Rebbe encouraged everyone to have a direct influence on at least 10 Jews.

“Every individual is an entire world,” the Rebbe stressed.

Raskin took the message to heart; during inspirational gatherings with his students, he would emphasize that after their regular study time, they should try to influence as many Jews as possible.

Rabbi Dovid Raskin helps a man don the Jewish prayer boxes known as tefillin. (Photo: Lubavitch Archives)
Rabbi Dovid Raskin helps a man don the Jewish prayer boxes known as tefillin. (Photo: Lubavitch Archives)

In 1955, Raskin joined the board of the Lubavitch Youth Organization, a nascent body whose mandate was to bolster spiritual activities within the Lubavitch and wider Jewish communities. A founding member, he later was appointed as its chairman.

“We decided that our first activity would be to go to college campuses and bolster Jewish life there,” said board member Rabbi Pesach Goldman.

In a Hebrew letter to Raskin, the Rebbe wrote that “the thirst of the youth for Judaism is great, and it is the prime time to reach out to them.”

The organization also coordinated projects spearheaded by the Rebbe, including the distribution of special handmade matzah before Passover and public Sukkot holiday campaigns.

“Crown Heights and the outlying neighborhoods once had the most hospitals per square mile in the entire United States,” said Goldman. “Rabbi Raskin would organize visits to the hospitals, especially to those patients who did not have the possibility to be with their families or go to synagogues on Jewish holidays.”

While many looked up to him as a leader, Raskin never saw himself as one and instead dived right in with everyone else, explained Goldman.

“He was hands on,” he said, “organizing everything that needed to be done.”

When the Rebbe initiated 10 public campaigns focusing on different Jewish practices, Raskin led the charge. During Chanukah, he spearheaded the creation of low-cost menorah made of tin that could be distributed to people easily. In the first year, 60,000 were produced; today, people receive more than 350,000 each year, leading The New York Times to refer to “the sight of the tin menorahs” as signaling the holiday’s arrival.

Raskin was also a faculty member of the Lubavitch yeshiva and was later appointed to the boards of Agudas Chasidei Chabad, the Chabad-Lubavitch umbrella organization; Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, the educational arm of Chabad-Lubavitch; Machne Yisroel, the social service arm of Chabad-Lubavitch; and the Beth Rivkah girls school.

With the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, beside him, Rabbi Dovid Raskin, right, reads from the Torah during a weekly service at the synagogue in Lubavitch World Headquarters. (Photo: Rabbi Shlomo Friedman/Lubavitch Archives)
With the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, beside him, Rabbi Dovid Raskin, right, reads from the Torah during a weekly service at the synagogue in Lubavitch World Headquarters. (Photo: Rabbi Shlomo Friedman/Lubavitch Archives)

In all of his pursuits, he tried to adhere to the Rebbe’s vision and guidance.

“He was immensely dedicated to the teachings of the Rebbe,” said renowned Chabad scholar Rabbi Yoel Kahn, who described a traditional Chasidic gathering where luminary Lubavitch leaders would stand for many hours listening to Raskin inspire the crowd.

“Every year, he would describe the same details of a directive of the Rebbe,” Kahn said. He could have spoken of lofty worlds and spiritual realms, but “he chose to speak about action. This is what exemplified him. He was a man of action.”

Accepted Hardships

In his personal life, Raskin kept the focus on others.

“He dedicated his entire life to communal work,” said Rabbi Kasriel Kastel, program director of the Lubavitch Youth Organization. “He never acquired anything for himself. He never owned a car; he never had a fancy home or wore expensive clothes.”

Most of the positions that he held were volunteer posts; his sole salary came from the school.

As an educator, Raskin was not only a teacher, but a caregiver. For those who came to town from far away and did not have family in the community, he provided health care and clothing.

“Our Sabbath table was always filled with students who didn’t have families to eat by,” said daughter Devonya Rubin.

“For all of the 40 years that we worked together, I never heard him say, ‘I have a headache,’ or, ‘My foot hurts.’ He never said that he didn’t feel good and was missing school,” said Zarchi. “On the other hand, he was always the first person to tell someone else to rest and take care of himself.”

For those he met on the street, he was ready with a smile and advice.

“I remember as a young girl being annoyed that it took so long to arrive home,” said his daughter. “I later learned to appreciate the need he was filling for the many that stopped him and those who constantly called him at home.”

And despite great difficulties that included family health concerns and the passing of several children at a young age, Raskin would not complain.

“He had complete faith in what G‑d destined for him,” said Zarchi. “He accepted all his challenges with love.”

“Rabbi Raskin was a legend in his time,” said Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, vice chairman of Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch. “In his mere being he was a paradigm of dedication, of devotion to reach every Jew. He was a true example of the principle that out of adversity comes strength, and as such, is an inspiration to Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries worldwide.”