The Rebbe came of age in the midst of World War I, which broke out less than a year before his Bar Mitzvah was celebrated. Jews close to the war front were forced by government decree to flee eastward, and the Rebbe’s hometown, Yekaterinoslav (present day Dnepropetrovsk) in eastern Ukraine, received a large influx of refugees. The Rebbe later recalled how his mother, Rebbetzin Chana, was at the forefront of the communal effort to provide aid and relief to these unfortunate individuals, many of whom arrived in the city with no means to support themselves:

“Generally I was occupied with my studies, and I was not so involved in what was happening in the house. I did not ask what was going on etc. But there were extraordinary circumstances that one could not help but notice… It was a wondrous thing, I never saw such involvement and vigorous activism, whether day or night…. My mother's work was so outstanding that it was etched on my mind for the rest of my life.”1

"My mother's work was so outstanding that it was etched on my mind for the rest of my life.”

What the Rebbe did not mention was the compassion that he himself showed to a young refugee whose parents had died of hunger. Having nowhere else to go, Yona Kesse - who would later serve as a member of the Israeli Knesset and as the Mapai party secretary - began to frequent the synagogue where Menachem Mendel Schneerson, just a few years his senior, habitually studied. After a few days, the older boy interrupted his studies to approach Yona and enquire about his situation. Hearing his tale of woe and of his desire to immigrate to the Holy Land, Menachem Mendel took Yona home with him and explained the situation to his mother.2

Kesse’s wife Carmella described Rebbetzin Chana as “an excellent women, overflowing with warmth and generosity” who took in her husband, bathed him, fed him and clothed him, and decreed that Yona would stay in her house until he found a way to travel to the Holy Land. According to Carmella, Kesse stayed with the Schneerson family for five or six years, and would talk about his experience often. The friendship shown to him by the Schneerson family “restored his faith in humanity,” and throughout his life he kept in touch with the Rebbe, visiting him every time he traveled to New York.3 His memories of his stay in the Rebbe’s home, vividly recalling the atmosphere of the post war years, were broadcast on Israeli television in 1973:4

“The house was an authentic chassidic home, his father was a great Torah scholar, the rabbi of the city, and exerted great influence on a large group of Jews. Don’t forget that this was already the Bolshevik era, with the onset of religious persecution etc., and he carried his rabbinic responsibilities with strength and pride.

“I was witness, to [the Rebbe’s] great diligence in Torah study. Whenever I found him he never studied sitting down—only standing. I remember too that already then he was knowledgeable in the areas of physics and mathematics. I also remember that—although he was an autodidactic—students, and even professors, would visit him to discuss issues of physics and mathematics. "Just as there is no doubt that you must seek out the spiritual welfare of another, so you must also seek out their physical welfare."Apparently, already then, he had accumulated a vast reservoir of knowledge—certainly in Talmud, Halachic codes, and Chassidism—but also in the domain of the secular sciences. I remember him as a very modest man, very reticent. His entire being, I remember, was Torah.”5

Carmella Kesse emphasized that her husband was impressed not only by R. Menachem Mendel’s youthful erudition, but also by “the sensitivity and attentiveness that he displayed, inviting him home and extending his hand to him during such a difficult time.” The Rebbe was never one to sacrifice the material welfare of another human being for his own spiritual advancement. He had the moral sensitivity to notice a young boy in need, and the moral resolution to interrupt his studies and lend a helping hand.

“With regard to oneself,” the Rebbe taught, “one must make the greatest possible distinction between spiritual and material matters. But when it comes to another, one must regard the other’s material needs as equal to spiritual needs. Just as there is no doubt that you must seek out the spiritual welfare of another, so you must also seek out their physical welfare.”6 “If you have love of G‑d but no love of Torah or love of your fellow, this shows that you are also lacking in love of G‑d. But if you have love of your fellow, you will ultimately come to love of Torah and love of G‑d.”7