The early 1920s were years of turmoil for Russia in general, and for the Chabad-Lubavitch movement in particular. As the country emerged from civil war and widespread famine, the communist government consolidated its stifling grasp and stepped up its campaign to eliminate Jewish religious life. It was precisely at this time that Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn of Lubavitch assumed the leadership of the movement following the passing of his father. Whatever the personal cost, he was determined to keep Judaism alive.1

The first meeting between Rabbi Menachem Mendel (“the Rebbe”) and Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak occurred in Rostov in 1922.2 During his second visit, a few months later,3 R. Yosef Yitzchak delivered a Chassidic discourse elaborating on the divine desire for a dwelling in the “lowest realms” (i.e., the material world), achieved through man’s toil and suprarational commitment to serve his Creator, to the point of self-sacrifice. The transcendent soul, he explained, endures and even prospers in the face of adversity.4 It was this very discourse that R. Yosef Yitzchak published on the eve of his passing, twenty-seven years later,5 and which R. Menachem Mendel expounded on each subsequent year on the anniversary of R. Yosef Yitzchak’s passing for the following four decades.6

The transcendent soul endures and even prospers in the face of adversity.

Later that year, R. Menachem Mendel journeyed to Kislovodsk, a spa city in the North Caucasus where R. Yosef Yitzchak was then staying with his family. R. Eliyahu Chaim Althoiz, a close confidant of Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak, later recalled the circumstances: “In the summer of 1923 the Rebbe privately revealed to me the hidden intention of his heart… to marry his precious and beloved daughter to the man about whom I now speak… and he (R. Yosef Yitzchak) choose me then to create the opportunity to bring him (R. Menachem Mendel) from Yekaterinoslav to Kislovodsk.”7

When R. Yosef Yitzchak returned to Rostov, he was accompanied by his son-in-law, Rabbi Shmaryahu Gourarie, and by R. Menachem Mendel. Five days later he wrote to the prospective bride, his daughter Chaya Mushka: “This week I thoroughly studied ‘the ways of Mendel’ (hilchot Mendel)… On Sunday the three of us spent the entire day together, it was very pleasant… He is left with a good and pleasant impression from the Caucasus, and would like to go for a stroll on the mountain again… He is very companionable and affable, which adds a great deal.”8

The congenial companionship described in this letter bellies the tremendous pressure that R. Yosef Yitzchak was under at the time. In a letter penned just ten days later he described the desperate situation: “Synagogues are being forcefully requisitioned… Jewish schools are being closed down, and if anywhere students are to be found, they are studying in secluded secrecy, fearing for their lives due to hidden spies…”9 R. Yosef Yitzchak stood at the center of an underground network, working tirelessly and at great personal risk to keep the basic infrastructure of Jewish life intact. Throughout this period he corresponded with supporters in America and Europe, and shuttled back and forth between Rostov and Moscow to deliberate with fellow rabbis and sympathetic lawyers. In the spring of 1924 he was threatened with arrest and forced to move from Rostov to Leningrad.10

"Filled with Talmud and legal decisions, earlier and later authorities, like one of the greats.”

During this period R. Menachem Mendel was based in Yekaterinoslav, where he pursued Torah studies and also deepened his knowledge of the sciences.11 The fruits of his labors are acknowledged in the certificate of rabbinic ordination (smicha) issued in 1924 by his uncle, Rabbi Shmuel Schneersohn of Nikolayev, describing him to be “filled with [knowledge of] Talmud and legal decisions, earlier and later authorities, like one of the greats.”12

In Leningrad, where he frequently visited his prospective father-in-law and bride, R. Menachem Mendel became acquainted with Rabbi Yosef Rosen, the famed Rogatchover Gaon, whose unique approach to Torah scholarship would prove influential in the development of R. Menachem Mendel’s own path. The earliest surviving manuscript in the Rebbe’s hand is a letter addressed in reply to the Rogatchover, respectfully taking issue with his position on a point of Talmudic law. The letter dates from early in 1925 and is filled with tight arguments buttressed by a diverse range of Talmudic citations, reminiscent of the Rogatchover’s own style.13

This piece of correspondence is also notable for another reason. Significantly, the Rebbe used the name and address of an acquaintance, Mordechai Gourarie, rather than his own. Years later, the Rebbe was asked the reason for this, and explained that given R. Yosef Yitzchak’s prominent position at the head of the Jewish underground, undue use of their shared surname was deemed unwise.14 The fear of government scrutiny was certainly not unfounded. Things came to a head in the summer of 1927; R. Yosef Yitzchak was arrested, sentenced to death, exiled, and then expelled from the Soviet Union.15 R. Menachem Mendel had been in Leningrad at the time of the arrest.16 Five days after R. Yosef Yitzchak left the country, his future son-in-law crossed the soviet border and joined him in Riga.17