Editor's note: The term “Ramash”—an acronym for Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson—was used to refer to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of righteous memory, before he accepted the position of Rebbe.

The following images tell a story of resistance, intense entreatment and eventual, reluctant acceptance. How the reserved son-in-law of the (Previous) Rebbe was induced into assuming the leadership of Chabad-Lubavitch.

1. The Previous Rebbe: Arrival & Rebuilding

The sixth Chabad rebbe (oft referred to as the Previous Rebbe), Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn—pictured here during Chanukah 1950 (5710), just weeks before his passing—reached the shores of the United States in the winter of 1940 (5700). Upon arrival, he declared “America is nisht andersh!” (“America is no different!”). He was determined that the same Judaism for which he had risked his life in Communist Russia would thrive in America.

Throughout the following decade he oversaw the growth of Chabad’s US institutions, establishing a network of yeshivahs as well as three other organizations: Machane Israel, focused on outreach; Merkos L‘Inyonei Chinuch, which provided children's educational programs; and Kehot Publication Society—Chabad’s publishing house. He appointed his son-in-law, the Ramash, executive chairman of all three. This surge of activity demonstrated that traditional Judaism could indeed flourish in the goldene medinah, inspiring renewed hope among the Jewish population.

2. Histalkus: A Movement Reels

The bond between a chasid and his Rebbe is one that cannot be replicated or adequately described. The passing of the Previous Rebbe on 10 Shevat, 5710 (January 28, 1950), left the chassidim in deep pain; lost and adrift without direction.

Compounding their feelings of grief and sorrow was the issue of succession, which was very much uncertain. For the chassidim, the successor was obvious. How to execute the transition, however, was far murkier.

The artist Chanoch Liberman was in London when he received the news. He closeted himself in his study for a week, attempting to process his grief. One result was ‘Histalkus’, a powerful painting depicting the Rebbe wrapped in his talit, surrounded by an unearthly aura, with his predecessors lined up in the top right corner, as if welcoming him to heaven. In the original version there were bare, contorted trees, with chassidim sitting on the ground, faces in their hands, deep in mourning. A later version, comprising only the top half, is reproduced here.1

3. The Younger Son-in-Law

(Ramash, sitting second from the left, at the wedding Rabbi Zalman and Mrs. Risya Posner in 1949.)
(Ramash, sitting second from the left, at the wedding Rabbi Zalman and Mrs. Risya Posner in 1949.)

Of the Previous Rebbe's three daughters, two managed to escape Nazi-occupied Europe. Chana with her husband, Rabbi Shmaryahu Gourary (known by the acronym Rashag), and Chaya Mushka with her husband, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. Sheina—the youngest—and her husband, Menachem Mendel Horenstein were tragically murdered in the Treblinka death camp.

Notwithstanding the respect the chassidim had for Rashag, Ramash had unique qualities of piety and self-abnegation, possessing an unparalleled breadth of knowledge and a tremendous depth of character. The chassidim were keenly aware of the tremendous high regard in which the Previous Rebbe held Ramash, and the vast responsibilities he had placed on his shoulders. For the Chassidim the younger son-in-law, Ramash, was the only possible candidate for succession.2 Yoel Kahn, a young rabbinical student who had arrived in New York just days after the passing, kept his father in Tel Aviv abreast of the situation via a series of letters, in which he noted:

Ramash is a person of tremendous inner conviction (ish penimi meod)... [he] sits in a composed manner, speaking quietly; but suddenly he bursts into tears, before continuing to speak quietly in the same controlled tone.3

4. Rabbi Yitzchak Dubov: We need a Rebbe!

Rabbi Yitzchak Dubov, an esteemed elder chassid who studied in the town of Lubavitch during the lifetime of the fifth Chabad Rebbe, the Rashab, was visiting New York for his son’s wedding at the time of the Previous Rebbe’s passing.

On Tuesday, the 13th of Shevat, which was the third day of the shivah, he entreated Ramash to accept the position of Rebbe. “The Rebbe lives!” Ramash replied. Rabbi Dubov however, was not deterred. Such was the case with the previous rebbes too, he insisted, yet a successor had still been appointed. But Ramash was not convinced. “What do you think? Mendel Schneerson is a Rebbe!?”4 he retorted.

Upon his return to the UK, Rabbi Dubov visited the esteemed chassid Rabbi Bentzion Shemtov. After hearing Rabbi Dubov’s report, he penned a personal writ of adherence (ktav hitkushrut) to Ramash, addressing him with the titles appropriate for a Rebbe.

When this letter arrived in New York, Ramash asked his personal assistant, Rabbi Hadokov, what he thought of this peculiar letter. “In my opinion, it is not peculiar at all,” Rabbi Hadokov responded.5

Rabbis Shemtov and Dubov also organized a general ktav hitkushrut, signed by members of the Chabad community in the UK and sent to mark the shloshim.6 In response to this communal ktav hitkushrut, Ramash wrote to Rabbi Dubov: “The letter from the 2nd of Adar I received. Surely you remember what we spoke of while you were here…” (This note, in Ramash’s handwriting, is reproduced above.)

5. Chassidim Hope & Pray

(Ramash at the resting place of his father-in-law, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak, in the summer of 5710 (1950).)
(Ramash at the resting place of his father-in-law, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak, in the summer of 5710 (1950).)

In the weeks and months that followed, the chassidim intensified their efforts with increasing vigor. Nevertheless, although he offered guidance to the chassidim in spiritual and worldly matters—and even accepted their pidyonot (notes of supplication), a task generally reserved for a Rebbe—Ramash made adamantly clear that he was not doing so in the capacity of Rebbe.

In a telling letter sent to his father shortly after Passover, Yoel Kahn describes the situation and the attitude of Ramash:

On the last day of Passover, Ramash spoke for over four hours…7. The general message was that the Rebbe is with us in an even greater manner than before the passing… He explained this point at great length, being that many are requesting that he accept upon himself the mantle of leadership … I know for certain that a quorum of ten men have been visiting the resting place of Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak to entreat that Ramash become willing … For the last days of Passover many chassidim came, there have already been many secret meetings; they decided to appoint the son-in-law of the Rebbe, Ramash, as his successor … Almost everyone gives him their pidyonot to [read at Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak‘s resting place.]8

6. A Plea to Intercede

The High Holidays approached with no clear breakthrough in sight. Rabbi Yerachmiel Binyominson, a revered elder chassid, gathered 10 senior chassidim. Together they traveled to the resting place of the Previous Rebbe to plead on behalf of their fellow chassidim. At the gravesite, a communal pidyon nefesh was read; they requested that the Previous Rebbe intercede on high and prevail on Ramash to accept upon himself this monumental responsibility.

At the same time, across the Holy Land, elder chassidim visited Meron, Safed, and Tiberias with the same purpose. Above is a draft of the pidyon prepared by Rabbi Yerachmiel Binyominson.

We, students of, and those who are bound to your honored holiness, prostrate ourselves before your radiant holiness, on this day the 15th of Elul… We plead with a broken heart [that you] prevail upon your son-in-law Rabbi Menachem Mendel, to accept upon himself the leadership of the community of Chasidei Chabad, and to arouse abundant mercy from on High, to assist him and to grant him success in his continued efforts to disseminate the light of torat ha’chasidut...9

7. A Strong Message from Israel

On the 18th of Elul—the birthday of both the Baal Shem Tov, founder of Chassidut and Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, founder of Chabad—the Chabad community in Israel gathered in the city of Lod. This followed a similar assembly that had taken place in Jerusalem during the month of Av, at which a communal ktav hitkushrut was signed. Following this second gathering, the Hamodia newspaper ran the following story (reproduced above):

Rabbi Menachem Schneerson is Crowned as Rebbe of Lubavitch: Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, the son-in-law of the Lubavitcher Rebbe of blessed memory, who resides in New York, was crowned as the Rebbe of Lubavitch, on the occasion of the first national gathering of the Chabad chassidim in the Holy Land, [which took place] on the occasion of the birthday of the Rabbi of Liadi.10

8. Chassidim in New York Act

After the High Holiday season, it was becoming increasingly apparent that despite Ramash’s repeated refusal to accept the position of Rebbe, the chassidim viewed him as the de facto successor. On the evening of Tevet 24, (the anniversary of the passing of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi,) Rabbi Shmuel Levitin—perhaps the most senior of the chassidim in New York—penned a ktav hitkushrut on behalf of the Chabad community in the United States. The letter, part of which is reproduced above, began:

We, the undersigned, have accepted upon ourselves sincerely and wholeheartedly the leadership of… our master, teacher, and Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel… son of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak… to be attached and committed to him with all our hearts…

In honor of this occasion, representatives from major Chabad communities in the US gathered in New York. A delegation of approximately 30 entered Ramash’s room to present this letter. Upon reading the first line he immediately closed it and put it aside. Through bitter tears he exclaimed, “Please leave, this has no connection to me.”11

9. The Rebbe Relents

A few days later, articles appeared in the Yiddish newspapers Der Tag, Der Morgan Journal, Der Forverts, and others, announcing that Rabbi Menachem Schneerson had been appointed the new Rebbe of Lubavitch.

Reproduced above is an article that appeared in Der Morgan Journal, titled, ‘Rabbi M Schneerson, Son-in-Law of the Lubavitcher Rebbe of Blessed Memory, is Chosen as his Successor.’

When news of this reached Ramash, he immediately instructed Rabbi Hadokov to contact the newspapers and insist upon a retraction. Unsure how to proceed, Rabbi Hodokov sought the advice of three elder chassidim, Rabbis Shmuel Levitin, Yisroel Jacobson and Shlomo Aharon Kazarnovski. Eventually they succeeded in persuading Ramash not to issue a retraction, explaining that the newspapers had not written that he had accepted upon himself the leadership; rather, that the chassidim had accepted him as their Rebbe.12 This was a significant victory for the chassidim. It showed that something was changing, and perhaps, afterall, there was reason to hope.

10. Formal Acceptance

(The Rebbe leads a farbrengen on 24 Tevet, 5712 (22 January, 1952).)
(The Rebbe leads a farbrengen on 24 Tevet, 5712 (22 January, 1952).)

After morning prayers on the first anniversary of Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak‘s passing, Rabbi Meir Ashkenazi entered Ramash‘s room along with several leading Chabad rabbis. They submitted a letter of hitkashrut on behalf of the entire family of chassidim. Accepting the leadership—Rabbi Ashkenazi pleaded—would bring the ultimate redemption closer, for the redemption is dependent on the dissemination of the wellsprings of chassidut. Therefore, if the Rebbe accepts the leadership and delivers a chassidic discourse, the redemption will be hastened. For the first time since his father-in-law’s passing, Ramash was affirmative: “Yes, but you must help me.”

That evening, approximately one hour into the gathering held to commemorate the first yahrzeit, Rabbi Avrohom Sender Nemtzov announced: “The congregation requests that the Rebbe say a chassidic discourse! Talking is good, but the congregation requests chassidut!” In Chabad it is known that only a Rebbe innovates new chasidic insights. If Ramash would teach a discourse, the chasidim would finally have their answer.

After this request, absolute silence ensued. The crowd waited anxiously. How would Ramash react? For an entire year he had brushed them off. Would something change now?

Slowly, in a low, deliberate voice, the Rebbe began: “In the chassidic discourse published for the day of the passing, the Rebbe begins with [the verse from Song of Songs] Bati Legani…”

The Rebbe then paused, and after what felt like eternity, he continued in the singular sing-song voice of a chasidic discourse: Bati Legani Achosi Kallah... What followed is often described as the mission statement for this generation. His voice cracking in places, the Rebbe outlined: We must ensure that G‑d is revealed in this world; it is not enough that we do, we must also influence others. He also cautioned those assembled: “The Rebbes of Chabad demand that chassidim take personal action, they must not rely on the Rebbe… Don’t think that you have handed the job to me, and you are now free to do as you wish…”

Hearing the discourse, the joy of the chassdim was boundless. After a painful year of mourning, finally they were able to breathe a sigh of relief: the golden chain would continue; they had a Rebbe.

This discourse can be heard here; the entire farbrengen can be listened to here.

See: 7 Teachings from the Rebbe's "Mission Statement.