In Retrospect: 55 Years Ago Today


by Baila Olidort - LUBAVITCH HEADQUARTERS, NY

February 2, 2004

Today is a special date on the Hebrew calendar that brings thousands of visitors to the resting place of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, and his father-in-law, Rabbi Joseph I. Schneersohn, of righteous memory, in Queens, NY.

Jews from far and wide--among them emissaries of the Rebbe and their community members, have traveled from distant locations to spend the day in introspection, prayer, Chasidic study and rededication to the Rebbe's legacy. In communities around the world, the day is being marked by meaningful celebrations-- “farbrengens”—Chasidic “get-togethers,” and resolutions that reflect the vision and passion unique to Chabad-Lubavitch Shluchim (representatives) and Chasidim (disciples).

The 10th of the Hebrew month of Shevat, corresponding to today’s date, marks a transitional period in the history of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement.

On this date in 1950, Rabbi Joseph I. Schneersohn, sixth in the dynasty of Lubavitcher Rebbes, passed away after having relocated the movement’s headquarters from Europe to Brooklyn, New York ten years earlier. His leadership spanned thirty years, from 1920-1950--years characterized by severe hardship for Jews, especially in communist Russia where Lubavitch was based. In the 1920s the Rebbe was incarcerated for his activities inspiring fidelity to Judaism, and for his Jewish educational outreach work to keep Judaism alive in the forbidding milieu of communist Russia.

Once in the U.S., Rabbi Joseph I. Schneersohn laid the groundwork for the Lubavitch movement's activities. He established the official offices of the Lubavitch educational and social services divisions, Merkos L'inyonei Chinuch and Machne Israel, respectively, and the Kehot Publication Society--today one of the largest publishers of Jewish books worldwide. He also began to send the first Shluchim--emissaries--to help build Jewish communities in various locations in need of assistance. In the short decade of his leadership in the U.S., Rabbi Joseph I. Schneersohn would establish yeshivas and open many of the first Jewish day schools in the country--an effort that was fraught with resistance--particularly from Jews who, at the time, regarded traditional Jewish life as an unhappy reminder of a life they had hoped to leave behind them.

"World Jewry is deeply indebted to the Rebbe, Rabbi Joseph I. Schneersohn, for transferring Yiddishkeit to the United States, and for laying the groundwork together with his son-in-law, for the Jewish day school system and Chabad's outreach activities," observed Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, chairman of the educational and social services divisions of Lubavitch.

Succeeding Rabbi Joseph I. Schneersohn on this day, in 1950, was his son-in-law, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, who enlarged on his predecessor's vision, and directed the movement to a dynamic and highly focused outreach program. At the time, the Jewish community was still shattered, broken in spirit and in body by the Holocaust which left two out of every three Jews in Europe dead. The depth and magnitude of Jewish suffering and loss seemed to be the measure for the Rebbe’s vision for Jewish rehabilitation and revival. “The Jewish people has been so heavily decimated,” the Rebbe once said, “that each of us must be made to count, and to count doubly.”

The restoration of Jewish life, Jewish pride, and Jewish identity would be the ever-present theme in the Rebbe’s 44 years of leadership (the Rebbe passed away in 1994). Embracing the freedoms of America, the Rebbe directed his followers to seize the opportunity to live Jewish life fully and boldly, and teach others to do the same. The Rebbe's passion for Jewish life inspired generations of young men and women who would devote their lives to Jewish continuity. Beginning with the novel idea of a Chabad House staffed by a young couple—Shluchim—committed to the Rebbe’s vision of Jewish revival, the Rebbe set Chabad-Lubavitch upon a program of Jewish outreach that would build Jewish communities from the ground up, and bring healing, joy and a rich Jewish life experience to Jewish people everywhere in the world.

The Rebbe's program, which built upon the foundational work of his predecessor, would make Chabad-Lubavitch the most dynamic and dominant force of Jewish continuity today, with 2,600 Chabad centers and a human-resources team of some 23,000 in number, and growing. All of this has resulted in a remarkable transformation that brought Judaism out of the closet, and has made traditional Jewish life a lively reality.

Throughout the United States and in more than 60 countries worldwide, the change is stunning. Nowhere, however, is it more dramatic than in the Former Soviet Union--Lubavitch's birthplace--where Chabad-Lubavitch--once punished for its ideals, is today prized even by the government, for its noble and magnificent contribution to Jewish life.

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