A Leading Jewish Figure of His Time, the Rebbe Was Committed to Education
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A Leading Jewish Figure of His Time, the Rebbe Was Committed to Education

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Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who died early Sunday 7morning at a New York hospital, has been described by many as the foremost Jewish personality of modern times.

Schneerson was the seventh in the dynastic line of leaders of the Lubavitch movement, which was founded in the 18th century by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi.

The rebbe, as he was known to his followers, was born in 1902 on the 11th day of Nisan, in the Ukrainian city of Nikolaev.

He was the son of a renowned kabbalist and Talmudic scholar, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneerson. His mother, Chana, was herself from a prestigious rabbinic family. His great-grandfather and namesake, Rabbi Menachem Mendel, was the third Lubavitcher rebbe.

When he was 5, Schneerson and his family moved to the Ukrainian city of Yekaterinaslav.

As a child, he showed prodigious mental acuity and had to leave the cheder, or religious school, because he had overtaken the other students. His father engaged private tutors for him and then taught his son himself.

By the time Schneerson reached his bar mitzvah, he was already considered an “illui,” or Torah prodigy.

In 1929, he married Chaya Moussia Schneer-sohn, the second daughter of the Lubavitcher rebbe at the time, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneer-sohn, Menachem Schneerson’s distant cousin.

Breaking the mold of Chasidic scholars, Schneerson pursued secular studies at the University of Berlin, and graduate studies in engineering at the Sorbonne in Paris.

Fleeing the Nazis, Schneerson settled in the United States in 1941, where he worked for the Brooklyn Navy Yard as an engineer.


He soon became an intrinsic part of the Lubavitch movement, serving as head of Merkos l’Inyonei Chinuch, the movement’s educational branch; Machne Israel, the movement’s social service organization; and Kehot Publication Society, the Lubavitch publishing department.

In 1950, upon the death of Rabbi Schneer-sohn, Menachem Schneerson became the seventh Lubavitcher rebbe. With his piercing blue eyes and magnetic personality, he easily caught the undivided attention, and devotion, of thousands, perhaps millions, of followers.

Throughout his leadership of Lubavitch, Schneerson always remained loyal to the cause of education, often heard saying, “We dare not rest until every Jewish child receives an education.”

Lubavitch schools prospered during his long tenure. An estimated half-million Jewish children, many of them not Lubavitch, learn in Lubavitch-sponsored schools worldwide.

The rebbe continually emphasized the need to reach out to alienated Jews, to bring them back to their roots. He saw to the establishment of special educational facilities for them.

From full-time yeshivas for Jewish men and women with little or no background in Torah study to literally tens of thousands of classes at Chabad-Lubavitch centers around the world, the rebbe was the life force behind an outreach that has affected the entire spectrum of Jewish life.

He came up with the idea for the Lubavitch “mitzvah mobiles,” or “Jewish tanks to combat assimilation,” as the rebbe referred to them.

They offered the opportunity to do “mitz-vahs on the spot,” such as donning tefillin.

He oversaw and constantly expanded a far-flung network of Lubavitch communities — from the Pacific Rim to the American Midwest, from Australia to the former Soviet Union — where shlichim, or emissaries, created Chabad houses to welcome all Jews, regardless of their background or level of religious observance.


Those living in Brooklyn or visiting would attend his teaching gatherings, known as “fahr-brengen,” with a special devotion.

Every Sunday, at the World Lubavitch Head-quarters located at 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, huge crowds of men, women and children would line up and wait their turn to meet the rebbe face to face and receive his blessing.

Each person would receive a crisp new dollar bill, to be given to a charity of choice.

It was not only Lubavitchers who waited for a chance to meet with the rebbe. Jewish organizational leaders, many not religious, would ask his advice and blessing for given projects.

Even non-Jewish leaders from around the world sought out his counsel.

Every day the rebbe was inundated with mail, consisting largely of letters asking advice from his followers, many of whom would not wed, move or take a new job without asking him first.

The rebbe’s picture was placed on the walls of his followers’ homes, and even in their offices.

While Schneerson’s authority throughout the world was immeasurable, in his 44 years of leadership, he rarely left Brooklyn and never visited Israel.

His only sorties were his regular trips to the Old Montefiore Cemetery in the borough of Queens to visit the grave, known as the “ohel,” of his predecessor, as well as that of his wife, who died in 1988.

He would pray there for hours on behalf of all Jews, and especially for the sick.

The rebbe’s reach extended well beyond the domain of religion. It stretched from Brooklyn to Israel, where he exerted immense influence over local politics.

The rebbe was believed to have the power to see into the future. Lubavitchers liked to repeat that the rebbe had, in fact, predicted when the Persian Gulf War would end and that Jews in Israel would be spared, and had foretold the large emigration of Soviet and Ethiopian Jews.

The rebbe was responsible for making Chabad, unlike other Chasidic movements, an outreach organization serving all Jews.

And unlike other Chasidic movements, Chabad remained pro-Israel — precisely because of the large numbers of Jews living there.

In keeping with the belief that the rebbe could be the Messiah and would make his final place in Israel, his followers in the town of Kfar Chabad built an exact duplicate of the Brooklyn headquarters, an action they say was in accordance with the rebbe’s wishes.

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