How did Chabad go from hassidic subgroup to global Jewish phenomenon?

Ramash was truly following in the footsteps of his predecessors.

 LYUBAVICHI, CONTEMPORARY view – a rural village in the Rudnyansky District of Smolensk Oblast, Russia. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
LYUBAVICHI, CONTEMPORARY view – a rural village in the Rudnyansky District of Smolensk Oblast, Russia.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Almost anywhere you go in the world, you find Lubavitch. How did a hassidic subgroup that did not stand out for its size and impact before the Holocaust become a worldwide phenomenon?

The key to answering this question may lie in tracking the geographic movements of Lubavitch leaders over the last century.

Rabbi Yosef Yitzhak Schneersohn (Rayatz, 1880-1950) was born in Lyubavichi in the Russian Empire – the seat of the Lubavitch branch of Chabad Hassidism since 1813. He was the only child of Shterna Sarah (1958-1942) and Rabbi Sholom Dovber (Rashab, 1860-1920). His father became the fifth Lubavitcher rebbe in 1882 – a position that Rayatz inherited in 1920.

For much of his adult life, Rayatz was a man on the move. During the First World War, the Eastern Front neared the Lyubavichi region. Seeking to avoid the fighting, Rashab took his extended family and fled 1,200 km. southeast to Rostov-on-Don. This move ended a century of Chabad Hassidism based in Lyubavichi, and effectively turned Lubavitch into a virtual center. Rashab died five years later, and Rayatz took over at the helm of Lubavitch, far from Lyubavichi.

With the rise of Communism, Rayatz was hounded by Yevsektsiya – the Jewish section of the Soviet Communist Party that was charged with carrying the revolution to the Jewish masses. This mandate included obliterating traditional Jewish culture as well as dismantling the modern Zionist movement. In contrast, Rayatz opposed Communism and worked tirelessly to preserve Jewish religious life. But following in his father’s footsteps, he did not believe in the Zionist cause.

 THE MENORAH Center, at night, one of the world’s largest Chabad buildings. (credit: THE MENORAH CENTER) THE MENORAH Center, at night, one of the world’s largest Chabad buildings. (credit: THE MENORAH CENTER)

In 1924, Rayatz left Rostov-on-Don and moved to Leningrad. Rayatz’s activism did not cease, and in 1927 he was arrested for counterrevolutionary activities. Initially, Rayatz was sentenced to death, but thanks to international political pressure, his sentence was commuted to a three-year exile in Kostroma. Continued political pressure secured his release from prison, and he was allowed to leave Russia. Rayatz crossed the border into Latvia and settled in Riga.

In 1929, Rayatz traveled to Palestine and visited holy sites in Jerusalem, in the Galilee, and in Hebron. He remained for two weeks in the Promised Land.

Upon returning to Europe, Rayatz did not resettle in Riga. Rather, he set out for the US. His American sojourn lasted nearly a year. Despite suggestions that he stay in America, Rayatz declined. He had seen the watered-down religious commitment of American Jews, and he reportedly pointed out that in “the land of the free” even rabbis shaved their beards!

In July 1930 he set sail for Riga. Latvia was not a hassidic stronghold, and in 1934 Rayatz moved to Warsaw – the capital of Poland and home to many hassidic leaders and communities, as well as a Lubavitch Yeshiva established in 1921. Two years later, Rayatz moved to Otwock, 20 km. outside Warsaw.

Following the outbreak of the Second World War, the US government and American Jewish leaders – together with assistance on the ground from German soldiers of Jewish descent – secured passage for Rayatz from occupied Poland, via Berlin, to Riga, then to Stockholm, from there to Gothenburg, and on to New York by ship.

Rayatz arrived with his wife, Nechama Dina, and his mother, Shterna Sarah, in New York. After disembarking from the ship on March 19, 1940, Rayatz famously declared: “America is nit andersh” – America is no different – meaning that active Jewish life could thrive on these shores as well. Perhaps Rayatz was also declaring that the battle for Jewish existence that he had experienced under the hammer and sickle would continue under the Stars and Stripes.

During the final decade of his life – despite his deteriorating health – Rayatz led Lubavitch Hassidim from his home in Brooklyn.

Rayatz’s constant movements may have hampered his ability to establish a large following, and precluded the possibility of a physical location that could serve as a meeting place for the hassidim. By the time he was greeted at the wharf in America as the hassidic master of Lubavitch, he had not lived in the town that bore that name for 25 years.

“Lubavitch” was more of a nostalgic reminder of a sacred past than a location that could be visited. It had become a mark of affiliation more than a pilgrimage site. This may have contributed to Lubavitch becoming a virtual community spread far and wide, linked by the “Lubavitch” brand.

RAYATZ HAD seen how his father had sent disciples to distant Jewish communities within the Russian Empire, to the Mountain Jews in the eastern and northern Caucasus and to Jewish communities in Georgia. Building on this model, Rayatz expanded the reach of Lubavitch further afield.

In the 1940s, Rayatz sent six disciples who had just left Russia to fortify the Lubavitch presence in Melbourne, Australia. Then, in late 1948, Rayatz dispatched Rabbi Zalman Posner (1927-2014) and his wife, Risya (d. 2007), to Nashville, Tennessee.

To be sure, the global reach of Lubavitch that is a feature of the contemporary landscape must be credited to Rayatz’s son-in-law and successor, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (Ramash, 1902-1994). Yet Ramash was truly following in the footsteps of his predecessors.

Evidence for this transition and continuity can be drawn from the Lubavitch presence in North Africa.

Shortly before his death, Rayatz urged support for the Moroccan Jewish community. According to one account, Rayatz said: “Go to the Jews of Morocco who need teachers and instructors, and disseminate Torah among them. There is no distinction among children of Israel whether they are Ashkenazim or Sephardim. All of us are the children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and we have one God in the heavens and one Torah on earth” (Sefer HaTze’etza’im, p. 229).

Ten days after Rayatz died, Ramash wrote to Rabbi Michael Lipsker (1907-1985), conveying his father-in-law’s instruction to dispatch Rabbi Lipsker to Morocco. Rayatz had died before putting pen to paper, and Ramash was not yet the influential leader that he would become. So in 1950, all Ramash could do was request that Lipsker honor his predecessor’s request. Lipsker acquiesced, and Lubavitch established a presence in North Africa.

Ramash continued the enterprise – sending more emissaries in the following years and establishing a presence in various cities in Morocco and in Tunisia.

This network expanded as Ramash followed the lead set by his predecessors and went beyond it to create the worldwide Chabad-Lubavitch presence that is so visible today. ■

The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.