One of the most influential and prolific figures in 20th century Judaism, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902-1994) expanded the Chabad Lubavitch from a small Jewish sect to a large, powerful religious movement.
Menachem Mendel Schneerson was the seventh rabbi of the Lubavitcher Hassidim. Descended from a rabbinical dynasty, the prolific Jewish leader guided his people through turbulent and triumphant times. His innovative efforts to reach out to Jews worldwide were essential in expanding the Chabad Lubavitch to a notable movement with more than 200,000 followers. Chabad Lubavitch is a sect of Hassidism, an Orthodox mystical form of Judaism. Founded in the 18th century by Rabbi Schneur Zalman, the movement originated in the Russian town of Lubavitch. The leader of the Lubavitchers is a rabbi known as the Rebbe, a person believed to possess a unique soul with experiential knowledge of the divine. Schneerson was such an influential leader that after his death in 1994 many followers expected him to return to life and thereby prove he was the true Messiah.
Menachem Mendel Schneerson was born to an illustrious Jewish family on April 18, 1902, in Nikolaev, a town in Ukrainian Russia. His father, Rabbi Levi Schneerson, was a great Torah scholar and respected Kabbalist. His mother, Rebbetzin Chanah, came from a prestigious rabbinical family. Menachem Mendel was named for his paternal great-grandfather, the third Lubavitcher Rebbe. At the age of five, Schneerson moved with his parents to the city of Yekatrinislav, where his father became the chief rabbi.
Under Czarist rule, Russian Jews were often subjected to pogroms and persecution simply for practicing their religion. Many were so strongly devoted to their faith and traditions that they refused to abandon them. Witnessing the persecution and commitment of his people at such an early age would influence Schneerson's views, goals, and teachings as an adult.
During his childhood, Schneerson was recognized by teachers as a Torah prodigy. He quickly outgrew formal Jewish schooling and was taught by private tutors. However, his knowledge soon surpassed that of the tutors. By the time Schneerson was in his teens he was corresponding with several noted Torah scholars.
At the same time, the social and political climate in Russia worsened. In 1917, as the Communists took control, their "Yevsekzia" (Jewish Section) embarked on a brutal attack against Judaism, shutting down schools and synagogues. The government imprisoned and sometimes executed Jewish leaders. At great personal risk, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, established underground schools and provided money and kosher food to the struggling Jewish population. In 1923, Menachem Mendel Schneerson met Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak for the first time and joined him in his critical mission. Five years later, he married the rabbi's daughter, Chaya Mushka.
Shortly after the wedding, Schneerson and his new bride moved to Berlin, where he enrolled in the University of Berlin, studying mathematics, philosophy, and the Torah. When the Nazis came to power in 1933, the couple relocated to Paris. There, Schneerson continued his education, attending the Sorbonne and an engineering college until 1938. Following the Nazi invasion of Paris, the couple moved to the French cities of Vichy and then Nice.
In June 1941, Schneerson and his wife moved to New York to join her father, who had moved there the previous year. In New York, Schneerson resumed working with Yitzchak to establish the Lubavitcher movement in America and abroad. Schneerson was appointed head of the movement's educational arm, its social service organization, and its publishing house.
On January 28, 1950, the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe died. Although he was the obvious choice for successor, Schneerson was initially reluctant to take the position, but he was committed to his father-in-law's vision for the movement's expansion—"to reach out to every Jew no matter how geographically or spiritually distant from his people." On January 17, 1951, Menachem Mendel Schneerson became the seventh Chabad Lubavitcher Rebbe.
Schneerson was determined to expand the Lubavitcher movement. He instituted a new and revolutionary approach to spreading Judaism and the Torah's message called Shelichut. Shelichut is a legal term in the Torah, referring to the appointment of an emissary to act in the place of another person. The Rebbe appointed thousands of schluchim (emissaries) to aid in recruiting converts.
In 1953, Schneerson founded the Lubavitcher Women's Organization to train women as community leaders. Schneerson addressed his teachings to both men and women, believing women had an important role in Jewish society.
Outreach was the crucial element in the growth of the Lubavitch and in Schneerson's growing popularity in the Jewish community. While Schneerson continued to inspire and educate practicing Hassidim, he also extended himself to disenfranchised Jews throughout the world. In a warm and non-judgmental manner, he welcomed people of all backgrounds to the movement.
In the early 1960s, when many authority figures ignored or condemned rebellious youth, Schneerson reached out to them, developing Chabad Houses throughout the world where young people could study and congregate. New temples and synagogues soon sprouted up in remote areas around the globe.
In 1974, Schneerson tried a new form of outreach. Vans known as Mitzvah Tanks rolled through Manhattan. Religious melodies would blast from a loudspeaker on top of the vehicle. Adherents would approach people on sidewalks and ask them if they were Jewish. Men were invited to board the van and recite a short prayer to perform a mitzvah, or commandment. Women, who were not allowed to do a mitzvah, would receive a small kit for lighting Sabbath candles. Everyone would receive free literature. Before Schneerson's "mitzvah campaign," performing a mitzvah was always a private act in the home or synagogue.
Technology played a large role in Schneerson's out-reach. In 1960, Schneerson began using radio to teach the Torah. In the 1970s Schneerson's talks were broadcast via telephone to major Chabad centers around the world. By the 1980s, they were delivered on cable television. As computer technology was introduced, the Chabad Lubavitch established a presence on the worldwide web.
Schneerson's influence continued to grow. His teachings were visibly noticeable in Crown Heights, a section of Brooklyn where the movement was centered. When Schneerson emphasized the Jewish commandment about having children, families in the Crown Heights Hassidic community doubled in size.
Schneerson's impact was also felt in Jewish communities throughout the world, especially in Israel. In 1967, the Israeli government launched a preemptive strike against its Arab neighbors. Schneerson spoke strongly and confidently about the Israeli victory, though he preached that spiritual strength was more important than military strength. Schneerson was an important factor in Israeli elections, a voice of confidence in Israel's security, and an advisor to many of the country's major political leaders. Pictures of the Rebbe were common in Israel, everywhere from army outposts to food stands on the street.
In 1978, Schneerson suffered a massive heart attack. Against his doctor's advice, he resumed working within a few weeks. Schneerson's work revolved around making the world ready for its impending time of redemption. He strongly believed that everyone has the power and responsibility to fulfill his or her spiritual potential and that each individual can bring the world closer to the time of the Messiah. He encouraged people of all faiths to practice good deeds.
In 1986, Schneerson started one of his most famous efforts to cultivate kindness and giving. Every Sunday, thousands of people would receive a single dollar bill and a blessing from the Rebbe. In this way, Schneerson hoped to encourage others to do charitable work.
As time passed, Schneerson amplified his message about what he believed was the impending arrival of the Messiah. At the close of his public address on April 11, 1991, the Rebbe stated: "I have done my part. Now it is in your hands." Shortly thereafter, Schneerson suffered a debilitating stroke, which left him unable to speak.
On June 12, 1994, the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe died in Brooklyn. Schneerson had no children and named no successors, and that prompted many in the Hassidic community to speculate whether Schneerson was the Messiah. A year later, Schneerson was recognized for his achievements in education by being awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. After his death, his teachings continued to remain influential throughout the world.
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