An entire Jewish infrastructure has sprung up from the Embers which were kept alive for 70 years.
Russia – The cradle of Chabad. Here Chabad was planted and nurtured; blossomed, flourished and struck its deepest roots. From Liozna and Liadi, from Lubavitch to the furthest reaches of the Pale of Jewish Settlement, Chabad was renowned, revered and cherished.
Czar Cathrine II (“The Great”) established the Pale of Settlement in 1791 as a territory for Russian Jews to live. Created under pressure to rid Moscow of Jewish business competition and “evil” influence on the Russian masses, the Pale of Settlement included the territory of present-day Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine and Belorussia. More than 90% of Russian Jews were forced to live in the poor conditions of the Pale, which made up only 4% of imperial Russia. Still, the Jewish population in Russia grew from 1.6 million in 1820 to 5.6 million in 1910. Even within the Pale, Jews were discriminated against; they paid double taxes, were forbidden to lease land, run taverns or receive higher education.
A liberalization period in the 1860s, which granted Jews some privileges was reversed under the May Laws of 1882. These laws restricted Jews in the Pale to urban areas, which were often overcrowded and offered limited economic opportunities. In addition thousands of Jews fell victim to devastating pogroms in the 1870s and 1880s. The pogroms, boycotts and other anti-Semitic depredations Jews faced in the Pale led to mass immigration to the United States (two million between 1881 and 1914) as well as a string of other developments, such as the controversial Haskalah movement, which sought to modernize Jewish culture. Zionism also took hold in the Pale. Only after the overthrow of the Czarist regime in 1917 was the Pale of Settlement abolished.
The Early Years: By the early years of this century, Lubavitch emissaries had reached the furthest corners of the Czarist empire. Sent by Rabbi Sholom Dovber (known as the Rebbe Rashab, 1860-1920, fifth leader of Chabad), they visited and inspired Jews in even the remotest communities. The unlearned descendants of the “Cantonists” — Jewish children torn from their families to spend their lives as soldiers of the Czar, oriental Jews in Bukhara, the mountain Jews of Georgia and Daghestan, all welcomed Chabad emissaries sent to teach them Torah and raise their standards of Jewish practice.
The First World War plunged Eastern European Jewish communities into chaos, uprooting large populations and disrupting the traditional Torah education system. Then came the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.
The Revolution and the Stalin Era: The Revolution opened a frightening new era. Religious education of the young was banned, practice of Judaism was systematically obliterated, and observant Jews — particularly chassidim — were persecuted, arrested, exiled, tortured and shot. To circumcise a child required enormous courage; observing Shabbat and kashrut (the keeping of the kosher laws) became virtually impossible for the Jewish masses — who had been largely Torah-observant before the Revolution.
“Schneersohns Don’t Run..:” Most Jewish leaders took advantage of any opportunity to leave the country. But the destiny of Chabad was inextricably bound up with Russian Jewry. The Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn (1880-1950), son of the Rebbe Rashab, once told a Czarist police officer: “The Schneersohns don’t run away!” True to his word, he stepped into the gap as the only Jewish leader to remain active in the Soviet Union.
The Foundation: Throwing himself into the task at hand, the Previous Rebbe proceeded to build a widespread network of underground institutions — through the length and breadth of that vast land. Any vestiges of Jewish religious life in the Soviet Union today trace back directly to those foundations.
On a dark night in Moscow, in the winter of 1924, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, the sixth Rebbe of Lubavitch, made a covenant with a group of young men. They vowed to fight to the end to preserve their religion for the Jews of the Soviet Union, even if it meant losing their lives.
Under the Rebbe’s leadership, an organized underground of hundreds of Cheder (Hebrew) elementary schools, Yeshivas and Mikvahs (ritual baths – one of the essence of orthodox Jewry) sprung up, from St. Petersburg in the west to Tashkent in the east, these dedicated men and women managed to keep the spark of Yiddishkeit (Judaism) alive in hundreds of towns and cities across the land.
The communists persecuted, chased and harassed the Rebbe and his operatives. Often within days, a new Mikvah would be filled with cement. A report would arrive of a teacher sent to the firing squad, his young students sent to Siberia. Through the years of communism, hundreds of Chassidic activists were executed. Thousands more were arrested and sent to Siberia for years of hard labor.
In 1927, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak himself was arrested and sentenced to capital punishment. Through the intervention of the Governments of United States, Germany, and Latvia and petitions signed by hundreds of thousands of Jews across the Soviet Union, the sentence was commuted. The Rebbe was banished from Russia.
New Start: In 1950, his son-in-law, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, at 48 years old, became the Rebbe (The titular head of the Chabad movement). Under his guidance, the struggle intensified. Not a day would go by when the Rebbe would not struggle for the Jews of Russia. The Rebbe toiled endlessly for their physical and their spiritual well being. He sent couples, posing as tourists, as clandestine Shluchim (emissaries) bringing strength and determination to his Russian underground.
The couples would memorize hundreds of names and addresses. Russian border guards were left scratching their heads by Chassidic couples who would travel to Russia for a two-week stay, laden down with Kosher salami and Jewish books and films. The humanitarian aid was used to feed Jews in cities and shtetls across the land.
Perhaps more than anything else, the message the Shluchim brought the Jews of Russia was that someone on the other side of the curtain remembered and cared. Someone would not sleep and would not rest, until they would be freed from their bondage.
In 1989, the shackles began to break open with the fall of communism and Perestroyka. Immediately, the Rebbe began to dispatch Shluchim to bring Judaism above-ground.
With restriction on religion being officially released, the ashes, glowing for seventy years, finally burst into flame. The warmth of Judaism began to glow for the millions of Jewish men, women and children across Russia who didn’t even know the meaning of the word “Jew.” Schools, shuls, mikvas and community centers began to spring up. Once again, children were laughing in the hallways of Jewish schools. An entire Jewish infrastructure has sprung up from the Embers which were kept alive for 70 years.
Jerome S. Kaufman
(Article created from Chabad site and other sources online)