On June 20, Jews around the world will commemorate 68 years since the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, and his wife, Rebbetzin Chaya Mushkah, arrived in the U.S. in the midst of World War II. Additionally, June 25 corresponds to “Gimmel Tammuz,” marking 15 years since the passing of “the Rebbe,” of righteous memory.
On June 14, 1940, the armies of Nazi Germany conquered Paris. A story is told of a French general who offered the Rebbe and his wife — who were studying in Paris at the time — a residence in the countryside. Rabbi Schneerson, comprehending the true significance of the Nazi occupation, declined the offer and fled Paris on one of the last trains to leave the city. After a perilous passage crossing the front lines of the occupation, they arrived in Vichy France. They remained in Vichy for a few months, eventually relocating to Nice in Southern France, where they remained until their final escape from Europe. Throughout this time, the rebbetzin’s father, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak, conducted a vigorous campaign to rescue them and bring them to the haven of America.
Ultimately, the fleeing couple boarded the SS Sorpo Pinto in Lisbon, Portugal. They arrived in New York on 28 Sivan of the Jewish calendar in 1941, which this year corresponds to June 20.
Shortly after their arrival to the United States, the Rebbe’s father-in-law and predecessor — himself a refugee plucked just months before from wartorn Europe through the dedicated efforts of the U.S. government — appointed his son-in-law to head the social and educational outreach programs of Chabad-Lubavitch. Thus began his decades-long revolutionary work to revitalize Jewish life in the Western hemisphere and throughout the globe, which spread by means of emissaries (“shluchim”), whom he dispatched from his New York headquarters to every part of the world.
Rebbetzin Schneerson would later recount that throughout their flight from the advancing Germans, in addition to scrupulously observing the most minute details of Jewish law and custom, the Rebbe retained his characteristic optimism and devotion to helping others. In a letter penned by the Rebbe in 1944, his refreshing faith in — and love of — others burns as a shining example.
“Your letter... awakened memories of the time we were together in Vichy and Nice, under conditions to which we were both unaccustomed,” he once wrote. “When a person is uprooted from his habitual environment...there come to light certain traits of his inner character as they are in their purity, undistorted by the expectations of society. Often, these traits reveal the hidden good in this person, of which perhaps even he himself had been unaware, because they were hidden under the layers of ‘manners’ and social conventions. Fortunate is the person who does not allow these traits to disappear when he subsequently settles down and finds tranquility.”
You may ask why I chose to share this brief historical narrative in the lives of this great couple. It is because I want to demonstrate how the Rebbe and rebbetzin lived a real life, much like our grandparents may have done. Great people don’t need to “prove” their greatness; their lives do the talking. In the case of the Lubavitcher Rebbe and his rebbetzin, one can look to any corner of the globe, where a revival and rededication to Judaism and its ideals continue to flourish. Ordinary people leading extraordinary lives do the talking for them.
The Rebbe and rebbetzin transformed the very fabric of Jewish life in every corner of the globe. June 20 is the date that paved the way and allowed for all their work to be accomplished. Men have made the Rebbe their role model, while women have made the rebbetzin theirs. Both the Rebbe and rebbetzin conducted themselves with modesty, humility and wit, while providing guidance, inspiration and assurance, but, most of all, true friendship.
Although the Rebbe and rebbetzin have passed on, I would urge my friends to “get in the know” and find out more about this great couple. You will see how they lived a real, meaningful life, inspiring a generation. In Washington State alone, more than 10 Chabad centers embrace any Jew, no strings attached. These centers are staffed by rabbis and rebbetzins who work tirelessly in partnership with their respective communities to ensure a bright Jewish future. The Chabad House in Bellingham, the center which we were honored to found and have been privileged to direct since February 2006, has given us the opportunity to come into contact with the greatest Jews, and people in general. I am so grateful to have met such nice Bellinghamsters — what a great honor to serve such wonderful people!
In honor of these two special days, let us resolve to honor the lives of the Rebbe and rebbetzin through a commitment to doing more: Learn something additional in Torah, recite an additional prayer, or give some extra charity. Let us also try to apply some of the Rebbe’s and rebbetzin’s care and selfless dedication in our own interaction with family, friends — even total strangers. There can be no more fitting tribute to this great couple than all the good deeds — mitzvot — performed on these days. May this bring about the ultimate tzedakah to be performed by God, the coming of Moshiach. Amen.
To find out more about the Rebbe, visit http://www.therebbe.org.