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The Missing Years

Barbara Bensoussan

The newly released Early Years, documenting the Lubavitcher Rebbe's early life, represents the painstaking efforts of researchers who pursued scattered threads and wove them into a tapestry

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

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LOST AND FOUND The Rebbe’s early years took on the moniker “The Missing Years,” because so little was known about that time. In 2002, Rabbi Yechiel Cagen and his staff at JEM began working on a film entitled The Early Years. “We thought it would be only a single one-hour film,” Cagen says. “But by the time we finished, it was a series of five.” Meanwhile, unbeknownst to them, Rabbi Boruch Oberlander, the Chabad shaliach in Budapest, had been quietly doing similar research Photos: Amir Levy, Jewish Educational Media/Early Years

T he seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson zy”a, was such a prominent and influential figure that some people assume he was always a fixture in Crown Heights until his passing 23 years ago on 3 Tammuz. But he didn’t arrive in the US until 1941, when he was 39 years old, and became Rebbe ten years later at the age of 49, a year after the passing of his father-in-law, the previous Rebbe. Where was he before then?

It’s generally known that the Rebbe was born on 11 Nissan, 1902, in the Russian port city of Nikolayev, Ukraine. He was a child when his father, Rav Levi Yitzchak Schneerson ztz”l, became chief rabbi of Yekaterinoslav (today Dnepropetrovsk in Ukraine). He married a distant cousin, the daughter of Rebbe Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, the previous Rebbe (known as the Rebbe Rayatz) in 1928, and the couple spent years in Berlin, Paris, and Vichy France before escaping to the US in 1941.

“Once the Rebbe arrived in New York, we have information about him,” says Rabbi Elkanah Shmotkin, co-author of the recently released Early Years: The formative years of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, as told by documents and archival data (Kehot Publication Society). “But we know extremely little about his early life in Europe. He rarely spoke about himself, and when he did, it was always in the context of making a point about something else.”

Despite what one might believe from reading biographies of gedolim, most were not born into sainthood, but labored mightily to grow into their lofty status. Lubavitcher chassidim, and other admirers of the Rebbe, have long been curious to know more about his earliest years, to understand the people and events that shaped him. But how can you learn anything when so many records have been buried under the detritus of a tumultuous World War and a hostile Soviet Union, and the path meanders from Nikolayev to Yekaterinoslav, Leningrad, Riga, Warsaw, Berlin, and Paris?

It took 15 years, a lot of grunt work and many false starts, but Rabbi Shmotkin, his co-author Rabbi Boruch Oberlander, and a host of collaborators have pieced together about as complete a portrait of their Rebbe’s early years as is humanly possible. Early Years represents not just a gadol and his era, but testifies to the journey of those who pursued the scattered threads and turned them into a tapestry.

Preserved for Posterity

You could almost miss JEM, the Jewish Educational Media office, where we met with Rabbi Shmotkin and his colleagues, Rabbi Levi Greisman (director of the Early Years project) and Rabbi Yechiel Cagen (director of the My Encounter with the Rebbe oral history project). The entrance is a nondescript gray metal door on an industrial building on East New York Avenue in Crown Heights. Once inside, however, you can get lost in the cavernous space with high ceilings and exposed ducts, smartly refurbished with a central, glassed-in conference room, banks of computer carrels and more glassed-in offices lining the sides.

“We had hundreds of images, and we wanted people to have access to the raw data.” Rabbis Yechiel Cagen, Elkanah Shmotkin, and Levi Greisman are like archaeologists on a paper trail

JEM originally grew out of the need to organize the written, audio, and video documentation that began during the Rebbe’s lifetime and continued after his petirah in 1994. These archives are noteworthy if only for the fact that no other chassidic group capitalized so extensively on the cutting-edge technologies of the 1970s and 80s to record and propagate their leader’s teachings.

The Rebbe, himself trained as an engineer, always evinced a lively interest in new technologies. He stated many times that he believed in harnessing their potential to disseminate Torah concepts and values. Following this lead, the Rebbe’s chassidim began broadcasting his farbrengens via satellite to listeners around the world as early as 1980. “At that time, the only people using satellite technology were the government and news agencies,” Rabbi Shmotkin relates. “At first, people listened in over the phone; later the farbrengens were telecast.”

JEM began with those early live satellite broadcasts. After the Rebbe’s passing, JEM continued to function as a center for disseminating the Rebbe’s teachings and preserving Chabad history; as the Internet grew, it expanded into just about every available print and Internet medium. JEM today is a small industry, with some 30 full-time employees.

Rabbi Shmotkin gives us a quick tour of the premises. In the back, workers are assiduously reviewing and archiving hundreds of hours of old tapes and films. Metal shelving holds old reel-to-reel tape recorders and banks of audio and video console equipment. “We send out most of our tapes to be professionally restored,” he explains. “We know that tape will disintegrate over time, so we transfer the content and then comes the work of cataloging and archiving it.”

In a back office, production director Eli Sapo is busy re-mastering old video clips of the Rebbe, some of which have faded and need a boost in quality. He changes the formats to the wide screen format more compatible with newer technologies. A recent project involved helping the Chabad shaliach in Hong Kong, who was invited to Indonesia to speak to a gathering of 200 Muslim clerics. The shaliach asked for a clip of the Rebbe to show them.

“We chose a clip of the Rebbe delivering a talk on Basi Legani —the last ma’amar of Rebbe Yosef Yitzchak, which the Rebbe expounded upon every year on his yahrtzeit on 10 Shevat. It speaks about how the physical world is really Hashem’s garden,” he recounts. “We prepared a five-minute clip with English subtitles. When the shaliach presented it to the clerics, they protested, ‘Why so short?’ ”

Rabbi Yechiel Cagen, who directs the My Encounter with the Rebbe project from another large office in the center, says that when the Rebbe passed away in 1994, chassidim sought to preserve not only the tapes and written records, but the memories that lived in the hearts and minds of the thousands of people the Rebbe touched.

“The My Encounter project came about as a way to preserve people’s memories of interactions with the Rebbe,” Rabbi Cagen says. “We record interviews, and do research to substantiate what we hear.” By his own admission, Cagen is ever ready to hop a flight across the world to pursue a good lead.

As the My Encounters project gained traction in the late ‘90s, the founders realized it made sense to first pursue the oldest sources they had, as they were the most likely to disappear. The elderly were also the most likely to remembers the earlier stages of the Rebbe’s life. (Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 665)

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