Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, known as the Lubavitcher Rebbe, is widely considered the most influential rabbi in modern history.
As his 20th yahrzeit approaches, the Chabad-Lubavitch movement remains vibrant, thanks to Schneerson’s vision, said Rabbi Leibel Alevsky, Chabad regional director and executive director of Chabad of Cleveland, based in Beachwood.
“The Rebbe was such a big influence and almost singlehandedly built the entire infrastructure of Chabad internationally,” Alevsky said. “He made the world a much better place for Jewish people in general. After he passed away, many people said Chabad was going to fold and not exist anymore, that it was going to vegetate away.
“But now, 20 years later, Chabad has quadrupled its numbers all over the world. There are more than 4,000 Chabad emissaries worldwide.”
Two of those emissaries are Alevsky and his wife, Devorah Alevsky, women’s program director of Chabad of Cleveland. They moved to Cleveland from New York in 1972 to establish the first Chabad House of Cleveland.
“We inspire people to Judaism, we expose them to the joy of Judaism, but we don’t impose it,” Devorah Alevsky said. “We welcome all Jews, regardless of their affiliation or background. Our motto is ‘every Jew belongs.’ We feel all Jews are one family, and we just should be there for each other.”
It all goes back to the influence and vision of Schneerson, the seventh leader of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement. He led the movement from 1950 – a year after the passing of his predecessor, his father-in-law, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn – until his death on June 12, 1994, Tammuz 3 on the Hebrew calendar. He was 92.
On July 1, which corresponds to Tammuz 3 this year, Jews worldwide will commemorate the 20th yahrzeit of the beloved Lubavitcher Rebbe.
“Everywhere around the world, Jewish people are inspired by Chabad,” Devorah Alevsky said. “It is the example the Rebbe set, to make sure every segment of the Jewish community and general community is touched in a positive way.
“He had a saying, ‘Let’s look at what connects us, what we have in common, instead of where our differences are.’ One of the things he really tried to push was to take away the departmentalizing of Conservative, Orthodox, Reform, Reconstructionist. We’re all Jews; some practice more, some practice less. (We all believe in) one G-d, and we should all be united.”
Schneerson was devoted to every Jewish person, both individually and collectively, Rabbi Alevsky said.
“A group of students once asked him, ‘How come everybody loves you so much?’” he said. “He said, ‘Because I love everybody, so they love me back.’”
From Russia to US
Chabad – a Hebrew acronym combining the words for wisdom, insight and knowledge – is the Chasidic movement established in the Russian town of Lubavitch at the end of the 18th century. The Chabad movement arrived in the United States in 1940, and Schneerson and his wife, Chaya Mushka, moved to New York in 1941.
Chabad in Cleveland dates to 1953, when Devorah Alevsky's parents, Rabbi Zalman and Rebbetzin Shula Kazen, moved to Cleveland at the advice of Schneerson. The Rebbe suggested that Rabbi Kazen take on a rabbinic position and work as a shochet (ritual slaughterer) and chazan. So the young couple, which had spent five years in Paris after escaping from the Soviet Union at the end of World War II, settled in Cleveland Heights with its seven children.
Kazen went on to serve as rabbi of Congregation Zemach Zedek in Cleveland Heights for more than 50 years and was a shochet at Coventry Poultry in Cleveland Heights for 40 years. Meanwhile, the Rebbe directed Rebbetzin Kazen to organize women’s and children’s programming, as well as Jewish holiday celebrations, to share the spirit of Jewish traditions in the Cleveland area.
In 1970, the Kazens organized a Cleveland committee to establish the first Chabad House of Cleveland. Founders included Irving Stone; his daughter, Hensha Stone Gansbourg; Marcia and Mel Waxman; and Bernie and Esther Rutman.
The Waxman family, headed by Mel Waxman, purchased the original Chabad house, a former residence in South Euclid, which opened in 1972. Chabad of Cleveland relocated to another former residential property, at 2479 South Green Road in Beachwood, in 1989, and the Waxmans helped finance the cost of the current Chabad of Cleveland building, the Waxman Chabad Center, which opened at that site in 2005.
“Our family has been a big supporter of Chabad, primarily because of the Lubavitcher Rebbe,” said Mel Waxman, president of the Waxman Chabad Center, in a telephone interview from Hong Kong. “I always felt we wanted to do something to recognize the help we received from him for our family, so we decided to build a building. He gave our family a blessing that we should be successful in business that was very meaningful for us.”
Waxman, co-chairman of Bedford Heights-based Waxman Industries, said he and his son, Larry, went to meet with Schneerson around 1991 in his office at the Chabad world headquarters in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y.
“The Rebbe was a unique individual, a very powerful figure physically,” Waxman said. “He was also a very selfless, dedicated leader who was trying to raise up the awareness for secular Jews about the importance of following the (Jewish) tradition, learning the Bible and doing the mitzvahs and the commandments from the Torah.”
Waxman, of University Heights, noted that the sign outside the Waxman Chabad Center reads in Hebrew, “Bais Menachem,” or “House of Menachem,” in Schneerson’s honor. The Waxmans also financed construction of the Esther and Stanley Waxman Community Mikvah, which sits behind the Waxman Chabad Center, in recognition of Waxman’s parents.
“The Rebbe was responsible for the whole concept that the young rabbis would go out and start a Chabad house in different cities to spread Yiddishkeit to many different locations,” Waxman said. “Today there are about 2,400 Chabad houses all over the world … places to go for Friday night dinner and services, especially for travelers. This basically led to the concept that the Jews are an example to the world of a proper way to conduct themselves, tied to the teachings of the Torah.”
In 1972, Rabbi Alevsky was working for the central Lubavitch youth organization in Brooklyn when Schneerson sent him to Cleveland to open the first Chabad house in Ohio. So the Alevskys and their five children came to live in the Kazens’ Cleveland Heights home for six months before moving into their current home in University Heights.
“The Rebbe inspired many people to become shulchim (emissaries), to leave their homes and make this their life’s mission, to go out and help other people wherever they were needed,” Alevsky said. “Sometimes that involves going to a (foreign) country and learning a new language.”
‘I watched miracles happen’
Rabbi and Devorah Alevsky had many opportunities over the years to meet with Schneerson at the Chabad headquarters in Brooklyn and have some special memories.
“When we got married (in 1962), he blessed us in honor of the wedding,” Devorah said. “He said when we would light up the lives of other people, our lives will be full of light and illumination and peace and positivity.
“We live with the spirit of what the Rebbe taught us and inspired us with. He always wanted a report, what more was being done to help other Jewish people, to spread Jewish inspiration and teachings. He was always positive and encouraging us to go forward more and more.”
The Alevskys’ first three children were girls, and when Devorah was pregnant with them, they would go to Schneerson for his blessing and he would say, “Raise the child in a healthy, good way,” Rabbi Alevsky said.
“When we went for the blessing for the fourth child, he said, ‘Raise him in a healthy, good way,’” Rabbi Alevsky said. “So we knew the child would be a boy.
“I watched miracles happen right and left. We stopped counting the miracles, there were so many. To me, the biggest miracle is how the Rebbe inspired over 4,000 young men and women to leave their families and take up various positions in the Chabad movement all over the world.”
Many high-ranking Israeli officials – including former prime ministers Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon and former president Zalman Shazar – would visit Schneerson and seek his advice when they were in the U.S., Rabbi Alevsky noted.
“When Begin came to see President (Jimmy) Carter for the first time (around 1977), he first came to the Rebbe for an audience,” Rabbi Alevsky said. “The TV channels interviewed Begin, and he said, ‘I’m going on a very important mission with President Carter, and I want to have the Rebbe’s counsel and blessing for success.’”
In 1986, Schneerson started a practice on Sundays of handing out dollar bills to visitors to his office, to be distributed to the charity of each person’s choice, Devorah Alevsky said. He continued this tradition each week, blessing thousands of people and offering advice, until he suffered a debilitating stroke in 1992.
“Standing in front of the Rebbe, each person felt that he was concerned just for you alone,” Devorah Alevsky said. “Being he was such a holy person, he would say, ‘Here’s a dollar for your mother so she should feel better,’ reading what was on the person’s mind. People would stand for four to five hours, but the line moved very fast, barely giving people a chance to speak.
“We experienced this many times. People would arrive each Sunday and many would fly in for the day with all kinds of questions. If you had a business deal you wanted to get accomplished, you would ask the Rebbe if it was the right thing to do. The Rebbe was so amazing; in a split second, he could see if this thing was good for you or not. He would say, ‘Go for the business,’ or ‘Don’t go for it.’”
‘The safest place in the world’
Michael Siegal, chairman of the board of trustees of the Jewish Federations of North America, was serving as national chairman of Israel Bonds in 1991 when Rabbi Alevsky brought him to see Schneerson in his office.
“It was during the Gulf War, and I went to ask the Rebbe for advice on how we could encourage more people to invest in Israel bonds,” Siegal said. “During wars, people have a tendency not to want to spend money on war zones.
“It was an extraordinary experience. I watched him for hours greet this incredible line of people in this very small room. When it was my time to seek advice, the Rebbe said I could tell everybody that Israel was the safest place in the world to invest.”
Siegal, of Gates Mills, described Schneerson as “a very powerful, spiritual individual” and “very pious.”
“Watching him for hours greet people on a non-stop basis, the stamina and liveliness of his face to everyone, it was incredible,” said Siegal, CEO of Olympic Steel, based in Bedford Heights. “People of such great spirituality, you don’t get to meet people like that.”
Randy Diamond, who runs Christian St. John Custom Clothiers, a men’s custom clothing business in Richmond Heights, said he had two meetings with Schneerson, in 1990 and 1991.
“I went with a group of people who were close supporters of the Rebbe, and everyone had an opportunity to have yechidus (a private meeting),” he said. “You could have two to four minutes with him and could get a lot accomplished. This was a greater opportunity than the dollar-bill day.”
Diamond, of Beachwood, said he asked Schneerson how he could enhance his “closeness to a more spiritual life.”
“The experience was quite impacting, very profound,” he said. “Most of us will agree there are very few people who can see beyond the physical limitations we have, but he was able to see to a much greater depth. People would make life-changing decisions based on his advice.
“Every prime minister of Israel since (David) Ben-Gurion has been to visit the Rebbe and to seek his counsel, some numerous times. Most times he had a sense of if it was good or not good; he always knew what was the right thing to do for people.”
A member of Chabad of Cleveland, Diamond said Schneerson “really impacted the Jewish world.”
“He did outreach on college campuses,” he said. “There are over 250 Chabad houses on campuses in the United States. Friendship Circle (of Cleveland, in Pepper Pike) was created by Chabad to reach out to special needs children and has been overwhelmingly successful.
“The Rebbe’s love for every Jew was unconditional. Whether you were the most religious or the least, if you’re a Jew, you need to be reached out to. That’s what made him so great.
“The people he sent out to do his work – the shluchim, like the Alevskys, who run the Chabad houses – are so energized by his blessing. This is the foundation of what keeps him strong so many years later.”
‘An international community’
All 10 of the Alevskys’ children are involved in the Chabad movement. Five are leaders at other Chabad sites in Northeast Ohio, and the other five work for the movement overseas.
“We are able to share and network to help any Jew anywhere in the world, because we are an international community,” Devorah Alevsky said. “This is the remarkable vision of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. No matter where a Jew goes in the world, he will be welcomed by a Chabad family.”
To this day, thousands of people go to Schneerson’s gravesite at Montefiore Cemetery in Queens, N.Y., to say prayers and ask for his blessing, Rabbi Alevsky said.
“People come in from all over the world,” he said. “On July 1, thousands of people will be coming to his resting place to seek his blessing.”
The Alevskys will travel to New York for a July 1 commemoration, along with many other Chabad rabbis and members, Devorah said.
“This Jewish tradition to travel to the graveside on the occasion of a Yahrzeit is ancient, and the place will be filled with at least 10,000 people from around the world,” she said.
Devorah said Chabad of Cleveland has planned a series of events to commemorate Schneerson’s 20th yahrzeit. They include a six-week Jewish Learning Institute course about the teachings of the Rebbe and an upcoming Shabbaton with a scholar-in-residence to promote his teachings.
“We are also encouraging people to join a national Jewish retreat Aug. 6-10 where over 1,000 people will meet for a week of inspiration and teachings of the Rebbe with over 50 renowned scholars,” she said.
“He made leaders, not followers. Every person who stood in his presence felt like he or she was the greatest person in the world. He inspired each person to accomplish and achieve greater and better. This is what we try to emulate in Chabad houses, the positive. It all comes from him, and he never took credit for it.”