By Dovid Zaklikovsky – Chabad.org
Rebbetzin Chaya Mushkah Schneerson (1901-1988) of righteous memory, wife of the Lubavitcher Rebbe of righteous memory, was born on Shabbat, the 25th of Adar, in Babinovich, a town near the Russian city of Lubavitch, in the year 5661 from creation (1901).
In an address delivered on the 25 of Adar of 1988 (the Rebbetzin’s 87th birthday, and about a month after her passing), the Rebbe initiated an international birthday campaign, urging people to celebrate their birthdays and utilize the day as a time of introspection and making resolutions involving an increase in good deeds.
Wife of the Rebbe; daughter of the sixth Lubavitcher rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn; and granddaughter of the fifth Lubavitcher rebbe, Rabbi Sholom DovBer Schneersohn—the Rebbetzin could not have been more immersed in Torah and Jewish scholarship.
While a teenager, she risked discovery by the Russian authorities, and smuggled food and candles to the Novardok yeshivah. Throughout her life she repeatedly risked her life to help others, under both Soviet and Nazi rule, and experienced firsthand the sacrifices of global Jewish leadership. Yet when her husband refused the entreaties of chassidim, Chabad-Lubavitch followers, that he become rebbe, the Rebbetzin urged him to agree, knowing full well the toll it would take on her.
Her pivotal testimony in a mid-1980s federal case regarding the ownership of her father’s priceless library sheds some light on this sacrifice.
Summing up her life’s experience that a rebbe is completely devoted to the community at large and has no private life, she declared that the library, “belongs to the chassidim, because my father belonged to the chassidim.”
The Rebbetzin was a diligent student of chassidic thought, and accounts concur that she was one of the Rebbe’s only confidantes in the world.
Yet, despite her extraordinary role—as unknown as it was to the public—and her regal upbringing and bearing, it seems that she always found common ground with those who came to her, and helped each one feel comfortable and heard.
Mrs. Daniele Gorlin-Lassner, whose parents shared a close friendship with the Rebbe and Rebbetzin going all the way back to when they lived in Europe, said that the Rebbetzin consciously shunned attention.
“You know, as much as I would like to,” Mrs. Gorlin-Lassner quoted the Rebbetzin saying in the mid-1980s, “I don’t very often frequent the store or go shopping [in the neighborhood]. They all feel that they have to give me special kavod [honor], and that is really something that I don’t want.”
Just as she preferred to focus the spotlight away from herself, the Rebbetzin was ever sensitive to those around her, as evidenced by the recollection of Rabbi Shmuel Lew. Now the director of the Lubavitch House School in London, the flustered Rabbi Lew visited the Rebbetzin with his fiancé and family before he got married.
“There was a beautiful white tablecloth, and she served punch in long crystal glasses with glass straws,” he related. “At one point, when my hand was going over the glass, I didn’t notice the straw, and my hand pushed against the straw. The straw pushed against the glass, and the whole punch spilled on the table.”
Without missing a beat, “the Rebbetzin got all excited,” he continued, as if this was the best thing that could have happened in her home. “She said it’s a sign of blessing.”
A Ready Listener
Years after visiting her, guests remembered that the Rebbetzin had a way of making the person she was speaking with feel as if he or she was the only one who mattered in the entire world, reminiscent of the way people describe the Rebbe’s undivided attention as he listened to people.
“The Rebbetzin was a person that you felt comfortable telling her everything,” said Mrs. Hadassah Carlebach. “She listened and showed concern, and asked me how things [were] going. [She] made me feel very good, and comforted me many times.”
Following her arrival to the United States after the Holocaust, Mrs. Carlebach went to the Rebbetzin for advice.
“I needed to help feed the family, so I started teaching,” said Mrs. Carlebach. “I told her how hard it was for me, and she encouraged me.
“When I mentioned, ‘I don’t think I’m cut out for it,’” the Rebbetzin expressed her understanding, but then added, ‘While you’re doing it, do [your] best,’” continued Mrs. Carlebach. “She said do the best you can. Whatever you are doing at that point, do the best that you can do.”
Indeed, Mrs. Carlebach persisted, and excelled at teaching for 20 years.
Mrs. Louise Hager, who is now a businesswoman living in London, related the first conversation she had with the Rebbetzin at age 14. The Rebbetzin wanted to know, “What did I enjoy? What were the subjects? Who were my friends? She showed great interest.
“I have to admit, never having been a particularly keen student, I came away wanting to give her something, wanting to impress her, wanting to give her some good news,” added Mrs. Hager. “So, I started to write to her.”
Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka led an intensely private life. “Very few people knew about the relationship that I had with the Rebbetzin,” said Londoner Mrs. Louise Hager, who knew the Rebbetzin since the 1960s and spoke to her by phone at least once a week. “I think that was one of the strengths of the relationship. It was totally private.”
Although bits and pieces of details of the Rebbetzin’s personal friendships have leaked out through the years, the consensus is that it was her will to remain out of the limelight. For many, it was not until her funeral in 1988 that they realized the tremendous bond that she and her husband, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, shared, and the extraordinary sacrifices she willingly made to facilitate the Rebbe’s devotion to the Jewish people.
The Rebbe led the global Chabad-Lubavitch movement, which would become the largest Jewish organization in the world by the end of the 20th century, and inspired an immense infrastructure for Jewish activism in the United States and the world after the Holocaust.
Back then, thousands of people who came to escort her cortege down Eastern Parkway shed tears as they watched the Rebbe’s raw emotions in somberly escorting the body of his wife. In the days that followed, the Rebbe at times choked up in tears as he said the kaddish, the traditional mourner’s prayer, in her memory, and during a public talk he gave on her legacy.
The Rebbe urged that everyone take the Rebbetzin’s life and actions to heart.
VIDEO: A brief biography of Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka Schneerson