By COLlive and Baila Olidort – Lubavitch.com
Cover photo: Israel Bardugo
Rabbi Shmuel Azimov, the Head Shliach of Paris who spearheaded the unprecedented “French Lubavitch revolution,” bringing thousands of Jews closer to their heritage and establishing over 70 Chabad institutions, has passed away on Wednesday, 12 Cheshvan 5775.
He was 69.
In 2012, Rabbi Azimov was interviewed by Baila Olidort for lubavitch.com. The following is an excerpt from the interview.
Born in Russia in 1945, he was 3-years-old when his family arrived in Paris after fleeing communism. For most Chabad Jews escaping communism, France was a point in transit—either to the Holy Land or North America. The Azimovs were among the few Chabad families who remained. There were not many Jews in Paris; most were disaffected Holocaust survivors, and the city was largely devoid of any real Jewish activity.
Rabbi Azimov got his early grooming as a teacher from his father who went door to door searching for students. R’ Chaim Hillel Azimov founded 20 Talmud Torahs in Paris and its surrounding areas.
When he was old enough, he went to the Chabad boys yeshiva founded in Brunoy in 1947, by Rabbi Joseph I. Schneersohn, the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe. In 1963, then a teenager, Rabbi Azimov made his first transatlantic trip to see the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe, traveling by charter flight from London.
“I was one of three Chabad boys from Paris who lived in the yeshiva dormitory,” he told Lubavitch.com in an interview. “After returning from my first visit to the Rebbe, the three of us were instructed to start our activities as shluchim in Paris while continuing our studies in the yeshiva in Brunoy. So every Shabbos, we would return to the city. There were many children of Holocaust survivors who assimilated. But we reached some, we began to learn with them, to teach them, and eventually, they joined us in the yeshiva in Brunoy.”
After his marriage to Bassie Shemtov, the youngest daughter of the famed chossid Rabbi Benzion Shemtov OBM, in New York, the couple returned to Paris.
Arriving on the eve of the May 1968 student protests, the Azimovs inspired a grassroots transformation of their own. They continued to receive the Rebbe’s guidance: Rabbi Azimov and his wife should teach as much as possible. The Rebbe specifically instructed Azimov to dedicate half of his time to teaching in a formal school.
The couple opened Paris’s first Chabad House in 1972. Under his leadership, Chabad centers have since opened in every district of Paris and its suburbs.
Despite a recent rise in Anti-Semitism, France is home to one of the largest Jewish populations in the Diaspora, and Jewish life in Paris, where some 375,000 Jews reside, is thriving. With forty Chabad centers and some 170 Shluchim in Paris, a day school bursting at the seams with 2,000 students, and an annual budget of roughly $25 million, Rabbi Azimov built a remarkably successful Jewish infrastructure.
With his deep-rooted Chabad Chasidic world-view and a profoundly compassionate concern for others, “Moule” (short for Shmuel), a household name in France’s Jewish circles, has negotiated every aspect of Jewish communal life, working cooperatively and effectively with all of the city’s Jewish organizations and municipal authorities.
Almost all of the 170 shluchim serving in Chabad centers in Paris were his and his wife’s students. It is a story that reflects a highly functional family, or the dynamic of an exemplary teacher/students relationship.
Rabbi Azimov traveled regularly to the Rebbe who took particular interest in seeing and guiding the growth of Jewish life in Paris, where he and his wife lived for a period of seven years, beginning in 1935. “We’ve sown the seeds,” the Rebbe’s wife once told him, reflecting on that period of her life in Paris.
After suffering a stroke in 1998, he was forced to take a slower pace, at least physically. Yet he continued to maintain responsibility for his budget, and he continued to teach in school as the Rebbe instructed him to do half a century ago. No longer able to lead a class as he once did, he worked with students individually.
He was a member of the Executive Committee of Agudas Chassidei Chabad International, the central governing committee of the global Lubavitch movement.
His wife Bassie passed away in 2011 at the age of 67.
He is survived by his children Rabbi Mendel Azimov, Mrs. Esther Marasov and Rabbi Levi Azimov – all Shluchim in Paris, and grandchildren.
He is survived by his siblings R’ Moshe Nissan Azimov – Jerusalem; Mrs. Raizel Raskin – Morocco; Mrs. Sara Even-Yisroel (Steinsaltz) – Jerusalem; Mrs. Esther Matusof – Toulouse, France; Mrs. Devora Markowitz – Australia; and Mrs. Shterna Shanowitz – Los Angeles, CA.
His brothers-in-law are Rabbi Berel Shemtov, Head Shliach of Michigan; Rabbi Abraham Shemtov, Head Shliach of Philadelphia and Chairman of Agudas Chabad International; and Rabbi Israel Shemtov of Crown Heights.
Baruch dayan haemes.