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Hero in the Shadows

Thursday, 8 February, 2018 - 1:18 pm

Yesterday we marked 30 years since the passing of Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka Schneerson, wife of the Rebbe. It is fair to say that, aside from the famous Jewish women of the bible, no Jewish woman has more children named for her. There are tens of thousands of girls and women who bear her illustrious name. Yet, during her lifetime (she passed just short of her 87th birthday in 1988), the vast majority of Chassidim had very limited knowledge of her and minimal interactions. From the day her husband succeeded her father (upon her urging, despite his own hesitation) as the Lubavitcher Rebbe in 1950, the Rebbetzin made a conscious decision to withdraw into the background. Some say it was in deference to the elder Rebbetzins, her mother and mother-in-law. Some say it was to protect the Rebbe’s modicum of remaining privacy. Most likely it was a combination of many reasons. Be it as it may, few chassidim even knew how she looked.

So much so, that in the 1970s, when the Rebbe launched the Shabbos Candlelighting Campaign, a Yeshiva student on the streets of Manhattan, asked her if she was Jewish and if she would like a pair of Shabbos candlesticks. She merely smiled in response. Seeing this, his friend rushed up to him, chiding him for approaching the Rebbetzin. He simply had no idea how she looked. The next day he received a message from the Rebbe’s secretary that she was very pleased that they were enthusiastically fulfilling the Rebbe’s directive of Mitzvah campaign outreach.

In the 1980s a small Shabbos apartment was built for the Rebbe and Rebbetzin in the library building next door to 770 (the main Shul and Chabad HQ). Once in a while the children or students standing in the courtyard between the two buildings, would see the curtains part as the Rebbetzin was looking to see if the Rebbe was coming. I saw her once on a Shabbos afternoon in this manner. Otherwise she was almost a legendary figure who existed only in whispers and shadows.

As a typical self-centered 14 year old at the time of her passing, I had little appreciation of what she meant to the Rebbe; and how deeply her passing would impact him, and by extension, us. I recall (with shame) seeing a woman crying profusely during the funeral and thinking to myself, “why is she so sad, did she actually know the Rebbetzin?” It was only after the Rebbe started to speak about her, and the lessons we could derive from her life, that we got an inkling of how special she was. It would not be an exaggeration to say that she was both the Rebbe’s most fervent chasid and his sole confidant. Her testimony in the Library case was highly instrumental in defining for the judge the role of a Rebbe and his relationship to chassidim.

Malkie and I are proud to have named our eldest, Chaya Mushka. She along with the tens of thousands who share that name, are living lives inspired by this special woman, thereby making a real difference in our world. May her memory be for a blessing and inspiration to us all.

This weekend, in honor of her Yahrtzeit, Chabad Shluchos (female emissaries) gather in New York for the annual conference of the most powerful and influential women in the world. May it be uplifting, blessing all their future endeavors with success.

Shabbat Shalom from Rabbi Mom
Mendel Rivkin

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