The Revolution that Began in a Wheelchair

Friday, 3 March, 2023 - 2:01 pm

My maternal grandmother (Mrs. Miriam Gordon) was fond of recalling to us the most memorable day of her youth. It was a late winter day in 1940 when her father pulled out of high-school for a very special event. They went to the piers in the New York Harbor to be part of the throngs of thousands that came to greet the Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, to the USA. The Rebbe finally appeared on the gangway of the SS Drottningholm that sailed out of Sweden. Though he was not even 60 at the time, he was being pushed in a wheelchair. He had suffered torture and beating at the hands of Stalin’s minions in the Soviet Union; and just recently endured the German Luftwaffe bombardment of Warsaw in the fall of 1939. He was physically broken and in bad health.

Many people suggested that he consider utilizing his arrival in America as an opportunity to relax and quietly nurse himself to better health, without getting too involved in the activism to which he was accustomed. From his wheelchair he resolutely declared that “America is Not Different.” He dismissed the suggestions that he take a step back from activism. The man who unflinchingly faced the Soviets and survived the Nazis, was not fazed by American Jewish apathy. He was not going to go out with a whimper.

The Previous Rebbe gathered young men and women and inspired them to devote themselves to the spiritual and material welfare of their American Jewish brethren. He sent young married couples (like my grandparents) to jumpstart Jewish education and Jewish life in communities and cities throughout the country. He dispatched single Yeshiva students to become teachers and traveling Rabbis. When the war ended, those efforts expanded to other locations around the world.

For ten years he fought like a lion to bring authentic Judaism to new frontiers. When he passed away in 1950, his successor, our Rebbe, continued those efforts, exponentially growing them to unimaginable heights. Today Chabad has a global presence and reach. But it all began with a revolution from a wheelchair 83 years ago.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin


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