For the first time ever, the public will have video access to the inner meditations of one of the most important Jewish thinkers in recent history: Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson.
To mark the yahrtzeit of the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe, local members of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement will gather June 5 for a multimedia presentation focused on excerpts from the Rebbe’s diaries.
The formerly private diaries were uncovered through a long process of interviews and locating essential documents. Rabbis Boruch Oberlander and Elkanah Shmotkin recently compiled the information in Early Years (1902-1929), a biographical text on the Rebbe’s life in that time period.
Commemorators of the yahrtzeit will convene at the Independence Seaport Museum for film, musical and spoken performances to celebrate the life of the famed Chabad-Lubavitch leader.
Titled “Maybe Alone, Never Forsaken,” the presentation offers an original lineup centered on the diaries’ revelations. The entries catalog Schneerson’s life prior to his ascension to the movement’s leadership in 1951 and provide an inside look at the thoughts of the man who helped revitalize Jewry in the wake of the Holocaust.
Born in 1902 in what is now Ukraine, the Rebbe accelerated through his schooling. By the age of 17, he mastered both secular subjects and the entirety of the Talmud and was widely considered a genius.
Impressed by Schneerson’s erudition, the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe offered to finance his continued education in Berlin, where he moved in 1929 with his new wife, Chaya Moussia, the sixth Rebbe daughter.
In 1933, the Nazis asserted control in Germany, forcing the Rebbe and his wife to leave for Paris.
Just three days before Paris fell to the Nazis, the couple fled to the south of France, where they remained until their 1941 journey to New York via Portugal.
Those turbulent times provide the background for most of the diary, which alludes to the perilous situation for Jews in Europe and the Schneersons’ harrowing escape to the U.S.
The entries frequently coincide with historical happenings, especially those personally impacting Schneerson. A chabad.org article by Eli Rubin identifies an entry dated the 16th of Sivan, which chronicles the Rebbe’s thoughts on the eve of his voyage to America.
Today, the Rebbe is remembered for transforming the Chabad-Lubavitch movement into a global force; spearheading the construction of schools, synagogues and hospitals; and offering sage biblical insights that left their mark far beyond the Chabad world.
Bentzi Avtzon, creative director of Yuvla Media, has helped orchestrate the multimedia yahrtzeit events since their inception in 2014. The Rebbe passed away in 1994.
The gatherings have brought new energy into the yearly commemoration, Avzton said.
“Instead of a typical speech, we tell a story through film and musical performances,” he said.
The presentations have been well-received, he said, with continued interest from Jews across the Delaware Valley. This year’s event has a seating capacity of 600.
Avtzon said the film portion of this year’s event will intersperse archival footage with readings from the journals to create the effect of “looking through the Rebbe’s eyes” at the fall of Paris, the state of Jewish refugees in Europe and the journey to America.
“It was a fraught period of time,” he said of the rise of Nazism and the horrors of World War II.
“The arc traveled in this program is one to the gloomy depths of a world gone dark, to the beginning of the arduous undertaking of rebuilding after the war — an undertaking that the Rebbe became famous for,” Avtzon recounted.
The diaries broach the topic of the historical events subtly, weaving commentary on the persecution of Jews between the lines of notes for a sermon, he explained.
“On the surface, the entries are about Torah study,” Avtzon conceded, though he emphasized, “If you look historically, the content and ideas of the entries are pushing back against the circumstances at the time.”
Simply, the Rebbe “is asking, ‘What does it mean to be Jew in a world that doesn’t want you?’”
That existential question is further unfurled in the aforementioned 16th of Sivan entry.
As translated in Rubin’s article, the Rebbe quotes the Talmud with, “the son of David will not come till a fish is sought for an invalid and cannot be found.”
A plausible cue to the meaning of the Rebbe’s thoughts lies in his famous ethos: Actualize your potential. Humans, he reasoned, were gifted with divine strength and could achieve tremendous feats should they live up to their possibilities.
This philosophy is evident in the journal entry. Rubin explains the Rebbe interprets the Talmudic aphorism to mean humans can repair the world.
The Rebbe’s hope in mankind, even on the eve of his forced exodus from Europe, resonates deeply with his admirers today.
The event June 5 aims to continue the message of optimism, Avtzon said.
Tickets can be bought at legacyevenings.com/rsvp or at the door. The event opens at 6:30 p.m. with the scheduled program at 7:30.
The picture of the Rebbe as a young man looks like something straight out of “Fiddler on the Roof” (as it should).