Rabbi Levi Yitzchak and the Jews of Kazakhstan
Every year, Hasidic Jews from around the world come to Kazakhstan to pray at the grave of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneerson, father of the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson who was famously known as the last Lubavitcher Rebbe.
Fortunately, when they get there, the visiting Chabad Jews can find a warm welcome from the local Chabad community, which is strong and vibrant. I myself have experienced the hospitality of the Chabad rabbis in Almaty, the city where Rabbi Levi Yitzchak is buried. Here I’d like to discuss the roots of the Chabad custom to visit Rabbi Levi Yitzchak’s gravesite and what it means for the relationship between Chabad and Kazakhstan.
Background of Chabad
To understand who Rabbi Levi Yitzchak was, we need to delve further back to the roots of Chabad Hasidism. Chabad, also known as Lubavitch, was established in the late 1770s in Belarus by Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, who came to be known as the first Chabad Rebbe.
There are many different Hasidic groups, most of which follow different teachings of the originator of Hasidism—Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov. Each Hasidic group has its own leader and teachings.
In the 1810s, the center of the Chabad movement relocated to the town of Lubavitch in Russia, from which the movement derived its name. It remained there until 1915, when the Fifth Rebbe moved to Rostov-on-Don in southern Russia. The Sixth Rebbe moved to Crown Heights, New York upon the outbreak of World War II, and that location has remained the center of the Hasidic group until today.
Who Was Rabbi Levi Yitzchak?
Rabbi Levi Yitzchak was born in 1878 in the town of Podrovnah, the oldest of four children. He showed signs of being a prodigy early on. By the age of 22, he was well-known as a Torah and Kabbalah scholar, and he married Chana Yanovsky, a learned woman in her own right. The couple had three sons: Menachem Mendel, DovBer, and Yisrael Aryeh Leib. Menachem Mendel later became the seventh and final Rebbe in the Chabad-Lubavitch dynasty (no one was appointed Rebbe after him). While Rabbi Levi Yitzchak was not a Rebbe per se, since leadership of the sect did not always pass from father to son, he served as an inspiration for his community and for his son Menachem Mendel, who did become the next Rebbe.
At the age of 31, in the year1909, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak became the rabbi of Yekaterinoslav, Ukraine. He served as chief rabbi for 32 years and was regarded by both religious and secular Jews as a holy man.
In 1939, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak was arrested by the NKVD (predecessor of the KGB) for his work on behalf of Judaism in the Soviet Union. These activities included overseeing the building of a new ritual bath (mikveh) and supervising the baking of matzah for Passover. He was jailed and tortured for a year, after which he was tried in Moscow and sentenced to five years of exile in Central Asia. He ended up in the small and poverty-stricken village of Chi’ili, Kazakhstan. In an incredible act of bravery and self-sacrifice, his wife followed him there, though she herself was not sentenced to exile.
Rabbi Levi Yitzchak was exiled to Kazakhstan before the arrival of the flood of refugees that were eager to escape the ravages of World War II in Europe. Despite not having the means to leave the primitive town of his exile, he became a leader of Jewish refugees, providing physical and spiritual support to the broken community of Jews in greater Kazakhstan. Moreover, it was during this period that he produced some of his most profound and rich religious writings, despite the great hardships he endured. (He didn’t even have proper ink and paper with which to write.)
In 1944, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak’s term of imposed exile was coming to an end, but at the same time, his health began to deteriorate. Friends from the nearby city of Almaty actively sought contributions to help bring the rabbi to a location with better conditions. Six weeks later, after collecting thousands of rubles and succeeding in obtaining travel documents, the rabbi and his wife moved to Almaty. Unfortunately, his health continued to deteriorate, and he died a few months later.
Rabbi Levi Yitzchak was a prolific writer during his lifetime, but most of what he wrote was lost or destroyed. In 1947, when his wife left the Soviet Union (in an incredible story in its own right), she smuggled several of her husband’s manuscripts along with her. They were eventually published as Likutei (Excerpts from) Levi Yitzchak.
Rabbi Levi Yitzchak’s Grave as a National Heritage Site
Lubavitch Hasidim have a custom of visiting the graves of previous Rebbes and praying there, which is why many flock to Almaty, where Rabbi Levi Yitzchak is buried. This practice has been going on for years, but the most recent development in the relationship between Chabad and Kazakhstan is that the country’s government named the rabbi’s grave as a national heritage site.
The inclusion of the grave as a national heritage site is a testament to the amicable relations between Chabad and Kazakhstan. Although the country’s Jewish population has been dwindling since World War II, Chabad still maintains a strong presence in the country, particularly in Almaty.
There is also a strong Chabad presence in the capital, Nur-Sultan (formerly known as Astana). It is my honor to contribute to the Chabad house there, which is run by my dear friend, Rabbi Shmuel Karnoach. I hope that the government’s recognition of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak’s grave as a national heritage site will further strengthen the relationship between Chabad and the government of Kazakhstan.