Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn was an Orthodox rabbi and the sixth Rebbe (spiritual leader) of the Chabad Lubavitch chasidic movement. He is also known as the Frierdiker Rebbe (Yiddish for "Previous Rebbe"), the Rebbe RaYYaTz, or the Rebbe Rayatz (an acronym for Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak). After many years of fighting to keep Orthodox Judaism alive from within the Soviet Union, he was forced to leave; he continued to conduct the struggle from Latvia, and then Poland, and eventually the United States, where he spent the last ten years of his life.
Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn was born in Lyubavichi, Mogilev Governorate, Russian Empire (present-day Smolensk Oblast, Russia), the only son of Rabbi Sholom Dovber Schneersohn (the Rebbe Rashab), the fifth Rebbe of Chabad. He was appointed as his father's personal secretary at the age of fifteen; in that year, he represented his father in the conference of communal leaders in Kovno. The following year (1896) he participated in the Vilna Conference, where Rabbis and community leaders discussed issues such as: genuine Jewish education; permission for Jewish children not to attend public school on Shabbat; the creation of a united Jewish organization for the purpose of strengthening Judaism. He participated in this conference again in 1908.
On 13 Elul 5657 (1897) at the age of seventeen he married a distant cousin, Rebbetzin Nechama Dina Schneersohn, daughter of Rabbi Avraham Schneerson of Chişinău, son of Rabbi Yisroel Noach of Nizhyn, son of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, the Tzemach Tzedek.
In 1898 he was appointed head of the Tomchei Temimim yeshiva network.
As he matured, he campaigned for the rights of Jews by appearing before the Czarist authorities in Saint Petersburg and Moscow. During the Russo-Japanese War of 1904 he sought relief for Jewish conscripts in the Russian army by sending them kosher food and supplies in the Russian Far East.
In 1905 he participated in organizing a fund to provide Passover needs for troops in the Far East.
With rising anti-Semitism and pogroms against Jews, in 1906 he travelled with other prominent rabbis to seek help from Western European governments, especially Germany and the Netherlands, and persuaded bankers there to use their influence to stop pogroms.
He was arrested four times between 1902 and 1911 by the Czarist police because of his activism, but was released each time.
Upon the death of his father, Rabbi Sholom Dovber Schneersohn ("Rashab"), in 1920, Yosef Yitzchak became the sixth Rebbe of Chabad-Lubavitch. It was an age of great social and political upheaval following the Russian Revolution of 1917. The victorious anti-religious Bolsheviks were intent on uprooting and suppressing all religious life in the new Bolshevist Russia.
Following the takeover of Russia by the Communists, they created a special "Jewish affairs section" run by Jews known as the Yevsektsiya, which instigated anti-religious activities meant to strip orthodox Jews of their religious way of life. As Rebbe of a Russia-based Jewish movement, Schneersohn was vehemently outspoken against the atheistic Communist regime and its goal of forcibly eradicating religion throughout the land. He purposely directed his followers to set up religious schools, going against the dictates of the Marxist-Leninist "dictatorship of the proletariat".
In 1921 he established a branch of Tomchei Temimim in Warsaw. In 1924 he was forced by the Cheka (Russian secret police) to leave Rostov due to the Yevsektsiya's slander, and settled in Leningrad. In this time he labored to strengthen Torah observance through activities involving rabbis, Torah schools for children, yeshivot, shochtim, senior Torah-instructors and the opening of mikva’ot; he established a special committee to help manual workers be able to observe Shabbat. He established Agudas Chasidei Chabad in USA and Canada.
In 1927 he established a number of yeshivot in Bukhara. He was primarily responsible for the maintenance of the now-clandestine Habad yeshiva system, which had ten branches throughout Russia by this time. He was under continual surveillance by agents of the NKVD.
In 1927 he was arrested and imprisoned in the Bolshoy Dom in Leningrad. He was accused of counter-revolutionary activities, and sentenced to death. A world-wide storm of outrage and pressure from Western governments and the International Red Cross forced the communist regime to commute the death sentence and instead on 3 Tammuz it banished him to Kostroma for an original sentence of three years. Yekaterina Peshkova, a prominent Russian human rights activist, helped from inside as well. This was also commuted following political pressure from the outside, and he was finally allowed to leave Russia for Riga in Latvia, where he lived from 1928 until 1929.
Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak's release from Soviet imprisonment is celebrated each year by the Chabad community. After his release, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak then went to visit the Land of Israel where he visited holy gravesites and met with rabbis and community leaders. From there he travelled to the USA, where he was received in the White House by US President Herbert Hoover, who, as Republican presidential candidate had lobbied for his release. Lubavitch followers in America begged their Rebbe to leave Russia and stay in America, but Schneersohn declined, saying that America was an irreligious place where even rabbis shaved off their beards. From 1934 until the early part of the Second World War he lived in Warsaw, Poland.
Following Nazi Germany's attack against Poland in 1939, Rabbi Schneersohn refused to leave Warsaw. The government of the United States of America, which was still neutral, used its diplomatic relations to convince Nazi Germany to rescue Schneersohn from the war zone in German occupied Poland. He remained in the city during the bombardments and its capitulation to Nazi Germany. He gave the full support of his organizations to assist as many Jews as possible to flee the invading armies. With the intercession of the United States Department of State in Washington, DC and with the lobbying of many Jewish leaders on behalf of the Rebbe (and, reputedly, with the help of Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, the head of the Abwehr), he was finally granted diplomatic immunity and given safe passage to go via Berlin to Riga, Latvia (where the Rebbe was a citizen and which was still free) and then on to New York City, where he arrived on 19 March 1940. Major Ernst Bloch, a decorated German army officer of Jewish descent, was put in command of a group which included Sgt. Klaus Schenk, a "half-Jew" and Pvt. Johannes Hamburger, a "quarter-Jew" assigned to locate the Rebbe in the Poland and escort him safely to freedom. They were a few of some 150,000 Jews and people of Jewish descent who were classified as Jewish by the Nazi government, but served in the German armed forces during World War II. They wound up saving not only the Rebbe, but also over a dozen Hasidic Jews in the Rebbe's family or associated with him.
When Schneersohn came to America, two of his chassidim came to him, and said not to start up all the activities in which Lubavitch had engaged in Europe, because "America is different." To avoid disappointment, they advised him not even to try. Schneersohn wrote, "Out of my eyes came boiling tears", and undeterred, the next day he started the first Lubavitcher Yeshiva in America, declaring that "America is no different." In 1949, he became a U.S. citizen, with his son-in-law Menachem Mendel assisting to coordinate the event. A special dispensation was arranged wherein the federal judge came to "770" to officiate at Rabbi Yoseph Yitzchak's citizenship proceedings, rather than the Rebbe travel to a courthouse for the proceedings. Uniquely, the event was recorded on color motion film.
During the last decade of Schneersohn's life, from 1940 to 1950, he settled in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn in New York City. Schneersohn was already physically weak and ill from his suffering at the hands of the Communists and the Nazis, but he had a strong vision of rebuilding Orthodox Judaism in America and he wanted his movement to spearhead it. In order to do so he went on a building campaign to establish religious Jewish day schools and yeshivas for boys and girls, women and men. He established printing houses for the voluminous writings and publications of his movement, and started the process of spreading Jewish observance to the Jewish masses worldwide.
He began to teach publicly, and many came to seek out his teachings. He began gathering and sending out a small number of his newly trained rabbis to other cities – a trend later emulated and amplified by his son-in-law and successor Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson.
He died in 1950 and was buried at Montefiore Cemetery in Queens, New York City. He had no sons, and his younger son-in-law, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson ("The Rebbe") succeeded him as Lubavitcher Rebbe, while the older son-in-law, Rabbi Shemaryahu Gurary continued to run the Chabad Yeshiva network Tomchei Temimim.
After Schneersohn's passing, his gravesite, known as "the Ohel," became a central point of focus for his successor, who would visit it regularly for many hours of prayer, meditation, and supplication for Jews all over the world. After his successor's passing and burial next to his father-in-law, philanthropist Joseph Gutnick of Melbourne, Australia, established the Ohel Chabad-Lubavitch Center on Francis Lewis Boulevard in Queens, which is located adjacent to the joint gravesite.