Season 3, Episode 2
Unsolved Jewish Mysteries: The Schneerson Collection
The Schneerson Collection.
It’s not exactly missing — we know where it is. It’s in Russia, but the Russian government refuses to give it back to Chabad, the Lubavitcher Movement headquartered in Brooklyn that owns the collection. The Collection consists of a library of thousands of books, as well as an archive of tens of thousands of manuscripts, letters, and other texts produced and procured by the leading rabbis of this centuries-old Hasidic movement.
WHY WE CARE
The Lubavitcher line of Hasidic rabbis is one of the most famous and important in Jewish history. Hailing from the tiny town of Lubavitch in what was then the Russian Empire, this group of Jews founded Chabad (also called the Lubavitcher Movement) in 1775. A series of seven rabbis led the movement up through the 1990s. They are deeply respected, learned, influential religious leaders, and so their writings — the Schneerson Collection — are considered sacred by Chabad.
THEORIES ABOUT WHERE IT IS
During World War One the leader of Chabad, Rabbi Shalom Dovber Schneerson, placed the library of books in Moscow for safekeeping. But he died before he was able to retrieve them, and the Bolsheviks who came to power in the Russian Revolution refused to turn them over to his heir, Rabbi Yitzhak Schneerson. The Collection has remained with the Russian government ever since. Russia today insists the Collection is a part of its cultural heritage and cannot be returned to Chabad.
Chabad’s leadership made its way to the United States during World War Two and set up its headquarters in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Unable to get their sacred texts returned they sued Russia in 2004. The United States government took up the class, and ever since the Schneerson Collection has been high on the diplomatic agenda between both countries. Congress has held hearings, judges in both countries have issued rulings and levied fines, and the situation remains static today. Russia currently houses the Collection at the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow, and has made its materials available online
Rabbi Dovber Schneerson was once treated by Sigmund Freud.
The Schneerson Collection includes a text from Venice in 1552, a Torah from 1631, and an illustrated haggadah from Amsterdam that was made in 1712.
Russia and the United States fine each other $50,000 every day over unreturned objects from the Schneerson Collection.
Chabad is one of the most influential and fastest-growing movements with Judaism today. They have centers in more than 100 countries and all 50 states where a Jewish traveler can find assistance for their Jewish needs, included Shabbat meals, overnight stays, required ritual objects, and study.
© Jason Harris 2019
The Rolling Stone magazine article with the picture of the actor Jon Voight posing with leaders of Chabad after congressional hearings regarding the Schneerson Collection. That’s my left arm in the green suit on the far right.
A shelf of books from the Schneerson Collection, currently in Moscow’s Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center. Photo from the museum.