Lost & Found
The Rebbe and the Professor
Professor Salo Wittmayer Baron (1895–1989) was born in Tarnów (then Galicia, now Poland) and moved to Vienna, where he earned doctorates in philosophy, political science, and law from the University of Vienna and was ordained as a rabbi at the Jewish Theological Seminary there. After a short tenure at the Jewish Teachers College in Vienna, he was invited to join the faculty of the Jewish Institute of Religion in New York in 1927. In 1929, Baron was hired by Columbia University, where he became the first scholar to hold a chair in Jewish history at an American university. His A Social and Religious History of the Jews, which began as a series of lectures, was a landmark study of Jewish life and culture from ancient times through 1650. In its 18 volumes he sought to overturn what he famously called the “lachrymose” conception of Jewish history that focused on Jewish suffering rather than an integrated vision of social, religious, and economic history.
In 1936, Baron and the philosopher Morris Raphael Cohen founded the Conference on Jewish Relations in response to the rise of Nazism and the alarming rise of anti-Semitism in the United States. The Commission on European Jewish Cultural Reconstruction, founded in 1944, was one of the outgrowths of the conference. The commission was first conceived as an attempt to prepare for rebuilding Jewish life in Europe after World War II, but it came to focus on salvaging books, historical documents, manuscripts, and other cultural treasures and then distributing them to Jewish communities around the world. The commission sought the assistance of a wide range of prominent scholars, historians, and academics, as well as Jewish communal leaders and rabbis.
One of the leaders to whom the Commission on European Jewish Cultural Reconstruction turned was Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn (1880–1950), the sixth leader of the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic community. Schneersohn had fought tirelessly in support of Jewish religious life under the tsarist and Soviet governments. Efforts to ensure Jewish religious education, often clandestine, occupied a special place in Schneersohn’s project. He had visited the United States briefly in 1929 and returned after a remarkable escape from the eastern front in March of 1940, settling in Brooklyn. When advised that the old-world patterns of life and piety would not take hold in the foreign soil of America, he reportedly proclaimed, “Amerika iz nisht anderish!” (America is no different!). In the immediate postwar years, he established a national network of Jewish schools and yeshivot for men and women, as well as special “released time” classes for public school students. His charismatic successor and son-in-law, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902–1994), continued many of these efforts and transformed Chabad-Lubavitch from a relatively small community into a large international organization.