Lubavitch and Crown Heights recently suffered a grievous loss with the passing of Rabbi Aharon Yaakov Schwei, a veteran member of the neighborhood’s official beis din.
His father, Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu Schwei, a descendant of Rashi, studied at the original Tomchei T’mimim yeshiva in Lubavitch before returning to his hometown, Dvinsk (Denenburg, now Daugavpils), Latvia, where he completed his rabbinic training under the city’s rav, the renowned Rogatchover Gaon, who gave him semicha.
His mother, Rebbetzin Bunya, descended from chassidim of the Baal HaTanya. The Rebbe Rayatz sent them on shlichus, his father serving as a rav, first in Finland and later in Estonia.
The youngest of their four children, Aharon Yaakov, was born in 1934 in Finland. He remembered the Soviet occupation of Estonia in 1940 and the Nazi invasion in 1941. When the Soviets demanded that every family send someone to dig trenches for two weeks to block Nazi tanks, his mother insisted on going instead of her husband, arguing that if he never returned, who would teach their children Torah?
The family fled on the last train out, embarking on a long trip to Central Asia. German airplanes strafed the train, and they survived only by miracles, said Rabbi Schwei in recalling the fright all his life. They hoped to alight in Tashkent and Samarkand, where many Jews had taken refuge, but they were not permitted to do so because those cities were already too crowded.
They proceeded to Bukhara, where his father and older sister passed away. His mother begged the renowned Tchebiner Rav, who had also reached Bukhara, to teach her sons Torah. Initially, he refused but eventually agreed to teach her oldest. Later, she heard Chabad Chassidim had established an underground yeshiva in Samarkand and managed to send all three sons there – separately, to avoid police suspicion.
Aharon Yaakov was just nine, but their mother could not join them until two years later. Her mesiras nefesh for their Torah education was amply rewarded as all three grew up to be chassidic Torah scholars, two of them becoming prominent rabbanim.
In 1946, they succeeded in leaving the USSR with the famous Lubavitcher exodus, using forged Polish passports, and reached the refugee camp of Poking, Germany. There, and later in Paris, the brothers, all three outstanding students, studied in yeshivos organized by Lubavitch refugees. Later the family immigrated to Montreal, Canada, where the boys studied at the Lubavitcher yeshiva.
Rabbi Aharon Yaakov became a successful teacher at the Montreal yeshiva, and later, for several decades, taught senior students advanced Talmud at the Lubavitcher yeshiva in Brooklyn. Recognized for his high personal piety and his wide erudition in Chabad Chassidus, he also served as mashpia – spiritual guide and lecturer in Chassidus – to the students.
He was deeply loved by his pupils for his sincerity and devotion to their academic, spiritual, and personal welfare, and was highly respected in the entire Chabad community. He was also an accomplished artist and had a beautiful Hebrew writing style.
In 1987, the Rebbe formed an official beis din in Crown Heights, with the community electing all three rabbanim. After its most prominent rav passed away, elections were held in 2003 for a successor, and Rabbi Schwei received 90 percent of the votes cast, reflecting his widespread respect and popularity.
As rav, Rabbi Schwei worked with many scholarly Kollel yungerleit to train them in rabbinics, showing them how to apply their halachic knowledge to practical shaalos and consider a case’s many facets before issuing a ruling. Particularly striking was his personal humility; he readily deferred to other rabbanim when he felt their experience or expertise in any halachic area was greater than his own.
Many community members came to him to resolve personal differences. They didn’t want a din Torah, which can create further tensions. Rather, they simply wished to hear from a caring neutral authority how to satisfy both their viewpoints. The same was true of couples with shalom bayis problems; both husband and wife were confident that Rabbi Schwei, with his deep empathy and understanding, could feel the concerns of both and find the right solution.
In many ways, Rabbi Schwei exemplified what a chassidic rav should be. Besides his scholarship, his prayers were quiet and attentive; he was deep in thought in the Chabad tradition. He was devoted to the Rebbe and to his every directive. He lived constantly with the Rebbe’s teachings, communicating them and bringing them alive to his students and later to his community members. He was committed to the truth in all his ways, yet tolerant of others, seeking to reveal their innate better qualities.
Rabbi Schwei was deservedly well-loved and will be sorely missed. His passing leaves a gaping vacuum. May his memory be blessed.