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Thursday, June 28, 2012
Reviving, Restoring a Jewish Movement


An unusual and rare archive has awakened in Central Brooklyn.

After more than 70 years of documenting, organizing and storing events on radio and film, Jewish Educational Media (JEM), the multimedia arm of the Chabad-Lubavitch community, on June 17th unveiled “The Living Archive Project,” a first-time look back on the life of Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson and his role in leading what has become one of the most significant Hasidic movements in modern Jewish History.

“It’s the first time in Jewish history that the lifetime of a Jewish leader has been recorded in audio and video photography,” said Rabbi Elkanah Shmotkin, JEM’s executive director. “These technologies are only a few decades old. So this is the first time that in world history something like this has taken place.”

It all began in 1941, when Jewish leader Yosef Yitzchok Schneersohn fled the war-torn Europe and settled in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, where he established a synagogue, known today as “770” (for 770 Eastern Parkway).

When his son-in-law, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, took over in 1950, he turned the settlement into a powerful force within Judaism, the Chabad-Lubavich Movement — the largest organization of Jews in the world today, with more than 4,000 Chabad institutions worldwide in 72 countries.

Menachem Schneerson was a highly revered Rebbe (the Yiddish term for Rabbi and often used by Hasidim to refer to the leader of a Hasidic movement), and unlike most Rebbes of that time, Menachem Schneerson did not shun modernity, but instead sought to unite the world with the teachings of Judaism.

Up until his passing in 1994, Menachem Schneerson also taught that modern technology did not contradict spirituality and so, from the very beginning, he strongly encouraged his followers to utilized radio, television, satellite feeds, and later, the Internet to spread its message.

Jewish Educational Media was one of the first private organizations to use satellite technology by broadcasting the Farbrengen (the Yiddish term for public gathering). And from 1975 to 1992, a brilliant photographer named Yossi Melamed followed the Lubavitcher Rebbe, capturing on film the ceremonial, celebratory and also routine moments of Chabad life and also Jewish life in general across the country.

As often the only photographer present during that time, Melamed’s work reproduces natural and candid moments of peace, reverence, angst and joy on film in a way that transports its viewers in an instant. Whether you were a part of the Chabad Movement during that time or even was unaware it existed, Melamed’s images re-animate history, stirring the past immediately into a vivid present.

Yossi Melamed passed away six weeks ago. The Living Archive Project now owns 150,000 of Melamed’s photos of national Jewish life, which it has restored and uploaded. More than 25,000 of those photos are now digital record, along with video, audio and other media properties chronicling the Chabad movement in the U.S.

An exhibit of Melamed’s work — 150 restored photos — is on display now until Sunday July 1, at 349 Albany Avenue between Union Street and Eastern Parkway.

The photos were taken from 1974 through 1992 and focus primarily on the events that happened around Schneerson and 770. The collection of 30,000 photos also is available for examination at two kiosk stations at the gallery where visitors can look up events, perhaps find their younger selves and tag their names for future archive.

“The written word and spoken word is one way we take in information. But the visual images are another way to help people learn, inspire and connect,” said Rabbi Shmotkin. “The community has grown exponentially since then. But it’s really pretty remarkable, because a lot of parents and grandparents come in here with their children and can now point to themselves and explain to them what this all means."

“My memories are very vague from back then, because I was very young,” said Yanky Ascher, head of photo restoration and gallery design.

“But as I was working on it, I felt a responsibility for keeping it authentic to the original, restoring it, but not altering the photograph too much. Also, something that’s unique about this photographer, as opposed to the others we have in our collection is that he really got around; he got a lot of different interesting angles,” said Ascher.

“So when you look through the variety of his collection, it’s pretty good.”

Rabbi Shmotkin pointed out that the scanning and restoring part of the exhibit was a huge job — four to five people worked on the exhibit for six weeks to figure out the dates, and then had to scan and catalogue it all.

“The exhibit is only up for two weeks because it’s the first time we’ve ever done anything like this. We’re going to see where this goes. God willing, if people are interested, we can re-open it and expand it,” he said.


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