Emissary of the Rebbe to Paris since 1968, Rabbi Shmuel Azimov who passed away Wednesday, November 5, 2014, was credited by many of France’s Jews for the sweeping change that has turned Paris and its surrounding areas—once a Jewish wasteland—into the vibrant Jewish hub it is today. Over the years, people have flocked to him, seeking his mentorship, guidance, and friendship.
With his deep-rooted Chabad Chasidic world-view and a profoundly compassionate concern for others, “Muleh” (short for Shmuel), a household name in France’s Jewish circles, negotiated every aspect of Jewish communal life, working cooperatively and effectively with all of the city’s Jewish organizations and municipal authorities.
Together with his wife, the late Bassie Azimov, he opened Paris’s first Chabad House in 1972. Under his leadership, Chabad centers have since opened in every district of Paris and its suburbs, most recently in the Champs Elysees.
With forty centers and some 170 Shluchim in Paris, a day school bursting at the seams with 2000 students, and a monthly budget of about $2 million, Rabbi Azimov has built a remarkably successful Jewish infrastructure. In 2012, Baila Olidort, editor of Lubavitch International met with Rabbi Azimov in his home in Paris.
Rabbi Azimov shuffles slowly into the dining room of his Paris apartment, where I wait to meet him. The 67 year-old rabbi suffered a stroke 13 years ago, leaving his speech and movement impaired, but he graciously agrees to talk with me.
A warm, lively vibe fills the high-ceilinged, ample rooms, cheerfully cluttered with family photos. The apartment appears well-lived-in. Children and grandchildren come and go. During our meeting, Rabbi Azimov’s son and several of his granddaughters poke their heads in to ask him a question. A young man comes in asking for help. Rabbi Azimov responds affably, attentively, with concern and patience for details.
We talk for several hours, the conversation punctuated by his gentle humor and soft laughter. I remind myself that this is a man still in mourning. After 45 years, his wife and partner in life, Bassie, passed away quite suddenly six months earlier. Together, they raised a family and a phenomenon. Today, the Azimovs are credited by many of France’s Jews for the sweeping change that has turned the city—once a Jewish wasteland—into the vibrant Jewish hub it has become. I come prepared to hear Rabbi Azimov discuss his early struggles, the great aspirations, the vision and the strategy that he and his wife nursed as they set out on their lifelong mission as Chabad shluchim.
But this dyed-in-the-wool Lubavitcher Chasid is altogether understated about his prodigious success. I press on. Surely he and his wife devised a plan, nurtured a dream, conceived a schema that would help explain his considerable following and the dramatic success of his shlichut.
Not really. He and his wife, he tells me artlessly, were teachers.
They taught one child, one teenager, one adult at a time. They taught groups, they taught college students, they started a school. Between the two, hundreds, and eventually thousands of Jews would study Torah. The Azimovs filled their days and their evenings teaching. “Muleh” made his rounds at all major and local universities in Paris, seeking out Jewish students who agreed to join a weekly class. His wife reached out to local families, teaching the women, their daughters, and college girls, preparing them to marry and live as Jews. Nothing more elaborate, nothing more grandiose or glamorous than finding Jewish people who would accept the invitation to study Torah.
Slowly but surely their students took an interest in practicing Jewish observance. And then they became Chabad shluchim. Jewish communities blossomed. Success begat success. Today, Beit Chaya Mushka, the Chabad Jewish school in Paris—a $22 million building when it was built 20 years ago— founded by Mrs. Azimov and her husband, counts two thousand students from preschool through high school.
Shmuel Azimov was born in Russia, in 1945. He was three years old when his family fled communism and arrived in Paris. For most Chabad Jews escaping communism, France was a point in transit—either to Palestine or North America. The Azimovs were among the few Chabad families who remained. With very few Jews in Paris at the time, and most of them Holocaust survivors not interested in becoming involved, it was a city devoid of any real Jewish activity.
Young Azimov got his early grooming as a teacher from his father who went door to door searching for Jewish parents who would allow their children some Jewish education. Chaim Hillel Azimov founded 20 Talmud Torahs in Paris and its surrounding areas.
When he was old enough, Muleh went to the Chabad boys yeshiva founded in Brunoy, a suburb of Paris, in 1947, by Rabbi Joseph I. Schneersohn, the predecessor of the Rebbe. In 1963, then a teenager, he made his first transatlantic trip to see the Rebbe, traveling by charter flight from London.
“I was one of three Chabad boys from Paris who dormed in the yeshiva. After returning from my first visit to the Rebbe, the three of us were instructed to start our activities as shluchim in Paris while continuing our studies in the yeshiva in Brunoy. So every Shabbos, we would return to Paris. There were many children of Holocaust survivors who assimilated. But we reached some, we began to learn with them, to teach them, and eventually, they joined us at the yeshiva in Brunoy.”
The three boys kept up a regular correspondence with the Rebbe, informing him of their activities. The Rebbe wrote back with instructions which the boys followed carefully. (The letters were evenly divided among them. Rabbi Azimov retained seven letters.) At some point, his two friends continued their rabbinical studies in New York. So when he came next to see the Rebbe in 1965, Muleh asked the Rebbe if he too, should remain in New York.
“My meeting with the Rebbe (yechidut) was at 6 a.m. The Rebbe told me to return to Paris, and he blessed me with “great success.” He then said to me. ‘Do you know what ‘great success’ is?’
“It is success beyond your expectations,” the Rebbe said.
There are many ways to measure success, and by all accounts, the numbers of Jews that Chabad in Paris, through its centers in every district and outlying suburbs has reached, and the opportunities for Jewish engagement offered by Chabad that the city’s Jewish population enjoys today—it is arguably, “success beyond expectations.” More interesting yet, is the organic nature of Rabbi Azimov’s success. Almost all of the 170 shluchim serving in Chabad centers in Paris were his and his wife’s students. It is a dynamic that reflects a highly functional family, or an exemplary classroom.
As per the guidance he received from the Rebbe, Rabbi Azimov makes a point of knowing the character of the individual in his employ. “If I know them, I have a sense of how each of them can put their strengths to work. It helps to know what each one wants to achieve from his shlichut. It helps to know what responsibilities are suitable for each one.” And when something doesn’t work out, the teacher in him gently steers them into another position that they are better suited for. “There’s enough work here for everybody, so that if someone isn’t doing well in one area, they adjust to something else.”
That too, seemed to be part of the Rebbe’s foresight. When once asked by the Rebbe whether he plans to expand his activities, Rabbi Azimov said, “If the Rebbe will send shluchim, we will expand.” But the Rebbe had something else in mind. “I will not send shluchim,” he said. Instead, he told Azimov, there are young people in France who have become involved in Judaism. “Teach them and they will become shluchim.”
In the 1960s, France’s Jewish population grew rapidly with influx of Jews from Algiers, Tunis and Morocco. After his marriage in to Bassie Shemtov in New York, the couple returned to Paris, arriving on the eve of the May 1968 student protests, inspiring a grassroots transformation of their own. The young couple continued to receive the Rebbe’s guidance. Rabbi Azimov and his wife should teach as much as possible. The Rebbe specifically instructed Azimov to dedicate half a day of every day to teaching in a formal school.
“I became a teacher in the Lubavitch school for boys, and eventually the one for girls as well. Additionally, I began to give Torah study classes at all the different universities in Paris—not as part of any formal university curriculum, but for Jewish students who were interested. At the same time, my wife taught classes to the women and girls.”
What did he teach, I ask him?
“I taught Torah. I taught the mitzvahs. I taught about the importance of traveling to see the Rebbe. What is good for me, I must share with others. If I am a Chasid, I must offer my student the same opportunity, the same experience of yiddishkeit that I want for myself.”
Rabbi Azimov traveled regularly to see the Rebbe. At a Chasidic farbrengen on Simchat Torah in 1973, the Rebbe called for “a revolution in France against the evil inclination.” At that memorable farbrengen, the Rebbe surprised the audience when he led in the singing of Le Marseillaise to the words of ha-aderet v’ha-emunah, from the Siddur. It was thus that the French national anthem, popular today among Chabad Chasidim, was appropriated, as it were, by Chabad, becoming a popular Chasidic niggun.
I ask Rabbi Azimov what he did to make the “revolution” that the Rebbe mentioned. “We continued to teach Torah. Granted, not everyone is a scholar. But everyone was receptive on some level.” Soon the Azimovs’ classes began to draw large crowds.
If good teaching is a factor in shaping the life choices of students, the Azimovs were remarkable teachers. And if teaching by example is an ideal, Reb Muleh and his wife were consummate teachers. When a certain standard of kosher dairy that Rabbi and Mrs. Azimov used and which they taught their students was necessary in the observance of kosher—even for babies, was not available to Jewish families in outlying areas of Paris, Rabbi Azimov himself traveled by train to deliver the dairy products to these families.
Eventually, kosher food became available. Young Jewish couples choosing to adopt observant lifestyles needed a Jewish infrastructure. Jewish communities began to sprout around Chabad centers that opened in every one of Paris’s 20 districts, and in Montparnasse, in Orteaux, in Place des Fetes, in Flandre, and in numerous suburbs of Paris. Kosher restaurants opened—today there are about 130 kosher eateries in Paris.
As well, Rabbi Azimov’s budget began to grow. Today, he raises $2 million a month. How does he sustain this consistently, especially in this economy, I ask?
“We are fortunate that we have many supporters.” Jews all over France, even those who are not formally affiliated had their entry to Judaism through Chabad, and they continue to be grateful, especially for the impact that the Reb Muleh and his wife have had on Jewish life in France. Many choose to support his activities, and Azimov appreciates the broad base of small donors. “It is better to have many people who want to participate in your work, rather than a few major players,” he says.
Martine Uzan is principal of the 500-strong Beit Chaya Mouchka preschool. Herself the product of Parisian public schools, she met the Azimovs as a young woman. Her husband was a university student when he met Muleh. Slowly but surely, their lives began to shift. The Azimovs’ integrated sense of purpose and identity made the Uzans want to learn from them, she explains. “The relationship they had with people was genuine. They were very focused, and every conversation with them resulted in some practical decision” towards a deeper commitment and identity.”
It is clear that what Martine and the others found in both Muleh and his wife was neither charisma nor any other such alluring affection, but a rare kind of honesty. “Their clarity about what was right, what their purpose was, and the courage they had to do what they felt needed to be done,” explained Uzan, made others want to rise to the opportunity to live more nobly.
Perhaps it is the result of a Chasidic sensibility cultivated over generations that results in a profound self-knowledge. Both Rabbi and Mrs. Azimov could trace their Chabad lineage several generations back. Daughter of the legendary Rabbi Bentzion and Esther Golda Shemtov who met and married in Siberia where they survived four years of punishment under communism for their dedication to Jewish education, Bassie was raised in a deeply entrenched Chasidic home. Her parents were representatives of the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Joseph I. Schneersohn to London, where she grew up.
A FATHER FIGURE
As is true of most Chabad centers around the world, Azimov guides Shluchim in Paris to achieve financial independence. But the paternal sentiments in him cushion the process, making it easier for them to find their footing. “I don’t think it is right to put a young emissary to work in difficult circumstances. I don’t want the shluchim to feel that they are lacking.”
Though he was raised in the spirit of mesirut nefesh—“self-sacrifice” or giving up for the greater cause, he does not demand that of others. “It is true that I came from a home where our yiddishkeit demanded mesirut nefesh. But the Rebbe taught us that today we do not need to exercise that kind of personal sacrifice. So I never wanted my children to feel that they are lacking, and I don’t want the shluchim to feel that. Of course, it is good for them to try to achieve financial independence. But they, and their work, should not suffer because they are struggling to meet their budget. I want them to have what they need, and to know that they are not carrying the burden alone.”
After a stroke in 1998, Azimov was forced to slow down, at least physically. Yet he continues to maintain responsibility for his budget, and he continues to teach in school as the Rebbe instructed him to do more than half a century ago. No longer able to lead a class as he once did, he now works with students individually. I ask why he continues given the difficulties.
“I once asked the Rebbe if I may dedicate full time to my administrative activities, but he insisted that I continue to teach half a day in school. He said ‘there are reasons’ that I should be teaching every day. I don’t know what they are, I never asked.”
What, I wonder, is most important to Rabbi Azimov in his role as a teacher?
“To understand where the individual comes from, what their personal, emotional and intellectual inclinations and abilities are, and how to teach them in a way that empowers them to then teach themselves.”
Today, Rabbi Azimov has the benefit of hindsight. He has seen the dots connect. He speaks of the Rebbe’s blessings having been fulfilled, and reflects on the many instances that the Rebbe’s guidance proved his compelling foresight and vision.
“When we sent the Rebbe plans of the school building, he asked: ‘Does this plan include everything?’”
Azimov understood that to mean that enormous as the complex was, it was still not big enough. “So we revised the plans, and miraculously managed to get approval to add another story to the building.” The Rebbe’s remark made it possible for them to squeeze as much usage and capacity out of the building for years before outgrowing it. Today, the school is looking for additional space for the September school year.
As I get ready to leave, Rabbi Azimov says, almost to himself, “Some people believe that the Rebbe’s blessings are a spiritual matter. I have seen that the Rebbe’s blessings are revealed physically, materially.”
He recalls the time he sent the key to the first Chabad House which he opened in Paris, in 1972, to the Rebbe’s secretariat. When he next saw the Rebbe in a private audience, the Rebbe thanked him. And then, Azimov recalls, “the Rebbe blessed me. He said to me: ‘G-d should help that you can say that this space is too small for us.’ And we see that blessing realized again and again. We have since outgrown every center we’ve opened.”
I try to reconcile the vibrant Jewish life I see in the center of Paris, with the reports of growing anti-semitism, which make daily news headlines. It is a problem, says Rabbi Azimov, as it is a problem in many other places. But Jews are not leaving in droves, and with about 500,000 Jews, France still has one of largest Jewish populations in the world. So much to do yet.
Rabbi Azimov the teacher, Rabbi Azimov the Chasid. The two are of a whole. How to be a Chasid, how to live as a Jew; they are of a whole, he insists. Shabbat, kosher, tefillin, Torah study. And faith in the tzaddik—the Rebbe and his teachings. That too, he shows his students, is integral to the life of a Jew.