Rebbetzin Shterna Sarah: A Pillar In the Chaos of Golus

Wife of the Rebbe Rashab and mother of the Frierdiker Rebbe, Rebbetzin Shterna Sarah was active in the growth of Tomchei Temimim and the move of Chabad from Lubavitch – through many exiles – to New York.

By Nochie Wolf
From Anash Magazine – published by

Until Marriage 

In 5625, a historical shidduch was made in the home of the Tzemach Tzedek. Reb Yosef Yitzchok, the Tzemach Tzedek’s son, was visiting Lubavitch, and his daughter, Shterna Sarah, was wandering around her grandparent’s home. When the Tzemach Tzedek noticed her together with her younger cousin Sholom Dovber, he announced, “Chosson and Kallah[1].”

Recognizing the significance of their father’s words, Reb Yosef Yitzchok and his brother, the Rebbe Maharash, drafted the engagement agreement[2]. Since they were just children, Shterna Sarah was five years old, and the Rebbe Rashab was just four, the wedding was scheduled for the summer of 5635. The wedding’s location was to be in Yerushalayim.

Shterna Sarah’s father, Reb Yosef Yitzchok, had moved to Ovrutch upon the request of his father-in-law Reb Yaakov Yisroel of Cherkas, a Rebbe of the Chernobyler dynasty. This decision was not simple as the Tzemach Tzedek opposed the proposition and strongly petitioned his son to remain in Lubavitch. 

Ultimately, Reb Yosef Yitzchok heeded his father-in-law’s request to become the Rebbe of the Cherkasser chassidim in Ovrutch and he led his court in the style of the Chernobyl Chassidus. He said short Torahs and was renowned as a miracle worker. Later, following Reb Yosef Yitzchok’s son’s passing, the Cherkasser Chassidim dispersed between the various Chernobyl factions.

The cemetery in Avrutsch where Reb Yosef Yitzchak was buried

Shortly after the shidduch was made, the Tzemach Tzedek was nistalek. Also, as 5635 neared and Moshiach had not yet arrived, a new wedding location had to be arranged. Debate ensued because each side wanted the wedding to be in their city of residence.

After much back and forth, Ovrutch was chosen as the wedding’s location. Nevertheless, the Rebbe Maharash would not attend due to his poor health and inability to travel. Many colorful and dramatic events transpired in the events leading up to the wedding and the celebration itself, and perhaps we will dedicate a column to this event in the future.


Immediately after Sheva Brochos, the newly married couple moved to Lubavitch. It was not an easy transition for the young Shterna Sarah, and she grappled with feelings of loneliness and sadness being so far from family and the familiar conditions she was accustomed to.

She once told over that one of the shocks of moving was the height of the girls in Lubavitch. In Ovrutch, she had been of regular height, but now she felt insecure about her smaller-than-average height. Noticing this, the Rebbe Maharash comforted her and told her not to fear because “The small trees produce the best fruits[3].”

Adding to her distress, Rebbetzin Shterna Sarah tragically struggled with fertility issues. In a visit to Moscow many years later, she related her recollections of those years in conversation with Reb Zelke Parzitz.

“After a few years of marriage passed, I had not yet given birth, and I became despondent. There had been something [fertility issue] before the Rebbe Rayatz was born (and that is why it is doubtful he is a bechor). Additionally, I was a young girl far away from home!

Once, during the Kiddush on Simchas Torah, they made a Mi Shebeirach for all the women, but they forgot about me. I was really hurt, even though they immediately realized their oversight and made a separate Mi Shebeirach for me- that was just a quick fix.

When all the men left to fabreng by Reb Shilem Reich’s home, I went to my room. I reflected on my situation: my infertility, my loneliness, and being overlooked by the Mi Shebeirach. Collectively, this pressed my heart, and I broke out in tears and fell asleep[4].”

In her dream, the Rebbetzin continued, a man appeared to her and promised her a child if she agreed to give eighteen rubles to Tzedkaka and not inform anyone of the dream. After she agreed, he returned with two additional men who approved the arrangement.

When Shterna Sarah woke up, she shared her dream with her husband, who relayed it to the Rebbe Maharash. He told them that the Alter Rebbe, Mittler Rebbe, and the Tzemach Tzedek were the men who had promised her a child. Immediately following Yom Tov, Rebbetzin Shterna Sarah sold an expensive piece of clothing she owned and gathered the necessary eighteen rubles to donate to Tzedakah. Just short of nine months later, the Frierdiker Rebbe was born. 

Another interesting aspect of Rebbetzin Shterna Sarah’s time in the chotzer of Lubavitch was the role she played in copywriting Chassidus. When the Rebbe Maharash would take walks and leave his home, Chassidim would sneak in to copy from the Chassidus manuscripts he kept there. Shterna Sarah, who wrote quickly and had a beautiful script, was one of the leading scribes.


The Frierdiker Rebbe related numerous stories that highlight his mother’s great sensitivity. Interestingly, many of the stories regarding his childhood tell of how the Rebbetzins’s softness often conflicted with Rebbe Rashab’s more severe parenting approach. 

“Once, as a child, I fell asleep during a Simchas Beis Hashoeva farbrengen,” the Frierdiker Rebbe said, “and my mother came to take me inside. My father refused and said to let me sleep. My mother challenged him ‘Is this what it means “As a father has mercy on his child?” A father, not a mother, is said to be merciful!’

My father persisted and replied, ‘This [keeping him in the Sukkah] is to be merciful.’ ‘But it is cold,’ my mother responded, ‘and he too will become cold.’ ‘Sitting amongst Chassidim will keep him warm,’ my father concluded, ‘and this warmth will last for generations[5]!” 

“On another occasion, my mother had given me breakfast, and when my father entered the room, he asked whether I had said Modeh Ani. In response to his question, I burst out crying. ‘The young boy was hungry,’ my mother answered, ‘so I gave him milk and cake.’ ‘But did he make a brocho on the food before reciting Modeh Ani?’ my father questioned. ‘The child,’ my mother replied, ‘is trembling from fear!’

‘When one eats before Modeh Ani, it is okay to be afraid,’ my father responded. And without taking note of my tears, he took me to his office and questioned me, ‘How could you possibly have eaten before Modeh Ani and without a Brocho?”

By a farbrengen, the Rebbe shared an account of Rebbetzin Shterna Sarah’s immense generosity, “Sometimes, the financial situation in the home was so constrained that there was simply no money. If a beggar came and there was not even a single coin to offer, the Rebbetzin would take from the black loaf of bread meant for her own meal and happily give it to the needy individual[6].”

When the Rebbe Rashab opened Tomchei Tmimim, Rebbetzin Shterna Sarah played a leading role in ensuring the bochurim’s physical well-being. When the Yeshivah’s finances were tight, and the need for funds to support the Yeshivah grew, Rebbetzin Shterna Sarah formed a women’s committee called the “Damen Frauen” [trans: Women’s Committee]. At the time, founding an organization for women was a radical novelty.

A letter from Rebbetzin Shterna Sara appealing for
donations for the Ladies Auxiliary

This committee collected annual donations exclusively from women and was extremely successful. Reb Yisroel Jacobson describes how, in 5668, his father could no longer support him financially, and he was compelled into “Yeshivah Golus.” He writes how the ‘Rebbetzin’s Kitchen’ would provide a daily portion of bread and one “cooked dish with some meat” for those who needed a meal[7].

Many years later, when Reb Yisroel was on a trip to Poland (he had by then been sent to the US), he was invited by the Rebbetzin to eat at her home. He related, “During the meal, the Rebbetzin commented, ‘I’m not sure how you will like my food since American food is probably very different.’ I replied, ‘Rebbetzin, I remember your food from Lubavitch. I used to eat your soup!’ In turn, the Rebbetzin responded ‘I am not embarrassed to say that it was a very beneficial service[8]!'”

The Rebbetzin’s life coincided with the most turbulent years of Lubavitch’s history. Through all the chaos of the exiles and suffering, her unwavering commitment to her husband, the Rebbe Rashab, and the Chassidim was legendary.

In response to a doctor’s diagnosis that he only had a few months to live, the Rebbe Rashab decided to travel to Eretz Yisroel and informed Rebbetzin Shterna Sarah of his plans. Demonstrating her determined resolve, she immediately countered this proposal and demanded, “But who will take care of Chassidim!?” The Rebbe Rashab responded that the Frierdiker Rebbe could be responsible. But her instinctive defense of the Chassidim embodies the values that Rebbetzin Shterna Sarah stood for.

In Exile

Following the histalkus of the Rebbe Rashab, Rebbetzin Shterna Sarah consistently remained in the presence of her son, the Frierdiker Rebbe. She was influential in supporting his underground activities and was an active influence in the traveling ‘chotzer.’

By Rosh Hashanah 5680, the Frierdiker Rebbe had not entirely accepted the Nesius and was hesitant to accept the role of Ba’al Tokeah. Realizing the needs of the Chassidim, Rebbetzin Shetrna Sarah requested that, for her sake, he blow the Shofar. The Frierdiker Rebbe relented and accepted the role, though he only blew the first Tekiah[9].

In the Frierdiker Rebbe’s account of his arrest, he writes about his mother’s reaction: “She protested loudly and in a terrified voice ‘Will you cruelly subject even the pure and those who toil for the good of others like my son? No!’ she cried bitterly as she pleaded to the leading officer, ‘Take me, do not disturb my only son who only seeks to assist others in their troubles. Oy, my husband, they are taking our son Yosef Yitzchok, your only son, who guards the mitzvos with self-sacrifice…” The Frierdiker Rebbe remarks that only her maternal outburst brought forth a spark of humanity in the callous GPU officers.

Another profoundly emotional account of her pain due to her son’s suffering is told over by a chossid who came to visit the Rebbe’s homes a few days following his arrest. “It was three hours past midnight, and I saw the Rebbe’s mother standing by the Aron Kodesh. Her body was bent over, her head placed on the Aron, and she was crying bitterly. ‘Master of the World, was it not for your Torah and your Avodah that my son has been imprisoned? Help me G-D of our Salvation and save him from the enemies.’ I tried to console her and calm her spirits, but because of her great devastation, she could not hear my words.”

Also later on, as the frightful German siege and bombardment of Warsaw reached its climax on Rosh Hashanah night, Rebbetzin Shterna Sarah continued to exemplify the qualities of faithfulness and strength. She repeatedly requested to be brought to her son, where she was certain it would be safe. Amidst another intense round of heavy bombing, the Rebbetzin refused to leave the house she was in, to the dismay of others, since there was a sefer Torah in the house[10].


Together with the Friediker Rebbe, Rebbetzin Shternah Sarah arrived in America in 5700. Already then, her health was a concern; she had undergone a significant abdominal surgery in Warsaw, and her time in America was dotted with continued medical supervision.

On Sunday, the seventh of Shevat 5702, the Friediker Rebbe embarked on a trip to strengthen Yiddishkeit amongst the Jews of Chicago. On Shabbos, the thirteenth of Shevat, Rebbetzin Shterna Sarah returned her soul to her Maker while he was still away.

Her histalkus took place as she reached the tefillah of Nishmas; her siddur was still in her hands. Later, the Frierdiker Rebbe related that years earlier, he described to his father the nature of Rebbetzin Rivkah’s histalkus– since the Rebbe Rashab was also not present by his mother’s passing- and that it occurred immediately after her davening. Rebbetzin Shterna Sarah was present and commented, “If only I could merit such a petirah too[11].”

However, the Friediker Rebbe did not immediately return to New York. The Chassidim of Chicago petitioned that he remain to accept Yechidus that night. The Frierdiker Rebbe responded with a heartfelt and profound admission, “From the day my father was nistalek, my sense of ‘I’ was taken from me. I cannot do what I want and only what needs to be done. So I will heed the instructions of the Rabbonim.”

He ultimately remained in Chicago until Monday, the funeral being held only when he returned. During the intermediate days, the Rebbe and Reb Shlomo Aharon Kazarnovsky were tasked with acquiring a burial spot for the Rebbetzin. Chabad then owned a plot in the Staten Island cemetery. Still, because of its inaccessibility and the Friediker Rebbe’s health, it was decided to buy a portion in the Montefiore cemetery.

Rabbi Kazarnovsky was intimately involved in many aspects of the kevurah arrangements and took part in the Taharah process too. At the levaya, the Rebbe handed him an envelope to place in Rebbetzin Shterna Sarah’s hand. The Frierdiker Rebbe subsequently said, “If you would know what was in the envelope, you’d have an entirely different derech eretz for her.”

Ultimately, the Frierdiker Rebbe never traveled to his mother’s tziyon, but he would send panim to be read there[12]. In the earlier years of the Rebbe’s nesius, the Rebbe would stop by Rebbetzin Shterna Sarah’s tziyon when departing the Ohel[13].


In a remarkable sicha on Rebbetzin Shterna Sarah’s yahrtzeit, the Rebbe connected her unyielding dedication to the Zohar’s description of Sarah Imeinu that “Only she ‘descended [to Mitzrayim] and ascended’ [i.e. remained unaffected].” The Rebbe explained that all the Matriarchs would have succeeded in maintaining their holiness if presented with those challenges. But only Sarah, who experienced them practically, truly embodied this virtue.

“Similarly, Rebbetzin Shterna Sarah,” the Rebbe continued, “who underwent many exiles, maintained her eminence and her spiritual wholeness. She, just like Sarah Imeinu, exemplified the virtue of having ‘descended [to Mitzrayim] and ascended [i.e. remained unaffected[14]].'”

This article first appeared in Anash Magazine – published by


[1] עטרת מלכה ע’ 103. וכן כל הסיפורים שלא ציינו מקור להם נמצא בספר עטרת מלכה.


[3] לשמע אזן ע’ פט

[4] שמועות וסיפורים ח״א ע’ 90 

[5] שיחת ליל ב׳ דסוכות תש״ז.

[6] התוועדות י”א בשבט תשכ”ד

[7] זכרון לבני ישראל ע’ טו

[8] זכרון לבני ישראל ע’ רד

[9]  רשימות דברים ח”ב ע’ קלה

[10] יומן דרב יוסף ווינבערג. חלק ממנה נדפס ב”א חסידישע דערהער” גל’ 156

[11] זכרון לבני ישראל ע’ מד

[12]  ספר השיחות – תש”י ע’ 343

[13]  התקשרות גליון 572

[14] תו”מ ח”ד ע’ 320


In keeping in line with the Rabbonim's policies for websites, we do not allow comments. However, our Rabbonim have approved of including input on articles of substance (Torah, history, memories etc.)

We appreciate your feedback. If you have any additional information to contribute to this article, it will be added below.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

advertise package