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The Rebbe, 10 Years Later

The Lubavitcher rebbe’s 10th yahrtzeit next week (3rd of Tammuz, June 21-22) is a reminder of how much can be accomplished through the power of faith and the vision of one man.

In 1941, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson and his wife, Chaya Moushka, came to the United States, essentially unknown, their European world shattered. In 1950 he became the seventh Lubavitcher rebbe, taking over a movement that was little more than one synagogue in Crown Heights. This “movement” had less money than most shuls in New York, was comprised of mostly Yiddish-speakers without college education, and offered a form of Judaism — chasidic — that was considered by most Jews to be hopelessly anachronistic and contrary to every post-war trend in Judaism.

With only that, and a defiant imagination, creativity, good cheer and optimism, the rebbe became one of the most riveting and pivotal figures in Jewish memory. The rebbe created a movement with schools, shuls, and friends that can now be found in every time zone on earth, and in most every country. At a time, before outreach was a buzzword, when most every Jewish denomination doubted the viability of doing anything for most diaspora Jews other than evacuating them, when most rabbis thought that Judaism had to liberalize to stay alive, the rebbe, in remarkable contrast, seemed to delight in proving that he could send his people into the most lost and odd corners of the earth — the Congo? Las Vegas? the most radical college campuses? — and establish chasidic life via Chabad Houses that have since become so famous.

As most every Jewish professional will tell you, the rebbe virtually invented outreach, finding brilliant success though a combination of fidelity to Torah and an ever-elastic embrace of whomever Chabad encountered.

In an era when many mainstream rabbis sought a lifetime contract from their congregations, or moved from job to job, the Chabad rabbis, be they in the Ukraine or in Alaska, took it upon themselves to make a lifetime commitment to the communities they served, never sending out resumes, never abandoning communities whose situations seemed less than chic or profitable. We don’t presume to judge those rabbis of other denominations who do move on, but it was the lifetime commitment of the rebbe’s emissaries — to fix and solve, to never abandon, to share the fate — that contributed so much to Chabad’s credibility and success.

Ten years after his death, it’s time for the rest of us to focus less on the messianist camp, whose influence is decreasing, and more on the remarkable accomplishments of the movement, which continues to thrive, and its late leader, who left no successor. The lasting messianic quality of the rebbe was that he helped ingather the exiles and revive dead communities.

Imagine being a rabbi of a shul, a Jewish leader of an organization for 50 years, and after all that time, so many people think you’re the messiah. Without wishing for any false messianism, there’s a part of us that wonders how much better our world would be if only we had more leaders who could inspire such speculation.


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