The 20th yahrtzeit of the passing of the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, has been greeted with a flood of retrospective articles in the Anglo-Jewish press, not to mention a flurry of biographies on a rabbinic leader who changed the landscape of Jewish life.
Whether or not one is a Chabad hasid, admirer, or detractor, one cannot help but reflect back on an unusual type of rabbinic leadership that was as daring and audacious in the goals it set out to achieve as it was prescient of what would resonate with the myriad elements in our often divided Jewish community.
The Rebbe was brilliant in many ways, not the least of which was his ability to read the landscape of Jewish life and employ effective ways in which to reach the often cynical and disaffected. He preached a way to tap into the most visceral yearnings of those on the margins of our community. It started often with baby steps, such as symbolic acts of belonging realized in his many “mivtzoim” or mitzva campaigns. A pair of candlesticks given to Jewish women of all ages, and a gentle reminder of the candle lighting time strategically printed on page one of The New York Times. An offer to don a pair of tefillin and recite the Sh’ma prayer, the basic credo of our faith. The opportunity to “bentsch” lulav and etrog in a sukka-mobile. Alongside many other daring efforts, these simple opportunities successfully tugged at the heartstrings of unlikely adherents to the faith, and placed the Rebbe in a league of his own, in the annals of hasidic as well as Jewish history.
Most notable was the building of Chabad Houses across the globe, first on the college campuses of America and, later on, in keeping with his unique read of the biblical verse “ufaratzta yama v’keidma…” (spread out in all directions) to far-flung places, otherwise devoid of a Jewish presence. This vision and his ability to inspire an army of “shlihim” or emissaries to firmly establish themselves in those remote locations, at great personal sacrifice, is a Jewish organizational feat without peer or parallel.
All of this speaks to a Jewish leader who broke away from the predictable and insular ways of other observant Jews and their leaders. His response to a great and aching Jewish need for “belonging,” realized over the second half of the 20th century, served the Jewish world beyond his headquarters in Crown Heights. The foundations he laid garnered the admiration of many and the jealousy or “sacred envy” of other movements, who felt outmatched by his ability “to dream and do.” Entire communities, regions, and even countries are dominated by Chabad. I once counted some 24 Chabad Houses in Orange County, Calif., alone. In some exotic locales, Chabad is the only Jewish game in town. In Russia, Chabad dominates Jewish religious life, not without controversy.
Any honest student of Jewish communal life must stop to reflect and consider this phenomenon and lessons in leadership and community building that can be harvested from it. They include a sense of rugged individualism set against the dry and often ossified norms of the establishment; the use of organic elements in Jewish experiential living; and finally a philosophy of unconditional positive regard for all Jews, absent any bias against background or levels of observance. All movements could learn from this, but especially those in the committed Jewish community who tend to aggregate in large residential clusters. This allows for an inward pull and a landscape of sameness and symmetry. The casualty of this lifestyle, which demands an environment rich in Jewish amenities (sometimes to a fault), is the decline of Jewish life in once thriving smaller communities and an inflated cost to Jewish life, since the larger communities are invariably found in major population centers.
While contemplating this “embarrassment of riches,” we should ask how well and hard we work to include and involve others in what should be our shared Jewish journeys. Twenty years after his passing the Rebbe’s work should force those of us outside of the Chabad world to take note and reconsider the models we have built, and ask how sustainable they are in securing a livable and strong Jewish future.