The 20th yahrzeit of the death of the seventh Lubavitcher rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, z’l, has been greeted with a flurry of publishing of biographies on a rabbinic leader who changed the landscape of Jewish life.
Whether or not you are a Chabad chasid, admirer, or sympathizer, you cannot help but reflect on an unusual type of rabbinic leadership, which was as daring and audacious in the goals it set out to achieve as it was prescient about what would resonate with the myriad elements in our often-divided Jewish community.
The rebbe was brilliant in many ways. Not the least of them was his ability to know how to read the landscape of Jewish life and employ effective ways in which to reach often cynical and disaffected Jews. He appreciated and 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 mitzvah campaigns. A pair of candlesticks given to Jewish women of all ages, along with a gentle reminder of candle-lighting time strategically placed by the masthead of the New York Times; or the opportunity to don tefillin and recite the Shema prayer, the basic credo of our faith; or the opportunity to bensch lulav and etrog in a Sukkah-mobile – these, along with many other daring efforts, 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 chasidic as well as Jewish history.
Most notably, the building of Chabad houses across the globe, first on American college campuses and later on, in keeping with his unique read of the Biblical verse “ufaraztah yammah v’keidmahâ€¦” (spread out in all directions), to farflung places, otherwise devoid of a Jewish presence, and his ability to inspire an army of “shluchim” – outreach workers – to firmly establish themselves in those remote locations, at great personal sacrifice, is a Jewish organizational feat without parallel.
All of this speaks of a Jewish leader who broke away from the insular habits of other observant Jews and their leaders. His read and response to a great and aching Jewish need for belonging, realized over the second half of the 20th century, when he served the Jewish world beyond his headquarters in Crown Heights, and the foundations he laid for the next century and beyond, could not but garner the admiration of many and the jealousy or sacred envy of other movements, which were outmatched by his ability “to dream and do,” to serve and sacrifice. There are entire communities that are dominated by Chabad houses. I once counted some twenty-four Chabad houses in Orange County, California. Communities in Florida and South Africa similarly are defined by Chabad’s presence in their midst.
Any honest student of Jewish communal life must stop to consider this phenomenon and harvest lessons in leadership and community building from it. Those lessons include a sense of rugged individualism set against the often ossified norms of the establishment, the use of organic elements in Jewish experiential living, and finally the inculcation of a philosophy of unconditional positive regard for all Jews, without any bias against background or levels of observance. All of this is worthy of our heartfelt consideration when we think about the need so many committed members of the Jewish community feel to live in large clusters that pull inward. That leads to a landscape of sameness. The casualty of this thinking, which demands an environment rich in amenities, has led to the decline of Jewish life in once thriving smaller communities and the inflated cost of Jewish life in larger communities.
The summer months are an apt time to stop to contemplate our contemporary Jewish condition, including the complexion of our communities. It is time not only to consider how comfortable we are amid our embarrassment of riches but also how hard we work to include others in what should be our shared Jewish journeys.
Twenty years after his death, the rebbe’s work continues. At the very least, it should force those of us outside the Chabad world to reconsider the models we have built for their possible sustainability and the efficacy in securing a livable and strong Jewish future.