April 13, 2024
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An Enduring and Often Envied Legacy

The twentieth yahrzeit of the passing of the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, z’tl, has been greeted with a flood of retrospective article in the Anglo-Jewish press, not to mention a flurry of publishing of biographies on a rabbinic leader who changed the landscape of Jewish life. Whether or not one is a Chabad hasid, admirer or sympathizer, 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 know how to read the landscape of Jewish life and employ effective ways in which to reach the often cynical and disaffected in Jewish life. 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 “mivtzaim” or mitzvah campaigns. A pair of candle sticks given to Jewish women of all ages, and a gentle reminder of the candle lighting time strategically printed alongside the masthead of the New York Times; or the opportunity to don a pair of Tefillin and recite the Shema prayer, the basic credo of our faith; or still the opportunity to “bensch” Lulav and Etrog in a Sukkah-mobile, alongside 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 Chassidic as well as Jewish history.

Most notably, 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 “ufaraztah yammah v’keidmah…” (spread out in all directions) to far flung places, otherwise devoid of a Jewish presence, and his ability to inspire an army of “shluchim” 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 expected and preferred insular ways 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 twentieth century, during which he, in effect, 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, outmatched by his ability “to dream and do,” serve and sacrifice. Entire communities and regions in many instances are dominated by Chabad Houses. I once counted some 24 Chabad Houses in Orange County, CA alone. Communities in Florida and South Africa are similarly dotted and defined by Chabad’s presence and prevalence in their midst.

Any honest student of Jewish communal life must stop to reflect and consider this phenomenon and to the degree possible harvest from it lessons in leadership and community building. 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 the inculcation of a philosophy of unconditional positive regard for all Jews, absent any bias against background or levels of observance. All of this is worthy of our heartfelt consideration when we consider the overarching predilection and need in so many parts of the committed Jewish community to aggregate in large residential clusters allowing for an inward pull and a landscape of sameness and symmetry. The casualty of this thinking, that demands an environment rich in amenities to a fault, has seen the decline of Jewish life in once thriving smaller communities and an inflated cost to Jewish life in the larger communities which are invariably paired with major population centers.

The summer months ahead are an apt time to stop to consider and contemplate our contemporary Jewish condition, not the least of which is the complexion of our communities and not only how comfortable we often are amid our “embarrassment of riches” but also 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 continues and should, at the very least, force those of us outside of the Chabad world to take note and reconsider the models we have built for their possible sustainability and efficacy in securing a livable and strong Jewish future.

Rabbi Lawrence S. Zierler leads the Jewish Center of Teaneck, NJ

By Rabbi Lawrence S. Zierler

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