NEW YORK (Jul. 10)
Amid the mourning and lamentation that engulfed the Crown Heights section of Brookyn after the death of the Lubavitcher rebbe, two Lubavitch Chasidim quietly boarded a plane for Vilna, Lithuania.
The married couple will direct a Lubavitch office there, the combination synagogue, school and outreach center known as a Chabad house that is the latest in the spiritual franchises that have been built by the fervently Orthodox sect around the globe.
The key to how Lubavitch Chasidim will weather the loss of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who died on June 12, can be found at these outreach outposts, observers say.
The outposts are manned by emissaries — known as “shluchim” — who run mini-fiefdoms complete with local and regional leaders, financial autonomy and largely non-Chasidic support.
The more than 1,000 Chabad houses, schools, synagogues, summer camps and social service programs around the world — and the 3,000 emissaries sent by Schneerson to direct them — form the foundation of a grass-roots Lubavitch infrastructure that does not revolve around the movement’s Crown Heights headquarters.
While closer to Crown Heights much of daily life focused on the rebbe, Lubavitch supporters outside of Crown Heights owe their allegiances more directly to their local Chabad leaders.
And despite widespread speculation that in the absence of the charismatic Schneerson — who ran the movement for 44 years and did not name a successor — the movement would simply collapse, Lubavitch emissaries now insist that their work, and their mission, has not changed.
“We continue the same way,” said Rabbi Shmucl Katz, who directs the Chabad house for the Northwest suburbs of Chicago. “Obviously, we’re missing him, but at the same time, we know exactly what our goals are and exactly what the rebbe wants from us.”
60 NEW CHABAD HOUSES SINCE ’92
Many inside the movement boast that since the rebbe’s first stroke two years ago — which left the 92-year-old leader bedridden and virtually unable to communitcate — the Chabad movement seems to have thrived. Sixty new Chabad enterprises have been built since 1992, each with an annual operating budget in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
In a news conference the day of Schneerson’s funeral, Lubavitch spokesman Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky stressed that the movement will continue along this path.
“I am confident that Lubavitch will grow and expand and succed and reach even greater heights than it reached until now,” Krinsky said.
Where previously emissaries said they could not imagine a world without “the rebbe,” refusing even to discuss the possibility of his death, most now say they know what Schneerson wanted and will continue to carry out his work.
“The rebbe inspired us, ” said Rabbi Shmuel Kaplan, the senior Chabad emissary in Maryland. “Once you have that inspiration, it is a source that will keep on energizing us.”
While some Chasidim in Crown Heights still camp out near Schneerson’s grave anticipating his imminent resurrection, emissaries of Chabad — an acronym for the outreach branch of the Lubavitch movement — say they are returning to work with increased fervor, and nearly perfect faith.
“In the first moment you question everything,” said Katz of Chicago, “but the next day it comes back to you and you normalize yourself, so to speak.”
The fact that institutions built to spread the rebbe’s teachings will outlive him may be by design, a part of the massive outreach effort pushed forward by Schneerson himself to bring increased Jewish awareness and observance to Jews around the world.
Of the thousands of non-Lubavitch who join adult education groups or send their children to schools run by Chabad, many are apt to have thought of Schneerson as a great leader but not, as some in the Lubavitch world have cast him, as the nascent Messiah, or even an essential part of their connection to Jewish life.
While all say they try to carry out the rebbe’s will, Chabad emissaries are given tremendous autonomy in determining the needs of their communities. The emissaries themselves — with Schneerson’s blessing — effectively created and maintained their own institutions.
Chabad centers are also financially independent of the Crown Heights leadership, relying instead on contributions from members of their local Jewish communities, many of whom are not Orthodox.
‘MIDDLE AMERICA IS COMING TO CHABAD’
In Europe and the former Soviet Union, funding for the extensive network of Lubavitch institutions comes from local donations, as well as from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, a non-profit agency that has operated in conjunction with many Chabad projects.
And with Chabad houses in more than 40 countries and nearly every Jewish population center, many in the movement say Chabad has reached the mainstream of Jewish life. In some places, especially small towns and remote locations — the Chabad house or school is the only local Jewish institution.
“Middle America is coming to Chabad houses today,” explained Rabbi David Eliezry, director of Chabad in Yorba Linda, Calif. Eliezry credits Chabad with changing the course of modern Jewish life by getting masses of largely secular Jews to increase observance and identification.
Emissaries said that in the aftermath of Schneerson’s funeral there was a tremendous outpouring of sympathy from non-Lubavitch Jews, and no waning of support.
When he lay stricken from a stroke, emissaries said they had increased their activities in order to restore his health. Since his death, emissaries have said they have a responsibility to keep building, “in the rebbe’s memory.”
Observers point out that the technology for preserving the rebbe’s teachings has been honed by the Lubavitchers themselves, who have recorded and translated most of the rebbe’s major lectures and public appearances. His more than 200 volumes of writings and discourses are distributed by the movement’s own publishing house.