Emilia Chami remembers Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the late Lubavitcher rebbe, as a “beautiful person who was always smiling.”
Her friend Chippy Meta seconds that sentiment, saying that even though she and Chami are not Lubavitch, “somehow we are all connected to the rebbe.”
That connection was so strong that Chami, Meta and their friend Ana Sued flew last week from Buenos Aires to Washington to participate in a daylong celebration of the spiritual leader’s life.
The women were three of the nearly 700 Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries, Jewish leaders and others who came to the nation’s capital June 28 to remember the rebbe and to see him posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the country’s highest civilian honor.
Schneerson, who died June 12, 1994, at the age of 92, was honored throughout the day by members of Congress, Jewish leaders from around the world and other well-known dignitaries, including Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel and violinist Itzhak Perlman.
The day in Washington was just one of the international events marking Schneerson’s first yahrzeit, or anniversary of his death, which, according to the Jewish calendar, fell on July 1.
Throughout the day, the themes of continuity and commitment to Schneerson’s works were prominent in both the words of the speakers and the thoughts expressed by some of the rebbe’s followers.
Perhaps no one embodied that sentiment as well as Lieba Rudolph’s 3-week-old son. Like many recent Lubavitch newborns, he was named Menachem Mendel after Schneerson.
Rudolph, who had journeyed from Pittsburgh with her husband and baby, said she thought that the medal was “a wonderful way to commemorate what he did for the world.”
Many of those present expressed the feeling that even though the rebbe is no longer alive, his legacy lives on.
“While the rebbe is not physically present, his spiritual presence is very much felt,” said Emily Sherwinter, who came to Washington from Atlanta with her mother, Anne Fried.
“It’s our responsibility to carry on the work of the rebbe,” Sherwinter said.
Others were profuse in their praise of the man who had led their movement for more than 40 years.
“I see the rebbe as the greatest leader of world Jewry of all time. Definitely in the last half century,” said Rabbi Avrohom Litvin of Louisville, Ky.
“He continues to bring guidance even now. He’s part and parcel of our lives, of our work,” Litvin said.
On Capitol Hill, congressional leaders, including Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-GA.) and House International Relations Committee Chairman Rep. Benjamin Gilman (R-N.Y.), paid tribute to Schneerson.
Gingrich, who helped spearhead legislation to honor the rebbe with the medal, praised Schneerson for not only believing in his ideals, but for living them.
Gilman, who sponsored an international lunch for the contingent, said the medal “honors the life and teachings of the rebbe.”
Gilman spoke at the lunch, while Gingrich addressed a breakfast gathering.
The rebbe was also honored on the floor of the House of Representatives. The chief rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, said the opening prayer and thanked Congress for bestowing the honor on Schneerson.
Rep. Peter Deutsch (R-Fla.) said Schneerson’s life “probably influenced as many people as anyone else maybe in the history of the world in terms of good works and good deeds.”
In an afternoon speech, well-known Jewish scholar Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz of Jerusalem called Schneerson “saintly” and said the Lubavitch must go on with his work.
“Go tell each other that it can be done,” Steinsaltz said.
He also spoke about how the rebbe encouraged people to see that people really are good.
“We have to open our eyes and see beyond the fog,” Steinsaltz said.
The tribute continued into the night at a banquet attended by members of Congress and international leaders and chief rabbis.
At the dinner, President Clinton’s aide George Stephanopoulos and Rabbi Abraham Shemtov, the national director of the Friends of Lubavitch, unveiled the medal. It pictured Schneerson on the front and featured the words “Benevolence, Ethics, Leadership and Scholarship” on the back.
In a message enclosed with a replica of the medal given to all the dinner attendees, Clinton said, “With the rewarding of this medal we recognize a revered leader who was a great moral inspiration, not only to the Lubavitch community and to Jews around the world, but to people of all religions and faiths.”
Lau and Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), Congress’ only Orthodox Jew, gave keynote addresses. Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, Schneerson’s secretary for more than 40 years, and businessman Ronald Perelman, co-chair of the event, also spoke.
Violinist Itzhak Perlman paid tribute with his violin, playing three songs, including “Ani Ma’amin,” a song that affirms complete faith in the coming of the Messiah.
In his tribute address, Wiesel said Schneerson did not need the medal, but America needed to give it to him.
“He was the one who gave honors. It was an honor to be in his presence,” Wiesel said.