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The rebbe goes to Washington with opening of Lubavitch center

WASHINGTON, July 17 (JTA) — Amid the many pols, pundits, lobbyists and think tanks on the Washington scene, a unique and somewhat unlikely voice will soon be emerging to help inform public policy debate: the rebbe’s. Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson may have died three years ago, but the Lubavitch movement is seeking to illuminate the vision and legacy of its late spiritual leader for the benefit of the nation’s decision-makers. They intend to do this with a Washington think tank that will showcase their rebbe’s teachings. Dubbed the Living Legacy Institute, it will serve as a tribute to the genius and scholarship of a man venerated both inside and outside the Jewish community for his intellect and wisdom — and even thought by some to be the Messiah. “People constantly want to know what the rebbe thought or said about this or that topic, and this is an effort to make it easily accessible to the public,” said Rabbi Levi Shemtov, director of the Washington office of the American Friends of Lubavitch. Lubavitch leaders announced the founding of the institute at an international tribute in Washington earlier this month on the occasion of the Lubavitcher rebbe’s third yarzheit. More than 250 Lubavitcher Chasidim from around the world joined Jewish leaders, administration officials and members of Congress to honor the rebbe’s legacy. At a series of receptions at the State Department, the Library of Congress and on Capitol Hill, Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, Education Secretary Richard Riley, Undersecretary of State for Economic Affairs Stuart Eizenstat and members of Congress spoke of the lasting impact of his teachings. “All those who knew him and celebrate his memory, we know that memory is in a strange way stronger than life, and therefore the memory that we have of him gives meaning to our lives,” Wiesel said. Riley commended the rebbe’s unwavering commitment to education, while Eizenstat praised the Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries for “nurturing a rich dimension of Jewish heritage” around the world and helping, in particular, to foster the re-emergence of Jewish life in Central and Eastern Europe. Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries attending the tribute traveled from such far-flung reaches as Tunisia, Costa Rica, Hong Kong, Tasmania, Congo and Paraguay. Many also paid their respects at the rebbe’s tomb in Queens, N.Y. “His spirit, his influence and his teachings continue to be a constant presence, a constant comfort, and a constant guide,” said Chaya Perman, one of several emissaries who flew in from Caracas, Venezuela. Rabbi Yosef Kantor of Bangkok, Thailand, said the occasion “gives us the inspiration to continue in our work with renewed vigor.” While the rebbe’s emissaries remain dedicated to his goal of reaching out and servicing the spiritual needs of every Jew on the planet, the new Lubavitch institute in Washington — set to open later this year — will seek to expose as many people as possible to the rebbe’s scholarship and vision, Lubavitch leaders said. “I believe the rebbe is the best kept secret in our world, as famous as he is,” said Rabbi Abraham Shemtov, national director of the American Friends of Lubavitch. He said the institute is an opportunity “to open to ourselves and to others a window into some of the more esoteric aspects of the rebbe’s teachings, and prepare them in a way which can be accessible to those who unfortunately do not have the privilege of hearing it direct from the rebbe.” Lubavitch leaders say the institute is likely to weigh in on issues such as school vouchers, moments of silence in public schools, alternative punishment for criminals, alternative energy strategies and various education issues. It will also delve into the rebbe’s scholarly analysis of various talmudic, kabalistic, philosophical and scientific topics. Given some of the rebbe’s controversial stances on certain issues — such as his support for a moment of silence in public schools — the institute may find itself at odds with certain segments of the Jewish community, particularly on matters relating to church-state separation. Nevertheless, other Jewish organizations are welcoming the institute’s creation. Rabbi A. James Rudin, the American Jewish Committee’s interreligious affairs director, said its presence in Washington “will give a truer picture of the total Jewish community as it exists today.” He said the institute represents a “maturing of the Lubavitch movement.” “They’re now very much part of the Jewish scene and the American political scene in Washington, and that will only be beneficial to everybody,” Rudin said. Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said, “It’s wonderful when any religious group tries to draw from the ethical teachings of its tradition and apply it to contemporary life.” But he said the rebbe “did not have a really developed agenda on most public policy issues,” and questioned whether it would be the rebbe or his followers whose thinking ultimately would be advanced. While the Lubavitch movement will continue to be headquartered in Brooklyn, N.Y., the new focus on Washington is deliberate. Levi Shemtov, Abraham’s son, said the “whole setting of Washington lends itself to an amplification of these ideas in a way that might not be possible elsewhere.” Invigorating Jewish identity will also be a critical focus, he added. “If further down the line we see that the Jewish dimension of people’s lives has been enhanced through the institute, it will have been worth all the effort.”