At a memorial session at the Israeli Knesset honoring the Lubavitcher Rebbe shortly after his death, Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau recalled a conversation he had once had with him in which Rabbi Lau spoke of his active involvement in kiruv rechokim, bringing back to Judaism lost Jews who had strayed far away. “The Rebbe immediately corrected me: ‘We cannot label anyone as being ‘far.” Who are we to determine who is far and who is near? They are all close to Hashem” [God]
This past year at the annual Kinuus, gathering of Chabad shluchim, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the British chief rabbi, concluded his talk with a moving story that he had heard years earlier about a Chabad shliach who was speaking at a largely Eskimo-populated school in a remote town in Alaska. The story so intrigued me that I sought out the shliach involved, Rabbi Avraham Berkowitz, and he told me that for three summers in the mid-1990s he and a friend from Chabad went to Alaska, particularly to its more remote parts, to seek out Jews.
On one occasion, they came to a small city in the northwest part of the state. The mayor told them that he knew of no Jews in the city, but invited them to give a talk to the students at the local school. The men shared with the fourth through eighth-grade students some teachings about Judaism. The students in turn performed a few Eskimo dances for them, and the Chabadniks performed a Chasidic dance for them.
Knowing that the Rebbe wanted them to find Jews if they could, Reb Avraham asked the students, “Did any of you ever meet a Jew?”
One girl raised her hand.
“Who ever did you meet?” Avraham asked her.
“My mother,” the girl answered. “She’s right there.” She pointed to the school’s fifth grade teacher.
After the class, the mother was visibly moved and thanked him for coming. A native of the lower 48, she had always loved nature and years earlier, she had come to Alaska, and fallen in love with a native man.
“I must tell you that living here I don’t know if my daughter will ever meet another rabbi again. I ask you to give my daughter a message so that she will always be proud of her Jewish identity.”
Berkowitz’s mind was racing. He knew he only had these few minutes, but what should he say? Thinking back to the Rebbe’s talks, he realized that one of the Rebbe’s great strengths was his ability to personalize a mitzvah, to empower the individual. He started to speak to the girl about the holiness of the Sabbath, the day which Jews dedicate to God: “And who ushers in Shabbat? It is mothers and daughters who light the Shabbat candles. They bring peace and light into the world”
He then asked her: “Where is the first place in the world where the sun sets?” The girl knew geography, and she said, ‘Probably New Zealand or Australia.’”
And Reb Avraham told her: “That’s right. Jewish mothers in New Zealand and Australia are the first to usher in Shabbat. And then Shabbat is ushered in with lit candles in Asia, in Israel, in Europe, and then New York, Chicago, Seattle, Anchorage. And even then, there is one part of the world where the sun has not yet set. Here in the Yupik territory of Alaska. When mothers and daughters around the globe have welcomed the Shabbat, God and the Jewish people are still waiting for you, the last Jewish girl in the world, to light the Shabbat candles.”
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By sending shluchim around the globe it was as if the Lubavitcher Rebbe was commanding an army, the only Jewish army outside that of the State of Israel. Who else but the Rebbe could instruct young couples to move to small Jewish communities, like Tennessee, South Carolina, or overseas, and live there for the rest of their lives — and still be obeyed.
Many people viewed the joyful willingness of chasidim to follow the Rebbe’s directives as remarkable, others viewed it critically, as evidence that the Rebbe was overly venerated, and the movement dictatorial.
But with the perspective of time (this coming Shabbat marks the 18th anniversary of the Rebbe’ death) one thing is clear. If it was the Rebbe’s personality alone that dominated the movement, then the movement should have disintegrated, or greatly weakened, with his passing. But it hasn’t. In fact, it has increased substantially. There are now three times as many shluchim (emissaries) as there were when the Rebbe died in1994, and Chabad Houses can now be found in 47 states and in over 75 countries. Eighteen years ago, there were Chabad Houses in only 38 countries.
How does one account for this?
There are too many factors to examine in one article. But having researched the Rebbe’s life for some years for a forthcoming biographical study, it strikes me that the primary and most precious commodity he bequeathed his followers — one he urged the whole Jewish world to accept — was an unconditional love and respect for every Jew, even for those Jews whose lifestyles and religious practices were very different from his own. And this love was accompanied by a desire — unprecedented in Jewish history — to reach every single Jew in the world; even in the remotest parts of Alaska.
One year, shortly after Rosh HaShanah, George Rohr, the prominent New York philanthropist and supporter of Chabad, was understandably proud and excited to tell the Rebbe of the beginner’s service he had conducted at Manhattan’s Kehilath Jeshurun: “Rebbe, you will be pleased to know that we had 180 people for Rosh HaShanah services who came to us with no background.” The Rebbe did not react. Rohr, thinking that the Rebbe had not heard what he had said, repeated his words, this time in a louder voice. “We had 180 people for Rosh HaShanah services who came to us with no background.” The Rebbe rebuked him: “How can you say such a thing? How can you say that they have no background? They have a background. They are the children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”
Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, author of “Jewish Literacy,” and “A Code of Jewish Ethics,” is currently writing a book on the Lubavitcher Rebbe and his impact on the Jewish world.