Ten years after the death of the last Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, his influence on the Jewish world continues to grow. Tens of thousands of mourners were expected to visit Schneerson’s grave in Queens, New York, on Tuesday for his 10th yarhzeit. Israel’s two chief rabbis have called for a worldwide day of communal prayer, saying “the flourishing success of other groups, not only among chasidic circles,” but among “the Jewish community at large, is in large measure due to the rebbe.”
That’s quite a claim — but one that Jewish figures of nearly all kinds echo.
“The rebbe has left an indelible impression on Judaism in the 20th century,” said Rabbi Norman Lamm, chancellor of Yeshiva University and one of the leading figures of the modern Orthodox movement.
Though he criticized Chabad for building a “personality cult” around its rebbe, whom many Lubatichers believe to be the messiah, Lamm said S! chneerson “was an indomitable leader, a preeminent scholar and a truly creative visionary of organization. He consolidated the Chabad movement so that it was able to outlast his own life.”
Lawrence Schiffman, head of the Bronfman Center for Jewish Life at New York University, will hold an academic conference next year on Schneerson’s legacy, the first such conference outside the Lubavitch world.
“He showed the Jewish community that it was possible to revive and rebuild — after assimilation, persecution or both — and that this could be done on a tremendous scale,” Schiffman said.
Schneerson’s background was unusual for a Chasidic rabbi. Born in 1902 in Russia into a Lubavitch family of prestigious lineage, he learned in yeshivas as a youth but went on to study math and science at the University of Berlin and the Sorbonne in Paris.
In 1941, Schneerson fled Nazi-occupied Europe for New York. In 1951, a year after the death of his father-in-law, the sixth Lubavit! cher rebbe, Schneerson was proclaimed the seventh rebbe by Chabad elde rs.
Schneerson died childless and without appointing an heir after two years of illness during which he was unable to speak. The lack of an heir, and some ambiguous statements Schneerson made in the years before his illness, fueled speculation among many of his followers that the messianic age might be approaching and that Schneerson was the messiah.
While many Lubavitchers still believe the deceased rebbe to be the messiah, the power of the movement’s messianists decline with each passing year, though the issue remains a point of contention both inside and outside Chabad. The movement today is led by a 22-member board of rabbis that allocates funding from its headquarters in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, adjudicates disputes and serves other administrative functions.
Chabad outreach activities are growing, with more than 4,000 shluchim, or emissaries, spreading Schneerson’s message in more than 70 different countries, more than double the number a decade ago.
In th! e former Soviet Union, for example, where the Chabad-led Federation of Jewish Communities is by far the dominant voice in Jewish life, Chabad’s presence has grown from eight cities with full-time rabbis in 1994 to 102 cities today.
There’s hardly a Jewish community anywhere in the world that doesn’t have a Chabad center, and hardly a Jew that does not know of “the rebbe” and his shluchim.
Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, a towering figure in Jewish scholarship, says Schneerson almost single-handedly revived the image, and self-image, of world Jewry in the 20th century.
“Within the Jewish world, he took Judaism from being a disappearing religion to something that has a future,” Steinsaltz said. He said the shift toward greater observance and greater interest in Jewish study evident today across the denominational spectrum is due to Schneerson’s influence.
By sending his yeshiva students into the streets of middle America with beards and hats at a time when even observant! Jews tried to hide their ethnic identity, Schneerson exerted the sing le greatest influence on the revival of Jewish pride in the United States, perhaps even more than the creation of the State of Israel, Steinsaltz said.
Many Jews say they’re inspired by Schneerson’s teachings, especially his “sichos,” or weekly talks, which still are being compiled and published at Lubavitch headquarters.
Schneerson most often is credited for his outreach work — not just the practical accomplishments, such as the creation of schools, holiday services and adult education classes, but the underlying philosophy that focused on each individual Jew with caring, warmth and love.
“The rebbe was the first person on American soil to put priority on what today is called ‘kiruv,’ ” or drawing Jews closer to their religion, said Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, executive director of the Orthodox Union. “Today everyone is doing it, but there’s no question that Chabad was doing it decades before anyone else.”
Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Ju! daism, also says Chabad’s pioneering outreach work was the movement’s most significant contribution to the Jewish world, and he gives Schneerson credit for it.
The approach of welcoming all Jews “with open hearts is a principle established by the rebbe, and that has outlasted him,” Yoffie said.
Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman, a former president of the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College and now vice president of Jewish Renaissance and Renewal for the United Jewish Communities federation umbrella organization, says Schneerson’s outreach methods continue to challenge the rest of the Jewish world.
“His outreach was a whole new way of reaching out to Jews wherever they are, soul by soul,” he said. “The other denominations have not managed to duplicate this yet. You can see it in some of the mega-churches and in a few synagogues, but it has not happened yet in most of the Jewish community.”
Chabad outreach even has changed the way Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews relat! e to each other, said Yale University professor David Gelernter, a com puter scientist and author whose Commentary magazine series, “Judaism Beyond Words,” is being compiled into a book.
“Years ago, most black-hat Jews didn’t want anything to do with the larger Jewish community,” said Gelernter, who describes himself as modern Orthodox. “The rebbe’s idea of being willing to talk to any Jew on his terms was revolutionary.”
During the last 30 years of his life, Schneerson didn’t leave Brooklyn except to make regular trips to the grave of his father-in-law, the sixth Lubavitcher rebbe, in Queens.
But people came to him, first for personal consultations and then, when the aging Schneerson stopped receiving visitors in private, for “Sunday dollars,” when Schneerson would greet thousands of people, one by one, outside his Crown Heights headquarters. The dollar bills he handed out were intended to be used for charity, but many recipients felt they also brought good fortune.
Those who had private sessions with Schneerson recall those meeti! ngs with great emotion.
Britain’s Orthodox chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, says Schneerson convinced him to become a rabbi.
“The rebbe was not interested in creating followers; he was interested in creating leaders,” Sacks said in a memorial lecture delivered shortly after Schneerson’s death.
There is a lot about Chabad that other Jewish leaders find objectionable, such as its messianism, cultural isolation and its belief that Orthodoxy is the only legitimate brand of Judaism.
But Chabad’s influence has only grown.
“Increasingly, American Jews are thinking about what it means to be a Jew,” Gelernter said. “That’s very much the rebbe’s doing.”
Sue Fishkoff is a freelance writer in Pacific Grove, California and author of “The Rebbe’s Army: Inside the World of Chabad-Lubavitch” (Schocken Books, 2003).
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.