NEW YORK – Over 3,000 emissaries of the worldwide Chabad movement gathered in New York over the weekend for their annual women’s conference, but other than the usual feelings of camaraderie and solidarity that have always permeated these massive events, this year was different, as last summer marked the 20th yahrzeit of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the movement’s rebbe.
Over and over, when asked how much Chabad has changed, either for better or for worse, in the years since Schneerson’s death, Chabad officials and emissaries turn back to focus not on the movement he inspired but on the man himself, and how his personal influence, warmth, intelligence and spirituality continue to inform the actions of his followers today.
The influence shows even today. Chabad today is one of the world's largest religious Jewish movements, with 3,300 institutions and over 4,000 emissary families living around the world in 84 countries and 950 cities. Chabad.org, the central website of the movement, received 37 million unique visitors last year hailing from 236 countries and territories.
Sunday evening’s keynote speaker, Goldie Avtzon from Hong Kong, who with her husband was the first emissary to establish a Chabad House in Asia, recalled the words that Schneerson said when sending a particularly nervous new female emissary to her post on the other side the world: “I am going with you.”
“Five precious words that reflect the message of encouragement from the rebbe to a female emissary, that reflect care and compassion, from a father to a daughter, that seem so simple to understand yet are layered with so much meaning and purpose,” Avtzon said.
“How can we make these words practical and keep them with us every day?” The idea of keeping things personal and making things practical were at the core of the philosophy of Judaism that the rebbe espoused. The unique Chabad approach, instead of simply demanding everyone convert to their way of life or shut them out completely, became to extend a personal hand to every Jew.
"The Rebbe recognized that every step of a 1,000-mile journey is important," said Rabbi Zalman Shmotkin, a spokesman for the Chabad movement. "Today there are countless individuals not in the orbit of Chabad who the Rebbe guided and who carry his message. He planted seeds that continue to grow."
Today, Chabad emissaries are posted permanently around the globe, from the Congo to the Caribbean and Moscow to Montevideo, attempting, Chabad says, to revitalize and enrich Jewish life in all of its forms, wherever they can find it.
"The Rebbe taught for hours on end, deep Talmudic and Kabbalistic stuff, revealing along the way the relevance of Torah in today's world, the unity in creation and the extraordinary role each human being plays," Shmotkin said, "and always finishing with a practical lesson about the responsibility we each have to help another."
Perhaps the biggest indicator of Chabad’s success has been that other movements in recent years have taken a shine to the Chabad method of using baby steps and personal involvement to gain followers. Rabbis all over the world now espouse the value of slowly building a person’s relationship with Judaism, starting with small mitzvot, like lighting Shabbat candles for women, or putting on tefillin during the week for men.
“We all have what to learn from their... going out into the trenches to bring people in,” Rabbi Pesach Lerner, executive vice president emeritus of the National Council of Young Israel, told JNS on the occasion of Schneerson’s yahrzeit. “If you want to accomplish stuff, you’ve got to leave the building....
That is something [about Chabad] that has to be respected and emulated.”
Schneerson managed to ascend as a leader in a time when the Jewish community was shattered and in disarray after the Holocaust, and promoted the idea that Jews should be proud and forthright about their identities.
"Sixty-plus years ago, after the decimation of the Holocaust, the Jewish community had no hopes or dreams of re-creating a vibrant, alive, forward-thinking Judaism," said Shmotkin.
"Yiddishkeit was considered anachronistic. The bravest set out to 'put walls around our community,' to at least preserve a little semblance of their past for a few years longer. Definitely no one dreamed of reaching outward to bring Judaism to new populations, reach college kids.
"The Rebbe himself had precious few resources at his disposal. Most of his chasidim had been killed by Hitler or Stalin," Shmotkin continued. "To the sane, rational mind, what the Rebbe was proposing was not just audacious, it was simply impossible. Many in Jewish leadership considered his exhortations of them as completely unrealistic."
“Genuine leadership is always in short supply and never more challenging than in modern times,” Harvard Prof. Ruth Wisse wrote in Commentary magazine in June. “The man who became known as ‘the Rebbe’ did wonders with Jews, who are notoriously difficult to lead.”
In a comment on the occasion of Schneerson’s 20th yahrzeit, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks wrote that he was “constantly engaged in what a psychotherapist would call ‘reframing.’” “Yes, the Jewish people had undergone a monumental tragedy during the Holocaust; yes, Jewish life as he found it in America when he became the rebbe was in a weakened state,” Sacks wrote. “But the rebbe, with his profound belief in Divine providence, was convinced that... disconnection is a call to reconnection and tragedy itself the prelude to redemption. That is how the rebbe rescued hope and rekindled a fire that seemed almost to have died.”
Today, of course, universities feature classes on Schneerson’s teachings, which Shmotkin says is evidence of his legacy surpassing just Chabad and stretching beyond the Jewish community.
One story, reiterated in two recent biographies of Schneerson, is that when Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to the US Congress, discovered she was assigned to the House Agricultural Committee, she expressed her disappointment to Schneerson, who then told her: ”You can use the gift God’s given you to feed hungry people.” Chisholm went on to establish children’s food-stamp programs that still feed millions, Wisse noted.
"The Rebbe was very practical," said Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, author of the 2014 book Rebbe: The Life and Teachings of Menachem M. Schneerson, the Most Influential Rabbi in Modern History, which became a New York Times
I was thinking about this very recently: In what ways would the Jewish world be different if the rebbe had not worked in the way he did?” One of the primary associations people have with Hanukka today, Telushkin continued, is the massive public menorah lightings that take place in hundreds of cities. More succot are erected these days than in the past, he said.
There’s a greater emphasis on tefillin and simple acts of tzedaka (charity).
Controversy over whether Schneerson was the Messiah threatened to splinter the movement after his death.
Despite this, what came to be known as “the Rebbe’s army” inspires other Jewish organizations worldwide to become equally effective, Wisse concluded.
"Well, they call us the Rebbe's army, but really we're just one brigade in his much larger army," said Shmotkin.