Twenty-six years after his death...the Rebbe’s beat goes on

The image and vision of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe, is as big and broad today as it was 26 years ago.

Chabad emissaries (shluchim) attending their annual international conference at Chabad-Lubavitch world headquarters in Brooklyn in November 2019. (photo credit: MENDEL GROSSBAUM/CHABAD.ORG)
Chabad emissaries (shluchim) attending their annual international conference at Chabad-Lubavitch world headquarters in Brooklyn in November 2019.
(photo credit: MENDEL GROSSBAUM/CHABAD.ORG)
Twenty-six years ago on June 12, 1994, corresponding with the Hebrew date of the third of Tammuz, 5734, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe, passed away.
Schneerson, known to his followers simply as the Rebbe, was a towering, charismatic figure in the Jewish world who left no successor to his throne. He died after setting into motion a deep yearning among his followers for Moshiach, the Messiah.
In the weeks leading up to his death, three months after he was felled by a second stroke and lost consciousness, there was speculation that the unfulfilled messianic dreams he helped fuel, the gaping hole that would be left in his movement by his death, would lead to mass apostasy, suicides, ugly succession battles and a deep split in the movement.
As Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz wrote in his 2014 book My Rebbe, during Schneerson’s final illness, “No one in Chabad could envision that life could go on after the Rebbe’s passing.”
For hassidic movements, Steinsaltz wrote, “The death of any Rebbe is a disaster, almost like the death of a father. Because of the particularly close bond that existed between the Rebbe and his hassidim, that trauma was multiplied many times.”
Yet more than a quarter of a century after Schneerson’s death, Chabad – without an eighth Lubavitcher rebbe directing it – is arguably as strong and influential as it has ever been, with nearly 5,500 emissaries (shluchim) in literally every corner of the world; with its Chabad houses very much a part of the American Jewish mainstream; with a very positive reputation among many Israelis who have frequented Chabad centers around the globe; and with the Rebbe’s teachings being studied by tens of thousands of hassidim and non-hassidim.
VETERAN emissary David Eliezrie: The movement thrives because the Rebbe taught a worldview that resonates as loudly now as it did when he was alive. (Facebook)VETERAN emissary David Eliezrie: The movement thrives because the Rebbe taught a worldview that resonates as loudly now as it did when he was alive. (Facebook)
The doomsday predictions about Chabad’s demise came to naught. There were neither mass suicides nor legions of apostates – in fact, the movement seems to have more adherents and a longer reach now than it did at the time of the Rebbe’s death. The messianists within the movement, those termed mashichistim, who cling to the idea that Schneerson is either not dead, or will be resurrected as the messiah, are on the fringes with little significant impact on the movement. Furthermore, the movement did not splinter and fall apart.
“THE PREDICTIONS were completely off,” said Adam Ferziger, a professor of modern and contemporary Judaism at Bar-Ilan University. “On the contrary – the movement did not just not fall apart, but it grew in leaps and bounds. In retrospect, that made a lot of sense.”
It made sense historically, he said, because there are movements that when the leader dies, and his human frailties then become less evident, “a deeper myth” can be articulated about him and his vision. “This is not meant to take away from the Rebbe’s talents and abilities,” he said, “but certainly when people are not alive, their image becomes bigger and broader.”
And certainly the image and vision of the Rebbe is as big and broad today as it was 26 years ago.
“People thought Chabad was going to fall apart after his death because he was such a great leader, and because some people thought he was the Moshiach,” Ferziger said.
But the messianic fervor that the Rebbe stirred was less about him as the Messiah, and more about the creation of a “messianic tension” that has not dissipated with his death, he asserted. And that tension now is a powerful fuel propelling the movement forward without him at the helm.
People generally associate messianism with a personality, Ferziger explained, and “intuitively you would think that if the person no longer exists, the messianic tension no longer exists.”
That was an assumption many made about Chabad. But, Ferziger said, “what the Rebbe really nurtured was this messianic tension, a sense among his followers that if they continue to perform the acts that he encouraged and charged them to do, then whether he is it [the Messiah] or not, those acts would actually hasten or pave the way for the messiah to come.”
Ferziger noted interesting parallels between this and a strain of religious Zionist thought which believes that settling the Land of Israel – including settlements in Judea and Samaria – will hasten the messianic era.
That messianic spirit and tension the Rebbe cultivated, Ferziger said, is “absolutely fundamental to Chabad’s energy and ongoing development.” This “redemptive piece,” he said, is the way to understand what he calls the Chabad “lifers,” those emissaries who are willing to go anywhere in the world to spread the Rebbe’s vision of Judaism.
This redemptive scenario, he said, has a “tremendous energy” that explains “the amount of sacrifice these people are willing to make – sacrificing their family, their education, their kashrut, mikvahs [ritual baths], in order to achieve their goals.”
IMPACT OF technology: A Chabadnik snaps a selfie with a supporter at a New Jersey banquet in November 2019.  (Itzik Roytman/Chabad.org)IMPACT OF technology: A Chabadnik snaps a selfie with a supporter at a New Jersey banquet in November 2019. (Itzik Roytman/Chabad.org)
Ferziger said that in the late 1980s, when Chabad’s “We want Moshiach” movement was at full force, he wondered why the Rebbe did not come out and clearly quiet those who were pointing to him as the Messiah.
“Perhaps he was willing to take a risk because the benefits of that [messianic] energy were so great that he could tolerate a certain level of deviance, of going too far with it,” he said.
In other words, perhaps Schneerson concluded that the energy this developed would propel the movement forward after his death, and that this was worth all the controversy it generated.
Whatever the case, the manner in which Chabad managed to survive the trauma of the Rebbe’s death and thrive ever since is the stuff that could fill volumes of academic studies on how redemptive movements survive even after suffering a collapsing moment – such as the Rebbe’s death – which makes it clear the promised redemption will not arrive, or at least will tarry.
FOR THE REBBE’S followers, avid Lubavitchers, the secret of Chabad’s ability to flourish even without a charismatic leader is simple: The Rebbe’s vision is powerful and true, and lives on through his enormous canon of works, speeches and meetings. And it inspires.
Shlomo Gestetner, the Australian-born dean of the Mayanot Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, became an ardent follower of the movement in the 1980s. He remembers the day when the Rebbe died, when he was one of thousands of hassidim in Israel who caught a plane to fly to New York for the funeral. At the time, Gestetner was leading a summer program for youth in Israel.
“Most of the staff, including myself, went back to the States [for the funeral], but one or two of the staff members stayed,” he recalled. One of those who stayed was Mordechai Siev, from a Chabad-affiliated program in Safed called Ascent. Gestetner quoted him as saying, “I am going to take care of the students, because I know what the Rebbe wants from us now: He wants us to take care of these students to make sure they have a positive Jewish experience. It was clear to him and everyone that our mission has not stopped, and that the Rebbe’s goals remained. We have a mission and a message to inspire ourselves and inspire others.”
Those who predicted Chabad’s demise after Schneeerson’s death, Gestetner said, missed the power of that vision and viewed Chabad as an organization, and the Rebbe as some kind of super CEO who was essential for its survival.
“I never looked at him as the head of an organization. I looked at him, yes, as the head of Chabad, but as a spiritual leader who inspires others through his Torah, ideas and his vision.”
WOMEN PRAY at the Rebbe’s gravesite in Queens, New York, in February.  (Itzik Roytman/Kinus Hashluchos/Chabad.org)WOMEN PRAY at the Rebbe’s gravesite in Queens, New York, in February. (Itzik Roytman/Kinus Hashluchos/Chabad.org)
David Eliezrie, a veteran Chabad emissary in Yorba Linda, California, and author of The Secret of Chabad, said that those who predicted mass apostasy nearly three decades ago failed to accurately read the movement.
“Chabad, at its core, is a movement of ideas, and those ideas and teachings are continuing to illuminate people,” he said. “I think all the people who had their criticism of Chabad 26 years ago, a lot of them did not understand what was going on.”
The reason the movement thrives, he explained, is that the Rebbe taught a worldview that resonates as loudly now as it did when he was alive.
“It is a Weltanschauung that accepts every Jew where they are. It is a Weltanschauung that stresses the positive, that puts the idea of Torah and mitzvot at center stage. At the core it is a world view of inclusivity, a world view of non-judgmentalism. It is accepting of all Jews.”
He also said that is a worldview that strives to keep politics and wedge issues out of the synagogue, something he feels is attractive to many who walk in his doors.
“Our difference is in our messaging,” he said. “When you walk into a Chabad center, is anyone talking politics? A kid comes into my house, I don’t talk about politics, I don’t talk about the Kotel controversy, and I only say you have to support Israel. We are coming to the Jewish community with a message of the centrality of Israel and Judaism.”
Motti Seligson, Chabad’s director of media relations in New York, said that Chabad understands that “wedge issues are bad for business.”
“There are 15% who love wedge issues and get riled up by them, but in the long term it is a losing strategy,” he said. “You are not inspiring people, you are not engaging people. It is not a focus on love of Israel and helping people grow in Torah and mitzvot. When people come to shul they are looking for ways of connecting, not disconnecting and getting angry about everything else.”
CHABAD RABBIS pay their respects at the Rebbe’s resting place in November 2019.CHABAD RABBIS pay their respects at the Rebbe’s resting place in November 2019.
Schenerson’s ideas, according to Eliezrie, succeeded in spurring “a revolution in modern Jewish life,” one which transformed Chabad – once on the fringes of Jewish life in America with its mitzvah tanks and campaigns to get women to light Shabbat candles – into a movement that today is an integral part of the American Jewish landscape. As Reform and Conservative synagogues are closing, Chabad institutions are going up at a dizzying pace.
“There is a fundamental shift today in how American Jews identify and get involved with the Jewish community,” Eliezrie said, adding, “Demographic studies have shown that 20% of all American Jews are involved with Chabad, and over 30% of those are 35 and younger.”
Eighty percent of those who say they are involved with Chabad are not Orthodox, he added, a statistic that reflects the ushering in of a post-denominationalism in American Jewish life, where people who might belong to Conservative or Reform congregations also partake of services that Chabad offers.
FERZIGER ASSERTED THAT one reason why the Rebbe’s ideas are able to continue to animate Jewish life today, even after his death, is because of technology.
Technology “really hit its stride” around the time of the Rebbe’s passing, he said.
“Chabad was always ahead of the game on technology,” and while today there are scores of Lubavitcher followers who never met the Rebbe, never took part in a gathering [farbrengen] with him, or had a private meeting [yehidus] with him, scores of people see him online in videos played in loops everywhere, from Ben-Gurion Airport to the Chabad Center in New Delhi.
Chabad had the forethought and wisdom to make the dissemination of his ideas – the Rebbe’s Torah – available to the masses.
“I think that the agency of technology is huge here,” Ferziger said. “There is so much material out there, and it is used really effectively.”
Seligson said there are between 11,000 and 12,000 hours of the Rebbe’s discourse on Torah subjects [sichot], many written down and others recorded, as well as a sea of other material, including correspondence and private meetings that were later written about.
“The canon of the Rebbe’s teachings is historic in its breadth,” he noted. “There is not another Jewish leader whose teachings are retained that are that vast.”
Neither that vast, nor that accessible.
And this is important, Seligson said, because while issues people need to deal with change over time, broad themes stay the same. For instance, Schneerson spoke out on everything from racial justice in America to retaining the settlements in Judea and Samaria. So if anyone wants to know what he would think about a particular contemporary issue, it is possible to get an idea from his far-reaching past teachings.
CHABAD TEENS on ‘Pedi-Sukkahs’ parade through New York City’s Time Square in 2014. Pedi-Sukkahs were offered around the world, including in Canada, Denmark, England, Australia, Holland, France and 14 American states. (Itzik Roytman/Chabad.org)CHABAD TEENS on ‘Pedi-Sukkahs’ parade through New York City’s Time Square in 2014. Pedi-Sukkahs were offered around the world, including in Canada, Denmark, England, Australia, Holland, France and 14 American states. (Itzik Roytman/Chabad.org)
“People are able to go back and look systematically at his teachings, and look at patterns and at the Rebbe’s overall consistent outlook and approach to a whole host of things, and are able to be inspired and really focus on what was it that the Rebbe was pushing to do all these years,” Seligson said.
TRUE AS THAT MAY BE, the personal contact is no longer there. There are scores of stories, even one related by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, of people who were inspired or moved to action by having met the Rebbe, even briefly. But where does the inspiration come from when the Rebbe is no longer alive?
Eliezrie, who acknowledged this is a challenge facing the movement, said that the inspiration now comes from the Rebbe’s teachings through his emissaries. In other words, if the Rebbe once touched people through personal meetings, now that mission has devolved to the Chabad emissaries around the globe.
Or, as Seligson said, “The Rebbe encouraged people to have their one personal spiritual guide to consult with.”
Gestetner, who studied in Crown Heights and met Schneerson, acknowledged that his relationship with the Rebbe is different – by virtue of the fact of having met him – from the relationship his nine kids have with the Rebbe.
“When you have been to a farbrengen, it is different,” he said. “My relationship with the Rebbe is different than my childrens’. But I am actually really moved and inspired by their relationship with him. I am incredibly inspired by young people who never met him, but who are so inspired by his teachings, are imbued with the fire of hassidut, and who are out there ready to dedicate their lives to his teachings.”
Ferziger said that one of the ways Chabad compensated “for the decline of the central leadership of the rebbe” is by “cultivating an A-team [of emissaries], and having these excellent people go to far-flung locations and turn them into empires.”
“Part of the story of the immense success of Chabad in the post-Rebbe era is its decentralization,” said Ferziger. “It is parallel to the proliferation of the hassidic movement at the end of 18th and early 19th century, where you have very charismatic figures like Shneur Zalman of Liadi [the founder of Chabad and its first rebbe], and others in various places where they created centers in Poland and eastern Hungary. They all had the symbol called the Baal Shem Tov [the founder of the hassidic movement], but they all created very diverse and sometimes competing empires.”
To a certain degree, he said, that mirrors what is happening today inside Chabad. It has centers all across the world, with the Rebbe – like the Baal Shem Tov centuries earlier – as an extremely powerful symbol able to electrify and energize the movement long after his death.