Lubavitcher Rebbe’s Legacy Expanding

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 visited Schneerson’s grave in Queens, on Tuesday for his 10th yarhzeit. Israel’s two chief rabbis had 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.”

It is a big claim, but one that Jewish figures of nearly all movements 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 Lubavitchers believe to be the Messiah, Lamm said Schneerson “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, chair of New York University’s Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies, 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 Lubavitcher rebbe, Schneerson was proclaimed the seventh rebbe by Chabad elders.

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, although 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, adjudicates disputes and serves other administrative functions.

Chabad outreach activities are growing, with more than 4,000 shluchim (emissaries) spreading Schneerson’s message in more than 70 different countries, more than double the number a decade ago. 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.

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 single greatest influence on the revival of Jewish pride in the United States, perhaps even more than the creation of the State of Israel, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz said.

Many Jews say they’re inspired by Schneerson’s teachings, especially his sichos (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 [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.”

Over the past 10 years Chabad Lubavitch on the West Coast’s growth has included:

  • 112 shluchim couples moving to the West Coast.

  • 84 new Chabad regional centers and outreach programs; 22 such centers have opened their doors in the last year alone.

  • 12 new Chabad Houses established at universities throughout California.

  • 42 new building projects launched and completed.

  • More than $125 million raised toward capital projects.

  • 10 new mikvahs.

  • More than 200 Jewish Web sites offering Jewish content, outreach and social services.

— Staff Report