Lubavitch rabbis from across the United States and 40 countries launched the 100th birthday commemoration of their spiritual leader, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, by marking the six-month anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Standing Monday in the cold wind and bright sunshine across from the crash site at the Pentagon, the rabbis sang "Oseh Shalom" and "God Bless America" at 9:38 a.m., the time that the hijacked passenger plane hit the center of the American defense establishment.
Schneerson, who died in 1994, both supported the armed services of the United States and taught that the response to evil must not be fear, but faith and optimism, said Rabbi Levi Shemtov, the director of the Washington office of American Friends of Lubavitch.
Dov Zakheim, the U.S. undersecretary of defense and reportedly the leading candidate to become the next president of New York’s Yeshiva University, quoted from the Torah and said that to "tie the freedom of the country to the memory of the rebbe is a marvelous thing."
Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, an internationally renowned talmudic scholar, said the event demonstrates that the Lubavitch movement is connected with the rest of the United States.
"Lubavitch is not cut off," he said. "It is part of the American people." Steinsaltz later lectured on Schneerson’s approaches to learning and the importance of looking to the future and not to the past.
The many testimonials to Schneerson taking place here this week are testament to the power and influence of the Lubavitch movement. The dignitaries who came to talk about "the rebbe," as they called him, included Israel’s ambassador to the United States, David Ivry; Israel’s chief Ashkenazic rabbi, Yisrael Meir Lau; and Hadassah Lieberman, the wife of the Connecticut senator.
Lubavitch emissaries attending the conference traveled from such far-flung reaches as Bangkok, Athens and Beijing.
Rabbi Mendy Chitrik said the sense of unity is what is important to pass on to his community of 25,000 back in Istanbul, Turkey. "It warms us, we are candles and then we can pass the flame," he said.
There were some voices within the movement who believe that the messianic age is approaching but there is tension within Chabad-Lubavitch about the issue of messianism. "It was not the rebbe’s goal to be mashiach [the messiah], but it was his goal to bring Mashiach [by making the world a better place], Shemtov said. That sense of making things better is what conference participants are working on, Shemtov said.
Schneerson’s real legacy has to do with education and Jewish life, said Rabbi Avraham Berkowitz, the executive director of the Federation of Jewish Communities in the former Soviet Union.
Schneerson was born in the village of Nikolaev, Ukraine, where today Jewish life has been rebuilt, Berkowitz said. Berkowitz also stressed how Schneerson affected the whole Jewish world, not just Chabad.
Outreach is one of the cornerstones of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, which serves both religious and nonobservant, and affiliated and nonaffiliated Jews. Last week, a student came to see Malka Werde, who represents Chabad at the Rockland, N.Y., Community College. The student said she was reevaluating her life following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 and was turning to Judaism.
"Whoever will welcome them in, that is Chabad, that’s who will provide them with the opportunity to return to Judaism," Werde said.