A giant remembered: The Lubavitcher Rebbe at his 20th Yahrzeit

by | Jul 14, 2014 | Torah Thought

“What should I do with them in New York?” The year was 1971. I was a 20-something rabbinical student living in Manhattan. That summer I was in charge of a group of 30 teenagers at Camp Ramah in the Poconos. The high point of the summer was to be five days in New York. So of course I took them to the usual special places. We went to a Yankees game. We saw an off-Broadway production of “The Fatasticks.” We went to the U.N., we ate kosher Chinese food at Shmulka Bernstein’s on the Lower East Side (using my prized possession, a Shmulka Bernstein’s credit card).

But one experience was most unusual. It turned out to be the most memorable of all. A friend told me to go to a Farbrengen, a gathering at the headquarters of the Lubavitcher Rebbe in Brooklyn. For Lubavitcher Hasidim, yahrzeits, anniversaries of deaths, are joyous occasions. Instead of crying about their losses, they rejoice in the lives of their departed. I think that night marked the 20th yahrzeit of the rebbe’s father.

And what a night it was! Hundreds of Hasidim were packed into a hot, steamy room. The rebbe sat at a table. The room was full with young adult men, eyes riveted on the rebbe, hanging on his every word of Torah. In between his teaching, the guys sang Niggunim, spirited Hasidic melodies. In their hands they held shot glasses. Every so often the rebbe would give a personal nod to one of his followers. The Hasid he singled out would smile, raise his glass, drain it, and there would be more singing. Then the rebbe would speak. I can’t tell you what he said, mostly because he spoke in Yiddish. But you could tell that his followers were inspired. They learned. They sang again. And they drank again.

My group of teenagers from Philadelphia was “blown away.” They were moved by the enthusiasm, by the passion, by the love for Judaism that resonated through the room. In an age of cynicism, my young charges were taken by the sincerity and frankly, by the Jewish joy they saw and they felt. A joy they wanted for themselves.

When they came back to camp, they had a plan. They would walk into the camp dining hall arm in arm, singing that Niggun. Singing that Hasidic melody together was their way of bringing some of the enthusiasm and passion they saw in Brooklyn back to the younger kids in camp.

I will never forget that special evening with the rebbe, with the spiritual head of the Chabad Hasidim. One boy in that group never forgot either. He went on to study for the rabbinate, he got Semicha; and instead of staying the wild red haired hooligan he was at age 16, years later he became one of the head Lubavitch leaders in Philadelphia, a rabbi and a lawyer too. And to think I started him on the path that July night in Brooklyn.

As influential as the rebbe was in the life of American Jewry back in the early 1970s, by the 1990s he had become almost larger than life. When I saw him at the Farbrengen, his influence was felt mostly in New York and in the larger American cities. But in the subsequent years, the rebbe’s teachings and ideas spread far and wide. You see—the rebbe understood marketing almost before the term was invented.

Early on, the rebbe organized his followers into a network of “Shluchim,” literally Yiddish for messengers. He inspired them to go out and bring Judaism to the masses, by settling in communities and establishing personal contacts and relationships. He sent them off, usually young couples in their 20s, to become representatives of Judaism and Jewish living in communities everywhere.

At first, the Shluchim were known mostly for gimmicky programs like the “Tefillin Mobile” or for giant Chanukah menorahs they lit on hills and downtown squares. Or for taking them on pilgrimages to Brooklyn to be blessed by the rebbe; the rebbe gave each visitor a dollar bill that they cherished for the rest of their lives. Soon there were Chabad houses, centers of Jewish life all over North America. They were community centers that lacked the fitness equipment of the JCCs, but were often more effective in conveying Jewish pride. Because in the Chabad houses lived young couples who loved Judaism, who invited people to spirited Shabbat dinners, and who taught by example. Truth to tell, while we rabbis of the major religious denominations became known mostly for announcing pages, for giving sermons and for officiating at life cycle occasions, the Lubavitch Shluchim were busy establishing close relationships with Jews everywhere.

Rabbi Jeff Arnowitz often speaks of the contemporary need for “relational Judaism.” It has become a popular term used by leaders of Conservative Judaism today. The truth is that even those of us who endorse it understand that the Lubavitcher Rebbe was sending out his representatives to practice relational Judaism many years before.

Then in 1992 at age 90, the Rebbe suffered a major stroke that crippled him and left him unable to speak. His follow ers prayed daily for his recovery. But to no avail. Twenty years ago, on the Jewish calendar on June 12, 1994, the rebbe succumbed to old age and to complications from the stroke. He was mourned by thousands and thousands. Police estimate that there were 35,000 mourners outside Lubavitch headquarters in Brooklyn. The New York airports and the traffic around them ground to a standstill on the day he was buried, as his disciples converged on his burial spot.

I’ve concentrated my remarks more on the rebbe’s methods than on his teachings themselves. Obviously there is much to say about them too. One of the rebbe’s main lessons was that when we do mitzvot, when we perform every day acts of kindness; we help bring the long-awaited coming of the Messiah. In the days before his death many of his followers began to believe that the rebbe himself was the Mashiach, that he wouldn’t die, and that he would soon reveal himself as the Messiah. In Brooklyn and in Chabad strongholds from New York to Jerusalem banners hung that said “Yehi Hamelech Hamashiah” (Long live the King Messiah).

After his death it became clear to all but a minority of his followers that while we had lost a great, great teacher and leader, the rebbe himself was not the Mashiach. And that it was still up to us who survived him to follow his teachings and by our actions, to hasten the coming of the Messianic Era and the perfect world it stands for.

Many wondered, understandably so, what would happen to the Lubavitch movement after the Rebbe died. After all, Chabad is a sect of Chasidim, and Chasidim are led by rabbinic dynasties whose hereditary leadership is passed on through the family. But this rebbe had no heirs. Indeed, he was such a giant and Chabad was so identified with him, that many doubted whether the movement could survive his passing.

In 20 years of retrospect, we realize how larger than life the rebbe really was! Because through loyalty to him and to his teachings, the movement has prospered even after his death. If anything, 20 years later, without a new rebbe or even a titular head, Chabad is stronger than ever.

It has become a cliché that wherever you go around the world, there is Chabad. And because there is Chabad, there are Jews, there is Judaism, a Judaism that thrives. Shanghai, Nepal, Boise, Idaho; even at the World Cup in the rain forests of Brazil there are Chabad houses. There are Shabbat dinners; there are holiday services and kosher food. Wherever we go, just look up Chabad. They’re always there. Is Chabad so successful because of the rebbe’s unique teachings or the teachings of Lubavitch rabbis before him? I don’t think it’s that. Or maybe only in part. I would argue that what makes Chabad the Chabad we know and love is the unique and monumental action plan of Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the last Lubavitcher Rebbe; the man in whose presence I was back in 1971, who passed away in 1994 and whose influence 20 years later is stronger than ever.

That is why several new biographies of the rebbe have been released just this month. One is by the great author of Jewish books, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin.

Maybe you wonder—Here I am, a clearly identified Conservative rabbi, delivering an admiring tribute to the Lubavitcher Rebbe. There are many non-Orthodox and Orthodox rabbis who had significant differences with the Rebbe and even more with his followers. I share some of those disagreements.

But we here in Tidewater and particularly at Beth El have had a very close and cooperative relationship with our local Chabad rabbi, Rabbi Margolin and with his family. I “think the world” of the Margolins; I treasure their friendship. We have worked together time and again on behalf of Judaism in this community. What divides us from Chabad is far less than what unites us. There are so many examples of that cooperation and I wish I had the time to share some of them.

Suffice it to say this. About 10 years ago, a book about the Rebbe and his followers called The Rebbe’s Army became a best seller. It detailed some of the tension between Chabad and the established Jewish denominations. But on page 123, it talked about one major exception, the close relationship in Norfolk, Va. between Congregation Beth El and the local Chabad. Look it up. I am proud of that ongoing relationship and I am glad to say it continues.

July 1971. June 1994. June 2014. The last Rabbi of Lubavitch shaped Judaism in his generation and infused life into the American Jewish community. He may not have been Hamelech Hamashiach, but he was a giant. A true “Gadol” of Jewish life. We remember the Rebbe today, 20 years after his passing; we remember him with love, with affection, with respect and with the deepest reverence.

—Rabbi Arthur Ruberg, rabbi emeritus, Congregation Beth El