Why the Lubavitch Movement Thrives in the Absence of a Living Rebbe

by | in Jewish World

By Jack Wertheimer

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Lubavitch Chassidism is a movement of many paradoxes. Upon the Rebbe’s passing and with no evident successor in sight, many observers expected the movement to wither; twenty years later, it has never been stronger or more influential. Much has been made of its Messianic wing—those Lubavitchers convinced that the Rebbe is the Mashiach and never really died—and yet its thousands of emissaries work energetically to rebuild Jewish life as if everything depends upon them, rather than on a redeeming Messiah. Though Chabad emissaries eschew a denominational label, referring to themselves as simply Jewish, the warm, welcoming hospitality of Chabad families has altered the way hundreds of thousands of non-Orthodox Jews around the globe perceive Orthodoxy. Meanwhile, some of Chabad’s most scathing Orthodox critics refer to the movement as “the religion closest to Judaism,” even as religious texts produced by Lubavitch rabbis are increasingly studied in all kinds of yeshivot and kollelim.

From an outsider’s perspective, the most striking—and surprising—aspect of Lubavitch Chassidism is its resilience in overcoming the loss of its Rebbe, and its ability to rebound without an heir to take his place. Chassidim, after all, have always relied on the guiding hands of tzaddikim, as their leaders were initially called. Only the Breslover sect has managed to continue without a living Rebbe. And yet twenty years after the death of the movement’s revered leader, Chabad1 flourishes and continually extends its reach.

The most visible expression of this flourishing is the steady growth in Chabad’s outreach efforts. Currently, 4,000 shluchim, emissaries, are scattered across the globe, up from roughly 1,240 at the time of the Rebbe’s death. In fact, the actual number of emissaries is much higher, since shluchim are all married, and therefore come as married pairs; even their children serve as role models. Lubavitch teens also spend their adolescent years traveling from one center to the next, honing their skills as outreach workers.

Thanks to the efforts of these emissaries and their helpers, a Chabad center may be found in every corner of the globe—in cities lacking a sizeable Jewish population, such as Mumbai, Seoul and Kinshasa, and in thriving centers of Jewish life, such as Manhattan, Los Angeles, Jerusalem and Melbourne. Chabad centers provide kosher food, minyanim and Shabbat hospitality to locals and out-of-towners; they offer services to Jewish students on college campuses, to families with children with disabilities, to Jews affiliated with other synagogues and to Jews lacking any affiliation. Sixty years after the Rebbe sent forth the first shluchim, their availability is taken for granted by Jews of all stripes. (So much so that an Israeli professor jokingly anticipated that when the first astronauts land on Mars, they likely will be welcomed by a Chabad rabbi.)

But to focus solely on the shluchim and shluchot is to overlook the rest of what journalist Sue Fishkoff correctly described as “the Rebbe’s army.” For if the emissaries form the front line, a rear guard of Lubavitchers aid and sustain their efforts. First, there are several hundred back office people who run the organizational enterprise. This includes the staff of Chabad.org, the most visited Jewish web site in the world, which claims tens of millions of hits each year from online readers situated in 236 countries and territories. Other support staffers provide services for Chabad’s rapidly growing network of Hebrew schools, Friendship Circles (a network of support groups for parents of children with disabilities), print publications and educational initiatives. Among the latter is the Jewish Learning Institute, the largest educational program for Jewish adults in the world (with the possible exception of the Daf Yomi enterprise), which currently enrolls over 66,000 teens and adults at some 850 sites around the world, each following a prescribed course of study according to a set timetable. Participants can travel from one city to the next or one country to another without missing a beat.

And beyond the staffers, there is a larger movement of Lubavitch Chassidim who derive no income from their Chabad activities but further the overall effort by volunteering their time and service, offering financial support and spreading the teachings of their movement in all kinds of Jewish settings. Contrary to a common misperception, Lubavitch is far from the largest Chassidic sect. But its impact far exceeds its numerical strength because such a high proportion of its followers volunteer for service either as shluchim or as supporters of the movement’s work.

How might we account for this sustained activity so long after the Rebbe’s death? A more cynical take might stress the financial gain involved; after all, the Chabad enterprise provides an income to thousands of families. It would be naïve to dismiss the economic incentives, even as it would be foolish to ignore the sacrifices made by families who choose to live far from centers of Jewish life. One can imagine there are easier ways of earning a living entailing fewer hardships for observant families than a posting in the Congo, South Korea or Siberia.

Many . . . innovations are possible because of the remarkable blend of mission and experimentation that Chabad seems to encourage.

It is far more likely that non-material factors play a more determinative role in driving the Chabad enterprise. One is the continuing inspiration derived by Lubavitch Chassidim from the teachings of the seventh and last Rebbe. Over the past twenty years, an outpouring of his writing has continued unabated, with no letup in sight. These include over 100 volumes of talks he gave at farbrengen (as understood by those who transcribed them at a later time), tens of thousands of his letters published in some thirty volumes and notebooks found in his private office after his death. For his followers—and for many who are not Lubavitchers—these posthumously published volumes continue to spread his teachings of Torah. Many claim to be moved by the depth of learning and the inspiration they offer. As one Lubavitch rabbi put it to me, “those ideas are very much what drive the movement today, and having access to them is obviously very crucial.”

A second factor is the fascinating interplay between individual initiatives and movement discipline. The Lubavitch movement is highly decentralized, even as efforts are made to bring about a measure of coordination. The most obvious efforts to coordinate occur at two annual conventions held in New York, one for shluchim and the second, at a different date, for shluchot. Like all conventions, these are centered on the exchange of ideas and the spotlighting of best practices, or at least of new initiatives that seem to be successful. To take one example, a few years ago, before the new social media were omnipresent, a shaliach taught a workshop on the opportunities presented by Facebook. Or to cite a different example of coordinating efforts, the Jewish Learning Institute mentioned above will not permit anyone who has not attended a week-long seminar on how to present a newly developed course to teach its courses. Needless to say, leading officials based in Crown Heights also exert influence behind the scenes.

But even as the movement strives to coordinate, it gives enormous latitude to shluchim. The freedom granted to individuals unlocks a good deal of creativity and a spirit of innovation. To cite a few examples, the head of one Chabad Hebrew school had the idea of combining her interest in karate with the challenge of teaching Hebrew language skills rapidly. She developed a program called Aleph Champ, complete with multiple levels of attainment ranging from white belt to black belt, to motivate students to learn the decoding of Hebrew characters and words in a short amount of time. The national head of Chabad’s Hebrew school network is fully conversant with texts produced by the Conservative and Reform movements, drawing upon these resources when they are useful. And in the realm of cyber innovation, Chabad staff have quickly harnessed the new technologies for their own ends. All of these and many other innovations are possible because of the remarkable blend of mission and experimentation that Chabad seems to encourage—and a fearlessness about learning from others, whether Jews or gentiles.

It’s hard to escape the conclusion that this approach to empowerment was fostered by the Rebbe himself. Not only did he experiment with new forms of outreach, such as the much-ridiculed Mitzvah Tanks, he encouraged what in American parlance would be called a “can-do” spirit. As early as 1951 he sought to embolden his followers to abandon their timidity: “Orthodox Jewry up to this point has concentrated on defensive strategies. We were always worried, lest we lose positions and strongholds. But we must take the initiative and wage an offensive.” Given the realities of Orthodox Judaism at the time, his contemporaries might be forgiven had they regarded the author of these words as a madman. And yet he persevered and took as one of his mottos the words of the third Lubavitcher Rebbe, “Think good and it will be good.” The Rebbe exuded a spirit of optimism and confidence that continues to shape the outlook of Chabad to the present day and spurs its innovation and expansion.

That expansion, needless to say, is not welcomed universally. Chabad has been sharply criticized by rabbinic leaders of all stripes. Reform, Conservative and Orthodox rabbis have resented the competition, if not outright poaching of congregants, by quite a few Chabad rabbis. “Why do they have to open up shop down the street from us?” is a lament I have heard from all kinds of rabbis, including Orthodox ones. Conservative and Reform rabbis also regard their Chabad counterparts as opportunists, all too eager to run programs in other people’s shuls, but unwilling to reciprocate the invitation to non-Chabad rabbis. And then there is criticism about ways Chabad has upended the business model of synagogues by not charging dues, relying instead on fees for services and voluntary contributions. When it comes to the price of seats for the Yamim Noraim or Hebrew school tuition or membership fees, Chabad centers undercut the costs charged by neighboring synagogues. And to add insult to injury, congregations that require a minimum number of years in their Hebrew schools as a prerequisite for celebrating a bar or bat mitzvah in their synagogues discover, to their dismay, that Chabad rabbis will waive such requirements.

Within the Orthodox world, this kind of corner cutting evokes the strongest reaction. Because Chabad is engaged in outreach to non-observant Jews, it inevitably runs up against a long list of halachically dicey situations, ranging from accepting children of gentile mothers into Hebrew schools to teaching Torah to gentiles married to Jews; from inviting non-observant Jews to Shabbat gatherings from which they will leave by car to counting non-observant Jews as part of a minyan. And beyond the complicated questions of how to apply Jewish law to non-observant Jews, there is the larger question of ends and means: If, as is the case, the large majority of Chabad outreach—or any other kind of Orthodox outreach—does not result in very high rates of non-observant Jews becoming shomrei mitzvot, what is the purpose of the entire enterprise?

For Lubavitch Chassidim, the answer is clear: every Jew has a spark that may be ignited at any time and under unpredictable circumstances. One of the most prominent Modern Orthodox supporters of Chabad efforts tells the following story at his own expense: After running a beginner’s service for the High Holidays, he traveled to 770 Eastern Parkway after the holiday to share his enthusiasm. “Rebbe, you will be pleased to know that we had 180 people for Rosh Hashanah services who came to us with no background.” When the Rebbe did not react, he repeated his words, this time in a louder voice. “We had 180 people for Rosh Hashanah services who came to us with no background.” The Rebbe rebuked him, “How can you say such a thing? How can you say that they have no background? They have a background; they are the children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”2 Inspired by such an expansive and generous pan-Jewish outlook, the followers of the Rebbe persevere—and thrive—in his absence.

Dr. Jack Wertheimer is a professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary. He writes on the history of American Jewish religious, communal and educational activities since World War II.

Notes

1. The terms Lubavitch and Chabad tend to be used interchangeably. It is probably more correct to refer to Lubavitchers as the adherents of the Chassidic movement, whereas Chabad refers to organized efforts by some Lubavitchers to engage in outreach.

2. Joseph Telushkin relates this incident in “What the Rebbe Taught,” the New York Jewish Week, June 19, 2012.

This article was featured in Jewish Action Summer 2014.

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