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Rebbe of the Abandoned and the Privileged

Rebbe of the Abandoned and the Privileged

Who Sat Shiva for the Rebbe?

Photo: Yossi Melamed
Photo: Yossi Melamed

Who sat shiva for the Lubavitcher Rebbe? Technically, no one; in reality, almost everyone.

Due to a technicality – a tragic one, at that – there was no formal shiva for Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of blessed memory.

He left no family and, therefore, no obligated mourners.

He did, however, leave a bereaved Jewish world, which lost a man of great spiritual and intellectual intensity, a heroic human being of incalculable strength but, most of all, an uncompromising and unconditional lover of Jews individually and the Jewish people as a whole.

Most of what has been written and said since the Rebbe's passing focused on what will happen after: How will Chabad chassidism survive? What will be the fate of the Lubavitcher movement? Will there be another Rebbe and, if so, who?

In the period of mourning, however, our focus ought properly to be on what we lost and, therefore, what he was.

What he was is epitomized by the following story.

The Rebbe saw every Jew as family, as having the same background, that of our Patriarchs and Matriarchs, and, therefore, as having the same potential for a full Jewish life.One of his great admirers and devoted followers, George Rohr, who created and conducts the beginners service in our congregation, Kehilath Jeshurun, came to the Rebbe three years ago, right after Rosh Hashanah.

Rohr told him proudly, "Rebbe, you will be pleased to know that we had 180 people for Rosh Hashanah services, Jews with no background." The Rebbe's eyes flashed and he responded: "You're wrong; they have a background. Go tell them that they are the children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah!"

This response encapsulates a worldview with love of your fellow at its core.

The Rebbe saw every Jew as family, as having the same background, that of our Patriarchs and Matriarchs, and, therefore, as having the same potential for a full Jewish life.

To help each of us realize that potential, the Rebbe reinvented outreach, a philosophy that is fundamental to Chabad chassidism—"And you shall expand outward to the west and east, to the north and south" (Genesis 28:14)—and made it into a powerful movement which literally moved people all over the world.

It was the Rebbe who reached out to the abandoned. The Rebbe's outreach, which spawned a variety of similar efforts by various Jewish groups, expressed itself on four levels.

The first was outreach to the abandoned. The Rebbe sent emissaries all over the world to Jews who otherwise would have been forgotten.

These emissaries went simply because the Rebbe told them to go.

They entrenched themselves in communities and usually brought about the most blessed results.

I saw three of those emissaries 10 years ago in Casablanca; they had been there for between 25 and 30 years.

It is impossible to imagine Jewish life in Morocco without these three rabbis and their families.

Rabbi Haskel Lookstein
Rabbi Haskel Lookstein

I saw Lubavitcher emissaries in Russia during the early days of the Soviet Jewry movement, working feverishly to bring about a spiritual revival.

These were people who under other circumstances would have left to go to Israel or other places. They remained because the Rebbe told them to remain.

I saw Lubavitcher emissaries creating a religious life in Ladispoli, outside of Rome, where tens of thousands of Russian Jewish émigrés passed through on their way to the West or to Israel.

They literally had no background except for their own origin with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

The Lubavitchers created a school and a network of social and educational institutions to bring to these people for the first time in their lives the knowledge, the feeling and the spirit of Judaism.

On a visit with the UJA Rabbinic Cabinet to Ladispoli, one of my colleagues from another movement expressed annoyance that the Lubavitchers seemed to have a monopoly on Jewish life there.

I asked him: "Are there Reform rabbis here? Are there any Conservatives? How about Modern Orthodox? No one is here," I said, "except the emissaries of the Rebbe."

It was the Rebbe who reached out to the abandoned.

The second level of outreach was to the uninformed and the uninitiated. The second level of outreach was to the uninformed and the uninitiated.

The Rebbe created "mitzvah tanks" which roamed the streets of New York and other places. How many of us were stopped on Fifth Avenue and asked, "Did you put on tefillin today? Did you make a blessing on the lulav today? Would you like to come in to our mobile sukkah and make a blessing?"

There was a philosophy here, a philosophy which said that it is our job to get a Jew to do one mitzvah. One never knows the infinite significance of one righteous act, and where it will lead—and it led many people to a much fuller expression of their Judaism than before.

The outreach to the uninformed and uninitiated was extended to the college campuses where Chabad Houses are frequently found, campuses which we all know constitute a disaster for Jewish continuity.

Lubavitch is in El Paso, the Hamptons and the far-flung reaches of America.

Sometimes, these outposts create problems in the community. Not always do they bring people together. Occasionally, they even create divisiveness. No movement is without its failures and blemishes. But, on the whole, Chabad is where Jews are and, particularly, Jews with little background except for Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.

A third level of outreach is to the religiously committed. A third level of outreach is to the religiously committed.

To this group the Rebbe called for greater commitment.

Learn the Rambam (Maimonides), he said, and he started a whole program to achieve it. Write Torah scrolls. Give charity.

He was once known to tell an observant Jew that he should think about G‑d while engaged in business during the week.

The Jew was surprised. "How can I think about G‑d while I am working in business?" The Rebbe, with his wonderful sense of humor, responded, "Many people don't seem to have a problem thinking about business while they are in synagogue. Why not think about synagogue and G‑d when in business?"

There was hardly one of us who was not touched and inspired by the Rebbe's call and outreach to the committed religious community.

Finally, there was his personal outreach.

Beyond the movement, beyond the calls to action, there was a man who was ready to meet any Jew, day or night.

How many of us were privileged to stand before him, if only for two minutes, and see those deep blue, sparkling eyes focus on us individually, somehow to see through our masks, understand, and offer a word and a dollar for charity, to give us comfort, encouragement and inspiration.

I remember such an opportunity on a Sunday morning, the first day of the Jewish month of Sivan.

There were 3,000 people on line waiting to meet the Rebbe.

What I only learned afterwards was that it was reportedly the practice of the Rebbe not to sleep Friday nights or on the night of the first day of the month.

Therefore, when he stood and focused on me and my needs and was preparing to do the same for 3,000 others, he had not slept for over 48 hours.

He was 87 years old at the time.

This was nothing short of an heroic act of strength on the part of a man who was inspired by his unquenchable love for all Jews – the abandoned, the disaffiliated, the affiliated – all Jews, a love expressed in his programs, his policies and most of all, his person.

Who sat shiva for the Rebbe? Technically, no one; in reality, almost everyone.

Rabbi Haskel Lookstein is the spiritual leader of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York City and the principal of the Ramaz School.
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rahel July 26, 2012

beautiful... I miss him too. I light a yartzeit candle for him. He helped bring me home. Reply

Rivka Baltuch ny via July 6, 2011

Beautiful, Rabbi Lookstein.
Thank you! Reply

rivka June 16, 2010

thank you thank you for this beautiful piece and all the images in it that brought color for us. I'm not Lubavitch and it was a privilege to read an insider's view. Lubavitch or not, we've all benefited from the Rebbe's work. Reply

izzy ny June 15, 2010

beautiful! I miss the Rebbe! Reply

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