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The Rebbe: Bring Judaism to the Jews

The Rebbe: Bring Judaism to the Jews

A journalist’s conversation with Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson in the mid-1950’s

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Photo: Lubavitch Archives
Photo: Lubavitch Archives

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, leader of Chabad-Lubavitch Hassidim worldwide, is a direct descendant of the founder of the Chabad movement, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi.

In order to receive an audience with the Rebbe one needs to make an appointment months in advance. Of course, if an urgent matter arises, it’s possible to wait only a couple of weeks and in case of an emergency one can see the Rebbe even sooner.

I waited close to two months for this interview.

The young Rebbe regularly receives guests late in the evening. He sits in his office and listens to each person’s issues, at times until midnight.

It was almost midnight when our two hour conversation ended.

When you speak to the youth they do not want the easy way out. Challenges do not scare them. The Rebbe spoke about the responsibility of American Jewry to the rest of the world and to the youth in particular.

When I asked the Rebbe how he feels about the spiritual awakening of the American Jewish youth, he responded “This is possible because we came to the youth with what they always longed for. For many years Jewish leaders chose not to openly engage the Jewish community. They preferred to pursue an insular approach. We changed that. Because of this, we were able to give the youth what they have been longing for.”

He also explained that it’s time Orthodox Jewry “go to the youth” instead of waiting for them “to arrive.”

“In the shtetl, when Judaism was passed on from generation to generation, the rabbis could relax and sit at home with the knowledge that Jews of all ages would approach them whenever necessary. But America is very different. Here we must find the youth, awaken them and strengthen them.

“We need to speak in their language,” continued the Rebbe. “The great success of Orthodoxy in America in recent years is because we spoke to the youth about a complete, sincere and true Judaism.

“When you speak to the youth they do not want the easy way out. Challenges do not scare them. The same is for Judaism - they want a sincere and true Judaism, just like everything else in life. Children and teenagers dislike insincerity. The American youth does not want a Judaism that is 50/50. When you give a young man the complete picture of Judaism, he sees and feels that it’s 100 percent the real thing.

“Sometimes, a person cannot undertake to perform all of Judaism, so in the meantime he takes on fifty percent or even less. But he knows that he’s on the correct path and he knows he’s dealing with the right merchandise.”

The American youth does not want a Judaism that is 50/50. When you give a young man the complete picture of Judaism, he sees and feels that it’s 100 percent the real thing. The Rebbe emphasized that he was not chastising anybody. “Chabad never dwelled on chastising just for the sake of it. The way of Chabad is action and activities!”

This has always been the way of Chabad-Lubavitch, even on the other side of the ocean. And this is what Chabad continued to promote when the sixth Chabad Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, arrived in the United States in 1940.

The Rebbe is vigorously investing in Judaism here in the United States and his activities and teachings are spreading to Europe, Israel, Africa and Australia.

The Rebbe’s youthfulness and scientific knowledge possibly explain why university students come to him so often with questions on Judaism and science. Groups from Columbia University, New York College, City College and the students of rabbinical seminaries arrive at his door. No matter how busy he is, he always greets them in a beloved manner.1

The fact is, American Jewish youth instinctively feel that in Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson they have someone who understands them.

Part II of an excerpt from Yiddishkeit in America (Judaism in America) published in 1958, freely translated from the yiddish.

Read part I: The Rebbe: American Jewry’s Historical Mission.

Footnotes
1.
Editor's note: read several sample audiences with college students: What is the Purpose of Life?, What is the Purpose of Anxiety?, The Rebbe Speaks to College Students, What Is Judaism?.
Asher Penn was a journalist for the Forward.
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