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Beyond Borders: International Jewish Renaissance

Beyond Borders: International Jewish Renaissance



Central to the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov and his disciples was an enthusiastic ethos of inclusivism and expansion, expressed in the promise that the Messiah would come when the wellsprings of Chassidism spread to the outside.1 But over the next two hundred years, modern movements calling for religious reform and cultural assimilation put religious Jewry on the defensive. This defensive stance only intensified in the aftermath of communist oppression and the Holocaust. The center of Chassidism in Eastern Europe was obliterated, and the survivors in Israel, the United States and elsewhere were fighting to resurrect and preserve their traditional way of life. To achieve this, many religious leaders turned inward, building a cultural wall in the hope it would preserve their communities from the wider influences of society.2

The Rebbe took a very different approach, turning Chabad into a movement with global reach and impact. He reminded his chassidim that, historically, Chabad leaders had sought not only the welfare of their own communities, but the physical and spiritual betterment of the Jewish nation generally. Though Chabad’s specific mission is to spread the mystical teachings of Chassidism, “the inner secrets of Torah,” in the face of a broader crisis Chabad chassidim“The very fact that you hear about a Jew in a faraway place, indicates that you must act upon it.” must prioritize the most basic physical and spiritual needs of all Jews, everywhere.3

Under the leadership of the previous rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak, Chabad had already taken steps to stem the tide of assimilation in the United States, primarily through educational institutions and publications, but also by dispatching emissaries to visit Jews in cities and rural towns, and sometimes to take up permanent rabbinic positions.4 In the first decade of his leadership the Rebbe exponentially advanced these initiatives to an international scale, sending representatives as far afield as Madagascar5 and posting newly married couples to locations as varied as England,6 Morocco7 and Italy.8

“The very fact that you hear about a Jew in a faraway place,” the Rebbe taught, “indicates that you must act upon it.”9

Initially, few realized the breadth of the Rebbe’s vision,10 nor did they imagine that the young men and women acting as his emissaries (shluchim) would so successfully pioneer a global renaissance of Jewish life, learning and practice. Some saw little point in traveling through remote towns and cities in the hope of meeting and influencing a single unaffiliated or nonpracticing Jew. Even more ambitious was the notion that a young couple could breathe new life and growth into some remote community. Why leave the material and spiritual security of a developed Jewish community for one where the kosher food was scarce and where the most basic institutions of Jewish life, including synagogues, mikvaot and schools, would need to be built from scratch?11

In the summer of 1955, the Rebbe told a story countering the complacency such arguments embody. A rabbinical student wearing a beard and traditional Jewish garb, including tzitzit and a yarmulke, was seen passing through an American town. An observer thought him to be from Poland or Galicia until he overheard him discussing profound chassidic concepts in perfect English, and was told that this young chassid was actually from Boston. The fact that an intelligent young American could carry his identity as a chassid with such confidence so impressed this observer that his entire attitude towards Judaism changed.Jewish leadership is about breaking beyond boundaries to bring ultimate redemption to the entire world. The student had not interacted with him directly, the Rebbe related, but their encounter was the seminal catalyst that led him to eat kosher food and practice other mitzvot. Until today, the Rebbe concluded, that student may not even know of the impact he made, nor can anyone know how far the consequences will carry, affecting not only that individual, but his neighbors and family for generations to come.12

In 1957, the Rebbe began referencing the biblical promise to the patriarch Jacob with increasing frequency: “Your children will be like the dust of the earth, and you shall burst forth (ufaratzta) west and east, and north and south, and with you and with your children all the nations of the earth shall be blessed.”13 In the summer of 1958, the Rebbe delivered several lengthy expositions on this verse, articulating a vision of expansive inclusivism that would break beyond all boundaries and bring the blessings of Judaism to all the earth.14

For the Rebbe, this was at once a deeply mystical concept and one that could be realized in the most practical terms. The four directions mentioned in the verse, he explained, signify the earthly divisions that obscure G‑d’s all-encompassing unity. The teachings of Torah and the practice of mitzvot are vehicles to make all existence transparent to G‑d’s transcendent purpose.15 “Ufaratzta—you shall break forth” became the rallying call of the Rebbe’s global mission, standing for everything that was different about his approach to Jewish leadership.16 Jewish leadership is not about defending boundaries. Jewish leadership is about breaking beyond boundaries to bring ultimate redemption to the entire world, revealing infinite divinity everywhere.17

Today, the success of the Rebbe’s strategy is clear for all to see. Some four thousand emissary couples run three and half thousand institutions in more than eighty countries. Globally, they reach tens of millions of people every year.

See sources cited in Loewenthal, “The Baal Shem Tov’s ‘Iggeret Ha-Kodesh’ and Contemporary Habad ‘Outreach,’” in Assaf and Rapoport-Albert, “Let the Old Make Way for the New”—Studies in the Social and Cultural History of Eastern European Jewry (The Zalman Shazar Center for Jewish History, 2009).
See sources cited in Loewenthal, “The Hasidic Ethos and the Schisms of Jewish Society,” Jewish History 27 (2013): 377–398.
See the Rebbe’s talk of 10 Shevat 1975, viewable here. See also Loewenthal cited in note 1.
See Levine, Toldot Chabad be-Artzot ha-Brit.
See the testimony of Rabbi Yosef Wineberg, viewable here.
See the testimony of Rabbi Nachman Sudak, viewable here .
See this letter to Rabbi Michael Lipsker, and sources cited in editor’s notes.
See the testimony of Mrs. Bassie Garelik, viewable here.
Public talk delivered on Purim 1968, viewable here.
Mrs. Reba Sharfstein and her husband were sent by the Rebbe on shlichus to Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1954, but didn’t realize he intended them to remain there permenantly until the Rebbe suggested they buy a house. See her testimony here.
Later the Rebbe would draw parallels between the hardships that his shluchim would face and those envisioned by President John F. Kennedy when he announced the establishment of the United States Peace Corps in 1961. See here.
Viewable here.
See Torat Menachem, vol. 18, pp. 142–148 and 250–256.
The words of this verse are often sung to a lively march tune; you can listen to it here. You can also here it being sung at a farbrengen led by the Rebbe, here at 6:04.
See sources cited above, note 14.
Eli Rubin studied Chassidic literature and Jewish Law at the Rabbinical College of America and at Yeshivot in the UK, the US and Australia. He has been a research writer and editor at since 2011, focusing on the social and intellectual history of Chabad Chassidism. Through his writing, research, and editorial work he has successfully participated in a range of scholarly interchanges and collaborative endeavors.
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Eli Rubin July 4, 2014

Universal Responsibility - Reply to L R You are absolutely right that profound responsibility towards the well-being of all humanity has always been central to Judaism. This was highlighted by the Rebbe himself on many, many occasions, as described in a later article in this series, titled "Universal Responsibility: Faith, Education and Humanity." You can view this article at the following url: Reply

L R NY July 1, 2014

Historic Honesty long overdue Dear Rabbis,
Because of the many moral claims and the positions of power, Rabbinical Judaism has a profound responsibility towards the well-being of, not only the Jewish People and the Jewish Culture, but to Humanity itself. The present day overzealous allegories can no longer be justified in light of the gruesome reality of history, the Inquisition and the Holocaust being a living testimony.

If Historic Honesty is not addressed and embraced, International Jewish Renaissance is no more than a superficial cosmetic make-over of centuries of unlimited, and irresponsible, allegorical storytelling the priesthood.

In light of the usual stubbornness and self-righteousness, it would be a beam from heaven if, when attention could be given to this plea.

Our great great grand-kids deserve to be informed with true knowledge, true History. Historic Honesty is long overdue.
L'Chaim Reply

Twenty-eight articles, each encapsulating a period of the Rebbe’s life, and highlighting key themes that distinguish his ideas.
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