There are many ways to lie. Even the truth can lie.

What did they tell you about Chabad-Lubavitch and the Rebbe? That Chabad-Lubavitch is a wonderful organization with an effective strategy to reach out to Jews alienated by their Judaism and return them to tradition. That it has grown phenomenally in a few decades into a ubiquitous force in the Jewish world and in many parts of the globe has become the default Jewish establishment. That the Rebbe practically invented Jewish outreach and was the major force behind the miraculous resurrection of the Jewish people after the holocaust.

Art by Zalman Kleinman | Courtesy Rosa Kleinman | Via Zev Markowitz / Chai Art Gallery
Art by Zalman Kleinman | Courtesy Rosa Kleinman | Via Zev Markowitz / Chai Art Gallery

All true and very nice—like icing without the cake, gravy without potatoes.

If you want to know the real truth about Chabad-Lubavitch and the Rebbe, go speak to the KGB.

In the KBG’s prime, to be a Chabadnik in Russia was a deadly proposition. You taught young children in a different basement every night, not knowing which night the secret police would break down the door and catch you.

You built a mikvah with your bare hands in some (almost) G‑d-forsaken town in Siberia, knowing they would demolish it within months.

You fanned whatever flames you could of Jewish heritage, knowing that one day, they would come and take you away, interrogate you, beat you, torture you, and then send you off to a forced labor camp in Siberia to die of starvation, exhaustion and exposure, leaving your wife destitute, your children helpless orphans.

The previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson (1880-1950), was himself arrested seven times. The seventh time, a firing squad was waiting for him. By miracle, his execution was stalled and under international pressure he was eventually released.1

Alexander Nikolayevich knew those Chabadniks well. He was a consultant on religion to the KGB officers in charge of their persecution. Post-Glasnost and post-retirement, he found himself in charge of Memorial, a Russian civil rights society that attempts to right the wrongs of past and present.

Betzalel Schiff is an Israeli Chabadnik, younger brother of the legendary Berke Schiff, one of the outstanding rebels the KGB failed to catch. Betzalel came to Nikolayevich looking for records of Chabad-Lubavitch heroes and heroines, particularly the records of Mummeh Sarah ("Aunt Sarah") Katzenelenboigen, one of the most vital agents of the Chabad-Lubavitch resistance in the Stalinist era. Nikolayevich had all the connections.

Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation
Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation

Glasnost had come, the communist party had left, but Nikolayevich was still at his desk—most often at the Lubyanka, this time at the Russian Foreign Ministry. His office was perched high in one of those buildings the old regime had built to chill the bones of every citizen that enters.

Schiff had chutzpah. He walked in and handed Nikolayevich a gift: four large photo-albums of Chabad-Lubavitch families doing Jewish outreach work around the globe. Some pages were marked. Schiff told him why: these were the pictures of those who were children and grandchildren of the men and women Nikolayevich had helped to incarcerate.

Nikolayevich stared at the images and shook his head, his old heart skipping a beat. Then he turned to his secretary. "Look at their faces!" he exclaimed. "They are happy! Look at their eyes! They are strong!"

And then he sat back and pondered.

"If only I had known." Nikolayevich shook his head again. "If only I had known what kind of people I was up against!"

He leaned forward on his desk, furrowed his grey brow and spoke directly to Schiff. "I was in your headquarters, you know. And not just to be a tourist. I had a mission. Without much difficulty, I found it —even though you hide it in a basement."

It's true. 770 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, N.Y., is the address of Chabad-Lubavitch world headquarters. From the street, take the steps downstairs and you find yourself in a hall that feels somewhere between a busy train station and a warehouse. A turbulent sea of bearded men form clusters large and small for prayer, study, song and heated discussion. Rough wooden benches and tables are the only furniture and tens of thousands of books are strewn everywhere in disarray.

Believe it or not, this is the main synagogue. And upstairs is not much different.

"So why do you think Schneerson has his synagogue in a basement?" the old spy asked, tightening his wrinkled eyes. "The Schneersons don't have money?"

Nikolayevich continued. "I was inside that synagogue. There were many people. Very busy. But this is America, I thought. Where are the plush chairs? Where are the fancy crystal chandeliers? The deep carpets? Nowhere! It is a basement and it looks like a basement!

"I saw the Chassidim sitting on the hard wooden benches and eating on wooden tables without even a tablecloth. And what did they eat? Tuna fish and bread with vodka! I thought, 'This is what you have to eat in America?' Why? Why does Schneerson have his Chassidim live this way?

"It was then that I confirmed my suspicion of many years. Then that I realized that which I should always have known."

Nikolayevich leaned forward once again. "You people are not just another religious sect. You are revolutionaries.You people are not just another religious sect. You are revolutionaries. Partisans! You are partisans.

"This is how you operate: In small groups taking sudden unpredictable action, with strong bonds of brotherhood between you, with complete devotion to your leader and to your cause. Partisans.

"We know about your first leader, seven generations ago, he also sat here in the Czar's prison. He, too, was a revolutionary. Two hundred years ago. Seven generations! You are seven generations of revolutionaries!

"I know your history before that, as well. How did you begin? As slaves rebelling against their masters in Egypt! And every year, you eat the hard, flat bread that rebel slaves eat, to remember that this is who you really are, that you are rebels.

"And that is why your Rebbe wants you to pray in a basement, just as rebel partisans live, eating the food that partisans eat on hard wooden benches, even though you live in the richest country in the world. Because Schneerson wants you to always remember: You are not bourgeois Americans! You are revolutionaries! You are partisans!"

No, even Alexander Nikolayevich does not fully understand. Why are we still partisans when we live freely in every part of the globe? Is Chabad simply calcified into an anachronistic stance of defiance? What is the revolution we are fighting? Where is the oppressor?

But at least he has a clue:We began as revolutionaries. And so that is who we truly are. We began as revolutionaries. And so that is who Jews truly are.

How did Abraham become father of us all? As a recalcitrant teenager smashing the idols in his father's house. Moses killed a taskmaster and led a slave revolt. The prophets preached world peace and social reform at the risk of their lives when ruthless despotism and dictatorship were the norm. The Maccabees fought history's first struggle for religious freedom. Akiva led a revolt against Roman government and Roman aristocracy.

Every radical idea you know that has transformed human society—the doctrine of innate human dignity, of social justice, purpose, progress, world peace, a G‑d that cares about His world and hears the cry of the poor and the oppressed—you won't trace these to the Greeks or the Persians or the Chinese, but to the Jews and to the Jews alone. To the vision of Abraham that the world is not the way it is supposed to be and to the voice at Sinai that told us how to set it right.

What happened? We spent two thousand years as birds nesting in the lion's mouth.

When the Reformation swept Europe and the lion itself began to mimic our ways, Jewish leadership saw a choice before them: Either turn outward towards anomy and extinction—or turn even more inward, as a turtle escapes into its shell. The mission of reforming humankind took a back seat to the preservation of tradition.

Where once we were driven by a prophetic vision of world peace and an era of wisdom and human dignity, now we simply yearned for relief from oppression, like an afflicted man praying for his headache to go away.

So that by the time the world seemed finally ripe to take on that vision, the only Jews to grab its horns were those already removed from the power of Torah and tradition. With rare exceptions—such as the Rebbe.

Chabad-Lubavitch is not just about the conservation of tradition, not just about Jewish continuity, not just about the past. Chabad-Lubavitch is, first and foremost, about a mystic view of the future—and a mystic's plan to achieve that future. The past is important only as a key to the future. Chabad is Abraham's vision alive today; the Rebbe was Moses playing his part in a modern, global theatre.

Now you can understand why the Rebbe met with so much friction when he spoke about the messianic era arriving soon. The critics were those for whom Judaism is about tradition, about conservation of our heritage, because, after all, we've been doing these things for so long. When a Jewish leader strove to reawaken the ancient yearning of the Jew for an ideal future and claimed it's just around the corner, that just didn't sound orthodox to them.

In that sense, the Rebbe was never "orthodox." The Rebbe was a revolutionary, a leader of partisans.