It was 1968, and America’s cities were aflame.

In April, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tenn., setting off riots in 125 cities. Whole neighborhoods burned, with parts of Washington, Baltimore and Chicago among the most devastated. It would take tens of thousands of National Guardsmen and U.S. Army troops days to restore order to the smoldering streets.

This wasn’t even the beginning; the United States had experienced outbreaks of rioting, violence and looting every year since 1962. Particularly bad were the 1965 Watts Riots in Los Angeles, which resulted in 34 dead and 1,000 injured. Two years later came the “long, hot summer” of 1967, leaving a slew of cities smoking and reducing places like Newark and Detroit to rubble.

The wave of social unrest would reach its crescendo in 1968. Much of it was a reaction to racial inequality, yet race was far from the only factor: Young people, many from affluent homes and leading universities, were violently protesting a wide range of real and imagined social ills, from the Vietnam War to capitalism at large. They flouted laws, fought with police and took over college campuses.

Violence was everywhere. King’s murder was followed two months later by the assassination of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, killed minutes after delivering a televised campaign speech in Los Angeles. Then, in August of ’68, an assortment of anti-war and counterculture protesters descended on the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, leading to days of clashes with police, images of which were broadcast around the world.

At the same time, the country was experiencing a rapid rise of street crime, with day-to-day life in many of America’s urban centers becoming increasingly unsafe. Vandalism, arson and drugs, muggings, rape and murder seemed to be the new normal. It felt as if everything was spiraling out of control.

That year, the Chassidic holiday of 19 Kislev—celebrating the liberation in 1798 of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, from imprisonment in czarist Russia—fell out on Dec. 10. It was a cold winter night in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and the RebbeRabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—marked the occasion with a farbrengen gathering in his synagogue at 770 Eastern Parkway. That evening, addressing thousands in the hall, including New York City officials, commissioners and judges, the Rebbe spoke directly to the root of America’s social crisis.

America appeared to be at a breaking point. Looking around at first glance, the Rebbe observed, the state of society at large did indeed appear hopeless. Not so in reality. “In whatever place and in whatever time an individual finds themselves in,” he stated in Yiddish, “each person is chosen and appointed to fulfill a particular purpose.”

The world, belonging to G‑d, could not be written off by mankind. He had created it and its people and charged them with perfecting it. G‑d does not give anyone a mission at which they cannot succeed; it was in their ability to do so.

Protesters and Chicago police officers clash in Grant Park during the Democratic National Convention, Aug. 28, 1968. (Credit: National Archives)
Protesters and Chicago police officers clash in Grant Park during the Democratic National Convention, Aug. 28, 1968. (Credit: National Archives)

No Justice, No Peace?

For Americans, perfecting the world required their confronting the issues of racial and economic injustice, but to do so effectively, the Rebbe said, it must be without recourse to lawlessness and violence.

Since its founding, the United States of America had stood as a beacon of hope and liberty for all. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” reads the poem by Emma Lazarus etched on the base of the Statue of Liberty. Yet even as the 1960s dawned, the nation that in Abraham Lincoln’s words was “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” still had a horrifying chapter of its history to contend with: its treatment of black people over centuries.

Beginning in the early 1600s and extending for a period of 200 years, millions of black men, women and children were brought in chains to the New World. Some 500,000 of them were brought to what is today the United States, and there were nearly 4 million slaves in the country just before their emancipation during the Civil War. However, over the next century black Americans continued to suffer grave persecution, often government-enforced, leaving their community with barriers to voting and access to education, unrepresented in government and overwhelmingly impoverished. It was high time for America to live up to its own ideals of “liberty and justice for all.”

This was precisely what King and the civil rights movement fought for. Heralded by King’s vision of nonviolent civil disobedience, the mid-1960s saw landmark accomplishments like the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, among other concrete actions. But as the decade came to a close, and especially after King’s assassination, some felt it was all too little too late and that a more aggressive approach was needed.

While the treatment and status of black Americans was the most obviously pressing moral imperative, many social activists wanted to apply this approach to the broader cause of progress. “Liberal solutions, restructuring, partial understandings, compromise are not allowed anymore,” is how Mark Rudd, one of the student leaders of the 1968 Columbia University uprising, put it. “The essence of the matter is that we are out for social and political revolution, nothing less.”

The chant “Burn, Baby, Burn” symbolized that violence was the way to forcibly create a more equitable society. An August 1967 issue of the New York Review of Books on “Violence and the Negro” featured a glamorized Molotov cocktail on its cover complete with a “how to” diagram, along with a piece by a white social activist extolling violence in the name of social change. A 1968 prison memoir by a militant Black Panther, in which he framed some of his most appalling crimes in ideological terms, was hailed as “brilliant and revealing” by The New York Times.

While the violence was destructive, at its heart there was a moral argument: America was inherently unjust, and the way to bring about a more equitable society was to begin by tearing down the existing one.

After all, was there anything civil about a little African American girl walking into school receiving death threats so bad she needed the protection of federal marshals? Or anything peaceful about white Alabama state troopers bringing billy clubs down upon the skulls of black people marching peacefully in Selma?

Civil-rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr. (left), Whitney Young and James Farmer (right) meet with President Lyndon B. Johnson at the White House in 1964. (Credit: Yoichi Okamoto via the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum)
Civil-rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr. (left), Whitney Young and James Farmer (right) meet with President Lyndon B. Johnson at the White House in 1964. (Credit: Yoichi Okamoto via the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum)

‘Redeem My Soul’

Whether violence could serve as a legitimate agent of positive social change and a viable path towards attaining what the Torah calls tzedakah umishpat, or “righteousness and justice,” was one of the questions the Rebbe confronted in his public talk that December evening in 1968. The Rebbe began the four-hour-long farbrengenduring which he also discussed the status of Jerusalem, discoursed on Tractate Yoma and explored the mitzvah of charity, all of it interspersed with song—expounding upon the words Padah veshalom nafshi or, “He redeemed my soul with peace.”

Rabbi Schneur Zalman was in the midst of reciting these words in Psalms (55:19) 170 years earlier when he received news of his miraculous deliverance. Explored at length in Chassidic thought, “He redeemed my soul with peace” communicated the essence of what had transpired: the great rabbi had experienced a complete personal redemption and also a vindication of his revolutionary Chassidic teachings.

As a leader of the Jewish people, Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s arrest and eventual liberation were not his challenge and triumph alone but laid out the road to redemption for all, beginning with the concept of shalom. This encompasses both the literal translation of shalom, “peace,” as in the opposite of war, but also drawing from its shared root with the word shalem, or “complete”—whole in mind, body and soul.

The Aug. 24, 1967 cover of the "New York Review of Books" included glamorized diagram of a Molotov cocktail.
The Aug. 24, 1967 cover of the "New York Review of Books" included glamorized diagram of a Molotov cocktail.

A central teaching of Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s Chabad philosophy was that humans must not allow themselves to be controlled solely by their emotions. Instead, they must endeavor to apply their intellect to everything around them, allowing it to guide and mold their emotions, and crucially, their actions, with intent and energy.

As the Rebbe explained in his talk, this idea—of not negating the emotions but infusing and uplifting them with intellect, and thus purpose—is a form of redemption on an individual level.

In the Jewish tradition the individual is referred to as the “small world,” but he or she is at the same time always in communion with the world around them, the “great world.” Citing the Midrash that “it is incumbent on each and every person to say the world was created for me,” the Rebbe explained that it was within every person’s power to effect in the world the Torah’s teachings “to pursue righteousness and justice.” But this all would—and could—only be accomplished through these same twin values of shalom: peace and wholeness.

A portion of the Yiddish-language talk was translated by Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, a member of the Rebbe’s secretariat who served as his press liaison, edited by the Rebbe, and released via Chabad’s wire service, Lubavitch News Service (LNS).

“[F]rom the time of Abraham, the first Jew, we were taught to practice righteousness and justice,” explained the Rebbe in the article. “It is, furthermore, incumbent upon each individual to bring these values of righteousness and justice into the world around him.”

But true redemption could only come about through the fundamental values endowed by G‑d to humanity to transform His world from chaos into order. Just as logic dictates the choice of good over evil, this being beneficial not only for the individual’s soul but for their material self, these same rules apply to the world around us.

“ ... Through acts of violence and destruction one abandons the path of righteousness and justice,” the Rebbe stated, “and eventually becomes destructive even to his family and, ultimately to himself.”

Violence, the Rebbe explained, could not be easily subdued. Easy gains brought about through such actions could only appear as such in the short term and would by nature sacrifice long-term progress in its wake. And a society that yielded to violence was not addressing injustice but rather dehumanizing the individuals it claimed to be helping, removing their agency and ability to return to their Divine mission.

“Anarchy must ultimately destroy the anarchist,” the Rebbe said in the LNS piece. “It is for the good of those who would be destructive to be restrained.”

In a G‑dly world, moral ends cannot justify immoral means and cannot possibly bring about a true, lasting and virtuous justice.

Mayor John Lindsay (right) meet with the Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—in the Rebbe's office at 770 Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, on Nov. 26, 1968.
Mayor John Lindsay (right) meet with the Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—in the Rebbe's office at 770 Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, on Nov. 26, 1968.

‘City Spiraling Into Hopelessness and Decay’

The Rebbe’s 19 Kislev address came within a broader context. Only two weeks earlier, on Nov. 26, 1968, New York City’s Mayor John Lindsay made his way to Crown Heights to meet with the Rebbe. While New York had escaped the decimation suffered by places like Newark—as Lindsay would point out in his reelection ads the next year—the city was still in a very difficult place.

“I saw you before the election, now in the middle,” the Rebbe tells Lindsay in the recorded conversation, later restored and released by Jewish Educational Media (JEM). You’ve had “very hard years in between.”

“They have been, yes,” responds a weary Lindsay.

Late 1968 was a time when “many New Yorkers felt their city was spiraling into hopelessness and decay,” writes historian Vincent Cannato in The Ungovernable City: John Lindsay and His Struggle to Save New York. Sympathetic to the bright-eyed young rebels of the counterculture movement, Lindsay and his administration had allowed antiwar protests and similar gatherings to transform New York’s Central Park into a lawless and dangerous territory. Prospect Park in Brooklyn was even worse, with overdosed dead teens regularly found in its bushes.

New York City’s crime rate skyrocketed after Lindsay’s 1965 election, seeing a 137 percent rise in murders. “The increase in crime was startling and disturbing,” writes Cannato. “[I]t was something every New Yorker could feel.”

Mayor John Lindsay gets a warm welcome in 1972 in the village of Kfar Chabad, Israel. (Credit: Moshe Milner/Government Press Office)
Mayor John Lindsay gets a warm welcome in 1972 in the village of Kfar Chabad, Israel. (Credit: Moshe Milner/Government Press Office)

If neighborhoods in the heart of New York City were slipping into the abyss, those on the geographic and socioeconomic perimeters resembled warzones, “Hamburg in 1945” the essayist Pete Hamill described them. Streets where children had once played handball were controlled by roaming gangs. In the most dangerous neighborhoods, it was the juvenility of the criminals and the inhumanity of their crimes that was most shocking. Muggers, some just kids, were attacking people coming off the subway in broad daylight. ‘Suspect, 18, Seized in Holdup Slaying,’ reads a typical late 1960s New York Times headline. When in April of 1967, a postal worker was stabbed to death at 2:30 p.m. on a street in Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, the Times noted police were seeking four young men between 16 and 18 years of age.

It wasn’t just crime; it seemed to be a total societal breakdown. Firefighters going on calls were attacked with bricks and bottles, even shot at. This prompted the New York Fire Department to develop a public relations campaign that featured the slogan: “Don’t fight the fireman—he’s your friend.”

As can be expected, many Jews living in New York City found themselves in a particularly difficult situation. In a three-month period beginning in September 1968, 10 synagogues and Jewish schools were vandalized, set on fire or even firebombed in New York City, including Congregation Torei Zohov and the Hebrew Institute of University Heights in the Bronx; and Yeshiva Shaarei Zedek and Yeshiva Torah Vodaath, both in Brooklyn.

The Rebbe’s own community in Crown Heights was likewise under fire. Jews had called its tree-lined streets home since the beginning of the century, but by 1968, the rapid rise in crime was causing many to flee for the suburbs. The Rebbe strongly opposed this trend, insisting that the Jews could not abandon their community and with it its most vulnerable members. The Rebbe was working to stabilize Jewish Crown Heights—a campaign he would take public six months later during the spring of 1969.

Jews had called Crown Heights home the beginning of the century, but by 1968, the rapid rise in crime was causing many to flee for the suburbs. The Rebbe (seen walking down Eastern Parkway in the fall of 1961) strongly opposed this trend, insisting that the Jews could not abandon their community, and with it, its most vulnerable members.
Jews had called Crown Heights home the beginning of the century, but by 1968, the rapid rise in crime was causing many to flee for the suburbs. The Rebbe (seen walking down Eastern Parkway in the fall of 1961) strongly opposed this trend, insisting that the Jews could not abandon their community, and with it, its most vulnerable members.

Another tension point was the Ocean Hill-Brownsville school strike, which in the fall of 1968 shut down all of New York’s public schools for a combined 37 days. The controversy came as a result of an attempt at social engineering on the part of Lindsay and his administration, pitting the United Federation of Teachers union, which was predominantly Jewish, against militant black leaders claiming to represent the Ocean Hill-Brownsville neighborhood adjoining Crown Heights. The resulting “bigotry and anti-Semitism … swept through New York like a virus,” wrote Cannato and co-author Jerald Podair in a 2018 Commentary article on the affair.

Lindsay was struggling. Having run on the promises of progress and peace, he was failing at both. Only a week after the strike ended, the Rebbe welcomed the mayor into his study. Instead of taking Lindsay to task, the Rebbe encouraged him: “[Y]ou have a special opportunity to show an example” of proper governance to the rest of the world, the Rebbe told him.

“I hope that … we can support you in your efforts to keep the community together and to keep it stable,” said Lindsay. “You’ve been doing a wonderful job on that … .”

“I’m trying to expand [the stabilization efforts],” the Rebbe responded, “but it can be done only if it’s in a peaceful atmosphere … .”

Foreshadowing his talk of two weeks hence, the Rebbe went on to advise Lindsay that proper policing and maintaining safe streets would benefit not only potential victims, but also aid the would-be criminals themselves, so often not much older than children.

The riots of the 1960s devastated whole neighborhoods, like this part of Detroit during the "long, hot summer" of 1967. (Credit: Phil Cherner via Wikimedia Commons)
The riots of the 1960s devastated whole neighborhoods, like this part of Detroit during the "long, hot summer" of 1967. (Credit: Phil Cherner via Wikimedia Commons)

“[I]t is beneficial for” the potential lawbreaker “because if [a young person becomes] used to easy … gains, then it’s very difficult for him to change his ways,” explained the Rebbe. If a strong effort is made to stop these young people early on in what the Rebbe referred to as their “so-called careers” as criminals, “ … then he [will have] nothing to do with jail or punishment, he [can become] a good citizen and in the course of time he’ll thank you for not letting him do something undesirable.”

The Rebbe would sound the theme of early prevention repeatedly over the next decades, especially when discussing the vital need for criminal justice reform. Early intervention through childhood moral education was the surest bet for success, and the earlier an individual’s course could be corrected, the better it would be for them themselves. Still, there was always hope and a path to rehabilitation.

“[Y]ou can always find in the Bible an indication on what to do and how to behave,” the Rebbe told Lindsay. “ In … Proverbs it is repeated many times that it is always easier to stop something … in the beginning than to let it go. … [Not] only beneficial for the robbed, but also beneficial for the potential robber.”

Very early the next morning, a yeshivah in the nearby Brooklyn neighborhood of East Flatbush was set ablaze by a group of teenage arsonists. It was the 11th attack on Jewish institutions in New York in three months.

Washington, D.C., 1968 (Credit: District Department of Transportation Historic Collections via Wikimedia Commons)
Washington, D.C., 1968 (Credit: District Department of Transportation Historic Collections via Wikimedia Commons)

Sovereignty of G‑d

Far from dismissing the grievances of those who cried out for justice, during that 19th of Kislev gathering the Rebbe spoke directly to its actualization.

“The philosophy of Chabad teaches first and foremost that man is a rational being and should not be ruled by his emotions,” the Rebbe said in the LNS report. “The application of heart and mind to all actions assures that every phase of one’s daily life will be infused with purpose, meaning and vitality.

“An extension of this doctrine is the injunction that the spiritual should control and influence the material, mundane and temporal. The approach should be not to abrogate the domain of the physical but rather permeate it with the radiance of the spiritual and the sublime. This perfect synthesis, a basic teaching of Chabad Chassidic thought, not only brings accord between two seemingly irreconcilable forces in life, but also enhances the qualities of each.”

The dominance of mind over matter is necessary on both the personal and societal levels. Just as the mind cannot allow the whims of the body to take over—indulging, for example, in unhealthy habits or dangerous activities—so too must the soul rule over the body as a whole. To continuously give in to the body’s corporal desires would not only not diminish its appetite, but encourage it.

An individual engaging in violence was certainly harming others and was also damaging him or herself. The best way to stop this was to reach him or her at the earliest stages of education by teaching the person as a child that this path would only lead to the individual’s own destruction, in both body and spirit. If the chance for early education had passed and violence was already occurring, it was the duty of society to temporarily halt the individual or group—“without cruelty,” the Rebbe underlined—and impress upon the perpetrator this same point, hopefully before they moved on to bigger and worse.

Washington, D.C., 1968 (Credit: Warren K. Leffler/Library of Congress)
Washington, D.C., 1968 (Credit: Warren K. Leffler/Library of Congress)

This moral code was a necessary prerequisite in the quest for “righteousness and justice,” explained the Rebbe, and could only be built upon a solid foundation of shalom, peace. It was the nature of man to “choose life;” G‑d set each human being on this earth to do just that, and thus it was built into his or her own nature. These underlying morals appealed to the innate logic of each and every individual. The work to be done was not to convince or coerce the activist for social change that nonviolence was the proper path, but to reveal that this was what lay inside them. Indeed, the call to justice and the peaceful path to attaining it came from the same place, the natural human drive to “choose life.”

Ultimately, however, logic alone would not suffice. It was imperative that the pursuit of “justice and righteousness” not only not be violent, but in fact walk along “the path of G‑d.” For humankind’s redemption was “commanded by G‑d, and therefore must be fulfilled.”

After all, the barbaric, centuries-long practice of slavery in America had ended in the blink of an eye. That same G‑d still directed the world in 1968. It would only be through the necessary work of achieving the dominance of mind over matter and the ultimate faith in G‑d’s kingship that humanity’s soul would be revealed “in peace.” It was, the Rebbe concluded his talk, the duty of each and every individual to incorporate these fundamentals not only in their own personal lives and in their immediate surroundings, but to reveal it within the world around them.

“This,” he said, “will be a prelude to the fulfillment of the calling ‘to perfect the world under the sovereignty of the Almighty.’ ”

It was a call for true and lasting justice.

***

The Rebbe’s approach to healing society’s greatest ills was grounded in the idea that prevention was the best medicine. He believed the easiest and most effective path was for society to encourage individuals to discover their own intrinsic worth as the children of one G‑d.

In some fields, particularly the world of criminal justice reform, this view is gaining hold. “With few exceptions,” Judge Jeremy Fogel, immediate past director of the Federal Judicial Center and a retired U.S. District Judge for the Northern District of California, said in his keynote at the Aleph Institute’s 2019 Rewriting the Sentence summit, “people who have spent time in prison are most likely to succeed outside only if they can find a deeper place within themselves, only if they can see themselves and the people around them in a different way. They need to gain, or regain, a sense of their intrinsic worth, not as a vague idea, but as a physical and spiritual reality … .”

It was the Rebbe’s deep belief, based on the Torah’s eternal wisdom, that this was the key to healing society as a whole. Every individual faces a singular set of challenges, but they are equipped to face them and must only be nudged in the right direction, of which negating anger and violence is but a part. More—the whole world needs them, for each person is unique and has something only he or she can contribute to its betterment. In other words, G‑d places every person in their particular circumstances for a reason.

Of course, challenges can come in many different forms.

That same winter of 1968, Shirley Chisholm was elected to Congress to represent the section of Brooklyn that included Crown Heights. Chisholm was the first-ever black female member of Congress, and she received a rude welcome on Capitol Hill. Eager to cut Chisholm down to size, the House leadership denied her the committee assignments she sought, instead relegating her to agriculture. “House Farm Panel to Get Urban View” the New York Times wrote in a sarcastic headline.

When Shirley Chisholm was elected to represent parts of Brooklyn that included Crown Heights, she became the first African-American woman to enter Congress. She would early on receive an important piece of advice during a meeting with one of her constituents, the Rebbe. (Credit: Thomas J. O'Halloran, U.S. News & World Report via Wikimedia Commons)
When Shirley Chisholm was elected to represent parts of Brooklyn that included Crown Heights, she became the first African-American woman to enter Congress. She would early on receive an important piece of advice during a meeting with one of her constituents, the Rebbe. (Credit: Thomas J. O'Halloran, U.S. News & World Report via Wikimedia Commons)

Though she had initially been infuriated by the appointment, “ ... she made the most of her new role, helping to create the supplemental nutrition program that feeds poor mothers and their children,” shared President Barack Obama when he posthumously awarded her a Medal of Freedom in 2015.

One constituent of Chisholm’s helped spark her change in outlook: the Rebbe.

“She said she was very depressed, very upset … ” said Dr. David Luchins, chair of the political science department at Touro College and a longtime aide to Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who heard Chisholm retelling the story at her 1983 retirement party. “Then she got a phone call: The Lubavitcher Rabbi wants to see you.”

When Chisholm came to see the Rebbe, she told him that she felt humiliated by the assignment and didn’t know how it would help people in her district.

“What a blessing G‑d has given you,” the Rebbe responded to her. “This country has so much surplus food and there are so many hungry people, and you can use this gift that G‑d’s given you to feed hungry people. Find a creative way to do it.”

On her first working day in Washington, she met a freshman senator, Robert Dole from Kansas, who had another problem: what to do with extra food the farmers in his state were producing. “She said, ‘One second, the rabbi!” Luchins recalled in his interview with JEM’s My Encounter with the Rebbe oral history project. The burgeoning relationship would lead to the vast expansion of the WIC and Food Stamp program.

It all happened “because a rabbi who is an optimist taught me optimism,” Chisholm later said. The Rebbe “taught me that what you may think is a challenge is a gift from G‑d.”

It is through recognizing and acting upon this gift from G‑d, the Rebbe believed, that America and the world at large could—and would—heal itself and become a more just and righteous home for all humanity.

Members of the U.S. military stands watch on a street corner amid violence and rioting in Washington, D.C., 1968. (Credit: District Department of Transportation Historic Collections via Wikimedia Commons)
Members of the U.S. military stands watch on a street corner amid violence and rioting in Washington, D.C., 1968. (Credit: District Department of Transportation Historic Collections via Wikimedia Commons)