Five years ago, to watch the bier of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, bobbing up and down amidst the sea of his bereft Chassidim as they escorted it to burial, it was impossible to believe that the movement he had led so charismatically for 44 years would survive his passing.

For many at that time, and for a number still, his death was so cataclysmic an event that they confront it only by denying he had died. He would be reborn soon, very soon, they said, as that Melech Moshiach — King Messiah — whose coming he had himself forecast. Or his 92-year-old mortal remains were not in the casket at all; he had gone into hiding to test his Chasidim and would re-emerge when they had proved their worthiness by good deeds. With their Rebbe physically removed from them, and his sorrowing Chasidic family split in many directions, it was not an unreasonable expectation that the movement he had left behind would totter and start to fall apart. But nothing like that happened. Quite the reverse.

>From evidence of the incredible building works for Lubavitch, schools, synagogues, study centres, seminaries and social services across the globe, it is business even better than usual. And that is an impression underpinned by the fact that, in the five years since the Rebbe's death, hundreds of new emissaries have been dispatched to bolster colleagues already serving in communities as far apart as Alaska and Nepal.

It is difficult not to agree with Rabbi Faivish Vogel, the director of Lubavitch in Britain, when he declares the movement to be doing "extraordinarily well."

In London alone, its new ventures in these past five years have included a vocational training centre, with 300 registered students, a centre in Baker Street, and an active office in Southgate. A teachers' seminary for girls has been opened in Bournemouth and is looking to expand; and given the chance, Rabbi Vogel would list a host of new publications and programmes.

All this and no Rebbe? That, according to Rabbi Vogel, is to miss the point of the highly motivated organisation which the Rebbe bequeathed the movement, together with a legacy of more than 200 years of teachings in which he and his predecessors set out the right path for their followers to take.

"Yes, physically the Rebbe is not there," says Rabbi Vogel. "And so the movement has to mature into this new period by discovering new truths from the traditions and teachings given to us so far."

But Lubavitch without a Rebbe? Is that not rather like a body without a head? Why has a successor not been appointed? "It's my belief," says Rabbi Vogel, "and that of thousands of my colleagues, that the Rebbe is irreplaceable. Anyone who came in contact with him knew that he was a sage of extraordinary proportions, respected in talmudic circles by the wisest men of this generation.

"His knowledge in secular affairs, the interaction between the Jewish philosophical and sociological worlds he inhabited, and of which he was aware, gave him a tremendous ability to communicate with hundreds of thousands of people from all walks of life. We believe in his saintliness and, consequently, we are amazed when the question of a successor is mooted. There is no one who could fill his position."

This concept of "saintliness," rather than of messiahdom, seems to have rooted itself in the Lubavitch consciousness. Together with the peoples of other faiths, Chasidim have long revered the burial-places of their departed sages. And the Rebbe's burial-place is no exception, with thousands still visiting it to commune with his spirit or leave a message. Those who cannot make the journey communicate by fax, their messages spread over his grave until there are so many they have to be cleared to make way for the next wave.

Rabbi Vogel finds something distinctly mystical in the way people from all walks of life are attracted to this spot in the New York suburbs — a place he says, where many are learning to pray for the first time.

In his lifetime, the Rebbe was his own best fund-raiser, collecting millions in donations for Lubavitch institutions from the rich and famous, who paid happily for the privilege of spending a little time in his presence. His memory remains just as potent.

The property being created in his name across the United States must run into many hundreds of millions of dollars, making Lubavitch, for all its external modesty, one of the wealthiest religious institutions in the world in capital terms.

Rabbi Vogel does not see it that way. For him, Lubavitch is "asset rich" in another sense — in its legacy of seven generations of teaching, in its institutions, in its emissaries.

On the calculation that there are some 2,000 emissaries worldwide, and each of these has been able to reach out to a minimum of 10 individuals, "you have a vast army of individuals who want to support us not just financially, but with their minds, their intelligence and their enthusiasm... The biggest challenge is to harvest that energy and employ it in the furtherance of our work."

But surely it cannot be all light? The sometimes vicious war of words between Chasidim over the messianic attributes of the Rebbe, with even close-knit Lubavitch families being split apart, must surely have taken its toll? Rabbi Vogel cannot quantify the harm. He believes that it has "hurt the individuals who have been perpetrating this irresponsible type of representation" and claims to detect "individuals who are now having second thoughts about the positions they have taken, [seeing] that they are too extreme and unsustainable."

Certainly, as the years roll by and Lubavitch produces generations which did not know the Rebbe, the messianic craze of the 1990s will surely fade, to be replaced by the traditional Jewish view that, even though he may continue to tarry, the Messiah will yet arrive.

Rabbi Vogel does not argue with the suggestion that the death of the Rebbe has had a negative impact on some of the younger members of the Lubavitch family who, in the absence of his all-seeing presence, are said to have "lost their focus."

He concedes that this is a matter of real concern, a challenge to the leadership to "discover the language and the ability to communicate to young people the sense of purpose which was communicated to them rather more directly" when the Rebbe lived.

"We had our conference in Bournemouth recently where this was on the agenda. We are not putting our heads in the sand. Everyone understands, everyone knows, that when the Rebbe sent shluchim [emissaries] to places abroad, their children would be exposed to influences from which they might have been protected were they living an insular life. But living an insular life is not an option for a Lubavitch Chasid. Nor is it an option for any Jew. While one wants to protect one's own integrity, one has to follow the directives of ahavat yisrael — love of the Jewish people — to bring and broaden knowledge. To live in an ivory tower and to believe you are protected is just not acceptable to Lubavitch."

Insularity may not be the Lubavitch way but it does exist in some parts of British Orthodoxy, where, on occasion, there has been strong resistance to the appointment of Lubavitchers to synagogue pulpits.

Why this rejection? Obviously, Rabbi Vogel has thought about it. "In this community, in particular — a very traditional community and necessarily conservative — change does not come easily. And what is being resisted is not just the presence of Lubavitch Chasidim.

"What is being resisted is a presentation of Judaism that is not in a style or manner which their parents or grandparents experienced. There is also prejudice against anything that is untried or untested. But I believe there have been sufficient Lubavitch rabbis within the wider community to dissipate the fears that exist." Rabbi Vogel is quick to add that, in addressing his emissaries to Britain, the Rebbe had reminded them that they owed allegiance to the existing rabbinic leadership in the community. "Lubavitch is here as an educational movement, to assist in the spiritual regeneration of the community."

It would be foolhardy to attempt to forecast where the movement might be in five years' time. But in America, certainly, it seems reasonable to take a long-term view. By anticipating Jewish population movements and putting down roots in prospective settlement areas, Lubavitch has established first rights to the provision of Orthodox services and synagogues. In fast-growing areas of California, Florida and the southern states, there is often little point in seeking the expensive resources for alternatives, and Lubavitch remains the predominant Orthodox force.

It is the pacemaker, too, in many parts of the former Soviet empire, its list of revived communities beginning to sound like a roll-call of Jewish centres from many decades ago. And its growing influence within the Sephardi world can be seen in the many French rabbis of North African descent who now wear the traditional Lubavitch black hat and garb, even if they sometimes look incongruous in this "Middle Europe" outfit of another age.

Almost inevitably, unless Anglo-Jewry can find the inspiration to produce its own Orthodox rabbis in the tradition of minhag anglia — the "English way" — more and more United Synagogue-style pulpits will be occupied by ever-ready Lubavitch rabbis, and Jewish day-schools by teachers shaped in the Lubavitch mold.

The Orthodox community that emerges from this experience will be markedly different from that of today — a point which, when I put it to a centrist Modern Orthodox rabbi, brought the response, "Ah, but if we are lucky, Moshiach will have come first!" That is a point with which even Faivish Vogel would not argue.