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.