Before almost any other Jewish leader, the Rebbe acknowledged the positive spirit of youthful rebellion that characterized much of Western culture during the 1960s. To the dismay of their elders, young Jewish men and women were becoming increasingly distrustful of parents and teachers, leading them to turn from the values and traditions with which they had been reared. But the Rebbe saw that by rejecting their parents’ teachings, these young people were beginning a search for something deeper.

From a conservative perspective, the burgeoning counterculture appeared as a threat to traditional Judaism. But according to the Rebbe’s Positivity Bias, it had the potential to engage and uplift the restless spirit of the generation. If the hippies were truly devoted to the ideals of peace and love, then with the proper exposure, many could surely find spiritual avenues to express their ideals within a Jewish context. Undoubtedly, Jewish thought and practice had much light to shed on the pressing social and spiritual issues of the day—the compassion of G‑d, freedom, a spirituality of love, revolution, community, and global unity—it was all in the Torah, prophecies, and mystical tradition. The warming flames of Judaism were waiting to further ignite these impassioned souls, if unpacked and presented sincerely and sensitively.

The challenge was in how, on a large scale, to connect Jews in the counterculture with the study of Torah and the observance of mitzvot, and how to uncover and amplify the Divine essence in their souls through the prism of Torah Judaism.

Degeneration or Regeneration

In the 1960s, Chabad Lubavitch began holding “Encounter with Chabad” weekends for students at its Brooklyn headquarters, introducing young men and women to the rich world of Torah and Chasidism. By 1970, Chabad was opening campus-based outreach programs at universities across the United States, bringing a new spiritual dimension to young Jews who had lost touch with their religious traditions.

As early as 1963, the Rebbe was writing encouragingly about the American youth movement. Here is a freely translated excerpt from a letter to R. Pinchos Mordechai Teitz:1

Every generation has its particular quality, unique to its time. In our generation, particularly in the last few years, we are witnessing a spiritual awakening, which is being called—though those who have called it so are unaware of the true significance of the term they have coined—“a return to roots.” Regardless of how it is being currently understood, the quest to “return to roots” is, in essence, the soul’s quest for teshuvah, for reunion with its source in G‑d.

We are seeing this awakening primarily among the youth, who experience everything with a greater depth and a greater intensity. Young people also have no fear of changing their lifestyle, as long as they are convinced that they are being given the truth, without compromise and equivocation.

This is particularly the case with the youth of our country. In other countries, there is a double hurdle to be overcome: First one must uproot the false ideologies that have become ingrained in certain circles among the younger generation, and only afterward is it possible to implant the proper ideas in their minds. This is not the case in this country, where [because of their rebellion against what they have been taught] the youth is virgin soil, if only they are given the truth in its purity. We have witnessed in actuality that those who are not intimidated and present the truth without equivocation have been met with a true response among the youth.

I don’t want to be critical, but I am forced to note that, to our great misfortune, this awakening has not been utilized, thus far, by those who purport to be the leaders and spiritual guides of their communities, certainly not to the extent that it could have been utilized.

Our sages have taught that “the deed is the primary thing.” It therefore goes without saying that the purpose of my writing all this is not for the sake of discussion, but in the hope that you and your colleagues will launch a broad and spirited effort to encourage this awakening and—most importantly—to have it translate into concrete changes in the day-to-day life of all those to whom this call can reach.

The emerging youth movement and culture were not impending crises, but golden opportunities for spiritual connection and growth. What appeared to many on the surface as brazen rebellion was actually an expression of a principled generation willing to commit to higher, meaningful ideas. From the Rebbe’s perspective, it was incumbent on Jewish leadership to recognize and respond authentically to the needs and challenges of the youth; to engage them, not enrage them by writing them off.

Dare to Be Different

Unlike many traditionalists, the Rebbe was not put off by the long hair, beads, and eye-catching clothing of 1960s youth. He once2 received a visit from Yosef Dov Krupnik, a young man at a Lithuanian-style yeshivah who had grown out his beard. His teachers didn’t like it because they thought it looked too much like the style of the hippies, but the Rebbe urged him to keep it and said it wasn’t such a bad thing to look different from others, stressing that:

Our Sages tell us that the Jewish People were saved from Egypt because they stood out from the Egyptians in three important ways. They had unique clothing, they spoke a unique language, and they had unique names.

A similar idea holds true for the Jewish hippies, the Rebbe explained, many of whom were prominent leaders of the entire movement. They had Jewish-sounding last names [the Rebbe mentioned Abbie Hoffman, Allen Ginsberg, and Mark Rudd, née Rudnitsky]. They wore distinctive clothing (such as beads, bell-bottoms, and ponchos). And while they didn’t speak Hebrew, they did have their own jargon within English, which was different from the English spoken by the masses. Indeed, who says these “rebels” are any less worthy of redemption than the rest of the Jewish People?

Between Parents and Children

While the Rebbe held young adults to the commandment to honor their parents, he also recognized that there was something refreshing and positive about youth having the courage to think for themselves and even to influence their parents and teachers. In this spirit, he cited a Talmudic passage3 stating, “It is taught in a Baraita that R. Nehorai says, ‘During the generation in which the Son of David [Moshiach] comes, youths will humiliate elders and elders will stand in deference before youths, a daughter will rebel against her mother, and a bride against her mother-in-law, the face of the generation will be like the face of a dog, and a son will not be ashamed before his father.’”

While the Sages were no doubt criticizing the degeneration of society that would occur just before the Messianic era begins, the Rebbe saw something positive in this passage, namely, the ability for young people to serve as positive agents of change.

The Rebbe also suggested, in 1970, that if young people were rebelling against the established system, the defenders of that system had better examine what they were defending and how they were defending it:

The complaints that people have against the younger generation, that they are destroying...the so-called establishment, should be addressed to their educators. When parents and teachers taught the younger generation proper behavior, they explained it as the means to be able to afford a nice home, have a large bank account, own two Cadillacs (“his” and “hers”), and to be honorees and seated at the head table at banquets…. When this constitutes the reason for choosing between good and is understandable why the youth will ultimately lose all patience for such falsehood…. The youngsters are in the process of a spiritual journey. We cannot allow them to drift and get lost. We must educate them according to their needs, in a pleasant and kind manner, and lead them to a proper understanding of right and wrong.4

It is always much easier to place the blame on someone else in a given situation. But here we see the Rebbe admonishing not the rebellious youths, but the very system in which they were raised. If the younger generation is rejecting the ways of their elders, this is above all a call to the parents and teachers to reflect on their own values that they are attempting to pass on. Indeed, it is often our children who teach us the deepest lessons, such as how to love and support each individual in the unique way they require.

Hear O Israel

Ultimately, according to the Rebbe, the counterculture’s tendency to rebel and disobey was akin to the age-old Jewish tradition of questioning authority, as can be seen in the actions of Abraham, Moses, and many other leaders in the Torah. The Rebbe also seemed to admire young people for their adherence to principle and their dismissal of the creature comforts offered by society. He realized that the youth yearned for something more meaningful than what they saw as the norm, and in some ways similar to the Rebbe himself, they were willing to turn the world upside down to achieve it.

“We’ve seen already that in times of emergency, a crisis, when a fire is raging, our youth are ready for real selflessness and sacrifice,” the Rebbe told a newspaper reporter. “By nature, the Jew is not afraid of hardships. By nature, the Jew is defiant. We’re a ‘stiff-necked people,’ a people of self-sacrifice, a nation of habitual rebels.”5

Through the redemptive lens of his Positivity Bias, the Rebbe saw that the Jewish youth who made up so much of the counterculture could be, and perhaps in some cases already were, directed toward serving G‑d and giving priority to the life of the soul.

“In our era, there prevails, in certain circles, a strong tendency toward self-assertion and independence, not only in material spheres, but also in the ideological,” the Rebbe wrote6 just before Rosh Hashanah in 1967.

For one who is not accustomed to subordinate himself, but is consistently independent in his thinking—should such a person come to the conviction that he must acknowledge a Supreme Authority, it permeates him deeply and fundamentally, and he finds the strength to reorient himself completely and permanently.

The qualities exhibited by the youth in their full-scale cultural rebellion were exactly those that would inspire and sustain the spirit in a meaningful life of religious devotion and community. The Rebbe saw this clearly.

The following summer, following youth protests in New York, Chicago, and Paris, the Rebbe made a direct connection7 between the audacity and passion of Jewish adherents to the counterculture and their potential as leaders in Torah-true Judaism:

The youth are brazen, have chutzpah, and are not deterred by anything—not by world opinion, not by their parents or families, not even by the opinions they themselves entertained a day earlier…. Instead, they proudly proclaim their absolute freedom to do as they wish. Specifically because of their chutzpah, it is easier to draw them to the true path of Torah and mitzvot! ...When we successfully inspire the youth, they will not suffice with personal Torah observance, but—due to their fierce indomitable spirit—they will also inspire others to do the same. They will be an unstoppable force that will transform the entire world and bring it in alignment with integrity and justice.

Prescient as always, the Rebbe saw in the rebellious Jewish youth of the 1960s the beginnings of the baal teshuvah movement that exploded beginning in the early 1970s. He understood that eventually many young Jews would trade their love beads for tefillin, their hand-knitted poncho for a tallit, and their desire for revolution into revelation. They would take the passion they had poured into social activism and the perusal of political tracts and channel it into Torah study and the bringing of fresh energy and spirit to American Judaism and beyond.

This particular expression of the Rebbe’s Positivity Bias—seeing the redemptive spark in the youth challenging the ways of their elders—is one of the most potentially impactful. It can be applied not just socially and on a large scale, but also personally, for parents struggling to understand what their children are trying to say beneath the surface of their “acting out.” According to the Rebbe, there is no such thing as “just acting out.” There is always something deeper being expressed, a need or a lesson, if we would but open our eyes, ears, and hearts to what our children are trying to tell us.