July 1 marks the 20th anniversary of the passing of the 7th Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson. Schneerson was a uniquely charismatic and visionary leader, who pushed back against the postwar trends of secularism and disenchantment and presented religious Judaism as a positive force. In so doing, he inspired hundreds of thousands of Jews to embrace their faith and revived Judaism in post-Communist Eastern Europe.
Schneerson, who won the Congressional Gold Medal posthumously in 1994, was also profoundly pro-American, believing the United States to be a dynamic force for good in the world. He foresaw that the 1979 Iran hostage crisis would lead to a general weakening of American influence around the world that would encourage future challenges against the U.S. and its allies, both by the communist empire and the rising tide of radical Islam.
Two new books, timed for the 20th “yahrzeit,” celebrate the life of the man known to many simply as “the Rebbe”: My Rebbe, by Talmudic scholar Adin Steinsaltz; and Joseph Telushkin’s Rebbe: The Life and Teachings of Menachem M. Schneerson, the Most Influential Rabbi in Modern History. Telushkin’s biography has breached the top 100 list on Amazon and is the website’s #1 best seller in biographies of religious leaders.
Ten years ago, Sue Fishkoff documented the Rebbe’s success in building a global religious empire in The Rebbe’s Army: Inside the World of Chabad-Lubavitch. The Rebbe’s model was simple: send emissaries–usually young religious families–to communities where Jews were present but lacked strong organization, and offer them as much Judaism as they were prepared to enjoy, without watering down doctrines or practices.
It was just such a mission–the Chabad House in Mumbai–that Islamic terrorists targeted in their deadly attack in India in late 2008. What was newsworthy, above and beyond the horror of the event, was the fact that there was a thriving Jewish community in the heart of Mumbai at all. The Rebbe’s shluchim had established outposts across the world, wherever Jews may dwell or travel. In the U.S. alone, there is a Chabad House in 48 states.
The Rebbe also recruited donors to invest heavily in Jewish education. Some of his efforts were controversial for competing with existing Jewish institutions. Many of those institutions–particularly in the Conservative and Reform branches of Judaism, which sought to bridge tradition and modernity–have faded from existence, while Chabad has thrived. The Rebbe sought to provide an alternative without opposing other Jewish sects directly.
Throughout his life, the Rebbe counted–and was courted by–political friends from both sides of the aisle. His most difficult political episode came in 1991, when his motorcade accidentally ran over and killed a black boy. In the ensuing Crown Heights riot, fanned in part by Al Sharpton, a visiting Jewish student was murdered by a mob. To this day, the victim’s family blames Sharpton for the death, though Sharpton denies inciting the mob.
The Rebbe’s legacy and teachings remain peaceful and relentlessly positive. He and his wife, Chaya Mushka, were childless, and no one replaced Schneerson as the figurehead of the Lubavitch Chabad movement. Still, it continues to grow and expand around the world, inspired by his example. His disciples continue to reach across national and political divides to unite Jewish communities and to bring Schneerson’s message to world leaders.