Friday, June 6, 2014

Menachem M. Schneerson: 20 Years Later

Jewish Life

Camp Gan Israel in the Laurentians, north of Montreal: The boys and their counselors gather in front
of "770" for a memorial service called Gimmel Tammuz: As the Chabad-Lubavitch website puts it:
"The anniversary of passing of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson
of righteous memory (b. 1902), who passed away in the early morning hours of the 3rd of
the Hebrew month of Tammuz, of the year 5754 from creation (1994)."

Photo Credit
: Perry J Greenbaum, 2011

An article, by Ruth Wisse, in Commentary looks at the influence of one of modern Judaism's most passionate and inspirational leader, Menachem M. Schneerson, who passed away 20 years ago on June 12, 1994 (Gimmel Tammuz 5754 in the Jewish calendar); he was 92. To many he was simply known as The Rebbe.

Wisse, the Martin Peretz professor of Yiddish and professor of comparative literature at Harvard, writes about her own experience after encountering and engaging with Chabad, a branch of Hasidic Judaism; she writes:
My first encounter with Chabad came indirectly one day in the 1970s during a conversation with one of my Montreal Jewish neighbors about the annual Combined Jewish Appeal that was then in full swing. I was astonished when he said he contributed most of his philanthropy to Chabad. Why would this trendy young man who drove a BMW and was decidedly not a Sabbath observer support a movement associated with the kind of mystical and ultra-Orthodox Judaism for which I had the least patience? He said that, as a businessman, he wanted to put his money to work “where it went farthest.” Having looked into what various institutions did with their resources, he concluded that meant Chabad.

At roughly the same time, as part of a course on American Yiddish literature that I was then teaching at McGill University, I organized a class trip to New York City that would travel by bus on Friday and spend Sunday touring historical landmarks of Yiddish culture on the Lower East Side. The problem was how to organize over Saturday, which the Department of Jewish Studies observed as the Sabbath. A student with Chabad connections offered to have all the students put up in Chabad homes in Crown Heights. This would provide secure, pleasant accommodations and exposure to Yiddish where it was spoken. The students’ subsequent evaluations unanimously, enthusiastically, and somewhat disconcertingly declared the Sabbath stay with Chabad families the most valuable part of the trip. I had tried to breathe life into the remnants of an almost vanished secular Yiddish culture whereas they had experienced Yiddishkayt—Jewishness—in full bloom.

Such experiences kept multiplying. Before her wedding, I accompanied my daughter to a new Chabad-based ritual bath, or mikveh, near Boston. The daughter of our son in New York attended Chabad nursery school in New York, and our son in Los Angeles briefly attended a Chabad synagogue there. I learned of Chabad couples who ran drug-rehabilitation clinics and provided pastoral care for prison inmates. The network of Chabad institutions I visited during a trip to Russia included a kosher vegetarian restaurant that underplayed its Jewish auspices and used a large television to draw in local youth; Jewish schools that were incrementally upgrading their facilities; and a group home for Jewish children, some of whose still living parents were too damaged to raise them, that had been spontaneously organized by a Chabad couple already supervising several other local projects. It had become hard to imagine—and in the former Soviet Union impossible to conceive of—Jewish life without the initiatives of Chabad.

Through all this I never once thought of Menachem Mendel Schneerson. When shluchim—Chabad’s young emissaries—spoke to me of their projects, they invoked “the Rebbe” no more than we mention the CEO of a company whose brand we trust. Thus, quite unlike Dorothy’s discovery of the deceiver behind the wizardly effects of Oz, only gradually and mostly after his death did I recognize the man behind these efforts. All those schools and outposts and myriad initiatives and even the rising Jewish birthrate of Chabad families had been generated by Schneerson’s “campaigns.” He fostered a culture of independence that required every Chabad effort to stand on its own, but the people staffing those efforts had unquestionably been propelled by their inspirational guide.
My sentiments and views of Chabad are similar to those of Prof. Wisse; and I have written about some of my experiences, notably when our family spent a month at a summer camp ("My Time at a Hasidic Boys' Camp; August 26, 2011), where my wife worked as a nurse; moreover, I have also written about  Menachem M. Schneerson, when reviewing another well-researched biography ("The Rebbe: A Reluctant & Great Leader"; February 29, 2012)

Our family still has regular contact with Chabad here in Toronto, as we did in Montreal. To say that this organization is hard-working with a zeal unequaled in other Jewish organizations is to say what every person who has encountered the men and women who devote themselves to bettering Jewish life already knows. And much of the credit goes to The Rebbe, of which I wrote about previously, but it bears mentioning again:

In modern times, the Rebbe might be the greatest, if you measure greatness by the many accomplishments in bettering humanity and raising the moral level of individuals. In Judaism, a few persons reach the standard of a tzaddik, a righteous leader. In that regard, I am reminded of the words of Martin Buber, the known Jewish philosopher, in his wonderful work, The Legend of Baal-Shem (1955):

But he who is content to serve in solitude is not a true Zaddik. Man's bond with God is proven and fulfilled in the human world. The Zaddik gives himself to his disciples (several of whom he usually takes into his household) in transmitting to them the Teachings. He gives himself to his congregation in communal prayer and instruction and as a guide to their lives. Finally, he gives himself as comforter, adviser and mediator to the many who come "travelling" to him from far and wide, partly in order to dwell for a few days—especially on the high Holidays—in his proxmity, "in the shade of his holiness," partly in order to obtain his help for the needs of their bodies and souls. (222)
Menachem Mendel Schneerson embodied such qualities, without a doubt, to his followers, and even to those who were not part of his court at 770 in Crown Heights. But there's more. He was a man who undertook the rigors of engineering and scientific studies, his mind sharpened by this as much as by studies in Talmudic and Hasidic texts. Of course, no one doubts that his greatness was not as a scientist or engineer, but as a Jewish leader. He was the right leader for the right time. He brought a sense of righteousness and justice to the world, a high sense of morality and a hope that life would get better.

You can read the rest of the article at [Commentary].