By Jack Wertheimer
Lubavitch Chassidism is a movement of many paradoxes. Upon the Rebbe’s passing and with no evident successor in sight, many observers expected the movement to wither; twenty years later, it has never been stronger or more influential. Much has been made of its Messianic wing–those Lubavitchers convinced that the Rebbe is the Mashiach and never really died–and yet its thousands of emissaries work energetically to rebuild Jewish life as if everything depends upon them, rather than on a redeeming Messiah. Though Chabad emissaries eschew a denominational label, referring to themselves as simply Jewish, the warm, welcoming hospitality of Chabad families has altered the way hundreds of thousands of non-Orthodox Jews around the globe perceive Orthodoxy. Meanwhile, some of Chabad’s most scathing Orthodox critics refer to the movement as “the religion closest to Judaism,” even as religious texts produced by Lubavitch rabbis are increasingly studied in all kinds of yeshivot and kollelim.
From an outsider’s perspective, the most striking–and surprising–aspect of Lubavitch Chassidism is its resilience in overcoming the loss of its Rebbe, and its ability to rebound without an heir to take his place. Chassidim, after all, have always relied on the guiding hands of tzaddikim, as their leaders were initially called. Only the Breslover sect has managed to continue without a living Rebbe. And yet twenty years after the death of the movement’s revered leader, Chabad1 flourishes and continually extends its reach.
The most visible expression of this flourishing is the steady growth in Chabad’s outreach efforts. Currently, 4,000 shluchim, emissaries, are scattered across the globe, up from roughly 1,240 at the time of the Rebbe’s death. In fact, the actual number of emissaries is much higher, since shluchim are all married, and therefore come as married pairs; even their children serve as role models. Lubavitch teens also spend their adolescent years traveling from one center to the next, honing their skills as outreach workers.
Thanks to the efforts of these emissaries and their helpers, a Chabad center may be found in every corner of the globe–in cities lacking a sizeable Jewish population, such as Mumbai, Seoul and Kinshasa, and in thriving centers of Jewish life, such as Manhattan, Los Angeles, Jerusalem and Melbourne. Chabad centers provide kosher food, minyanim and Shabbat hospitality to locals and out-of-towners; they offer services to Jewish students on college campuses, to families with children with disabilities, to Jews affiliated with other synagogues and to Jews lacking any affiliation. Sixty years after the Rebbe sent forth the first shluchim, their availability is taken for granted by Jews of all stripes. (So much so that an Israeli professor jokingly anticipated that when the first astronauts land on Mars, they likely will be welcomed by a Chabad rabbi.)
But to focus solely on the shluchim and shluchot is to overlook the rest of what journalist Sue Fishkoff correctly described as “the Rebbe’s army.” For if the emissaries form the front line, a rear guard of Lubavitchers aid and sustain their efforts. First, there are several …read more