Those of us who relish the bible and prayer book commentaries of the late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks could not but be aware of his intellectual depth. His writings are laced with quotations ranging from the ancient Greek philosophers, to economists such as Nobel-prize winner Paul Samuelson and psychotherapist Viktor Frankl.
Other names that often pop up in this august company are those of Chabad and the first Lubavitcher Rebbe, Schneur Zalman, and that of his most illustrious successor, Menachem Mendel Schneerson. Most accounts of his life say it was the influence of Chabad that set Sachs on a journey from the secular to the religious world while an undergraduate at Oxford.
I briefly met Schneerson, from a distance, as the US correspondent for The Guardian in the 1980s. I was one of a party of journalists accompanying the then Democratic presidential candidate Walter Mondale on a ritual campaign stop in Crown Heights. It was hard to keep the emotions in check as he offered a blessing to the candidate. The Rebbe was a Chasidic figure of enormous spirituality and wisdom. He had such magical power that every American political leader wanted a share of it.
Lubavitch may have struggled to find a single successor to Schneerson, but his legacy lives on. It takes the form not just of his glossaries to the classic text the Tanya, but in the guise of courageous Chabad rabbis who have set up shop across the globe providing a Jewish environment to those who need it. Charedi communities may not be the flavour of the moment in the pandemic but, for me, my family and friends, Chabad has been a rock, a source of understanding and illumination in these most trying of times.
Indeed, when I recall life cycle events, there is more often than not a Chabad figure playing a big role. I hate to talk only of death. But when my father – another Menachem Mendel – died in 2018, it was Rabbi Pesach Efune in Brighton who sat with me and my brother through the night to the early hours of the morning reciting tehilim and recalling his life. Similarly, when my Aunt Rosie died in the age of Covid, Rabbi Efune, along with another Chabad Rabbi, Zalman Lewis, were there at the funeral to make sure there was a minyan. As an Auschwitz survivor and rebbetzin, she received the send-off she deserved.
These recent experiences are just a snapshot of Chabad understanding affecting our lives. They have been an enormous presence to my children. Rabbi Junik taught my son Gabriel to leyn from the Torah for his barmitzvah. In a phone call in the past week, inquiring about the health and well-being of the family, he recited the first line of Gabriel’s portion, Vayigash, a joyous remembrance from more than a quarter of a century ago. It was Menachem who encouraged Justin to lead Shacharit services when he was home from Carmel College.
Chabad has also been there for my daughter, Jessica; in Venice, when she was a history of art student there, at the Wimbledon mikveh of Rabbi Nissan Dubov before her wedding. And this Covid-year between lockdowns calling in at her north London home to shake the arba minim in the family succah. At Chanukah, it was Chabad who organised delivery of festive treats to those cut off from family and friends.
Parts of the strictly-Orthodox community rightly have been exposed by this publication for appalling breaches of Covid lockdown rules and regulations and failing to adhere to our own community guidelines. But in much the same way as the mainstream UK Jewish community has its tribes, it is true among the Chasidim. Wherever possible, Chabad has sought to remain true to the teachings of its forbears.