It all began with a blessing. In 1983, before a packed, sweaty crowd of his reveling followers, the seventh and final Lubavitcher Rebbe, conferred upon my father, his physician of nearly 20 years, then in his fourth decade of life, a blessing to have more children. Nine months later, I arrived.
There is much more to the story and even more to how my father, living in Chicago, became the Rebbe’s cardiologist, but those are all articles unto themselves (and the latter is chronicled in Joseph Telushkin’s biography of the Rebbe, various JEM pieces, and elsewhere). Thirty-six years later, I remain grateful for the Rebbe for believing in my existence before it even happened.
I was named after the Rebbe’s mother, Chanah Schneerson z”l, a scholar and music-lover. The middle name I hold is hers, and when I reflect on her legacy, I am consumed by a humbled awe and prayer that I may carry even a modicum of her strength and virtuousness. Reading of the terrifying accounts of the Rebbe’s youth, hiding alongside his mother Chanah in the midst of raging pogroms in Yekatrinislav (today, Dnepropetrovsk), under the cruel czarist Russian regime, I can’t help but shudder. The Rebbe later related that these formative memories were foundational to the work he would do in assisting world Jewry.
Chanah ztz”l, along with her husband haRav Levi Yitzhak, offered shelter to refugees, frequently risking their own lives in order to the protect the lives of innocent others.
Fighting the good (and often-times impossible) fight, the Rebbe’s parents remained on that side of the Iron Curtain, suffering cruel physical torture, the likes of which we can only imagine. I think about how the stinging absence and worry the Rebbe experienced when his parents were denied permission to travel and partake in their eldest son’s wedding. In their devotion and love, Rebbetzin Chanah hosted a bride- and groom-less wedding in their living room, back in Yekatrinislav. What awful heartbreak, that the Rebbe would never have the privilege of rejoicing with his holy, brave parents, let alone see them ever again.
The Rebbe was close with his father-in-law, haRav Yosef Yitzhak, the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, also known as the Frierdiker Rebbe (the “previous Rebbe”), and I likewise try to imagine the many deeply mixed emotions he must have experienced upon his beloved father-in-law’s death. Much like the heir to a throne, there must be the adrenaline rush of accepting the crown with the inevitable attendant hole in one’s heart upon the loss of a parent. Later on, the Rebbe lost his beloved Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka. It pains me to think what his life must have felt like from that point onward — from all accounts, they were each other’s rock and most cherished interlocutors. Because the Rebbe was everyone’s leader, in a sense, everyone’s parent, he always had to maintain his game-face and project strength. Such he did with aplomb, but one must always wonder how it was for him. We may never know.
What we do know is that the Rebbe was truly a leader like no other. What we do know are the many, many lessons he shared, both in his inspiring teachings, through words, and example through embodied action.
Today, on his 26th yahrzeit (anniversary of his death), I want to offer seven essential life lesson’s from the Rebbe’s legendary leadership, which continues in the work of Chabad:
1) Think Globally, Act Locally
The world we inhabit is an increasingly smaller one. The way we communicate has irrevocably altered our own identities and appreciation of other communities. At a time when global corporations have such a hand in the fate of the world, why can’t religious institutions likewise build strength and power in expanding their brand?
Each of the five countries I have been blessing to call home has taught and transformed me in some significant way. If one has the opportunity, I think each person should take it upon her/himself to work at least for sometime in a country which is not “home,” and in a language which is not her/his native tongue. To learn languages is to learn new ways to feel, and ideally, new expressions for compassion. To put oneself out there, in such a vulnerable way, enables one to break the ice that might encase one’s heart and relate to others in a way that diminishes their so-called otherness. This Chabad understands well. The work of the shelichim (the young couples that Chabad sends out internationally) is never easy, but it is precisely this kind of work which can transform lives.
2) Never Stop Never-Stopping
I was recently speaking with someone who lamented that a former rabbi of his never responded to his interest in learning Hebrew. He mentioned to me that he had also spent some time at the local Chabad. “And did you ask them about learning Hebrew?” I asked. He did, and I already knew what the ending would be – the shaliach came through and personally taught him Hebrew.
A good Chabad shaliach is tenacious. These people want mashiach (messiah). And they want it now.
Passion and commitment is what lights the path for phenomenal community. Never under-estimate the power of persistence in interesting and maintaining volunteers and cultivating relationships.
3) Mean It and Enjoy It
We live in an era of dismissive eye-rolling, a time when people find all too convenient simply disregarding the other and her/his genuine pursuit of truth.
Even as I type this piece, part of me actively wonders whether I should keep this as a personal reflection or something I share with the world. I fear if I choose the latter, I will receive cynical responses, potentially from members of the Conservative movement (of which I am a part) and/or Chabad who will question my choices and speak ill of the other “camp.” I beseech anyone reading this to read this piece with an open mind and a pure heart. and understand that there are no ulterior motives here other than to celebrate the life and legacy of the Rebbe, all while determining means through which we can honor that legacy through our actions.
But here too is another vitally important intervention of Chabad: Chabad is unabashedly genuine. They are joyful. Cynicism is not a native phenomenon.
This piece can sometimes be a challenge for me, as my own Jewish path has always been so deeply informed by a healthy dose of inquisitive skepticism. But cynicism is not automatically interchangeable with skepticism, and vice-versa. My own attraction to what you might call a “classic” Conservative Judaism is rooted firmly in its legacy of critical inquiry. But there I am, dangling precariously on the eternal knife-edge of skepticism and emunah, conviction.
There is more to the Chabad celebration of uncynical emunah (belief); there is also precisely that: celebration, joy. So much of the Chabad gestalt revels in its over-the-topness. Everything from mitzvah tanks to public ritual displays, to their famous penchant for publicly downing potent potables…in order to partake in any and all of the above, one must trade in one’s ego for joy and anavah (humility).
Humor factors into this equation in an important way. I truly believe that the Jewish people are buoyed throughout history by their strange but vital relationship to humor. G-d has always felt like a G-d of irony, and I do not mean that in a bad way. The famous expression “Man plans and G-d laughs” feels like one of the most urgent lessons for all of us. We simply need to learn how to laugh along with G-d, however difficult that often can be and is.
Taking oneself too seriously in this world is missing the point. What we must take seriously is the welfare of our fellow people and our observance of the mitzvot (commandments). This is the all-important principle of anavah. If we remember for Whom we are doing this work, our own “name” and the postures we assume suddenly becomes a whole lot less important.
4) Stay On-Brand
The key to any organization’s success, especially now, is effective marketing strategies. How do you craft and maintain a communicable image to the world? What does that process look like and how do you promote it?
Already in the early 1950s, the Rebbe applied crucial marketing principles in developing his international shelichut program. All of the principles of franchising were meticulously followed – no two Chabad houses would be within a certain distance of each other, so as not create competition; high quality but accessible educational material would constantly be compiled and updated according to the communication platform of the times; resources would be available to everyone in the brand, which brings us to…
5) Centralize Centralize!
If ever in a pinch (for example, they are inundated with the endless demands of coordinating multiple events at once, while fundraising to stay afloat, all out of their home), a Chabad shaliach can call in last minute to hear a dvar Torah (a sermon or teaching) to use in a bind.
Especially important are the centralized resources available to offer comfort and encouragement to shelichim whose work can be so emotionally demanding. Annual shelichim conferences create a space not only for families to reunite, but for these emissaries to rekindle the light that burns deep in their soul and remember their unified mission of helping the Jewish people.
Chabad families serving remote areas “send” their children to virtual, online classes, up until a certain age. This is yet another way, in our new era, that Chabad families remain in touch with each other and support each others’ work and values, no matter where they are situated geographically.
Once the children of Chabad shelichim reach a certain age (usually following bar/bat mitzvah age), they are often sent off to a yeshiva in a more Jewish active area, where they will meet and bond with other students who will deeply understand them, having lived similar lifestyles. Years learning in Crown Heights are especially fortifying for these young people before they go off and change the world elsewhere.
6) Keep Up with the Times
The Rebbe once told my father that we must always keep up with the times.
When he was asked to elaborate, the Rebbe explained that he meant following along with the weekly Torah portion.
Each Torah portion contains vital kernels of truth that reflect our current “news.” But of course no news is new news. This is the brilliance of the Torah.
What radically distinguishes Chabad from the rest of the Hasidic world is that their eyes are always open to what is happening in the world around them. They put themselves out there, in the public square, in a way that no other Hasidic sect would dare imagine. And that is all the Rebbe’s doing and legacy.
7) Lead with Your Heart
This one has probably taken me the longest to understand and personally appreciate.
As someone raised in a suburban upper-middle class Jewish milieu, with a not-insignificant Litvish influence, where grades and academic pedigree deeply “matter,” it has taken me years of very intentional unlearning to release myself of my own, later self-imposed often-crippling pressures to “be” something intellectually and wow with achievements. It has taken almost 36 years to realize that these externalities of wit and accomplishment are all illusions and not how our spiritual worth is formed.
To be intelligent is like being physically beautiful – these are external gifts from G-d. Use them, apply them, and I believe it pleases G-d. Abuse them, focus on them too much and fall prey to narcissism – and you lose yourself. Either way, these gifts are not the main point. Your heart, your soul is the main point. You can work on your heart and soul and cultivate your goodness through a life of striving. Easier said than done.
The Rebbe possessed the greatest intellectual gifts, which he demonstrated both in his training and work as an engineer and of course through his formidable erudition in his Jewish learning. But what the thousands upon thousands who had the privilege to meet the Rebbe personally remember best is his attentiveness, care, and deep wisdom in relating to their own journeys and needs. We can all lead with our hearts, prioritizing, as the Rebbe did, the spiritual and emotional concerns of those around us alongside those we have just met. The model the Rebbe set, which ultimately makes Chabad so successful, not only as an organization but as a living, breathing community, is one in which each and every person is valued and warmly welcomed.
One of the most strikingly evocative images at the ohel, the shrine in which the Rebbe in interred alongside the Frierdiker Rebbe, is the mass of literally thousands of small pieces of paper heaped atop their gravesites. An infinity of requests, dreams, aspirations, and heartbreak, all addressed to a leader with whom we can no longer speak. What a perfect tribute to a leader who spent so many of his hours with such notes, regarding each one with utmost seriousness and care. Today we call recall with great admiration and gratitude a leader who led with his heart and set forth an entire world modeled on this enduring principle
Yehi Zikhro barukh. May his memory be for a blessing — and it is.
Gimmel Tammuz 5780
June 25, 2020