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The Future Chabad Turns Thirty

Chabad Children praying at the Ohel (Photo credit: Bentzi Sasson/Wikipedia)
Chabad Children praying at the Ohel (Photo credit: Bentzi Sasson/Wikipedia)

Thirty years have passed since the Third of Tammuz 5754, the day forever seared into the soul of the Chabad-Lubavitch community. On that summer day in 1994, their Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, at 92 years old, was interned in a cemetery in Queens. Today, he would be 122. And thirty years on an entire generation of Chabad men and women have been raised on the stories and videos of the Rebbe’s famous farbrengens. Living with the Rebbe is a central pedagogic aim of Chabad education. And sociologically, it tests the human collective memory making strategies, where fragments of time which the young Chasidic child never personally experienced are interwoven into their everyday life. Living in a Chabad community is a bit like a living in a permanent history exhibition. But with all the novelty of the virtual Rebbe, it is perhaps only a minor advancement from living Jewishly. To the student of many a Jewish day school, sages like Rabbi Akiva, Rashi, Rambam, and others can feel very close and familiar. The scholar Daniel Boyarin describes the Jews as an “imagined community in time.” Given the capacity for Jews to live with Abraham, Moses, King David, Hillel and Shammai and more, the Chabad desire to live with the pre-Gimmel Tammuz Rebbe seems a highly achievable goal. For the pre-Gimmel Tammuz elders of Lubavitch (consider for a moment that a young Chasid in 1994 is probably now a grandparent) there is much to reflect on this milestone. The familiar song from that era insisted that Jews ask themselves “who will be the Zeide of our children”. Hopefully, the appropriate job description can be easily sourced.

Key to the entire enterprise of the Chasidic revolution was the development of close-knit circles within the already small Jewish communities of the Eastern European shtetl. The apt sociological term to describe the extended Chabad family is the Gemeinschaft, a community where deeply personal and enduring bonds are forged. The farbrengen epitomized this communal intimacy, creating a space where the Rebbe and his Chasidim shared not only song and spirit but an unspoken connection. This was a setting where physical and spiritual were intertwined, where niggun and the shared l’chaim was the heartbeat and rhythm of Lubavitch life. The post-Gimmel Tammuz farbrengen may only mimic yesterday’s authentic experience, but it seems to work for now.

Importantly, many Jews around the world have in recent months sought to increase their connection to other members of the tribe. New associations are being formed to offer solidarity to Jews in various professional and creative fields. History rhymes in eery ways, and Jews once again confront a world that traces an invisible line between them and even friendly and genial colleagues and associates of the Gentile persuasion. With real honesty, empathy, and understanding as scarce as a Red Heifer, a Jewish association is valuable tool to support the Chosen People in their time of need. These associations may do well to learn from the Lubavitcher Chasidim on the ways to develop a robust Gemeinschaft in the digital age. For members of the Chabad community, the stories and songs of the farbrengens are a precious inheritance. Encoded in each experience is a truth that may take years to appreciate. Jewish associations need to invest in the kind of Jewish cultural materials that do the same. For some groups, the formula is all too familiar. Set up a room full of chairs, invite a special speaker, mingle a bit at the end over a cup of tea or a glass of soda water. For the cultivation of a strong community – and by extension, a strong people – such event plans are pure malpractice.

Local community leaders and elders (broadly defined) play a crucial role in transmitting the essence of Jewish belonging, ensuring that the spirit of the nation continues to thrive. The common refrain heard these days at the conclusion of many speeches is Am Yisrael Chai, the People of Israel live. And from the Chabad perspective, the key to the life of the Jewish People is its connection to its tradition of wisdom and knowledge, and to the ultimate source of life itself. These are imagined as three chords tied together in a knot so tight that it is hopeless to try to untie them. Of course, this is a familiar image for us living in the age of the USB cable and wired earphones that somehow spontaneously accomplish impossible feats of entanglement and appear in messy jumbles in the desk drawers of offices everywhere.

With the 30th anniversary of Gimmel Tammuz, the legacy of the Rebbe and the unique communal bonds that continue to sustain Chabad need to be transformed into a lesson for all Jews the world over. The stories and teachings from the farbrengens are more than just the mainstay of a Chasidic spiritual diet; they are recipes for maintaining a bond between generations. The challenge for the Jewish community today is to view the Chabad community in a new light and to learn from them how to adapt the timeless lesson of maintaining communal spirit for the contemporary landscape. Chasidim, the saying goes, are like one family. What would it take to foster that same sense of unity and belonging for Jews living amid the complexities of modern life? The cultivation of traditions that foster unity and cohesion are urgently needed today to ensure a vibrant and resilient Jewish future. If not now, when?

About the Author
Dovi Seldowitz is a PhD student (Sociology) at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. Previously, Dovi directed and curated the 2022 B’nai B’rith Kabbalah Exhibition and was the recipient of the UNSW University Medal in Sociology and Anthropology for his Honours thesis on Hasidic women’s leadership.
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