This week marks the 26th Yahrzeit of the Lubavitcher Rebbe (Tammuz 3), which provides a perfect excuse to discuss the Rebbe’s impact on the revival of Orthodoxy in the late 60’s and into the 70’s.
Reb Menachem Mendel Shneerson was born in that part of the Russian Empire which is now the Ukraine, in 1902. He famously spent time in Berlin and Paris, before escaping the Nazi onslaught and arriving in America in 1941.
I can’t resist telling one story about the University of Berlin. A friend of mine called the University in the 90’s to get some information about Rav Soloveitchik, and was told, ‘You probably also want to know about Rabbi Shneerson, Rabbi Hutner and Rabbi Heller.’ My friend didn’t, but couldn’t resist asking. He found out that the Rebbe was never an official student at the University. He also discovered that Rav Soloveitchik never picked up his diploma.
In New York, he was reunited with his father-in-law, Reb Levi Yitzchak Shneerson, the sixth Lubvitcher Rebbe. He was soon put in charge of Chabad publications, and became a crucial member of the Lubavitch leadership. Upon the death of Reb Levi Yitzchak, he was prevailed upon to assume the mantle of Nasi (the official title of the Rebbe), and officially became the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe on his father-in-law’s first Yahrtzeit, in 1951.
Reb Levi Yitzchak had begun the Lubavitch outreach programs in America, but Reb Menachem Mendel expanded them greatly. First, he started a women’s branch, and then, in 1952, he sent an emissary or Shaliach to Morocco. That truly began the international Chabad Movement.
There’s so much to say about the Rebbe’s influence on Judaism throughout the globe, but this isn’t the forum for that endeavor. I only want to concentrate on one aspect of his genius at affecting the state of mitzva observance in America during the time period I’ve been discussing, the 60’s and 70’s.
The Rebbe didn’t just send out Shlichim. He gave them a curriculum, a lesson plan for making Jews more aware of Torah and mitzvot. I’ve spent my life in Jewish education, and I can never stop marveling at the simplicity and effectiveness of his plan. Through his Shalichim, he would ask Jews to do a mitzva. That’s all, and it worked.
The Rebbe announced in 1967, the first of his Campaigns. They used military jargon; in Hebrew MIVTZA’IM, military campaigns. The first was Tefilin. Most of us are used to Chabadnikim with hands full of Tefilin asking us, ‘Have you put on Tefilin today?’
It was just the beginning. Over the next decade he announced campaigns on Shabbat candles for women, ages three and up, then Mezuzot. Chabad would pay for the items, if you couldn’t afford them, or your parents wouldn’t pay.
Then came more complicated campaigns. The Shalichim would encourage Torah study, offering classes or ‘one on one’ study. Then they encouraged Kashrut, purchasing Jewish texts, love of fellow Jews and attending Days Schools or Yeshivot.
My personal favorite was Tzedaka. The Shalichim would go around with (usually bright yellow) pushkes, and ask people to just drop in a coin. What an easy and charming mitzva! The best part? Oh, you don’t have any money on you? Here’s a coin to put in the box.
The last in this series of Campaigns was the campaign for Mikve and TAHARAT HaMISHPACHA, which I’ve already alluded to in my post on Mikve. That’s a harder sell, but Chabad has been instrumental in the building of hundreds of Mikvaot.
Those ten Campaigns are supplemented by a number of seasonal Campaigns. Chabad is committed to making the mitzva of hearing Shofar available to every Jew who is interested. On Sukkot. They bring round Lulav and Etrog. When I was in the Israel Defense Force in 1987, the army only provided three of the four species, no myrtle (Hadassim), for reasons which I can only assume was incompetence. But a Chabad Mitzva Tank came to our rifle range (which with my unit was VERY dangerous), and had everyone shake the 4 species. One fellow tent mate from a non-religious Kibbutz cried as he shook Lulav for the first time in his life.
I can’t imagine anyone reading this hasn’t seen a Chabad Chanukkiah. They also encourage a L’Chayim on Purim; they distribute Shmurah matzo for Pesach. They run fun fairs for kids on Lag B’Omer, often for those who otherwise wouldn’t know about the day.
Personally, I have an ambivalent relationship with Chabad. I respect, admire and love so many things which they do. On the other hand, I have real issues with some of their positions, and am often disappointed in their inability to play well with others. But in this attempt to understand the rejuvenation of observant Judaism in the 60’s, it’s impossible to ignore the influence of the Rebbe.
L’Chayim on his Yarhzeit!