Rebbe to the City—and the World

New Yorkers of a certain age remember well the many weeks in which the city seemed gripped almost exclusively by the fervor—and drama—surrounding the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, as he lie in Beth Israel hospital felled by a stroke from which he never recovered. The city seemed to lose some of its cynicism when he returned his soul to his maker in June of 1994, corresponding to the third day of the Jewish month of Tammuz. With immense pain, many questioned whether his Chabad-Lubavitch movement would survive its leader’s demise.

Last week, 20 years later, some 50,000 followers of all walks of life, from clean-shaven Reform rabbis and business titans to long-bearded or bewigged chasidim, Jews and a nice showing of non-Jews, young and old, stood in line for hours to spend less than two minutes each crammed around his burial spot in Old Montefiore Cemetery in Queens, seeking the Rebbe’s blessing and inspiration. Many carried prayer petitions of friends and family, while thousands more were faxed or emailed to be placed at his resting place.

His gravesite has become hallowed ground year-round, attracting petitioners 24 hours a day from across the globe who seek an urgent blessing for a loved one, inspired guidance for a highly sensitive personal matter, or just some spiritual catharsis. The rebbe’s Chabad-Lubavitch movement is booming worldwide and the envy of the religious world, as it sits at the cutting edge of modern innovation to spread the 3,000-year-old message of Judaism and now boasts centers in 84 countries and 49 states. These include schools, synagogues, college campus outreach and drug prevention programs, as well as teen volunteer programs to help senior citizens and children with special needs.

Meanwhile, the Crown Heights neighborhood that was the rebbe’s home for more than half a century has experienced the resurgence he predicted it would even when its future seemed awfully bleak amid the early 1970s blight and crime.

More tellingly, the rebbe’s message appears to be even more alive and vibrant than ever before.

Indeed, New Yorker Joseph Telushkin’s new book, Rebbe: The Life and Teachings of Menachem M. Schneerson, the Most Influential Rabbi in Modern History quickly became a New York Times bestseller.

The Rebbe reluctantly stepped into his role after the holocaust to rebuild a shattered Jewish people, breathing optimism and hope. He preached bedrock principles of devotion to God, and showed how meaningful that could be in our lives. He didn’t care for personal vanity or fame, and was overjoyed when others adapted his ways, even if they failed to give him the credit.

Politicians and leaders from across the globe beat a path to his door, but he’d show no preference to one person over another, with his secretary once even declining to admit a beseeching John F. Kennedy on his Brooklyn election tour in 1960 because the rebbe was busy meeting a line of simple men and women who had requested appointments months prior.

Indeed, even while leading a global renaissance movement and inspiring millions, his care for the individual sticks out.

What human beings most crave is a sense of direction and meaning, the assurance that what we do matters.

The Rebbe dedicated his life to making it known to each of us that there is a purpose to our existence. He empowered each individual he encountered by giving every one of us a sense of value and mission. The Telushkin book includes a typical example, taken from the author’s personal experience.

Mr. Telushkin’s father, Shlomo Telushkin, was the Chabad movement’s longtime accountant and even as the senior Telushkin lay in a hospital bed from a devastating stroke, the rebbe sent an accounting question over that was puzzlingly basic; it was his way of showing that the accountant’s life still held meaning.

It is no surprise that his legacy lives on all over the world, but New Yorkers can take pride that the Rebbe made our city his own. As Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, leader of the Orthodox Union, put it: The Rebbe’s teachings remain a vital source of education and inspiration for all, irrespective of one’s background and outlook. The Rebbe was not just a rebbe for Chabad Chassidim. He was, and remains, a rebbe for us all.