23 years after his death, “The Rebbe” still impacts Chabad movement

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By Jackie Budko
For Mitzpeh
@JackieBudko

Affectionately known as “the Rebbe,” Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson led a Hasidic in the mid-twentieth century movement known as Chabad.

According to the Chabad website, the movement has thousands of followers and is the largest Hasidic movement of the Orthodox Jewish religion.

Schneerson was born in 1902 to the Talmudic scholar and leader Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneerson and Rebbetzin Chana Schneerson in Nikolaev, Russia.

In 1941, Schneerson immigrated from Russia to Brooklyn, where the majority of his followers reside today.

Chabad had a small following when Schneerson took over as the rebbe in Brooklyn, New York in 1951 after the passing of Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn. Over his 43 years as a rabbi, Schneerson expanded the reach of the movement by opening over 1,500 Chabad centers in 70 countries. After his death in 1994, the number of centers opened doubled and there are about 3,500 around the world in over 85 countries, according to the Chabad website.

A Chabad house is a center that hosts classes, lectures and workshops on Jewish topics, religious services, Shabbat meals and special events as needed in the community. According to the Chabad website, the organization also provides counseling and volunteer services.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. Mordechai Baron/Wikimedia Commons.

“The reach that Rabbi Schneerson had was like a ring,” said Marsha L. Rozenblit, a Harvey M. Meyerhoff professor of modern Jewish studies. “There’s a group of people reached directly by the Chabad, then there’s a ring of people who are aware of the Chabad, but a majority of Jews don’t know about it.”

The Hasidic movement is part of the Orthodox sect of Judaism, which is roughly 15 percent of those who practice Judaism. Of that 15 percent, the following of the Chabad movement is less than 1 percent of that 15 percent, according to Rozenblit.

She says 99 percent of Jews have never heard of Schneerson but some still feel his impact.

“I never heard of Rabbi Schneerson, but some of my family is from the New York area and they heard of him,” said Paige Berman, a sophomore nursing major.

Likewise, fellow Jew and New York state resident Rachel Hanrahan, a sophomore government and politics major, never heard of Schneerson either.

“I never heard of him, but I am interested in learning more about his impact on the Jewish community in New York,” she said.

The Chabad headquarters is in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, where many Chabad followers reside today.

Schneerson is best known for creating the rebbe intermediary between the divine and the charismatic.

He added a new feature to the Chabad movement that the coming of the Messiah allowed his followers to call him the Messiah because the new theology assumes that he will come again.

The Rebbe and his wife never had children, so there is no direct descendant of Schneerson. However, most followers still consider Schneerson their leader 23 years after his death.

“He’s the rebbe who never dies,” said Rozenblit.

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