The earth shook a year ago under the feet of the worldwide Lubavitch movement when its ailing 92-year-old leader and hoped-for redeemer joined the previous six Lubavitch rebbes in heaven.
Menachem Mendel Schneerson had served the longest of any Lubavitch leader, his worldwide impact was the greatest and he left no successor. Despite the tremors that his death unleashed, the Lubavitch (Chabad) movement has withstood the first and what will probably be the most difficult year of its post-rebbe existence.
How can a movement so spiritually and emotionally intertwined with its leader withstand his absence? The answer is in the ma'asim, in the actions of his followers.
A year ago, thousands thronged to Brooklyn, N.Y., to attend the funeral.
Walking under yellow banners proclaiming Schneerson the Messiah, men tore their black coats in mourning and women cried, clutching the hands of their children. Outside the Old Montefiore Cemetery in Queens, pandemonium reigned as followers pushed against police barricades to pay their respects to the rebbe, who was buried alongside his predecessor, several feet from his wife.
Despite dire predictions by many, the movement, its mission and its message have endured. Since that dark day in Lubavitch history, there has even been an acceleration of Lubavitch activity. A dozen new buildings from Florida to Bangkok have been erected. Ground has been broken at 16 new Lubavitch schools and centers. Over $100 million in capital building projects have been undertaken this year alone. Lubavitch has added 35 new locations to its long roster of places to which it sends emissaries to conduct outreach work. Seventeen new institutions of learning have been established, from a yeshiva in Detroit to a women's institute in London.
And, most telling, 100 new couples have joined the ranks of the already 3,000 Lubavitch emissaries around the world. It is, as one Lubavitcher whispered to me recently, as if the rebbe is still alive.
While the rebbe's body was buried a year ago, his essence lives on and still carries the movement. Lubavitchers are mystically and deeply connected to the rebbe. Two fax machines hum at his grave site, where thousands of pleas and messages to God have come in from followers around the world. His picture still hangs in their homes and cars. Tapes of his lectures are still best sellers. A weekly fax of the rebbe's teachings circles the globe.
What fuels this frantic action is an ongoing outpouring of love for the rebbe and a commitment to his central teachings. I was at the rebbe's side on a Sunday afternoon the last time he stood and handed out dollars for tzedakah (charity) and blessings to his followers. I took several breaks; the rebbe stood for five hours and did not show any sign of weakening.
On another occasion, after the rebbe stood for eight hours handing out dollars for tzedakah and giving blessings, someone asked him if he ever gets tired. He answered: You can never tire of counting diamonds. To the rebbe, every Jew was precious. To Lubavitch today, the same is true.
While Lubavitch theology may run against the grain of American progressive Judaism, their emissaries' commitment to outreach is the envy of the Jewish world. They have utilized every medium — from television to books to the Internet to mitzvah mobiles — to bring assimilated or uneducated Jews back into the fold. With an in-your-face but loving attitude, emissaries ask Jewish men on the street to don tefillin and Jewish women to light Sabbath candles.
Year after year, Lubavitch gives out millions of religious articles, such as candles, Purim goodies, matzah, and prayer books to Jews around the world, especially to those who live in isolated locations or are impoverished. The emissaries, or shluchim, who dedicate their lives to outreach do so because the rebbe told them that it is a mitzvah. And so long as the mitzvah is being fulfilled, the rebbe lives on.
There will be many events to commemorate the yahrzeit of the rebbe, but the major one took place not in Brooklyn or in Kfar Chabad, but in Washington, D.C. Awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 1993, the rebbe was honored on Wednesday, June 28 on Capitol Hill by Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, Elie Wiesel, Ronald Perelman, Itzchak Perlman, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, chief rabbis from half a dozen countries and congressional leaders. The all-day event also attracted hundreds of Lubavitch emissaries from around the world.
That this commemoration program took place in the capital of the free world reveals the political clout the Lubavitch movement amassed under the rebbe. It is also a hopeful sign. The Lubavitchers, once distrustful of government because of their negative experiences under the czar, have come full circle and prevailed. The Lubavitch "Living the Legacy" program, as it is being billed, mirrors in some respects the efforts to have the U.S. government recognize the contributions of Martin Luther King Jr. and his widow's call for America to "Live the Dream."
But far from the halls of power is where the rebbe's legacy lives on best — in Crown Heights, where many infant boys are named Menachem Mendel and wherever an emissary is able to bring a precious but lost diamond back into the fold.
A year after the rebbe's death, his followers continue to follow and his outreach mission continues unabated. In the past year, the rest of us have learned what most Lubavitchers already knew: There is no need for a successor, for enough of the rebbe's essence and teachings live on.