The top echelons of the Chabad movement are on the verge of a once-in-a-generation leadership transition.
The Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic movement never replaced its spiritual leader, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, after he died in 1994 at the age of 92. Yet a coterie of gray-bearded rabbis picked by Schneerson continues to run the movement from its headquarters on Brooklyn’s Eastern Parkway, sending thousands of missionaries to outposts around the world and providing services for its growing base of followers.
Now, Chabad’s leadership is once again aging, leaving open the question of whether the centuries-old Hasidic movement can choose a new top leadership without the input of a rebbe. The uncertainty comes as the movement’s central organizations face internal challenges from messianists inside Chabad and from increasingly powerful regional Chabad leaders.
While he was still alive, Schneerson appointed two head administrators, Rabbis Yehuda Krinsky and Abraham Shemtov, who have led the movement since his death. Both are now in their late 70s. First among their possible successors is Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, 65, a key movement fundraiser and a powerful figure in the outreach operation.
Kotlarsky’s influence is today limited to the movement’s outreach arm and its emissaries, who seek to engage Jews from their outposts around the globe. Krinsky and Shemtov’s power is broader, stretching over several key Lubavitch institutions.
Officially second in command beneath Krinsky within the outreach organization, Kotlarsky is seen as an heir apparent. What remains unclear is whether Kotlarsky, or anyone else waiting in the wings, could attain Krinsky’s or Shemtov’s level of influence without the Rebbe around to give his blessing.
“Transitions are difficult,” said Samuel Heilman, a professor at Queens College and the co-author of “The Rebbe,” a 2010 book about Schneerson. “If the Rebbe were still alive, the Rebbe would decide. But in the absence of the Rebbe, there’s no one who can say, ‘Now you’re retiring and someone else is going to take your place.’”
In an interview with the Forward, Kotlarsky deferred questions about formal succession within the outreach arm. The outreach organization’s board, he said, would make the leadership decisions. “I wish him tremendous, long life,” Kotlarsky said of Krinsky. “With inflation, at least until 180. And I’m sure that moshiach will come way before that.”
Born and raised in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, Kotlarsky, unlike Shemtov and Krinsky, does not come from a particularly large or prominent Lubavitch family. In style and temperament, he is the old-fashioned Brooklyn ward boss to Krinsky’s Boston Brahmin. While Krinsky is small and tidy, with a beard tucked up at the bottom so that it appears to be neatly trimmed, Kotlarsky is big, with a round belly and long and wild facial hair.