What Now for Chabad 20 Years After Death of Rebbe?

Lubavitchers Grow Despite Lack of Spiritual Leader at Helm

By Uri Heilman

Published July 02, 2014.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(JTA) — What does a fervent religious movement do after the death of its singular leader?

That was the existential question the Chabad-Lubavitch movement faced 20 years ago this week when its charismatic rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, died with no heir.

Amid the grief and turbulence following his 1994 death, many believed Chabad would be torn apart by those who believed it should proclaim its departed rebbe as the messiah and those who didn’t, or that the messianists would doom the movement’s wider appeal. Both views turned out to be wrong.

Not only hasn’t the movement fallen apart, Chabad has grown over the last two decades, despite the absence of a living rebbe at the helm.

The number of Chabad Jewish outreach emissaries, known as shluchim, has nearly quadrupled, from about 1,200 in 1994 to more than 4,100 today. Chabad has expanded its geographic reach, college campus presence, number of schools and Chanukah menorah displays. More than ever, Chabad is part of mainstream Jewish life.

And the rebbe, though he has passed, remains very much present. He has been packaged into countless hours of video, audio tapes and books. New pamphlets and documents focused on his sichot, or religious discourses, continue to be published. His photo adorns practically every Chabad household — not to mention pizza parlors, barbershops and mom-and-pop stores run by admirers or followers. Devotees still consult the rebbe daily, often in the form of letters delivered to his gravesite in Queens known as the Ohel.

But the absence of a living, speaking, guiding leader has transformed the movement in both subtle and fundamental ways.

“Everything’s different,” said Yakov Reichman, a middle-aged Israeli native who has lived in New York for nearly 40 years and works at Oholei Torah, a Chabad school with some 1,850 students. “Once there was a head of the house. Today, everyone does whatever he wants, in every respect. Yes, we have the rebbe’s sichot, but everyone’s interpreting them in their own way.”

Like many Chabadniks, Reichman compared the seventh Lubavitcher rebbe to Moses: The Jewish people survived Moses’ death, but there was no other leader like him. And like Moses, many Chabadniks viewed the rebbe as having had a direct line to God.

Now there are leadership organizations and committees that manage Chabad’s finances, the emissary organization and Chabad’s public face. But the leadership void at the top is palpable.

“There’s a gaping void. There is no one to replace the rebbe, that kind of spiritual leadership,” said Zalman Shmotkin, a Chabad spokesman. “But in a way there’s been no change, and that’s the most amazing thing. It keeps coming back to fundamentals: learn, daven, serve Hashem.”


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • “You will stomp us into the dirt,” is how her mother responded to Anya Ulinich’s new tragicomic graphic novel. Paul Berger has a more open view of ‘Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.