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!
  • It’s over. The tyranny of the straight-haired, button nosed, tan-skinned girl has ended. Jewesses rejoice!
  • It's really, really, really hard to get kicked out of Hebrew school these days.
  • "If Netanyahu re-opens the settlement floodgates, he will recklessly bolster the argument of Hamas that the only language Israel understands is violence."
  • Would an ultra-Orthodox leader do a better job of running the Met Council?
  • So, who won the war — Israel or Hamas?
  • 300 Holocaust survivors spoke out against Israel. Did they play right into Hitler's hands?
  • Ari Folman's new movie 'The Congress' is a brilliant spectacle, an exhilarating visual extravaganza and a slapdash thought experiment. It's also unlike anything Forward critic Ezra Glinter has ever seen. http://jd.fo/d4unE
  • The eggplant is beloved in Israel. So why do Americans keep giving it a bad rap? With this new recipe, Vered Guttman sets out to defend the honor of her favorite vegetable.
  • “KlezKamp has always been a crazy quilt of gay and straight, religious and nonreligious, Jewish and gentile.” Why is the klezmer festival shutting down now?
  • “You can plagiarize the Bible, can’t you?” Jill Sobule says when asked how she went about writing the lyrics for a new 'Yentl' adaptation. “A couple of the songs I completely stole." Share this with the theater-lovers in your life!
  • Will Americans who served in the Israeli army during the Gaza operation face war crimes charges when they get back home?
  • Talk about a fashion faux pas. What was Zara thinking with the concentration camp look?
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" http://jd.fo/b4ucX What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • 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.