(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.”