Leadership Lessons from the Rebbe

Interview with Joseph Telushkin

The Rebbe made it clear that his goal was to reach and empower every Jewish community and every Jew in the world. Jonathan Sacks once said that the Nazis wanted to hunt down every Jew in hate; the Rebbe wanted to reach every Jew in love. His message also was that we always needed to find a starting point with which to reach Jews; this became a cornerstone of Chabad practice. This is why Chabad became associated in people’s minds with questions such as, “Have you put on tefillin today?” “Do you light Shabbat candles?”

When astronaut John Glenn circled the globe and advanced the American space program, President John Kennedy quoted a Chinese proverb, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” The Rebbe intuited and taught that the Jewish journey could start with a single mitzvah. He felt that the performance of one mitzvah could transform a person’s life. His goal was to help Jews incorporate Jewish practices into their lives, to inspire in Jews a pride in their Jewishness, and most importantly to help each Jew develop a personal connection to God.

When the Rebbe started the campaign to influence people to put on tefillin, it upset some people in the most traditional part of the Jewish world, Jews who are known as haredim. The Satmar Rebbe was upset that a person might put on tefillin and then eat nonkosher food, or a woman might light Shabbat candles and then violate the numerous Shabbat laws. The Rebbe thought otherwise. Each commandment had a value in and of itself. So if you put on tefillin and then ate something unkosher, you still had fulfilled one mitzvah, far better than having fulfilled neither.

The moment you say that every mitzvah has significance, you appreciate the efforts of every person, as opposed to focusing on what people are not doing. Obviously the Rebbe was committed to a more complete observance, but he genuinely had respect and affection for Jews no matter what their level of religious practice.

How did the Rebbe succeed in taking a branch of chasidism, which we tend to think of as insular and opposed to engagement with the outside world, and transforming it into an outward-looking missionary movement? I’m thinking especially of his own personal qualities, and characteristics of Chabad as well. Did the Rebbe himself invent this mission, or did he actualize what was already latent in Chabad’s philosophy previously?

The belief in the great sanctity of the Jewish soul is a cornerstone of Chabad’s philosophy. This gave an inherently optimistic orientation to the movement—the belief that each Jew has a spark within them, a pintele Yid, a yiddishe neshama. He therefore approached each person with enthusiasm about their potential for that which he regarded as innately theirs. There was an educational experiment once conducted in a number of schools; in some classes teachers were told that some of their students had higher IQs than they actually had. Those students wound up doing better in their classes and earning higher grades. All this because the teachers believed in them and therefore worked harder with them. Something similar happens with so many Chabad shluchim: their belief that each Jewish person has a holy neshama inspires many of those Jews to live lives of greater meaning and observance.

The Rebbe took this belief and actualized it on an international scale. In 1958, he announced the U’faratzta campaign, modeled on God’s promise to Abraham that “You shall spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south” (Genesis 28:14). The Rebbe started sending shluchim, emissaries, all over the world to find Jews and bring them closer to Judaism (there are Chabad houses today in Cambodia and the Congo).

In truth, he did encounter a measure of resistance from some whom he wanted to serve in far-flung communities. Orthodox Jews traditionally put great emphasis on living within the Orthodox world; living among non-Orthodox Jews, they fear, will dilute their religious life or the religious behavior of their children. In this regard, the Rebbe was fearless. He wanted his chasidim to go out into the world and not be stymied by the fear that their religious lives or the religiosity of their children would decline. He kept preaching this idea over and over until it became a part of the ideology of the movement.

What kinds of challenges or struggles did he face within Chabad as he made this radical change?

Simply put, there was no institutional resistance, nor could there be. The Rebbe was head of every major institution of Chabad. There is no instance of organized resistance to his leadership or initiative. Acceptance of the rebbe is a central part of chasidic life. Resistance, for example, to going out on shlichut occurred only in individual cases, from chasidim who did not want to leave an established community and had no idea how they would successfully conduct this mission. Eventually though such resistance melted away.

At the annual gatherings of Chabad shluchim from around the world (the men’s gathering draws about 5,000 people, and the women’s about 3,500), you sense the tremendous pride and enthusiasm of shluchim. There is a roll call, and they announce new states and new countries that boast a Chabad presence. Currently Chabad houses are found in 49 American states and 80 countries—a remarkable legacy of the Rebbe.

What made his mission so compelling to so many outside of the circle of Lubavitch?

I think there are a lot of Jews who are anxious to see Judaism survive but who on their own would not become observant. One memorable example epitomizes the sense of the endurance of Jewish tradition that Chabad inspires in others. The New York Times used to run a weekly ad from Lubavitch near the bottom of the front page every Friday: “Jewish women and girls, candle lighting time today is ...” On January 1, 2000, in honor of the new millennium, the Times ran a mock front page that purported to show the news from January 1, 2100; they included Chabad’s Shabbat candle lighting ad (January 1, 2100 really is a Friday), with the appropriate time for that date.

That story reflects why Chabad gets so much support among non-Orthodox Jews: they are confident that however much Judaism in America faces the perils of assimilation and other problems, this group will be around to preserve and perpetuate it. Besides, they exude genuine joy, exuberance and caring in fulfilling their duties. These qualities are contagious and can be hard to resist.

One striking aspect of the Rebbe’s leadership is that he saw himself as working on behalf of the Jewish people as a whole, not just for his Lubavitch Chasidim. Should leaders of Jewish day schools think of themselves as organizational heads? Leaders of the Jewish people? Both?

Let me start with an example: the Rebbe encouraged a certain one of his chasidim to make a contribution to a denominationally Conservative-leaning and financially struggling Jewish newspaper, because every Friday that paper would list the right time to light candles, and he feared that if the paper stopped publishing, there would be Jews who might no longer know the right time to light candles. The Rebbe had a sense of a broader responsibility to the Jewish people, a sense that far transcended his role within his particular community.

Jewish leaders need to think in grander terms. Other Orthodox leaders might not see it as important that Reform rabbis stay in their community or that Conservative newspapers survive. To the Rebbe, anything that hurt a Jewish organization was bad for the Jews. As I interpret it: I’ve known some Orthodox rabbis who would prefer that there be only Orthodoxy or nothing, as they regard alternative movements as of little or no value. But if that were the case, if other movements disappeared, obviously there would be many Jews lost to Judaism. The Rebbe preferred that people become Orthodox and follow a fully traditional way of Jewish life, but short of that he encouraged people to adopt one mitzvah, and then another, and then another, and to strengthen the Jewish practices in the movements in which they were.

The Rebbe had a disagreement with Rabbi Joseph Glaser of the CCAR, the Reform rabbinical organization. Rabbi Glaser was opposed, as a matter of principle, to lighting public menorahs, believing that doing so infringed the separation between church and state. The Rebbe was willing to go into the public sphere and light menorahs on public grounds, because he knew that many Jews who would attend such gatherings would otherwise not light menorahs at all. The public display now might serve to inspire Jewish pride—to show people that they don’t have to be afraid or shy about being Jewish in the larger society—and lead more people to fulfill the mitzvah at home. And, as he pointed out to Rabbi Glaser, if Congress, which should model separation of church and state, opened each session with a prayer offered by a clergyman, there should be no problem with the public lighting of menorahs, a position that was ultimately validated by the Supreme Court.

The Rebbe also favored nondenominational prayer in school. Based on his experience under Communist Russia and on what had happened in Nazi Germany, he believed that such prayer would be good for Jews and non-Jews. He did not favor reading Scriptures from any particular faith. Nevertheless, he stood at odds with the rest of the Jewish community by affirming that the acknowledgment of God in public schools would help create in young people a sense of personal responsibility before God. Mind you, this was not a position that earned him many friends, nor was it for his own chasidim who did not, in any case, attend public schools. It was a principled position which he took out of a concern for all Jewish children, as well as for non-Jewish children. This position, unlike the menorah issue, was rejected by the Supreme Court, though the Rebbe long hoped that it would be overturned.

As regards Jewish educators and Jewish education, he regarded this as an exalted profession, one that devoted itself to raising and teaching the next generation. He also saw it as both a huge responsibility and a huge merit, the sort of job that could engulf its practioners 24/7. What he most wanted was to see educators convey to students a real connection to the divine, as well as simchah shel mitzvah, the joy and excitement of carrying out the mitzvot. Also, and this is very important for educators, the Rebbe taught and showed by example—and I spend a lot of time on this in my book—that each person, each student, must be shown personal care. As Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky once told me, “The Rebbe was not a cookie-cutter type”; he didn’t have one answer for everybody but treated each person at the level appropriate for him or for her.

What kinds of lessons do you think Jews today, and day schools in particular, can draw from the Rebbe’s example, in…

Forming a Jewish vision: He wanted to communicate to children that there is a God and that one should have a personal relationship with God (e.g., through prayer and the performance of mitzvot). Also a Jew should have a sense of mission, of caring for something beyond him- or herself. And that Jews should take pride in their heritage and try to perpetuate it.

The philanthropist George Rohr, who was a member of a prominent Modern Orthodox synagogue in New York, once proudly told the Rebbe of a beginner’s service he had just conducted that had drawn 180 people with “no Jewish background.” The Rebbe challenged him: the participants, he told Rohr, had the background of “Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.” He wanted to make every Jew feel a part of the Jewish community, to give each Jew a sense of dignity by virtue of their Jewish inheritance.

Leading mission-driven change: The Rebbe tried to create a sense of fearlessness among his adherents. He wanted to empower everyone to become leaders on their own, and often he refused to tell people what to do but encouraged them to come up with their own answers. He continually confronted the challenges facing the Jewish world.

Working with different kinds of Jews: Chabad obviously works in an Orthodox way. They are not going to claim that all denominations are equally valid, but they are open to working with other communities and with all Jews, even if they are not necessarily interested in becoming Orthodox. When Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, Israel’s former chief rabbi, told the Rebbe he was involved in kiruv rechokim, bringing those far from Judaism closer, the Rebbe asked him, “How do we know who’s near and who’s far? They are all precious in God’s eyes.” Chabad is capable of working with a wide spectrum of Jews and also with a wide spectrum of rabbis.

Leading by example: For those rabbis who serve in the pulpit, it’s assumed that their first job will be as an assistant to a rabbi in a large congregation or as the rabbi in a small city, with the understanding that as they grow in experience they will move to a larger, more prestigious pulpit in a larger city. Jews in small towns are aware that these young rabbis won’t stay long. By contrast, Chabad rabbis come to a community, even a small one, to stay. Some Chabad rabbis have even bought cemetery plots—a powerful statement that they will be there for the long haul. In a different context, Ariel Sharon said to the Rebbe that the commander’s job is to lead; if the Rebbe would move to Israel, many others, particularly from among his chasidim, will follow. The Rebbe replied with another model: the captain of a ship leaves last. The Rebbe believed that a Jewish leader was to dedicate him- or herself to the Jewish people wherever divine providence took them, and that a leader must never abandon his community.

As you discuss, Chabad has more than doubled in size and reach since the Rebbe’s passing. What in gredients lead to success after a person’s leadership ends?

The book, Rebbe, identifies seven types of behavior the Rebbe modeled for his followers and for all Jews. Among them are non-judgmental love, and a focus on love for each individual; the notion anything worth doing is worth doing now; how to disagree without being disagreeable (by focusing on commonalities, not differences); the importance of using optimistic language (the Rebbe never used the word “deadline”—since working on the book, I have stopped using the word “deadline” as well, and speak rather of “due date,” the one connoting death, the other birth). Also, a consciousness of the Jewish mission to the world. In short, to help bring Jews to God and Judaism, and help bring the world to a God Whose primary demand of human beings is to treat each person whom they meet with the understanding that every human being is created “in God’s image.”

A final point. Since the conversation we are conducting is for a high-level educational and leadership group, I want to tell you of another thought I have arising from having spent a half-decade studying this remarkable man. Even if you and I may disagree with some of the Rebbe’s opinions (I note several in my book), the Jewish people, and each of us, were enormously enriched to live in his generation. There is a lot to be learned from the Rebbe by all Jews of all denominations. Hence, Rabbi Eric Yoffie’s statement at the convention of the Union of Reform Judaism, “It is hard for me to say this but I will say it nonetheless. We must follow the example of Chabad.” Based on this, I believe it would be very wise to develop curricula for our children and for the next generation to study his extraordinary life and distinctive teachings, and how these teachings enriched and empowered people.♦


Rabbi Joseph Telushkin is the bestselling author of Jewish Literacy, Words that Hurts, Words that Heal, The Book of Jewish Values, and more than a dozen other volumes. joseph.telushkin@josephtelushkin.com

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