The Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic broadcast center looks like a room out of time. The walls are lined with aging switchboards and rows of ancient telephones. What was once revolutionary has become a museum, a reminder of the past.
The future is next door—the media center of Chabad.org, touted as the largest Jewish faith-based website in the world. In an open workspace, a young Hasid creates code to map out all 3,500 Chabad centers in the world. Nearby sits another Hasid who manages the official Chabad social media handles.
The fact that these two technology centers, one outdated and one on the cutting edge, sit adjacent to one another, is a metaphor for Chabad: a movement both ever-evolving and frozen in time, guided as robustly as ever by a deceased leader.
Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the last Rebbe of the Lubavitcher dynasty, referred to as the “Rebbe,” died in 1994, and has never been replaced. Yet Chabad-Lubavitch, the Crown Heights-based Hasidic Jewish sect, is stronger and bigger than ever before.
From the outside, Chabad seems progressive—technologically advanced and media savvy. But within the walls of its world headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway Chabad remains a movement grounded in centuries-old tradition, along with an enduring belief in the words and teachings of its late leader.
Unlike other Hasidic sects—and in a dramatic departure from its own custom—Chabad has never chosen a new leader.
Perhaps because they have never let go of the old one.
You cannot understand Chabad without understanding the Rebbe. His name is evoked endlessly. His photograph—long white beard, wide-brimmed black hat, blue eyes—hangs in restaurants, homes, strollers, anyplace where Lubavitchers live around the world.
Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who died in 1994 at 92, studied mathematics and engineering at the University of Berlin and the Sorbonne, before succeeding his father-in-law as the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe in 1951. By that time the group had escaped Hitler’s Europe, and found refuge in Brooklyn.
Unlike other Hasidic sects, which have little contact with the outside world, Schneerson led a movement determined to bring as many Jews as it could closer to Judaism. The movement, born in the 18th century, emerged as a response to the prevailing Judaism of the time, with a focus on mysticism.
Central to Chabad was the centrality of the spiritual leader, the rebbe figure, a righteous person, or tzadik, who writes scholar Sue Fishkoff, “can move in spheres not understood by regular men.”
Fishkoff explains in The Rebbe’s Army: Inside the World of Chabad-Lubavitch, that Jews of all denominations came to Crown Heights to seek his counsel and blessings. On Sundays he would stand for hours handing out blessings and dollar bills, intended for charity. Every month he responded to the thousands of letters he received from all kinds of people, Jews and non-Jews alike, seeking counsel.
He also began to dispatch emissaries or shlichim to open Chabad centers around the world, spreading Judaism nationally and internationally.
“Fusing the 18th century with the 20th, he presided over a religious empire that reached from the back streets of Brooklyn to the main streets of Israel,” wrote New York Times journalist Ari Goldman, “and by 1990 was taking in an estimated $100 million a year in contributions.”
The Rebbe believed in an inclusive form of Hasidism and, as such, Chabad works to make Judaism accessible to all Jews. It has established thousands of Chabad centers around the world. Chabad embraces the idea of the importance of love for a fellow Jew, and how the best way to help oneself is by helping another person, both spiritually and physically.
As his movement grew, so too did Schneerson’s political influence. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Fishkoff wrote, spoke highly of him. Israeli leaders like Menachem Begin, Benjamin Netanyahu, Shimon Peres, and Ariel Sharon, met with him. Schneerson also corresponded with several US presidents. That influence enduring well after his death; as recently as 2018 President Donald Trump proclaimed March 27, 2018 “Education and Sharing Day” in Schneerson’s memory.
Schneerson and his wife had no children, and he did not choose a successor. Instead, he designated several lieutenants as leaders of various branches of the movement. They remain in those positions to this day.
The Rebbe was buried at Montefiore Cemetery in Queens. But that was not the end of the story. Many still write letters to the Rebbe, as they once did during his life, but now they are left at his grave. People also now have the option of faxing, emailing, or sending a letter via online form through the Chabad.org website.
Hundreds of thousands visit his grave every year, and in June, on the 25th anniversary of his death, 50,000 came to the grave site. After the Rebbe’s death, some of his followers began keeping a vigil at his grave in the belief, shared by a now fringe part of the movement, that the Rebbe was in fact the Messiah. This group thought it imperative that somebody be present to greet him when he returns to earth as the Messiah.
Chanie Apfelbaum, author of Millennial Kosher, is a Chabad social media star. She has 64,000 Instagram followers and attributes her success to having grown up in Chabad. She does not feel her public presence interferes with her faith and practice. If anything, she said, it strengthens it. Although her platform isn’t strictly speaking about Judaism or Chabad, her faith inevitably comes into play around the Jewish high holidays, when she shares holiday recipes and traditions.
“I always say I thank God every day I grew up Chabad,” she said. “I feel like in Chabad we have the ability to live life a little bit more outside the box, but still keeping the laws of Torah.”
She also attributes her success to the Rebbe. Schneerson himself encouraged the use of technology. The now-obsolete broadcast center was created in the 1970’s by Lubavitch who hacked phone lines to broadcast the Rebbe’s speeches throughout the world. The media center now connects with 150 Chabad college centers around the world through chabad.org. According to filings with the government, Chabad on Campus International Organization, had in 2013 total revenue $2,496,478. Three years later in 2016, it had grown to $4,251,083.
Rabbi Motti Seligson, Chabad’s media director, believes technology can connect the Rebbe with those who never met him. “The Rebbe’s teachings guide and inspire more people today than ever before,” he said. “They access these vibrant teachings through books, audio-video recordings, the Internet and more, in ever-increasing numbers.”
Like Apfelbaum, Sarah Encaoua-Guigue has built a following as an influencer within Chadad. Her Instagram feed, @hassidic.hipster.girl, has 16,500 followers. When her dreams of becoming an actor didn’t fit with her Hasidic lifestyle, Encaoua-Guigue used Instagram as a platform of expression instead. She attributes her success to the Rebbe. She recalls a quote in which the Rebbe encouraged each individual to make sure to use his or her talents. Her role as social media star, helping people through hard times through her uplifting and oftentimes, Jewish content, is her talent, she said. Although Encaoua-Guigue never met the Rebbe and feels the void within the community with the lack of living spiritual leader, she does not believe the Rebbe can ever be replaced.
“I don’t think anyone can attain that today unless God gives it to them. He definitely has some God-given power,” she said. “I still live with his teachings myself, and I’m already one generation removed.”
The Rebbe wrote that a spiritual leader has the ability to lead his community even after his death. The ultimate test of a successful spiritual leader, is what happens after he dies. Philip Wexler, Michael Wexler, and Eli Rubin write in Social Vision: The Lubavitcher Rebbe’s Transformative Paradigm, “…a truly successful leader can empower the people to such a degree that even afterward— when the leader has already departed—they can continue to work independently and eternally…”
Rubin explained that Chabad has always empowered its Hasidim to be independent in some ways. “There is an old tradition in Chabad of individuals and communities being to some degree self-sufficient,” he said, “but thriving on the tools they’ve been given by their rebbes.”
The concept of spiritual leadership by a deceased leader is anything but new. Christianity relies on the study of the work of Church Fathers, while Islam relies on the teachings of Imams. Jewish study is built on the teachings of scholars and sages long dead. In that sense, Chabad is really no different, except for the means of distribution, and the enduring presence of the Rebbe himself.
Rabbi Yonah Blum, Chabad rabbi of Columbia University, makes the point that for centuries Jews have studied the Five Books of Moses. But Chabad Jews may not feel the same connection to Moses as they do to the Rebbe.
“When was the last time you saw a picture of Moses?” he asked, “As opposed to the Rebbe, which is much more palpable.”
He continued. “On the one hand it’s an ancient tradition. But on the other hand it’s a modern reconstruct, if you will, of Hasidim, which revisited a lot of these ancient traditions, like the idea of a righteous person being the leader of a generation.”
Even a generation that never knew him.