Over the past year, several notable biographies were published to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the passing of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Rabbi David Eliezrie gives us a different perspective, focusing instead on the story of Rabbi Schneerson’s international network of shlichim (emissaries) who built and grow the hundreds of Chabad Houses and communities that have become the ubiquitous public face of Orthodox Judaism worldwide.
Eliezrie is a skilled and detailed storyteller, and his narrative begins with Rabbi Schneerson’s predecessor and father-in-law. Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, sixth Rebbe of Lubavitch, escaped Russia and came to America in 1940,and soon established a yeshiva in the Gothic revival building at 770 Eastern Parkway. His very first emissaries were sent to strengthen Orthodox life in several major American cities at this time, and he maintained a strong connection with the religious underground back in the USSR. This context is fascinating, demonstrating how what his successor would later build, both in America and internationally, though on a much grander scale, flowed organically from the Chabad he had inherited.
When Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson assumed the mantle of leadership in 1949, the yeshiva at 770 had thirty rabbinical students. Many of them would go on to become leaders of the Chabad network, including several still in leadership positions today. Eliezrie describes the first waves of emissaries in great detail, showing how Rabbi Schneerson’s ambitious ideology and aspirations drove a rapid early expansion of the project, setting the stage for the near-exponential growth in the generations to follow. Eliezrie, himself a successful shliach who served first at the University of Miami and then in Orange County, California, gives Chabad virtually all of the credit for the resurgence of Orthodox life in post-World War II America, as well as for the network of refuseniks who maintained a secret Jewish community behind the Iron Curtain. In this, perhaps unintentionally, we see a bit of the triumphalism, pride, and sense of purpose that have made Chabad emissaries so attractive and charismatic, and, at the same time, somewhat troubling to the community establishments they disrupt.
The book essentially ends with Rabbi Schneerson’s passing in 1994. There is little description of how the network has continued to grow in size and complexity since the Rebbe’s death, despite the development of several rival factions that currently vie for for power and influence within 770 itself. There is also little mention of the radical messianism that surrounded Rabbi Schneerson toward the end of his life and still grips large parts of the Chabad community, causing rifts and tension with other Jewish movements.
To demonstrate what the emissary project looks like today, Eliezrie tells the dramatic story of the invasion of the Mumbai Chabad House during a coordinated terrorist attack in 2008, which took the lives of the shlichim there, Rivka and Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg. The story, which spans the entire first chapter, highlights Eliezrie’s key themes: the emissaries’ supreme dedication to their mission, the support that the emissaries provide to each other and their families, and the strong central coordination of a complex international network. The story ends, fittingly, at the annual Chabad convention that brings the thousands of emissaries home to Crown Heights, giving the world a sense of the immense scope and size of a remarkable community that continues to dedicate itself to the grandest aspirations of its visionary leader.
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