Several years ago I was asked to join a review committee for a private foundation that supplies seed money for new Chabad emissaries just starting out. The young rabbis submit applications, and our job is to review the applications each quarter to ensure that the applicants meet the criteria for the grant’s objectives, so that the foundation’s generosity will indeed enable this new Chabad center to get off the ground.
Over the years, grants have been provided to establish Chabad in many cities throughout the United States and Canada, and remote cities on all five continents.
In addition to all these applicants sharing the same vision of bringing Judaism to every single Jew around the world, a unique similarity they also have is that they are all too young to have ever met the Rebbe. In fact, this last quarter a few of the young rabbis and their wives were born after the Rebbe’s passing in 1994.
So much has been written and said about Chabad’s tremendous growth over the last two decades despite the apparent physical absence of a leader; how the Rebbe lives on through the work of his emissaries around the world. How it is testament to the Rebbe’s incredible leadership, inspiring a generation of young people to sacrifice their personal wellbeing to focus on building the world’s Jewish communities.
But until recently, most Chabad emissaries had at least some memories of the Rebbe; even if they were young at the time of the Rebbe’s passing, they still recall the Rebbe’s demand that his followers disperse throughout the globe to reach every single Jew. I was almost 15 that night in June 1994, when we received the devastating news of the Rebbe’s passing—not old enough to be familiar with every talk the Rebbe gave, but certainly aware of what the Rebbe expected of us. And even for those a bit younger than me, the feeling was still the same.
Which is why, when I interview these young emissaries with no memories of the Rebbe, yet they live their lives as though the Rebbe personally instructed them to open a Chabad House in Iceland or Iowa or Ghana, I cannot help but remind myself that the innate connection we have with the Rebbe will not only never diminish, but will continue to grow and shine. It motivates me to stay true to my own ‘shlichut,’ my mission to keep the spark of Judaism alive in our community.
And of course, it goes beyond just those that consider themselves Chabad; especially this weekend, when upwards of 50,000 people are expected to visit the Rebbe’s gravesite for his yahrtzeit, many having little or no obvious connection to Chabad. Because the Rebbe reached everyone—we just need to be open to that connection. And when the Rebbe reached a person, he usually expected that person to in turn reach out to someone else, keeping Judaism alive one step and one person at a time.
Until, as the Rebbe emphasized countless times, we achieve the ultimate goal of making the world a better and kinder place for all of mankind, which will become a reality with the coming Moshiach, may happen in our times.
Rabbi Eliezer Zalmanov
(A version of this column appeared in the Forward.)