By Cindy Mindell
Bestselling author, scholar, and rabbi Joseph Telushkin will kick off the Mandell Jewish Community Center’s 22nd Annual Jewish Book Festival on Thursday, Nov. 13 with a discussion of his latest book, Rebbe: The Life and Teachings of Menachem M. Schneerson, the Most Influential Rabbi in Modern History (HarperWave, 2014).
Hailed by major U.S. publications, Rebbe explores Schneerson’s overarching philosophies and examines how he became an ambassador for Jews globally. Telushkin also delves deep into the more controversial aspects of the Rebbe’s leadership, analyzing his views on modern science and territorial compromise in Israel, and how in the last years of his life, many of his followers believed that he would soon be revealed as the Messiah, a source of contention until this day.
In an interview with the Ledger, Telushkin said that he was drawn to the Rebbe as a subject because of the extraordinary staying power of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement that he spawned.
“There’s been so much concern in the Jewish community about shrinking numbers of Jews, fewer Jews committed to leading Jewish lives and committed to support for Israel, many Jews marrying out, not raising their children as Jews,” he said. “Here was a pretty unique success story, here was a rabbi who took over a movement in 1951, a rather small movement, located and centered in Brooklyn, and turned it into a worldwide movement. There are now Chabad houses in 49 of the 50 states – South Dakota is the only exception – and they’re in 80 countries. So, at a time when there was such a concern about a contraction of the Jewish community, here is a real success story and that’s what was so particularly striking to me.”
Telushkin was also fascinated by the way the Chabad-Lubavitch movement took on a life of its own. “In 1992, when the Rebbe suffered a stroke and, during the next two years of his life until his death in 1994, was not able to lead anymore, there was much speculation and a widespread assumption that a movement so dependent on a charismatic leader would go into a serious decline subsequent to his death,” he said. “But it didn’t: so much of the expansion of Chabad happened subsequently, since the Rebbe’s death, in the last 20 years. Here we find a movement without a leader that’s continuing to grow because obviously he left behind leadership principles that are still being followed.”
Telushkin told the Ledger that he refers to Schneerson as “the most influential rabbi in modern history” in the subtitle of his book because of the “simply tremendous reach” of the Chabad-Lubavitch organization. In addition, Schneerson is the only rabbi ever to have won the Congressional Gold Medal, co-sponsored posthumously by U.S. Representatives John Lewis – among the most liberal of Democrats – and Newt Gingrich – among the more conservative of Republicans.
“In fact, Lewis remarked at the time that it was the only issue on which he and Newt Gingrich could ever agree,” Telushkin said.
Such reach can only come from the concerted outreach that the movement is known for. “My good friend [and occasional co-author] Dennis Prager spent Shabbat in 2010 in Phnom Penh, Cambodia with 14 other Jews; the largest seder in the world, held every year, is in Kathmandu, Nepal,” he says. “This reflects an enormous impact and influence.”
Telushkin also wrote the book to show readers how the Rebbe’s teachings can affect people in their daily lives and be an impetus for personal change. Central to the work is a section outlining the seven virtues of the Rebbe, such as “Anything worth doing is worth doing now.”
Rabbi Joseph Telushkin: Thursday, Nov. 13, 7 p.m., Mandell JCC, 335 Bloomfield Ave., West Hartford; Info/tickets: mandelljcc.org; (860) 236-4571.