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Soul Meetings





"if a Jew is lost,
Lubavitch will
find them!"

By Professor Jonathan Sacks
Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth

~ The second in a series of articles and speeches ~

It happened on our honeymoon almost thirty years ago. Elaine and I had decided to go to Switzerland. We'd never been there before, and we were excited by the prospect of mountains, clean air and vigorous climbs. We arrived amid brilliant sunshine, and the scenery was as glorious as we had hoped. The next morning, though, when we looked out of the window, the mountains had disappeared under a blanket of low cloud. For the next few days we went on our walks undeterred, even though the mist was thick and visibility almost zero. We took one safety precaution. As we walked, we sang Habad songs. Why? Because one thing we knew: if a Jew is lost, Lubavitch will find them!

This week, Lubavitch U.K. held a dinner to celebrate its fortieth anniversary - and what a remarkable organisation it has been. Recently, a Jewish newspaper held a competition to identify the Jewish newsmaker of the century. By a landslide, victory went to the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Schneersohn. The other candidates were world-famous figures - builders of the State of Israel like David Ben Gurion and Chaim Weizmann, and shapers of the modern mind such as Einstein and Freud. But the verdict was right. One would have to travel a long way back to find a comparable figure who had made such an impact on Jewish communities throughout the world.

Long before the word 'globalisation' had entered our vocabulary, the Rebbe created a truly global organisation, sending emissaries throughout the world to rekindle the flame of Jewish faith. The result is that wherever you least expect to find a Jewish presence, you are almost certain to discover that Lubavitch has got there ahead of you. In Katmandu, of all places, Habad organise the biggest seder in the world, with some three thousand participants. Back in the early seventies I used to say that I didn't know who would be the first Jew to set foot on the moon, but I was sure of who the second would be: A Lubavitcher Hassid running to put tefillin on the first.

In those days, Elaine and I loved Habad because they were the first group to go out to students, in the days when there were no Jewish university chaplains outside London. That is how we came to know and admire the people who have led Lubavitch from then to now: figures like Rabbis Nahman Sudak, Fyvish Vogel and Shmuel Lew who are among the heroes of our community. For us they represented a wholly new face of Judaism, spiritual, even mystical, and yet informal, approachable, savvy, relaxed. They were serious, but they were also fun. They taught us what it was to "serve God with joy". The movement which began life two hundred and fifty years ago among the villages of Eastern Europe turned out to hold the secret of touching the heart of Jews in a wholly different age and cultural environment.

I have often reflected on what made the Rebbe and the movement he led so different. The first thing, obviously, was that he cared. No other Jewish leader took the whole of the Jewish people as his constituency, without conditions or qualifications. He wanted every Jew, however remote geographically or spiritually, to feel that they were valued, that that within Jewish life there was a place of honour for them. How odd that this should be so rare, yet it is. The Rebbe virtually invented the concept of "outreach" and it changed the Jewish world. Today there are many organisations that practice it, but Lubavitch was the first and the most successful.

The second I discovered in my first audience with the Rebbe. I was a second-year student at university at the time, travelling around America in my summer vacation. Wherever I went, people spoke in glowing terms about the Rebbe. I knew I had to meet him, and an appointment was eventually arranged. I began by asking the Rebbe a series of questions about faith, which he answered in that quiet, courteous, softly-spoken manner he had. But within a few minutes he had turned the conversation around. He started interviewing me. What was I doing to strengthen Jewish life at university? What could be done to make the Jewish society at Cambridge stronger? Looking back on that conversation, which eventually changed my life, I realised that people had profoundly misunderstood him. They thought that the Rebbe was interested in creating followers. He wasn't. He was interested in creating leaders. That was his greatness. He believed in people more than they believed in themselves.

The third was that he knew how to see crisis as opportunity. The world from which he came had been destroyed in the Holocaust. His new home, the United States, was a country that until then had dissolved Jewish identity by the sheer power of its embrace. It was, as they used to say in those days, a treifener medinah, a land that turned Jews into gentiles in three generations. Virtually alone among his contemporaries, he saw the possibility of using American culture as a medium for new forms of Jewish activity. Mitzvah campaigns, menorahs in public places, the use of cable television to spread the word - time and again Lubavitch were innovators, using modern means to convey a traditional message. Perhaps it takes a mystic to see opportunities no one else notices. One way or another, the Rebbe realised that the secularity of the modern world conceals a deep yearning for spirituality, and he knew how to address it.

He is no longer with us, but the challenge he issued remains. Weizmann and Ben Gurion helped to rebuild the Jewish state. The Rebbe set out to rebuild the Jewish people. It was an heroic task, the right one at the right time, and its unfinished business is his legacy to us. Lubavitch has its critics - which Jewish organisation does not? But few can deny the transformation it has brought about in Jewish life.


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