The Rebbe’s Dream, Played out on the College Campus
By Rebecca Linfield
This article is intended as a somewhat unusual book review of Samuel Heilman and Menachem Friedman’s recently published book The Rebbe: The Life and Afterlife of Menachem Mendel Schneerson. Through the story the Lubavitch Chassidim and their seventh rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, I hope to explore how Chabad at Yale represents itself and to examine the connections between Chabad at Yale and the greater movement.
Lubavitch is part of the larger Chassidut movement founded by the Baal Shem Tov in the 18th century, which itself arose out of the Medieval Jewish mysticism. The Chabad strain of Chassidut was founded by Shneur Zalman of Liadi in the late 18th century, with Lubavitch as one branch of the movement. Today, Lubavitch is the dominant branch of Chabad, and “Chabad” and “Lubavitch” will be used interchangeably in this article.
Lubavitch may have remained a typical insular sect of Chassidut if not for the key efforts of Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, the sixth Lubavitch rebbe, and his successor, his son-in-law Menachem Mendel Schneerson, to mold the culture of Chabad around shlichus, or outreach, to other Jews. As discussed in The Rebbe, Menachem Mendel oversaw the growth in importance of shlichim during his lifetime. Being a shaliach became one of the most important roles that a Lubavitcher chasid could aspire to even today, a “kind of expected and habitualized career path for many” (The Rebbe 257).
All of which ties back to the founding of Chabad at Yale. There was no formal Chabad at Yale until 2002 despite the Chabad presence in New Haven through the branch of the Rabbinical Institute of New England, an all-male high school. Lubavitch high school students still can be seen on Yale’s Old Campus encouraging men to don tefillin and women to light candles. There is no formal relationship, however, between the Institute and Chabad at Yale. In addition, the youth of the students at the Institute, as well as the distance from campus, hinders the development of a greater connection.
Shua Rosenstein was brought in along with his chavruta (study partner) Nachman Abend by Rabbi Shmully Hecht to start Chabad at Yale on Rabbi Hecht’s personal initiative in 2002. Rabbi Hecht, a Lubavitch rabbi, co-founded the Chai Society (now known as Eliezer) in 1996 when he came to Yale’s campus hoping to connect with Jewish students and currently serves as the organization’s Rabbinical Advisor.
The presence of (now) Rabbi Rosenstein on campus was anything but usual. With no formal program in place, Rosenstein and his chavruta reached out to Jews on campus, an unusual model because most shlichim are married couples. Moreover, the two studied for their smicha, or Rabbinical certification, in the mornings at the Rabbinical Institute of New England, and spent the rest of their time on outreach, largely to Jewish students who had not found their niche either at the Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale or at Eliezer.
The rabbis rented an apartment and dubbed it “3M”; and the Shabbat dinners they hosted there quickly grew in size. Students were drawn in by the home-cooked dinners, conversations until the wee hours of the morning, and warm atmosphere. As Rabbi Rosenstein phrases it, “What added to 3M’s popularity is that even though it was open to everybody, no one knew what it was because it wasn’t officially Chabad.” After two years of 3M, others Chabad outreach members were brought in. The following year, Rabbi Rosenstein moved back to Crown Heights, met his wife, got married, and raised the funds to buy and renovate Chabad at Yale’s home on Edgewood. In 2005, Rabbi Rosenstein formally established the Chabad House at Yale. Rabbi Abend now runs the Chabad house in the Valley in Los Angeles.
As a measure of his success, Chabad at Yale is currently expanding and moving into a larger house, hosts weekly Shabbat dinners and lunches, leads Birthright trips, and organizes a range of other activities designed to appeal to Jewish students. Chabad at Yale, like many Chabad Houses, receives no funding from central headquarters and pays no money to central headquarters. This funding situation both gives the Chabad Houses greater independence, as well as relieving central headquarters of some fundraising responsibilities. Central headquarters, however, still run training for shlichim and provide other resources for Chabad Houses.
How much is the story of Chabad at Yale the story of Lubavitch in the second half of the twentieth century and its role in the twenty-first, and where does it diverge?
Certainly, Chabad at Yale is but one more marker of Chabad’s success and emphasis on shlichus. As detailed in The Rebbe, Menachem Mendel emphasized shlichus for a variety of reasons – theological, sociological, and political. Shlichim are charged with bringing Jews closer to Judaism, and Menachem Mendel believed that bringing nonobservant Jews into the fold would hasten the coming of the Messiah. Shlichus also gave Lubavitchers a safe way to integrate into the modern world without threatening their religious identities. The shlichim embodied the mystic concept of aliyah metoch yerida, ascension through descent, whereby completely righteous people, can descend to others’ level to help in their ascension to higher levels of holiness without risking their own piety. Thus, shlichim could become part of the outside culture without giving up their own. On a more political level, establishing shlichus as the dominant architecture of Lubavitch life allowed Schneerson to cement his power as rebbe over his brother-in-law, Shmaryahu Gourary. Gourary wanted to be the next rebbe when the sixth Lubavitch rebbe, their father-in-law Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, died without an heir. Gourary was head of United Lubavitchers Yeshivas (ULY), the learning establishment of Chabad. While Gourary never attempted a coup once Schneerson became rebbe, the shlichim headed by Schneerson became more important than learning institutions in the Lubavitch community.
Today, with no apparent successor to the Rebbe, the role of shaliach has become an example of the collective continuation of the Rebbe’s mission. As said in the Talmud Bavli, “Shlucho shel adam kemoto – the shaliach of a person is like the person himself” (Kiddushin 41b). Sometimes central Chabad has rejected forms of shlichus as too deviant from the Rebbe’s mission. Even when the Rebbe was alive, people such as Rabbi Zalman Shachter-Shlomi and Shlomo Carlebach came from Chabad but ultimately broke away to form the Renewal movement and popularize Hasidic-inspired melodies, respectively. The Renewal movement is “grounded in Judaism’s prophetic and mystical traditions” (www.aleph.org). In recent times, Shmuley Boteach, originally the shaliach at the University of Cambridge, became estranged from the Chabad movement when he branched into mainstream pop culture. He became a spiritual advisor to Michael Jackson in the 1990s after Jackson’s child sex scandals, and published Kosher Sex in 1999.
Thus, Chabad at Yale is both a product and innovator of Chabad shlichus. Chabad at Yale is fairly typical of Chabad houses in its emphasis on traditional Friday night dinners. These dinners, moreover, emblemize a recurring contradiction in Chabad’s philosophy: even as Chabad accepts all Jews, its outreach focuses on bringing other Jews towards a more traditional observance. The Rebbe’s own philosophy had this contradiction. Rabbi Rosenstein speaks with reverence of the time he met the Rebbe as a boy. Says Rabbi Rosenstein: “I saw the Rebbe taking the attitude and approach that there was no difference as to what sect of Judaism you were a part of – that the only thing that matters is your core as a Jew, and we are all therefore part of the larger community.” However, Chabad at Yale’s Friday night dinner does in some sense “compete” with the Friday night dinner offered at the Slifka Center, whose implicit purpose is to bring many types of Jews together in one pluralistic space to celebrate Shabbat together.
Yet Chabad at Yale is unique, shaped by its surrounding culture, especially in its interactions with other Yale institutions, Jewish or otherwise. The Slifka Center and Chabad at Yale have combined forces for events such as Shabbat 1000 (1000 students eating Shabbat dinner) and campus-wide candle lightings during Chanukah. Chabad at Yale also sponsors many events with AEPi, Yale’s Jewish fraternity, and other organizations. When the Slifka Center is closed over university recesses, the Young Israel House at Yale Minyan meets at Chabad at Yale.
If Chabad at Yale is largely the story of Chabad as a whole, then Heilman’s and Friedman’s concluding hypothesis – that Chabad will soon no longer be able to continue in its path because of their disappointment in the Rebbe as the Messiah – seems disingenuous. Chabad at Yale does not seem to be fading away anytime soon, and indeed, continues to grow in the number of students it reaches. But whatever form Chabad takes in the next fifty years, hopefully its innovation, discourse across denominations, and ahavat yisrael, a love of all Jews, will remain.