An Orthodox rabbi keeps, spreads faith

by Ron Grossman
June 19, 2004

With his full black beard, suit to match and—on the Sabbath—a long black frock coat, Rabbi Meir Moscowitz stands out amid the suburbia of the North Shore.

His garb, dating to long-vanished Jewish villages in Eastern Europe, remains commonplace among men who live in the sprawling Orthodox neighborhoods of Brooklyn. But in Northbrook, where he heads an outreach center of the Lubavitch-Chabad movement, Moscowitz is a rare sight.

"Out here, nobody has to ask, `Which one is the rabbi?'" he said.

Ten years after the death of the charismatic leader who long led the Lubavitch movement, followers like Moscowitz are still spreading his word in Jewish communities that are cultural light-years away from the ultra-Orthodox world where the movement was born.

Lubavitch is among the Orthodox Jewish sects known as the Hasidim, or pious ones, which traditionally are led by unbroken lines of rabbis and generally keep to themselves. Yet the Lubavitch group has followed a different path.

No new leader has emerged since Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson died in 1994, but the group is flourishing thanks to the vigor of his teaching and to the thousands of missionaries who are charged with carrying forth his word. Moscowitz's counterparts, each called a schliach, or emissary, are posted to such unlikely places as Katmandu and Kinshasa.

Next week, Moscowitz and others will travel to the New York gravesite of Schneerson to mark his 10th yahrtzeit, the anniversary of his death. On previous occasions, the crowds have been enormous, and the number 10 is charged with special meaning in the mystical tradition from which Lubavitch descends.

"You have to stand in line for hours," Moscowitz recalled, "just to pass in front of the grave."

Among his followers, Schneerson is known simply as "the Rebbe," from the Yiddish word for rabbi. The way they pronounce the phrase gives the impression he has a monopoly on the title—which makes them unique among Orthodox Jews.

The Hasidim trace their roots to an 18th Century mystic, the Baal Shem Tov, whose disciples spread through Eastern Europe, establishing local Hasidic dynasties. Lubavitch is the name of a Polish town.

When each of the Hasidic rabbis died, his mantle was passed to a successor, and so it also was with Lubavitch, up through the 44-year reign of Schneerson, the seventh Lubavitch rebbe.

But he has had no successor. Lubavitch spokesmen explain that a rebbe is a spiritual leader, not a corporate CEO; he can't be appointed, he has to emerge.

"Perhaps every Jew alive today is the Rebbe's successor," said Rabbi Zalman Shmotkin, director of the Lubavitch Web page,

In honor of the Rebbe's 10th yahrtzeit, Moscowitz and his fellow emissaries have redoubled their efforts to spread Schneerson's message.

Key to the Rebbe's teaching was the idea that all Jews are important, according to God's plan—the secular no less than the religious, the not-so-observant as well as the pious. He said that it makes a difference every time someone performs a mitzvah, a religious commandment.

"Every mitzvah makes God feel welcome on Earth," said Moscowitz. "It could be a woman lighting Sabbath candles or a man putting on tefillin."

The latter refers to the pair of prayer boxes, containing biblical verses and with leather straps attached, that traditional Jewish men wrap around their foreheads and an arm during weekday morning services.

Moscowitz noted that among the 40 to 70 people who attend Sabbath services at the Lubavitch center in Northbook only a few are "black hats," as the Hasidim are called because of their mode of dress.

"Ask the others what they are and some would identify themselves as Conservative or Reform," said Moscowitz. "Others might simply say: `I'm a Jew.'"

That ecumenical spirit is unusual among the Hasidim, notes Sue Fishkoff, author of "The Rebbe's Army: Inside the World of Chabad-Lubavitch." During the Nazi period, the older Hasidic centers in Eastern Europe were destroyed, along with many of the movement's followers. Hasidic leaders who survived drew a lesson from the terrible experience.

"They were traumatized by the Holocaust," said Fishkoff. "When they came to this country after the war, the other Hasidic groups turned inward, to protect themselves."

But when Schneerson became Lubavitch's head in 1950, he dispatched young rabbis to do missionary work among an ever-increasing compass of unaffiliated Jews. Moscowitz, 25, studied in Canada, Israel and France and was posted to Budapest before coming to Northbrook.

Because of that outreach, the Lubavitch—with 4,000 emissary families like Moscowitz, his wife and their two children—probably hold a majority among the Hasidim overseas. But in the U.S., the Satmar sect is larger, and takes a diametrically opposite approach.

"When the Rebbe started his shliach program, he was criticized by the Satmar rebbe who said Lubavitch young people would be corrupted by exposure to the outside world," said Fishkoff, who is Jewish but not Hasidic.

Among the Lubavitchers, however, Schneerson's approach prevailed.

Today, his followers turn to his teachings for guidance, in lieu of a living rebbe. Carefully reconstructed by his assistants, Schneerson's discourses now fill dozens of printed volumes. There are videotapes of his weekly addresses.

"In more than 40 years of leadership, he gave us so much guidance," Moscowitz said, pointing to a bookshelf crowded with Schneerson's writings. "Oftentimes, I have the thought: `What would the Rebbe say in this situation?' Then I'll take down a volume."

A few Lubavitchers view Schneerson as not just a great teacher but as Judaism's long-awaited messiah—a radical proposition that has caused some consternation both within the movement and in the larger Jewish community.

After his death, competing groups of Lubavitch rabbis took ads in Jewish newspapers, alternately proclaiming and denying that the Rebbe was the messiah. Even now, conflicts between the so-called "messianic" and non-messianic Lubavitchers occasionally threaten the peace at the Rebbe's old headquarters in Crown Heights, the Brooklyn neighborhood where about 11,000 Lubavitchers are thought to live.

Fishkoff and other outside observers think the messianic Lubavitchers are a minority.