In 1902, on the 11th of Nisan, in the Ukrainian village of Nikolaev, Chana Schneerson, the mother of newborn Menachem Mendel, the future and seventh Lubavitcher rebbe, receives a telegram from her cousin, the fifth rebbe, Sholom Dov Ber. Before feeding the baby, he writes, she should ritually wash her hands as if before meals or prayer. When the baby cries, his parents, by candlelight, pour water over his little hands and into a small basin by his cradle.
In Washington, D.C., 100 years later, more than 700 Jewish leaders from 42 countries, from Costa Rica to Turkey, gathered to kick off the centennial of the rebbe — “of blessed memory,” the posters say, just so you don’t get any wrong ideas.
Israel’s Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau tells the assembly, “One hundred years ago, at the beginning of this past century, we didn’t dream in our worst dreams of the darkest time to come. But, with hindsight, we see that in preparation for all that, to help heal, God gave a rare gift to the Jewish people and to mankind in general: that special and unique soul of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of righteous memory.” Today, “There’s no corner of the globe where people haven’t heard of Chabad-Lubavitch. It is because of one man.”
The rebbe sent Rabbi Yosef Kantor to Thailand nine years ago. Now, in the lobby of the Capital Hilton, Rabbi Kantor says casually, “We’re having 1,500 for seders; two in Bangkok, one in Chiangmai, one in Koh Samui.”
Familiar Jewish faces in the capital speak of their Chabad connections: how Sen. Joseph Lieberman knew he could count on a Chabad minyan to say Kaddish, even in Tashkent; how Stuart Eisenstadt’s son goes to the Chabad at his university; how the ambassador from Costa Rica is also president of the Costa Rican Chabad; how the U.S. ambassador to Uruguay layned Parshat HaChodesh at the Chabad of Montevideo. White House spokesman, Ari Fleischer, drops by the Hilton, describing himself as a “Reform Lubavitcher.” Fleischer wasn’t looking for a blessing; he gave blessings. Chabad’s Rabbi Levi Shemtov told of the time that Fleischer — who’s a Kohen — blessed him during the duchenen at Chabad’s D.C. shul.
And just to set the record straight, Rabbi Shemtov, the chairman of the centennial event, told reporters, “It was not the rebbe’s goal to be Moshiach,” the messiah, “but it was his goal to bring Moshiach” by making the world a better place.
A pogrom in 1907: Menachem Mendel hides with the shtetl children and tries to hush them so they won’t be detected by wandering gangs. The five-year-old Schneerson gives one child a piece of candy, tells another a story, strokes the cheek of a third. After the pogroms, after the Communists, after the Nazis, after decades, the old rebbe sends his emissaries to the Jewish children of Nikolaev.
At the gathering, Elie Wiesel evokes the biblical image of Jacob’s face appearing to Joseph during times of trial. Sometimes, with the world the way it is, says Wiesel, “I see the image of the Rebbe—his eyes, the way he listened, the way he spoke. The danger is greater than ever before, at least since 1945. [In Israel], I come to a very pessimistic conclusion that it is not a matter of territory. They simply don’t want us. If the Rebbe would be here, what would he say? What are we to say? Jews need to be more Jewish. A Jew alone cannot be Jewish; a Jew must be with his people. And so there isn’t a place in the world where there are Jews,” where there isn’t a reflection of the rebbe.
He marries Chaya, the daughter of the sixth Lubavitcher rebbe, in Warsaw in 1928. The night before, Lubavitchers dance the new crown prince through the streets. Who ever knew him as well as Chaya Mushka? She was with him in the universities of Paris and Berlin. She remembered that wartime Shavuos in Vichy and going hungry in Nice. They traveled from Marseilles to Barcelona, and sailed away to a home in Crown Heights.
Israel’s ambassador to Washington, David Ivry, recalls that when he was a commander in Israel’s air force in the early 1970s, the rebbe’s emissaries were always there for his men. The rebbe’s philosophy, said Ivry: “No Jew must ever be lonely.”
It’s 1967, just after the Six-Day War: The rebbe says,“There are two things we must avoid at all costs. The first is not to fall into the trap of attributing this victory to our own military prowess;” that’s just the way God channeled His miracles. The second thing to avoid is fear. “Many Jews, including those who head the government of Israel, have yet to free themselves of their intimidation before ‘world opinion.’ I expect that they will lose no time in dispatching all sorts of delegations to Washington with the message that they are prepared to return the territory conquered in the war. They do not understand that they have not conquered anything themselves,” but with God, and this land with its holy places was God’s to give.
In the Washington hotel, George Rohr, a New York businessman, tells a group of college students about the time he started a beginner’s service at his congregation. He went to the rebbe, expecting approval. “I told the rebbe about this special service for more than 130 Jews with no Jewish background and the rebbe’s smile vanished. He looked at me with those piercing blue eyes, and I knew I must have said something wrong. The rebbe said, ‘What?’ He gave me a chance to repeat myself, which I did. The rebbe said, ‘No Jewish background?’ He looked at me like I insulted his children. The rebbe said, ‘Go back and tell them that they have the background of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, Sara, Rivka, Rachel and Leah.’ Then his smile came back and he gave me a blessing.”
Each Sunday, the rebbe stands in the foyer of 770 Eastern Parkway and gives away more than $6,000 in single bills, dispensed one by one to individuals, with a blessing and the proviso that the bills be used for charity. Said one chasid of the Sunday lines, “When the Moshiach comes, it will be something like this,” an ingathering of the holy and the lonely, people in wheelchairs, the barren and the pregnant, chasidim returning from Alaska or the Congo, thousands of Jews looking for a blessing, a shot at redemption, or to converse with the rebbe in any one of seven languages.
Rabbi Avraham Berkowitz, 26, is the executive director of the Federation of Jewish Communities overseeing more than 400 Chabad institutions in the former Soviet Union. On the plane from Moscow to Washington, he sees former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. “He smiled at me,” says Berkowitz, “recognizing me as a chasid.” Gorbachev invited Berkowitz to have a seat. “Where are you flying?” asks Gorbachev. “I’m on my way,” says Berkowitz, “to Washington for the centennial of the Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson.”
Gorbachev didn’t recognize “Lubavitch” but recognized “Schneerson.” He said that during the Soviet years,the Kremlin kept their eyes on a Jewish underground movement—Schneerson’s men. They arrested more than a few.
Berkowitz says Gorbachev was amazed: “ ‘You’re 26. You’re from Michigan. And you move to Russia! What I like about Schneerson’s people is that you weren’t just about fighting the Cold War and then going home, but about staying and building a new Russia.’ ”
Berkowitz has a new baby, a Russian Jew.
When he died in 1994, they came again, the beggers and the beatific, for the funeral of their best friend. He promised that despite a heartbreaking century, Jewish history would have a happy ending, a messianic age, you might say. There was no other way God could end the story.
What do you give a rebbe in the Other World who has everything? His chasidim are building a new yeshiva in Nikolaev, where it all began by candlelight.