Former scribe says infighting mars memory of late rebbe

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Perhaps the greatest disappointment to Rabbi Simon Jacobson since the 1994 death of his mentor, Lubavitch Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, is the infighting within the Chabad movement.

Ever since Schneerson died, the movement has been filled with dissension over the leadership and direction it should take.

"The split is an embarrassment," said Jacobson, former chief scribe to the rebbe. "The rebbe was a leader. He didn't leave behind a corporation, but students and teachers. Much like Moses.

"The rebbe was a spiritual visionary. It's an embarrassment when people make his death and teaching a political thing rather than seeing he offered them a blueprint to life based on Torah. All sides [of the fight] are antithetical to his teachings of unity, love and understanding."

According to Jacobson, the only resolution to these battles for power is knowledge. To that end, the independent publisher and author of the New York Times bestseller "Toward a Meaningful Life: Wisdom of the Rebbe," is returning to the teachings of the rebbe and trying to present them in a format that is accessible to all.

Jacobson will speak about Schneerson and his "blueprint for life based on Torah" on Sunday, Nov. 16, at a benefit dinner for Chabad of the East Bay in Oakland.

Jacobson, 40, said his goal is neither to proselytize nor convert.

"Most of the audiences I speak to are unaffiliated or even non-Jews," said the New York publisher of Week in Review, a newsletter boasting a mailing list of more than 10,000 readers. "In New York I teach a group of entertainers. They are spiritual but they don't buy into anything establishment. All I try to do is offer an option, present information they may have never learned. These are adults, and I only hope to give them choices."

Unlike most of the people he speaks to, Jacobson was raised in an observant household in Crown Heights. Jacobson was fascinated by the men who memorized the rebbe's Shabbat and holiday teachings — observant Jews neither write nor use electronic appliances like tape recorders during Shabbat and holidays — and he joined their efforts informally at the age of 18.

During the late 1970s, Jacobson worked on the research project of a Chassidic encyclopedia. In 1980, he assumed the position of chief writer and scribe for the rebbe. Jacobson recalls Schneerson as a "brutal editor. He was razor sharp and understood the subtleties of communication."

When the rebbe suffered a stroke in 1992, Jacobson decided it was his responsibility to embark on creating a book of Schneerson's teachings.

"Most of them were esoteric, in Hebrew and Yiddish," he said, adding that the average reading public would have trouble understanding them. "I knew it was a privilege to have worked with the rebbe, and to not share his teachings would be a crime.

"The rebbe said our job is to bring light, to get the word out."

Jacobson does just that by telling anecdotes of Schneerson's surprisingly simple teachings. For example, in teaching a lesson about social responsibility, he refers to a story the rebbe told about the two ways to warm oneself in a cold room: Either put on a fur coat or light a fire. The fur coat, Jacobson explained, will only keep one person warm. The fire will warm everyone.

"We are all responsible for each other. By keeping everyone warm, we warm ourselves, too," he said.

Another story Jacobson tells is of the rebbe's stay in the hospital. This teaches the lesson of optimism.

A doctor tells Schneerson that if he doesn't rest, he risks a 25 percent chance of relapse. The rebbe smiled and said, "If I don't rest, there is a 75 percent chance nothing will happen."

Jacobson believes the time is ripe for these messages.

"As I have traveled, I have realized that this is both the best of times and the worst of times. There is a lot of hurt and dysfunction in the world. But there is also a pure thirst for the spiritual."

While general audiences can benefit from these teachings, learned Lubavitch leaders need to return to these sources too, Jacobson said.

For the most part, he continued, "The loose body of Chabad runs smoothly — when people stick to their own business. [The movment's dissension] is really more noise than substance. There are those trying to exercise more control than they should.

"Knowledge is the only power. It cannot be controlled or owned."

This is why Jacobson sees no need for another rebbe. "Of course I don't see another candidate. But I'm not looking for one," he said. "The rebbe remains my Rebbe like my father [after death] remains my father. Now I just try to educate my children with his lessons and make them into leaders.

"The rebbe discouraged dependency. He tried to teach each person to be his or her own rebbe," Jacobson said. "He believed individual power came through inspiration and education."