Former Marin rabbi explores lives of Lubavitch rebbes

In an age when strong leadership is in short supply, the seven Chabad rebbes have something to teach us, says Rabbi Chaim Dalfin, founder of Chabad of Marin.

What the rabbis provide is "a model for leadership," he says during a recent interview from his home in Brooklyn.

"Children are disgusted with leadership, especially now when our president has been a bad example."

In his new book, "The Seven Chabad-Lubavitch Rebbes," Dalfin delivers the wisdom of more than 200 years of rabbis, from the Alter Rebbe Schneur Zalman in the late 18th century, to Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who died in 1994.

Empathy, he says, is what distinguishes the seven rebbes, whom Dalfin calls "seven branches of the menorah."

"Love for every human being, not just sympathy, but empathy." He cites Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Schneerson, the Frierdiker Rebbe who led Chabad from 1920 to 1950, as an example. The predecessor of the last Chabad rebbe, he is the sixth of the seven chronicled.

"He demanded that his followers teach Judaism under the Stalinist regime." The Frierdiker Rebbe sent hundreds of Chassidim to the Soviet Union to create underground yeshivot.

"Many great rabbis were righteous in their own congregations," says Dalfin. "These men [the Chabad rebbes] were involved in global, world issues."

The first Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Tzemach Tzedek and the third in Dalfin's chronology, lived in early-19th century Russia. The forebear of his 20th-century namesake bought a large tract of land in the Pale of Settlement, in the Minsk province, where Jews could settle free.

He also cooperated with Mitnagdim (Orthodox opponents of Chassidism) in opposing the Haskalah, Jewish enlightenment. They fought changes in liturgy and the closure of Jewish publishing houses.

The Tzemach Tzedek's work uniting Chassidism and Mitnagdim can serve as a model for people trying to bridge the rifts between the different streams of Judaism today, says Dalfin.

"A Jew is a Jew. This is at the heart of the Chabad philosophy."

In his book, Dalfin gives a brief history of each of the rebbes and outlines their contributions. He writes that the late rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, "brought together all pieces of the puzzle," bringing information about his predecessors to the light.

"Many of these teachings of other rebbes were not known until he shared them with us," he says.

In the chapter on the late rebbe, Dalfin asserts that Schneerson was appointed as rebbe until the Messiah's arrival.

"As such, the Rebbe is still functioning, as the active rebbe, from on high," he writes.

Born and reared in a Chassidic community in Brooklyn, Dalfin came to Marin in 1984.

"A group of people in Marin wanted to establish a Chabad shul. I went out to lead Rosh Hashanah services in 1983. They enjoyed the style. We made a shidduch [match]."

He stayed until 1992 when he "gave over the reins" to Rabbi Yisrael Rice.

From there he went to Los Angeles, where he was director of the Jewish Enrichment Center until 1996. He was then summoned by Chabad to direct the Central Yeshiva in Brooklyn, where he lives with his wife and five children.

In recent years he's been focusing on his writing career. (This is his seventh book.) Recently, he took on the position of spiritual leader of Congregation Beis Menachem Mendel of Flatbush. He's also recorded a four-volume series of Chassidic melodies.

His next book will be on reincarnation, a topic he lectures about frequently as director of the Worldwide Kabbalah Connection Centers, a series of Kabbalah learning centers located in six states and four countries.

Like many others serious about Kabbalah, he warns against jumping into Kabbalah without being grounded in normative Judaism. He will be leading two-week tours this summer to the holy sites of the kabbalists in Israel, sharing insights from the teachings of the sages. The sites include the grave of Rabbi Yitzchak Luria in Safed.

"I don't teach abstract Kabbalah," he said. "If someone's teaching Kabbalah to a non-initiate it's shallow, it's a sham. What I do is teach some of the principles; it's applied Kabbalah. Unfortunately, Kabbalah's become vogue and you have Hollywood stars capitalizing on it. They're not spiritually mature enough to study abstract Kabbalah."