The rebbes legacy, 10 years after

This week marks the 10th yahrzeit of the passing of the Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

The fact that some of his followers regarded him as the Messiah made many other Jews uncomfortable with the Lubavitch movement as a whole. Not to mention that many see the Chassidic lifestyle as a curiosity that is quaint at best, misogynistic and insular at worst.

Most Jews may not understand why many Lubavitchers choose to look as if they’re living in an 18th-century Eastern European shtetl. Some critics have even referred to them as fundamentalists or, even worse, a cult.

On the other hand, to see a gigantic menorah being lit in Union Square or other public places at Chanukah can do wonders for less-observant Jews who nevertheless feel overwhelmed by Christmas.

Those Jews may not want to be pressured to put on tefillin, but they still may smile at the sight of such a large display of Jewish pride. Or, at least be grateful for the disposable menorah pressed into their hands by a young bearded man.

The rebbe’s influence on Judaism cannot be underestimated. In an article this week by Pacific Grove-based Sue Fishkoff, author of “The Rebbe’s Army: Inside the World of Chabad-Lubavitch,” Jewish leaders from across the religious spectrum praise Schneerson for his impact on the world.

While outreach has become a priority of almost every Jewish institution or organization, it wasn’t always that way. Unlike most Chassidic leaders, the rebbe was educated in the secular world. He understood that the best way to draw in unaffiliated Jews was to reach them where they are.

No other movement in Jewish history has attempted to reach out to every Jew in the manner of Chabad — the outreach arm of Lubavitch. Some 4,000 shlichim, or emissaries, are stationed around the world — many of them at great personal sacrifice. Some live in places where Jews number in the hundreds and kosher food has to be flown in from abroad. They are there to make sure those Jews have at least a bit of access to their religion should they want it.

Chabad has been enormously successful in reaching out to college students and Jews in remote places, especially in the former Soviet Union, but also in Africa, Thailand, India — and the list goes on.

Curiosity, definitely. But it seems safe to say that the rebbe did a few things right. His influence will continue to be felt throughout all the movements of Judaism, in decades to come.