Disciple of Rebbe helps Pittsburgh mark 29th yahrzeit
ChabadRemembering, Revering, Growing

Disciple of Rebbe helps Pittsburgh mark 29th yahrzeit

Rabbi Simon Jacobson discusses legacy of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson and secret to Chabad's growth

Keynote speaker Rabbi Simon Jacobson, center, joins Rabbis Yisroel Altein and Yisroel Rosenfeld. Photo by Alexander Small
Keynote speaker Rabbi Simon Jacobson, center, joins Rabbis Yisroel Altein and Yisroel Rosenfeld. Photo by Alexander Small

A shadow requires light and an object. If the object expires, though, how does the shadow remain?

Rabbi Simon Jacobson, a disciple of the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, known as the Lubavitcher Rebbe, raised the question about his former teacher: “It’s been 29 years since the Rebbe’s passing from this physical world. Why are we still remembering this man? Gathering together? And frankly, what is the secret that Chabad and Lubavitch continue to grow and thrive, despite the fact that the Rebbe is not here?”

For more than an hour, Jacobson, author of The New York Times
bestselling book “Toward a Meaningful Life” and publisher of Algemeiner Journal, recalled his teacher’s lessons and regaled nearly 100 attendees at
the Jewish Community of Center of Greater Pittsburgh with quips and
memories during a June 20 address sponsored by the Chabad Centers of
Western Pennsylvania.

Jacobson, who said he was “trained by the Rebbe himself,” told the crowd
that one of Schneerson’s greatest teachings is that “we don’t take anything
for granted.” He then posed the quandary: “What would the world be like if the Rebbe did not exist — you want to add ‘God forbid’ or ‘Chas V’Shalom’ go ahead — but what would the world be like?”

Born in 1902 in what is now Ukraine, Schneerson was the seventh leader
in a dynastic line dating back to Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the 18th-
century founder of the Lubavitch Hasidic movement.

Shneur Zalman wrote “The Tanya,” a work that’s predicated on detailing
the “battle between the two voices within us: the beast within us and the
soul within us,” Jacobson said.

Whether one considers it a war between the animalistic and the divine, or
the “survival-based life and transcendent-based life,” the dichotomy, for
Schneerson, wasn’t just scholarly fodder. It was the driving force behind his efforts as a pioneering Jewish leader, Jacobson explained.

When Schneerson assumed the helm of Chabad in 1950 — five years after
the Holocaust ended and two years following the establishment of a Jewish
state —there was a “dramatic shift” underway in Jewish history. For
centuries, Jews were persecuted, expelled and terrorized. The concept of
freedom, pioneered by Western thought and championed by the United
States, wasn’t even 200 years old, “so the Rebbe was faced with a very
different reality than his forebears, Jacobson said. “All his predecessors,
most of their challenges were life and death — literally life and death.”

Schneerson recognized the reality of post-war life and waged a new battle,
but this combat wasn’t about swords, weapons or bloodshed, his student
continued: “It was a war against the biggest challenge of freedom: apathy.”
Throughout history, enemies of the Jews have helped crystallize Jewish
values, but with those earlier threats quelled, Schneerson encouraged
people to appreciate “there’s divine everywhere, not just in holy places,”
Jacobson said. “Every fiber of existence is vibrating and pulsating with
divine energy — it’s fundamental Hasidic teachings that the Rebbe
explained in a language that we all can relate to.”

Jacobson, who founded the Meaningful Life Center and was among a team of students who remembered and recorded Schneerson’s teachings, said the ability to convey oneness, or eternal truths, not only explains why a rabbinic presence can loom postmortem but why Chabad continues growing.

According to the movement, “a survey of synagogues in America found that the number of Chabad congregations has grown by 199% since 2001.”

Pew Research Center’s “Jewish Americans in 2020,” shed similar light on
Chabad’s rise: 16% of Jewish adults in the U.S. often or sometimes participate in Chabad programs or services, and of those participants, nearly 75% are non-Orthodox.

“The success of Chabad is all the more remarkable because so few
American Jews claim it, yet so many participate in it,” Religion News
Service’s Yonat Shimron noted. “At a time when many religious
denominations are shrinking, Chabad appears to be growing.”
The findings are staggering — unless, of course, one was lucky enough to
have learned from Schneerson, Jacobson said.

Mayor Ed Gainey and Rabbi Yisroel Rosenfeld during the June 21 program. Photo by Rabbi Henoch Rosenfeld

“The secret of Chabad is it’s not a cult of personality, it’s not about an
individual or how great anyone is. It’s an immortal cause,” he said. “The
cause was more important than anything and the cause is eternal. When you connect yourself to something eternal it lives on forever.”

For thousands of years, the world has gleaned insights from Judaism, and
for Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey, it’s offered instruction on “how you can
take problems and turn them into promises,” he told attendees. “It’s a heck of a testimony to be able to talk about your problems and share them down the line of how you took adversity, tragedy and trauma and turned it into a promise of a better tomorrow.”

Gainey pointed to last week’s guilty verdict against the Pittsburgh
synagogue shooter and said the jury’s decision was prefaced by countless
inspiring efforts by local Jewish community members.

“It’s remarkable to see the resiliency that you’ve demonstrated over the last couple  of years,” he said. “I don’t think you understand what you’ve demonstrated — not just to the city, but to the world — of how to come together as a community, how to heal a community, and how to make sure that everybody understands that you are here and you’re not going. That’s powerful. That’s powerful.” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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