In the years since the June 12, 1994, passing of the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, at New York City’s Beth Israel hospital, the anniversary of that date — the third day of the Hebrew month of Tammuz — has become a day not of mourning, but of celebrating his life and achievements, which continue to impact the world through his many emissaries, known as shluchim.
One such emissary is Rabbi Yitzchak Schochet, rabbi of the Mill Hill synagogue in London. A weekly columnist for London’s Jewish News and a frequent panelist on the BBC’s “The Big Questions,” Schochet addressed a crowd of about 250 people at Beth Shalom Congregation last week to offer inspiration gleaned from Schneerson’s teachings.
Schochet’s July 12 speech, organized by Chabad of Western Pennsylvania as part of its commemoration of Schneerson’s passing, focused on the challenges facing Orthodox Jews today, “a threat from without and within.” The dual forces of anti-Semitism and apathy, said Schochet, combine to create a dangerous cocktail.
Though anti-Semitism is on the rise the world over, “pockets of light penetrate even the darkest corners,” he said. Instead of driving Jews to silence and shame, it is in times like these that they should be proud of our heritage and religion. They should “stand that much straighter, be that much prouder.”
When they respect their own religion and themselves, Schochet said, the world will respect Jews. As a nation, he added, their continued existence sends a message to the world: “the defeat of tragedy by the principle of hope.”
Schochet also spoke about the butterfly effect, the well-known principle of chaos theory that posits that even the tiniest flap of a butterfly’s wings could cause a tsunami in another part of the world, as the ripples from the wings spread out and strengthen over space and time.
For Schochet, though, the concept isn’t so much a cautionary as a celebratory one. One of the founding principles of Schneerson’s ideology, he said, is the idea that even the smallest act of an individual can give birth to a chain of events. “What we do resonates and has effects, no matter how big or small. Actions don’t just exist in that moment,” but continue to impact on people long after they’ve taken place, Schochet said.
He added that the Talmudic dictum, “For my sake, the world was created,” leaves Jewish individuals with certain responsibilities. Its corollary imbues men, women and children with the responsibility, he said, “to create positive ripples … to transform the world.”
Instead of bowing out of the work by insisting that it is too hard or demanding, Schochet advised emulating the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who once told someone that his mission in life was “to try to be a good friend” to all.
Batya Rosenblum, co-director of Chabad of the South Hills, along with her husband Mendy has apparently taken that message to heart. Of the original date of Schneerson’s passing, she said she felt “an unbearable sense of loss.”
“It was extremely painful,” she said. “At the same time, there was a tremendous sense of giving each other strength. There was no question that we had to continue the Rebbe’s mission. Each of us is doing our part.”
Schochet had similar memories of that day in 1994: the phone call he received that “shook me to my core,” rushing to the airport in London to find many other Orthodox Jews already there, all desperately trying to book a last-minute flight to New York. He remembered standing on Eastern Parkway outside the Brooklyn, N.Y., headquarters of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement “with the rain coming down and the Rebbe being carried out.” And he remembered one of Schneerson’s many secretaries finding him to tell him that out of all the thousands of letters that they’d been reading to the leader every day, Schochet’s had been the very last he’d ever heard.
In the days after the funeral, newspapers and magazines the world over published think pieces and articles, many wondering how the movement Schneerson led for more than 40 years could possibly survive without a leader. Schochet said that, for his part, he wasn’t worried.
“I never doubted for a second” that the mission would continue, he said.
Schochet has resided in England for a long time, and perhaps that, combined with his Chasidic devotion, led him to believe in the assurance of continuity, to buy into the “keep calm and carry on” mentality. Though his community was suddenly like a child without a father, said Schochet, “the Rebbe taught us to pick ourselves up and carry on.”
Masha Shollar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.