Two decades ago, June 12, 1994, after years of messianic crescendo, controversy and genial outreach, the Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, breathed his last. Like Joe Hill or Elijah, the rebbe became one of those characters that some say never really died, either literally or figuratively. The debate within Chabad over his messianism has become somewhat muted with the years, as the passage of time does its dulling. But one thing is beyond dispute: The rebbe is having one heck of an afterlife.
Despite widespread doubts in 1994 about Chabad’s prospects without its rebbe, the rebbe’s influence may be as powerful now as it was in life. His shluchim (his emissaries, his happy warriors), seem omnipresent, going where no chasidim have gone before — everywhere from the Congo to every major college campus, even opening a (kosher) Chinese restaurant in China. The most recent convention saw the return to Brooklyn of over 4,000 shluchim from 81 countries. Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, a member of the rebbe’s secretariat and now the key administrator of international Chabad, has twice been named by Newsweek as the country’s most influential rabbi. The rebbe’s grave and memorial complex in Queens has become a 24/7 pilgrimage and prayer site, perhaps the most visited Jewish site outside Israel.
The rebbe was without question the most important chasidic leader since the Baal Shem Tov in the 1700s, and certainly the rebbe who most wanted to engage the larger culture. When the rebbe’s yahrtzeit arrives on Gimmel Tammuz (July 1), it will be a time — inside and outside Chabad — for new fervor, controversy and appreciation for a remarkable life. The yahrtzeit will reverberate. The day won’t just come and go.