Reflections On Leadership

Here, we share reflections on the Rebbe’s iconic leadership culled from several interviews.


Reflections On Leadership

From left to right, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, Susan Handleman and Elie Wiesel

by Baila Olidort

February 5, 2020

Reflections On Leadership

Wednesday, February 5, the Jewish calendar date of 10 Shvat, marks 70 years of the unfolding of the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s vision. On that date (January 28) in 1950, Rabbi Joseph I. Schneersohn, sixth in the dynasty of Chabad Rebbes, passed away, and his son-in-law (and distant cousin--himself a direct descendant of the third Chabad Rebbe), Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, succeeded him. How would the Rebbe pick up the reins in the aftermath of the Holocaust that left the Jewish people diminished by a third, and crushed in body and spirit? How would the Rebbe bring healing to survivors nursing shame and insecurity, wanting to hide their identity, to forget, to be left alone in their grief? Here, we share reflections on the Rebbe’s iconic leadership culled from interviews with thinkers and scholars who had direct experience with the Rebbe.  

 

“He felt our pain, he intuited our yearning.”—Professor Susan Handelman

Eventually, the Rebbe reached me, and helped take me out of my exile too. In the late 1960s, when many of my generation rebelled in extreme ways, the Rebbe understood us; he sensed that our restlessness came from a spiritual discontent. Instead of chastising us, he sent us his best Chasidim to found Chabad Houses, to teach us, to live with us, to love us. I think that was what was really behind the development under the Rebbe's leadership of the extraordinary international network of Chabad institutions from Hong Kong to Paris to Kathmandu. He felt our pain, he intuited our yearning. And he saw us not just as products of late twentieth-century America, but under the light of Jewish eternity. We were princes and prophets and sages; each Jew was royalty; each Jew was precious; each Jew was the emissary and reflection of G-d in the world.

Susan Handelman, Professor Emeritus of English Literature at Bar Ilan University is the author of books on the relation of Jewish thought and literature, academia and spirituality. She translated On the Essence of Chassidus (Kehot Publications) a landmark discourse by the Rebbe. For the full article: A Man Apart

“I suddenly realized, I’ve got to do for other people what the Rebbe did for me.”—Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

I have a picture of the Rebbe by my desk in London. I think he’s asking, “Nu, what did you do today bring Moshiach?” 

The Rebbe did all the prep work; he did all the cooking, now why aren’t we enjoying the meal? We are worried about all the assimilation in America; we are losing Jews even here in NYU. So there is not one moment when you don’t hear the Rebbe saying, “Reach out to one more neshama.” 

For twenty-two years I was Chief Rabbi of Britain, the Commonwealth. It was a lovely position and a great honor and privilege, but then I thought, “Okay, twenty-two years I think we’ve done something, we brought back Jewish day school education, we stopped the decline in the population, we held the out-marriage rate, and now what next?” 

And then I went back to those days, 1968, when I was a young student who never thought at all about being a leader, and the Rebbe spent time with me and encouraged me to be a leader. And I suddenly realized I’ve got to do for other people what the Rebbe did for me.

So we are sitting here, having this conversation, in New York University where I am teaching leadership. I’m working right now in virtually every Jewish leadership program in America and in Israel. 

I said a good leader creates followers, a great leader creates leaders. So I felt the next thing I had to do was just to share a little of what the Rebbe shared with me, in a very small way to do that with young Jews, charging them to be leaders, which is really my avodah [service] now. 

From a 2014 interview with Rabbi Jonathan Sacks,  Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth from 1991 to 2013. For the full interview: A Conversation With Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (Podcast)

“One of the greatest achievements of the Rebbe is the Shluchim. They are carriers; they are the carriers of his vision.”—Professor Elie Wiesel

The Rebbe always felt he hadn’t done enough, and yet he had done more than anyone I know. He felt that somewhere, maybe somewhere in Nepal—he didn’t travel but he knew what was going on—there is somebody who needs something. Once you feel that, you cannot be happy. If there was one person who, let’s say, was hungry for yiddishkeit . . .

That’s why he had this great idea of the Shluchim. One of the greatest achievements of the Rebbe is the Shluchim. I have tremendous affection for every one of them, and admiration, and gratitude. Because they carry not only the Rebbe’s message; they carry the Rebbe’s sadness and the Rebbe’s joy, and the Rebbe’s dream. They are carriers; they are the carriers of his vision.

From a 2013  interview with Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, (d. July 2, 2016) For the full interview, click here: In Conversation with Nobel Prize Winner Elie Wiesel

“The Rebbe was the vehicle that contained the tears of the Jewish people.” —Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

The Rebbe was the vehicle that contained the tears of the Jewish people. The Rebbe heard pain and suffering, not just day after day, but minute after minute, so he had to contain all the pain. From time to time the weight of these tears, all the pain, all the suffering, was revealed. 

But the pain is a pain that says to G-d, “You have to do something about it, we cannot take it anymore.” In effect, he was crying out to the Almighty that He should do something about all the suffering. It’s as if one says: “If I as a human being am suffering so much, you the Almighty, who feels the suffering much deeper—how can you stay behind and not do something about this?”

From a 2009  interview with Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, celebrated teacher, philosopher, author and translator of the Steinsaltz Edition of the Talmud. A close disciple of the Rebbe, his  book, My Rebbe, published in 2014, is his firsthand account of the Rebbe. For the full interview: In Conversation with Rabbi Adin Even Yisrael Steinsaltz

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