Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, author of numerous best-selling books on Jewish history, culture, ethics and humor, will discuss his definitive 2014 biography of Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, whom he calls “The Most Influential Rabbi in Modern History,” during a virtual program 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, June 9. The program, “Optimism and Positive Thinking,” is planned by the five St. Louis-area Chabad centers and co-sponsored by the Jewish Federation of St. Louis, the Jewish Community Center and the Jewish Community Relations Council.
Rabbi Schneerson (1902-1994), was the seventh Rebbe of the worldwide Chabad Lubavitch Movement which he took over in 1951 and built up into a worldwide movement with Chabad centers and programs in nearly every country and communities, worldwide, including Chabad of Greater St. Louis, which is directed by Rabbi Yosef Landa.
The Jewish Light caught up with Telushkin for an interview.
The topic of your talk is “Optimism and Positive Thinking.” How can Jews be optimistic and positive amid the shocking rise in anti-Semitism in America and worldwide? What do you think the Rebbe would say to Jews around the World?
The very choice we make to be optimistic is the very choice that will help defeat a pessimistic outcome. In the final analysis, only optimists can achieve something because pessimists give up.
What attracted you to want to write the book “Rebbe”?
The Rebbe was the rarest kind of leader. Historically speaking, it’s highly unusual for a religious leader to inspire so many millions of new people, Jews and non-Jews, so many years after his passing. I think it was this recognition that got me thinking that this topic deserves further exploration.
What is the Rebbe’s enduring legacy?
His teachings, and his unique message of love for every Jew — a completely unconditional love. A love without limits, a love that extended to all human beings. One of the more universal teachings of the Rebbe is his approach to education, which has a strong emphasis on moral education. I believe it was influenced by the fact that the Rebbe was studying in Berlin — in a highly respected educational institution — as Hitler was coming to power. The shortcomings of such an educational system were glaringly obvious to him.
What unique gifts and skills did the Rebbe possess that made him to become “The Most Influential Rabbi in Modern History”?
The Rebbe was felt to be the rabbi of all Jews, you didn’t have to be in his “court,” so to say, to seek his guidance or learn from his teachings. A story to help illustrate this point: every Friday morning the New York Times had a classified ad on its front page. The little box — sponsored by Chabad — noted the week’s Shabbat candle-lighting time and encouraged Jewish women and girls to take part. In shul I sit next to Ari Goldman, a former reporter with the Times. He once shared with me, that on January 1, 2000, the Times printed three cover pages, its front cover from Jan. 1, 1900, the actual cover of that day’s paper, and a fictional one dated Jan. 1, 2100. And with its fictional cover falling out on a Friday, the editor had called Chabad to get the candle-lighting times for 2100 and included the ad calling on “Jewish women and girls” to light the Shabbat candles. “We don’t know what will happen in the year 2000,” it occurred to me. But of one thing all Jews are certain. In the year 2100, there will be Chabad representatives throughout the world encouraging Jewish women to light Shabbat candles. This explains why so much of the support for Chabad comes from people who may not directly affiliate with Chabad. This is also a part of what made the Rebbe unique, both his long-term vision, and his belief, that anything worth doing is worth doing now.
Why was Rabbi Schneerson so opposed to marches and other public pressure on the former Soviet Union?
In the course of researching my book I learned things I hadn’t known, that the Rebbe, despite his fervent opposition to demonstrations, was a more nuanced and practical thinker on the issue of how to help Russian Jews than many people — I being one of them — realized. The Rebbe knew how vicious the communists were — they, for all practical purposes, killed his father. He feared that marches and public pressure would result in more oppression for the Jews in Russia. Though he opposed anti-Soviet demonstrations, in quiet, out of earshot of the Russians, (and in addition to the secret work he was spearheading to maintain Jewish life inside Russia) he found ways to cooperate with those who supported them. I write about this in the book.
Are there some anecdotes that illustrate the Rebbe’s universal appeal beyond the Jewish community?
It wasn’t only Jews whom the Rebbe loved, and non-Jews came to know that. In 1968, Shirley Chisholm became the first black woman elected to Congress. Chisholm soon found herself being relegated to a Congressional Agriculture Committee, an intentionally absurd appointment for a representative from Brooklyn. The Rebbe’s office reached out to Chisholm and invited her to meet with him. “What a blessing G-d has given you!” the Rebbe said, “this country has so much surplus food, and there are so many hungry people and you can use this gift G-d has given you to feed hungry people. Find a creative way to do it.” The opportunity soon arose for Chisholm, a Democrat, to work with Sen. Bob Dole, a Republican, to address the needs of farmers whose food surplus meant that they produced more than could be sold and who were taking a financial loss on their crops. In doing so, Chisholm was able to expand the food stamps program, and played a more critical role in the creation of WIC. And Chisholm wasn’t the only one. Ronald Reagan, Robert Kennedy and Yitzhak Rabin, as well as the likes of Elie Wiesel, Herman Wouk and Bob Dylan all sought the Rebbe’s counsel.
“Optimism and Positive Thinking” with guest speaker Rabbi Joseph Telushkin
WHEN: Wednesday, June 9, 7:30 p.m.
WHERE: Via Zoom
HOW MUCH: Free and open to the public.
MORE INFO: RSVP required by visiting www.showmechabad.com/telushkin.