Each day in 18th century Medzhybizh, Poland was an opportunity for you to be transformed. Every day held the potential to be spiritually rejuvenating, challenging, and nourishing. In a world without smart phones or social media, there was only one “attraction” that invited travelers from near and far. There was only one way to be uplifted by the most raw and pure form of enlightenment that was worth any distance. Each day in Poland was a chance to learn and realign life goals in the presence of Israel Baal Shem Tov, the rebbe of all rebbes.
Today, our image of a Chassidic “rebbe” is most likely limited to a bearded old man, hunched over a stack of dusty books. We instantly think of the picture of Rebbe Schneerson glued to Chabad Mitzvah trucks, parading up and down the streets of Manhattan. When we think of a rebbe, many of us cringe and assume that the face of an aging teacher implies orthodoxy and tradition that will remain forever stationary in time. While many of the rebbes today do in fact match the visual stereotype, the knowledge and spirit they carry are boundless. Today, Chassidism is no longer a denomination that remains in Borough Park; it’s a philosophy and path of faith that can be shared in communities of any size. The rebbes, then and now, are the leaders of the soulful Judaism that we yearn for at Romemu and beyond. Perhaps the concept of this Chassidic leader or the rebbe today can be explored and expanded to new faces.
The rebbes we hear and see all share some common ground. Firstly, they are all students and disciples of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chassidism. Men in the 18th century would travel through cities to learn from their leader, then would relay the information they gain back to their own communities, forming what is known today as different Chassidic dynasties, each varied by slight nuances in ideology. Despite the differences in learning or culture, however, every student, old and new alike, of the Baal Shem Tov would agree that a rebbe is viewed in an entirely different light than anyone else.
The rebbe, also known as “admor,” is not a function, but rather an integral role in the community. A Chassidic master must have sacred relationships with his students and be somehow affiliated to his first teacher, the Baal Shem Tov. Besides these standards, however, the rebbe is cherished for his unique ability to shape the lives of others. While a rabbi today teaches congregants blessings in order to educate them, the rebbe gives blessings and can change the course of people’s lives. A rabbi is conferred with his title from institutions, but a rebbe is given his title by other people. A rabbi teaches us about Judaism, while a rebbe teaches us about the soul and its journeys. A rabbi provides us with information, but a rebbe assists our encounters with transformation. Given the strong and personal impact a rebbe plays on a person’s life, it must seem sensible to some that there aren’t any new stereotypes of rebbes in other Jewish denominations, or even in other faiths. But not to me.
I believe that each of us, both inside and outside of the community, has the potential to provide people with transformation. There is nothing hindering us from blessing the people around us. There need not be anything restricting us from offering words from our hearts that may change the lives of our loved ones. While there are no self-proclaimed rabbinic figures, we each have the ability to constantly create and recreate our souls and grow together. We could all, in fact, be the rebbes of our generation.
In 18th century Poland, the image of the rebbe is limited. In today’s world, the opportunities to impact the souls of others are endless.We could shed a light to American Jewry and strengthen our relationships with those that follow our lead; we could display the very essence of a charismatic rebbe in our every action. We need not grow beards or reside in the Chassidic neighborhoods of Europe; we simply must be the rebbes that can see through the defensive exteriors of others and rejuvenate our souls.
Each day in New York City, or anywhere you may find yourself in life, is an opportunity for you to be transformed.