Rabbi Joseph Telushkin’s latest book, “Rebbe: The Life and Teachings of Menachem M. Schneerson, the Most Influential Rabbi in Modern History” landed on the New York Times bestseller list within weeks of its release in June to mark the 20th anniversary of the Rebbe’s death.
Telushkin, one of the most prolific writers of contemporary Jewish books, will be in town to talk about “Rebbe” on Monday, Sept. 15 at 7 p.m. at the Tucson Jewish Community Center.
Telushkin spent five years researching and writing this 640-page biography of Schneerson, also known as the Lubavitcher Rebbe. For more than four decades, Schneerson was the charismatic leader of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, known for its Jewish outreach activities worldwide.
The inspiration for a book about Schneerson began with an article Telushkin wrote eight years ago describing an incident involving his father, who was the Rebbe’s accountant.
“When [my father] became very sick, with a stroke, we would get two calls a day from the Rebbe’s office, ‘The Rebbe wants to know how your father is,’” he told the AJP in an interview from his office in New York City. After his father came out of a coma, one of the Rebbe’s top aides called and said an accounting question had come up and the Rebbe told him to ask Telushkin’s father. Although still ill and somewhat confused, he knew the answer right away.
“I realized, at that moment, what the Rebbe had done,” Telushkin says. “Dealing with all of these macro issues confronting him, he had taken the time to think about my father, lying in a hospital bed, feeling that his life, in many ways, might be coming to an end and that he was of no more use or service. And he came up with a question that my father could think about and answer.”
Recording the event reminded Telushkin of one of the qualities that made Schneerson so unusual: he was a leader who always stayed focused on the individual.
Telushkin was also intrigued by Chabad’s dramatic expansion after Schneerson’s death, which he saw as the ultimate proof of strong leadership. He says that during the last two years of the Rebbe’s life, after he suffered a stroke, people assumed that Chabad would contract after he was gone.
“The Rebbe is, as far as I know, the first leader in Jewish history to have a goal to reach every Jewish community and every Jew in the world. I don’t think it will ever happen, but Chabad is coming close to achieving that goal.” There are now Chabad houses in every American state except South Dakota, and in over 80 countries, notes Telushkin.
Immersing himself in the world of Chabad, and in the teachings and letters of the Rebbe, was an interesting experience, says Telushkin. His wife noticed that when he came home from spending the day at Chabad headquarters he was almost always in a good mood. “What the Rebbe helped generate among his followers was a very great sense of optimism.”
In his presentation, Telushkin will focus on what he identifies as the seven virtues of the Rebbe and how they can serve as guidelines for all people. These include focusing on the individual, creating fearlessness and inspiring leaders, optimism and the careful choosing of words, a tireless work ethic, expressing disagreement without being disagreeable, anything worth doing is worth doing now, and Judaism’s mission to the world.
“What I am very anxious to show is how studying the life of the Rebbe can have implications for people’s daily lives,” he says.
Telushkin’s previous books include “Jewish Literacy: The Most Important Things to Know About the Jewish Religion, Its People and Its History,” “A Code of Jewish Ethics” volumes I and II, “Biblical Literacy: The Most Important People, Event and Ideas of the Hebrew Bible,” “Words that Hurt, Words that Heal” and the Rabbi Daniel Winter mystery series. He was ordained at Yeshiva University and pursued graduate studies in Jewish history at Columbia University in New York. He serves as a senior associate of CLAL (the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership), is on the board of directors of the Jewish Book Council and is spiritual leader of the Synagogue for the Performing Arts in Los Angeles.
Tickets for the presentation and book signing are $10. Tickets for dinner and a reception with Telushkin from 5:30-6:30 p.m. are $180. The event is organized by the JCC in cooperation with Chabad Tucson and the Jewish Community Foundation of Southern Arizona. Media sponsors are the Arizona Jewish Post and KGUN-9. Visit www.tucsonjcc.org or call 299-3000 for tickets and information.
Nancy Ben-Asher Ozeri is a freelance writer and editor in Tucson. She can be reached at [email protected].