Before answering this question, out of respect for the Lubavitcher Rebbe and to his credit, it must be noted that the Rebbe was a staunch supporter of Israel, more specifically of its Jewish inhabitants, but less so of its secular government policies.
The Rebbe did encourage many Jews to make Aliyah, more on a personal level and not as a public statement, but he also discouraged many others from making Aliyah, specifically those involved in Jewish education and community leadership, whose presence is an asset for their diaspora communities.
Did Not Make Aliyah
The Rebbe was asked on many occasions why he did not make Aliyah. He gave various reasons, mostly related to his duties in Brooklyn, the world headquarters of the Chabad organization, and the de facto capital of the Chabad congregations.
Headquarters and capitals can be moved, but people are more hesitant to relocate. The Rebbe, for example, arrived in New York as a refugee. Were it not for World War II, he would probably have stayed in Europe, the birthplace of Hasidic Judaism.
The Rebbe’s “ship” was anchored in Brooklyn, and as captain of that ship, the Rebbe was reluctant to leave. This was an analogy reportedly used by the Rebbe in a conversation with Ariel Sharon:
Sharon asked the Rebbe why he did not act like a commanding officer who marches ahead of his troops to Israel. The Rebbe replied that in many cases it is forbidden for the commanding officer to go first, such as in the case of a captain of an endangered ship. The captain is the last to leave.
Which is similar to another explanation given by the Rebbe in a letter from 1983, in which he wrote “about the first duty of a Jew, and of any human being, to fulfill his mission in the place where he lives, and only after he has done everything expected of him locally, to consider whether he should go to another place to carry on his mission there.”
The Rebbe considered it his duty to combat the “alienation from Yiddishkeit, loss of Jewish identity, intermarriage and outright assimilation” of Jews in America (same letter as above). This was likely the sinking ship feeling he was referring to, and would explain his unwillingness to abandon ship, so long as Jews remained in peril in Brooklyn and in America.
Had the Rebbe made Aliyah, many Jews would have followed him, but they would likely have been his closest followers, the ones in the least need of help, and who were most needed in America, the way the Rebbe saw it. His “abandoning ship” with all his officers, would have been a very irresponsible act, the way the Rebbe saw it.
Did Not Visit Israel
It is said of the Rebbe that ever since he assumed leadership in 1951, he never left New York. The Rebbe obviously took his job very seriously and was completely dedicated to his mission, such that he never took a day off. After his wife passed away, he even moved into his office.
Out of all places, clearly the Rebbe wanted to visit Israel, as related to Rabbi Shlomo Goren, that were he to leave New York, Israel would be the first place he would visit. The Rebbe obviously spent a lot of time thinking about Israel and took an immense interest in it. Why, then, did he not visit Israel?
In a filmed conversation from 1991, the Rebbe gave the following reason:
Were he to visit Israel, the Rebbe was unsure if he would be allowed to return to Brooklyn from an Halachic point of view. This included the possibility that his leaving Israel would be construed negatively, as favoring America over Israel.
The Rebbe felt that he had very important work to do in America, and therefore denied himself the right of even visiting Israel. This was certainly a self-sacrifice on his part. He was obviously holding himself to very high standards.
The Rebbe did not favor America or himself over Israel. Quite the opposite, he was doing what he thought was best for his congregants and for Jews everywhere. Whether you agree with his assessment or not, clearly the Rebbe recognized the importance of Jews living in Israel and fulfilling Mitzvot.
As related in this video, the Rebbe recognized that even he was not complete in his observance of Torah, because he did not live in Israel. Nonetheless, the Rebbe was willing to compromise on his own wholeness, because he had the wholeness of other Jews in mind, particularly lost Jews whom he wished to rescue, even if that meant remaining with them in exile.
Discouraged Aliyah in Some Cases
Instead of going himself, the Rebbe sent his emissaries all over the world, to be there for Jews, wherever they may be, even if they are just passing through. This included places like Siberia (where a Chabad emissary arrived from Israel after the Rebbe’s death), but the Rebbe also sent emissaries to Israel.
This concept of sending emissaries to strengthen and help Jews wherever they may be, involves at its core a redistribution of assets and resources. In areas where the Chabad and greater Jewish community are strong and are producing a surplus of talented rabbis and income, Chabad wisely redirects that surplus to other places.
In the example of Siberia, a rabbi and his family left Israel to help revive the Jewish community of Novosibirsk, Russia. A more recent example includes a rabbi from Israel hoping to move with his family to Saudi Arabia.
This is in accordance with the Rebbe’s example and teaching, to make sacrifices for other Jews, to be there for them and to prepare the way for them. This is a concept of strengthening, rebuilding, and even founding new diaspora communities, rather than bringing all Jews to Israel.
A Chabad rabbi or “communal worker” sent a letter to the Rebbe in 1978, saying that he and his wife were depressed because they failed to fulfil their dream of moving to Israel. The Rebbe discouraged him from making Aliyah, arguing that his presence was needed in America.
In his reply, the Rebbe wrote: “..the only reason for my opinion that you ought to continue in the USA is that American Jewry, and especially the younger generation, have a priority claim on your services to help permeate them with Yiddishkeit, especially after you have had such considerable Hatzlocho in this area.”
In response to an additional concern of this anonymous man, who apparently lacked an adequate house, the Rebbe further stated: “I have at my disposal a fund for such special situations and a loan gladly would be made available to you for the full amount that you may require to enable you to purchase a nice dwelling… the loan would have to be interest-free.”
As can be seen from the letter, the Rebbe was intent on making sure this Jew remain in America, and if his arguments of encouragement were not enough, the Rebbe also offered a large sum of interest free money, to help make his life more enjoyable in America.
In another letter, the Rebbe gave an even more detailed analysis of his views on Aliyah. Needles to say, the Rebbe had a cautionary approach to Aliyah, taking many things into consideration. For him, Aliyah was not the end all goal, but rather Torah observance was, for all Jews, wherever they may be, including Morocco or South Africa (so long as their lives are not in immediate danger there).
Did Not Choose a Successor
On the other hand, the Rebbe constantly spoke of the Moshiach, and likewise expressed his will for all Jews to return to Israel hastily in our days. This included a prayer for himself, as he obviously wished to be included with all the Jews in Israel.
The Chabad organization seems to be managing well in his absence, but for someone so concerned with his work that he refused to take a day off or leave New York, it is odd that the Rebbe did not choose a successor. Perhaps the Rebbe was so sure that Mashiach would come to take over, that he saw no need for a new Lubavitcher Rebbe to replace him?
The Rebbe passed away in 1994. The new generation of Chabad emissaries have not met him personally. He sends them off on their missions posthumously, with an arsenal of written material and videos to motivate them.
Twenty-seven years later, one must ask, how long can that last? How long can Chabad remain the vibrant and successful organization it is now, without a charismatic leader to guide it?
The emissaries around today are obviously still touched by the Rebbe’s charisma, but were it not for their messianic fervor, they would probably be running low on fuel by now. The Rebbe must have known this, and it seems that he was betting all or nothing on the coming of Mashiach.
Which means that one day, hopefully very soon, all the hard work and resources dedicated to preserving and strengthening Jewish life in exile, should be redirected towards bringing Jews to Israel. The fortunes invested in real estate, in synagogues, mikvahs, schools, day cares and community centers, should one day be liquidated and reinvested in Israel.
All the exceptional emissaries that Chabad has produced, should one day be called upon to bring their congregants and all the Jews they are in contact with to Israel, for the ingathering of the exiles.
The Rebbe was right about the sinking ship analogy, but the day will come when those ships will have sunk. The Rebbe sent his crew to board those ships and to calm down their hysterical passengers. To prevent Jews from jumping overboard into the icy and tumultuous waters, until they may be brought closer to shore.
That shore is Israel, and, ultimately, all life seeking Jews must disembark there.
Yshai Amichai made Aliyah from Los Angeles in 2001, settling in Israel, where he met his wife and where they raise their six children. He may be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org