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From Brooklyn to Your Living Room: Cornering the Jewish Outreach Market
The lights were dimmed in the Grand Ballroom at the Brooklyn Marriott, but two things were still visible--a sea of black coats and hats crowded around more than a hundred linen-bedecked tables, and a makeshift mechitza separating dozens of elegantly dressed women from their husbands. It was the gala Sunday night banquet of the International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Shlichim, or "emissaries," and more than 1,300 Lubavitcher rabbis had flown in from their postings around the world for a weekend of study, networking, and morale-boosting.
The roll call, the evening's highlight, was beginning. "Argentina! Australia! Austria!" Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, conference chairman and director of development for Chabad's international emissary network, was reading off the names of more than sixty-one countries around the world where the movement maintains permanent outreach centers. As each name was read, one, two, sometimes a dozen, men would spring up from their seats to a smattering of applause.
"Panama . . . Paraguay . . . Peru . . . Romania!" The clapping got louder as the shlichim congratulated their colleague who had just opened Chabad's newest center in Bucharest. Kotlarsky paused dramatically. Then, in a booming voice, he shouted "Russia!" Almost three dozen young men--one-quarter of Chabad's 130 full-time emissaries in the former Soviet Union, a place where Jewish education was banned for seventy years, where Jewish activists were routinely harassed and imprisoned until the collapse of the Soviet state in 1991--jumped out of their seats to thunderous applause and raucous cheers. The room broke into a spontaneous hora, with clapping and singing and wild, boisterous dancing that went on and on--a giant pep rally without the pom-poms, a political convention without the TV cameras. Pure joy. Pure passion.
This is Chabad-Lubavitch, the 250-year-old Brooklyn-based Hasidic movement that pundits predicted would collapse following the death in June 1994 of its seventh and last Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson. Schneerson, or, as his followers call him, the Rebbe, had been the heart and soul of Chabad for forty-three years, its spiritual leader as well as its intellectual and organizational fulcrum. He shepherded Chabad from a small postwar community of Russian-born Hasidim into a worldwide, highly public movement as well known in Congress as in Crown Heights Brooklyn.
But in January of 1994, the frail ninety-one-year-old Rebbe lay dying in Manhattan's Beth Israel Medical Center. He left no children and had designated no heir to take up the reins of his international empire. Around his sickbed swirled succession speculations and rumors of power-grabbing, complicated by the emergence of an almost desperate messianic strain among some of his followers that threatened to tear the movement apart. But it didn't. Today, Chabad is stronger, bigger, richer, and more popular than ever, with more than 3,800 emissary couples stationed in 45 U.S. states and 61 foreign countries, dedicated to bringing Jews back to Judaism. It's almost as if the movement forced a shot of adrenaline into its collective arm after Schneerson's death, just to prove--to the Jewish world and to itself--that his legacy would survive him. "All the 'ologists thought we'd run to California and jump off a cliff when the Rebbe left us, or shave off our beards," says Rabbi Yosef Langer, Chabad emissary in San Francisco. "But they don't understand the relationship of a Hasid to his rebbe."
Chabad is a fascinating phenomenon: a deeply religious Hasidic movement whose members adhere to a strict interpretation of Torah law, but which sends out its best and brightest young married couples to live and work among non-observant Jews all over the world.
Perhaps half, maybe two-thirds, of the Lubavitchers in America continue to live in a handful of Lubavitch communities, the largest number in Crown Heights, the group's spiritual and administrative center. These Hasidim send their children to Lubavitch schools, shop in Lubavitch stores, and visit their Lubavitch friends in the evening and on the Sabbath. They live in a kosher world. But a sizable chunk of Lubavitchers have chosen to leave their home communities to live in places where they are certainly the only Hasidic, and sometimes the only Orthodox, family. They set up Chabad Houses to spread their teachings among the general Jewish population. The Jews who attend their prayer services, who show up for their Chanukah parties and Torah classes, and who end up giving them money, are not Lubavitchers. Most are not even Orthodox. For the most part, they are non-observant or even unaffiliated Jews, or perhaps members of Reform or Conservative congregations, who are responding to something in the Chabad message.
It's a new entity: an ultra-Orthodox Jewish movement that attracts mainly non-Orthodox Jews.
Chabad outreach is nonstop. Movement activists are everywhere. They hold mass Purim parties on college campuses. They light huge outdoor Chanukah menorahs in hundreds of cities around the world, and stream the major lightings live on the Internet. They run around in "mitzvah tanks," asking Jewish men to put on phylacteries and Jewish women to light Sabbath candles. They build mikvahs in New Mexico, they teach lunchtime Torah classes on Wall Street, at Microsoft headquarters, and at the National Institutes of Health. They set up sukkahs in Brazil and hold Passover Seders for 1,500 backpackers in Katmandu. They run drug rehab centers and soup kitchens. They teach Kabbalah to Hollywood celebrities. They sponsor huge advertising campaigns to promote observance of Jewish holidays, including a notice for Shabbat candlelighting times that had run at the bottom of page 1 of the Friday New York Times for so many years that it was included in the paper's satirical millennial issue dated 1,000 years in the future. "We couldn't imagine a world without it," one Times editor quipped.
These black-hatted, long-bearded men and their modestly dressed, bewigged wives move into your town without notice and, before you know it, they're koshering your home, teaching you Bible, giving your kid a bar mitzvah, and running daily prayer services--most of it for free. Chabadniks have set up shop in Los Angeles and Long Island, but also in Omaha, Des Moines, Salt Lake City, El Paso, Little Rock, Anchorage, and--since the summer of 2001--even in Peoria. Nearly 1 million children attend Chabad schools, summer camps, and special events every year. Chabad penetration of the Jewish world is so complete that movement officials in Brooklyn claim their holiday programming efforts reach 10 million Jews a year, nearly three-quarters of the world Jewish population.
But that isn't enough. Chabad's goal is to reach every Jew in the world. Chabad avidly courts the support of the rich, the famous, and the powerful, and has been very successful at attracting celebrities, business tycoons, and world leaders to its cause. Bob Dylan studied with Chabad rabbis in Minneapolis and sponsored a $100,000 building project in a nearby city. Jon Voight headlines the annual Chabad telethon in Los Angeles, a star-studded fundraiser that attracts a long list of glitterati, Jewish and non, from Whoopi Goldberg to Al Gore. Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter helped to light the movement's national menorah in 1979, and Russian President Vladimir Putin did the same two decades later in Moscow. Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel deliver keynote addresses at Chabad banquets; Herman Wouk and the late Chaim Potok were also great admirers.Yitzhak Rabin, Benjamin Netanyahu, Robert F. Kennedy, and Rudolph Giuliani are just some of the politicians who have visited the Rebbe in Crown Heights. Chabad shlichim have opened Congress, and the Rebbe has appeared on the cover of the New York Times Magazine. How have these Hasidim managed to convince the world's political leaders and cultural icons that theirs is a movement of import?
In the decade after Schneerson's death, Chabad's infrastructure grew faster than during his lifetime. Between 1994 and 2002, more than 610 new emissary couples took up their postings and more than 705 new Chabad institutions were opened, including 450 new facilities purchased or built from scratch, bringing the total number of institutions worldwide--synagogues, schools, camps, and community centers--to 2,766. In the year 2000, 51 new Chabad facilities were established in California alone.
Annual operating costs of Chabad's empire today approach $800 million. And that budget doesn't include construction costs for new buildings, which have been going up at an astonishing rate since Schneerson's passing: a $10 million synagogue in Bal Harbour, Florida; $25 million for a Chabad complex in San Diego; $20 million for a Jewish Children's Museum in Crown Heights; plus a $1 million Chabad center in Las Vegas, $2 million for American Friends of Lubavitch headquarters in Washington, D.C., $5 million for a day school in Pittsburgh, and $3 million for a community center in Montreal.
Chabad building projects around the world have kept pace with those of North America: a $15 million girls' school outside Paris; a $14 million community center in Buenos Aires; plus soup kitchens in Brazil, synagogues in Germany, schools in Latvia and Lithuania, and orphanages in Ukraine.
Chabad's expansion into the former Soviet Union alone is phenomenal. In 1994 the movement maintained emissaries in just eight cities in Russia. By January 2002, Chabad had full-time emissaries placed in 61 cities across Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, the Baltics, and Central Asia, with 13,000 children studying in their day schools and thousands more attending their kindergartens and summer camps. In the spring of 2000, Chabad headquarters announced a $30 million commitment to build ten new Jewish community centers in the former Soviet Union that year, an ambitious undertaking capped by the September 2000 opening of a $12 million Chabad center in Moscow, the first significant Jewish building project in the country since the 1917 revolution.
It's easier to count buildings and bank accounts than believers. No one knows exactly how big Chabad is in terms of actual Lubavitcher Hasidim. There's no membership roster, no official census. Many reporters use the figure of 200,000 Lubavitchers worldwide, but that's little more than a guesstimate.
Numbers don't tell the whole story. Chabad is of interest not because of those relatively few Jews who lead Hasidic lives, but because of the success with which these Lubavitchers have made their mark in the non-Hasidic public arena. "You can't measure their influence by the number of guys they have in black hats," points out Samuel Heilman, sociology and Jewish studies professor at City University of New York and author of Defenders of the Faith: Inside Ultra-Orthodox Jewry. "Each outpost has relatively few card-carrying Chabadniks. Chabad's influence is measured in the number of Jews they've had an impact on, and that is far in excess of their actual number."
One telling indicator is the number of Chabad rabbis filling leadership positions within the mainstream Jewish communities of many countries. At least half the pulpit rabbis in England, Italy, and Australia, and almost all in South Africa and Holland, are Lubavitchers, and Chabad exerts considerable influence in the Jewish communities of France and Germany. Chabad rabbis control kashrut (kosher food) supervision for several key cities around the world, and a Chabad rabbi heads the rabbinical council in Montreal. In the former Soviet Union, Chabad has emerged as the mainstream denomination in what is now the world's third-largest Jewish community. It is the leading force in the newly created Federation of Jewish Communities of the CIS, an umbrella group representing 392 Jewish communities with a $20 million annual budget that is twenty times the money spent by the Reform movement, the next-largest denomination in the region. In the year 2000, Chabad rabbis elected their head Moscow shliach, Berel Lazar, as Russia's new chief rabbi, pushing aside the existing chief rabbi in a stunning power play publicly backed by President Putin.
Chabad does not wield anywhere near the same Jewish institutional muscle in the United States. But the past decade has witnessed a sharp increase in the number of Lubavitchers teaching in non-Lubavitch Jewish schools and filling pulpit positions in non-Lubavitch synagogues in this country. And in the fast-growing Jewish communities of Florida and California in particular, where Chabad Houses have been opening with great alacrity, Chabad is very often the only Orthodox presence in a given town or city. It is becoming the face of Jewish Orthodoxy for the Jewish and the general public.
What is the key to the movement's success? Chabad has money, sure, most of it donated by non-Orthodox Jews. Chabad has a formidable infrastructure. It has an elegant and fascinating theology, an interpretation of reality based on the Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism, that many Jews find intellectually and spiritually compelling. Lubavitchers are adaptable--more than any other Hasidic group, Chabad has been able and willing to use the political and technological tools of twentieth-century America to promote its cause.
But above all, the reason for Chabad's continued vitality and phenomenal growth can be found in that Brooklyn Marriott ballroom: the shlichim--thousands of smart, idealistic young men and women filled with zeal, energy, and love of the Jewish people, young Hasidim in their early twenties who are willing to leave their comfortable homes and families and move to Shanghai or Zaire, where they dedicate their lives to running Chabad operations they more often than not build themselves from the ground up. And they do it, they say, because the Rebbe wants them to.
"We're carrying on the Rebbe's revolution," says one Lubavitch woman in her early twenties, who moved from Brooklyn with her new husband to establish a Chabad operation in Russia's Far East.
That "revolution" began in 1950, even before Schneerson took over Chabad's helm from his father-in-law, the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe. One of his first actions was to send a shliach couple that year from Brooklyn to Morocco, beginning the worldwide outreach campaign for which Chabad is now known. By 1995, the first anniversary of Schneerson's death, two or three Lubavitcher couples were being sent out from Brooklyn every week, ready to teach Torah and brings Jews back to Judaism.
And they don't go for a year or two, but for the rest of their lives. These young, newly married Chabad couples leave home with one-way tickets and--if they're lucky--a year's salary. After that, most are expected to make their own way financially, by charging for certain services, such as day school or summer camps, by drumming up donors, and by taking related jobs in the local Jewish community. Chabad headquarters in Brooklyn will supply them with resource materials, adjudicate disputes, and set the general course of the movement's work internationally, but the individual shliach couple is pretty much on its own, with only pluck and willpower to sustain it. Chabad is thus a highly centralized, yet profoundly decentralized movement.
Chabad shlichim are not prisoners, of course. If a shliach doesn't work out, he can move to another city. But leaving the field entirely is almost unheard of. "They don't go thinking, Let's try this for a year or two; they go knowing that's where they'll spend their lives," says Rabbi Zalman Shmotkin, director of the Lubavitch News Service in New York. "On what? On a dollar and a dream."
"Chabad has the biggest army of people in the Jewish world ready to live on the edge of poverty," says historian Arthur Hertzberg, author of numerous books on Zionism and Jewish history. Hertzberg wasn't always a fan of Chabad. When messianic hopes began to swirl around the dying Rebbe in the early 1990s, Hertzberg told the New York Times that Chabad resembled the followers of Shabtai Tzvi, the notorious seventeenth-century false Messiah. But his personal encounters with Chabad shlichim since the Rebbe's death have changed his thinking. His daughter, a member of a Conservative congregation in Fresno, California, sent her children to the local Chabad school, a fact Hertzberg relates with pride.
"Those thirty-five hundred shlichim are the most holy group in the Jewish world today," he declares. "They are every day engaged in kiddush Hashem [sanctification of God's name]. Everywhere I go, I bump into one of these young couples working their heads off. They live on nothing, and they stay with it. I can disagree with their theology, but I can only admire them."
From the Hardcover edition.