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Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Chabad’s Global Warming

Outsiders praise ‘the most effective Jewish organization.’

Jonathan Mark - Associate Editor

If messianism hadn’t become such a malignant word with which cynics and rivals indiscriminately tar, feather and suspect every Chabad-Lubavitch chasid, it would be easier to say that last week’s annual convention of the Lubavitcher rebbe’s shluchim (emissaries) was nothing less than messianic. No, not the messianism of a quadrant of Lubavitchers who still believe that the rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who died in 1994, is indeed the Messiah and somehow alive. In fact, every written word about the rebbe in the convention’s papers and programs was suffixed with the Hebrew acronym indicating that the rebbe’s emissaries, the elite of Chabad-Lubavitch, clearly recognize, as the coroner says in Munchkin Land, that he’s not only merely dead but really most sincerely dead. One has to be blunt, for that is what the cynics demand, even if it brings a tear to a chasid’s eye as much as if anyone had to swear under cross-examination that, yes, someone I loved is now cold in the ground. Ethically and spiritually, though, the rebbe is alive and his movement is hot. Almost 100 couples went out into the world as the rebbe’s emissaries in the past year, bringing the total number to nearly 4,000. Chabad Houses opened for the first time in Poland and Laos, pushing the number of countries in which Chabad operates to over 70. As Rabbi Berel Lazar, chief rabbi of Chabad’s Russian operations put it, the shluchim are still guided by the rebbe’s principal that “no Jew is too small, no effort too big, no result insignificant. He gave us the strength and the courage,” said Rabbi Lazar, “the blessing to understand the infinite value of one lone Jew.” And when the actual Messiah does arrive to his fabled Banquet of the Leviathan, the joy at that apocalyptic feast might only hope to approach the energy, spirit, and foot-stomp dancing that had the silverware bouncing off the tables and the fine china rattling at last Sunday night’s shluchim banquet at the New York Hilton. The stories told at the conference were like a messianic checklist, from reviving the dead (albeit metaphorically) to ingathering exiles and other unearthly deeds. Revival of the dead? Less than 15 years ago, the conventional wisdom among Jewish professionals was that Jewish life in the Soviet Union was as dead as the rebbe is now. Nevertheless, Chabad today has returned soul to dry bones, with permanent rabbis in 105 cities in the former Soviet Union, and circuit shluchim servicing 321 towns beyond that. Since last year’s conference, Chabad shluchim welcomed 200,000 Jews to services, and energized American philanthropists into donating $35.9 million – earning a spot on the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s annual “Philanthropy 400” list, where the group ranked 391. And that’s just Chabad of Russia. Among the prominent New York philanthropists, George Rohr helped with the publishing of more than 200,000 Russian siddurs and religious books. And Michael Steinhardt helped finance a Chabad youth movement that now has members in more than 100 cities of the former Soviet Union. Steinhardt, who has spent scores of millions on projects for Jewish identity in the United States, said in conversation outside the ballroom, “Chabad is perhaps the most effective organization in the Jewish world. I think that. I really do. I’m trying to learn from Chabad.” According to the Yeshiva University student newspaper, “only seven or eight students [from the YU rabbinical school are] going into the pulpit rabbinate annually.” By contrast, last year Chabad sent 25 pulpit rabbis to the Ukraine alone. Stories were brought back from the ends of the earth. The Chabad shaliach to Malmo, Sweden, American-born Shneur Kessleman, proudly announced that after one year on the job, “My Kol Nidre speech was in Swedish.” There were 2,094 shluchim at the dinner, and they brought another 800 “civilians”—friends and supporters, many of whom were not chasidic, Orthodox or even Jewish, such as the ambassadors to the United Nations from Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Moldavia and Kazakhstan, each seated with their local Chabad shluchim. Chabad's success in parts of Europe and Russia has sometimes been met with resentment on the part of others working the same turf, albeit in smaller numbers. Chabad's religious soft-sell has been contrasted with its raw political muscle and machinations, helped by Russian President Vladimir Putin's patronage. The matter was addressed by a conference workshop, 'Interacting with the existing Jewish, rabbinic and secular organizations.' Alan Dershowitz, another non-Chasid, was there to deliver the convention’s layman’s address. He began his speech with a “Wow! What a gathering! The energy! The love! The Yiddishkeit in the room is beyond belief.” He said that when New York Magazine found out he’d be speaking at the Chabad banquet, they called and asked, “Why? Why are you… speaking in front of Chabad? You don’t agree with all of their policies.” Their implication was, said Dershowitz, “If you don’t agree with everything, you agree with nothing. I explained that what I learned more than anything from Chabad is how to emphasize points of agreement rather than points of disagreement. Chabad doesn’t require agreement. They simply open themselves up to Jews.” Dershowitz admitted to skepticism when he first heard Chabad was sending a shaliach to Harvard University, where he’s a law professor. Dershowitz said, “My idea was, [Chabad in] Siberia? That’s nothing. Central Africa? That’s a breeze. Chabad at Harvard? How can that ever happen? Kids come to Harvard to rebel against religion, to look for more liberal attitudes.” But, said Dershowitz, a few weeks ago, 400 Harvard students showed up for Chabad’s Friday night dinner. Chabad’s presence on campuses “is absolutely crucial… to make young people proud of being Jewish” and proud to support Israel. “We cannot rest until there is a Chabad shaliach on every major college campus in the world,” he said. Rabbi Lazar recalled that in a Kremlin conversation, Putin told him about how he grew up terribly poor, with neighbors who were chasidim. “They always made sure to invite him over. They served him supper. They helped him with his homework. Friday night they gave him gefilte fish and knaidlach,” said the rabbi. “He remembered,” said Rabbi Lazar, “watching this Yid learning the Talmud and keeping Shabbos. He realized, not only were they kind to a child who wasn’t theirs, kind to a child who wasn’t Jewish, but they were kind to a child in a time and place when it was dangerous for Jews to do all that.” Thirty years later, said Rabbi Lazar, first as Leningrad’s deputy mayor and now as Russian president, Putin has been “more than encouraging to Jewish rebirth in Russia.” Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, the author of numerous books on Jewish ethics, literacy and identity, was at the banquet as a friend of the shluchim from North Carolina. Halfway through the evening he passed a note from his table to mine: “Chabad models more powerfully than any group I know the Talmudic teaching that whoever saves one life it’s as if he saved an entire world. They really and consistently treat each individual as sacred. And they do so joyfully and uncomplainingly, and to not complain is not such a common thing in Jewish life.” Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky read the roll call and the shluchim stood up, table by table, in response to his booming voice: “Asia – let’s welcome the shluchim from China! The shluchim from India …. Japan … Nepal … Singapore … Thailand … Laos. We welcome the shaliach from the Congo,” and the traveling shluchim who serve Nigeria, Niger, Gabon, Namibia, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Ethiopia, Kenya and Angola. The band punched out the Marseillaise for the delegation from France, and when the roll call was finished all 2,891 shluchim and friends started dancing, weaving around the ballroom, arm on shoulder, to the raucous melody known as the “Niggun of Rosh Chodesh Kislev.” When the banquet was over, some 500 shluchim returned to the big shul in Chabad headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway to fabreng — that unique chasidic get-together celebrating Torah, schnapps, stories, songs and camaraderie. The fabrengen kept going until the sun lifted over Brooklyn. It was time for morning prayer, and then to catch a plane. n

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