Monday, December 05, 2005

Spreading the Lubavich faith, nation by nation

CROWN HEIGHTS Lubavitch Jews not only send emissaries out to the city’s parks and sidewalks asking people “Are you Jewish?” — they also send them around the world to start schools and develop communities based on the spiritual teachings of Manachem Mendel Schneerson, their grand rabbi who resided here and passed away over a decade ago.

Some of the 2,500 men squeezed in yesterday to pose for a picture in front of the Lubavitch headquarters, a building that, several decades ago, housed a doctor’s abortion clinic. This picture-taking tradition began 20 years ago when it was just a local conference and there were 20 men in the photo. (Photo: Bill Lyons/metro)

This weekend nearly 2,500 of these rabbinical emissaries, or “schluchim” in Hebrew, made the reverse commute to the movement’s headquarters on Eastern Parkway for their annual world leadership conference. It was weekend full of networking and reunions — rabbis came from Argentina and Estonia, Katmandu and Berlin, and elsewhere to discuss development of their education programs.

“It’s a weekend of intense training,” said Levil Matusof, who is based in Brussels. He is a third generation emissary: his grandfather was based in Morocco, his father in southern France. “Being here is very inspiring. It’s nice to see the future leaders,” he said, pointing to a 9-year old boy whose family moved to develop Colombia’s Jewish community.

“Why is this happening in New York?” asked Avraham Berkowitz, 29, who flew in from Moscow. “Rabbi Schneerson was born in Ukraine and came here in 1941 and never left. So, we come to this place, to this great building, where he was. Rabbi Schneerson was as significant as Maimonides was in his day,” Berkowitz said, referring to the 12th-century philosopher.

Before afternoon workshops and an evening of dancing, the men visited Schneerson’s grave at Montefiore Cemetery in Cambria Heights. “His love that he shared with everyone helped unite us,” said Berkowitz, who grew up in Michigan in a family that included Reform and Orthodox Jews and even atheists. “And that is the beauty of the Lubavitch. You don’t have to belong to one given type of Judaism.”

For some Lubavitchers, Schneerson is considered the Messiah. Others focus on spreading his teachings without the messianic angle. Yanky Klein, 23, of Crown Heights, said the Lubavitch who live here are more concerned with the messianic debate than emissaries who live around the world. “Out there people don’t argue because they’re too busy working and bringing people closer to Judaism,” he said.

Klein looked forward to becoming an emissary. Of his 10 siblings, only he and one other still live in Crown Heights. The rest are scattered throughout the world in places such as England, Minnesota and Tennessee.

Klein expects to get married soon, then spend a year studying at the headquarters before relocating.

“That’s what we do; that’s what we live for,” he said. “It’s tough to leave and uproot a family, but you get a lot of inspiration to do it and you help people feel good by doing good deeds.”

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