Sunday, June 29, 2008

Orthodox Jewish group marks 50 years of outreach

"Hi, does anyone Jewish work in this office?"

Every Friday, that question is asked by 50 pairs of young men from an Orthodox Jewish group who fan out across metro Detroit to various buildings in a weekly mission to help nonobservant Jews get in touch with their faith. Marking 50 years in Michigan this month, the group -- known as Chabad Lubavitch -- has grown from just one center in Detroit to 18 institutions across Michigan, several schools and a network of emissaries who have brought alive Judaism in areas without any other Jewish centers such as Novi and Commerce Township.

And they do it in an affable manner that has endeared them to other members of the Jewish community.

Up to 40% of metro Detroit's roughly 72,000 Jews have taken part in some way in Chabad programs, say local leaders. The group is now in the process of building a new center for the Michigan Jewish Institute -- the latest addition to a $15-million plus complex in West Bloomfield that also features centers for disabled children and addicts of all backgrounds.

Chabad's efforts come at a time of concern among some American Jews that assimilation and intermarriage are decreasing their numbers and vitality. The group hopes to stem that trend with programs that reach out to Jewish people, no matter how out of touch they may be with their heritage.

"Chabad is nonjudgmental," said Jerry Beale, 65, of West Bloomfield, explaining the group's popularity. "They don't look at who's more religious, who's less religious; they look at everyone with dignity and respect ... there's a warmth there."
Chabad -- an acronym that contains the Hebrew words for wisdom, knowledge and understanding -- was a Hasidic sect started in Russia in the 18th Century that emphasized the importance of using the rational mind to control emotional instincts. Its 20th-Century leader, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, known as the Rebbe, expanded the group into a global movement. Based in Brooklyn, Chabad sends emissaries -- usually young married couples -- to communities around the world in up to 70 countries. The first couple sent to Detroit arrived in 1958.

On a recent Friday this month, two Chabad students were at Beale's real estate office in Southfield to distribute Chabad newsletters and to help men put on tefillin -- the leather straps and boxes containing sacred texts that are wrapped around the arm and forehead during prayers.

The Chabad movement puts a strong emphasis on laying tefillin, saying it's a potent part of Jewish tradition that links the mind, heart, and hands. And so during a break at the Southfield office, a group of Jewish men gathered in the conference room with the two students to put on the leather boxes and recite ancient prayers.

"They remind us how important it is," said Greg Newman, 36, as he got some assistance from a 19-year-old student dressed in the traditional black fedora and dark suit. "They bring awareness to the Jewish community."

That awareness changed the life of Matt Berke, 33, of West Bloomfield.

He grew up with Jewish parents, but was barely observant.

Berke ate bacon and shrimp -- both forbidden under Orthodox Jewish dietary laws. And he didn't even have seder dinners during Passover, a key holiday for Jewish people.

"I didn't practice the religion at all," Berke said.

But about eight years ago, a Chabad student visited his office.

"I was curious at first, intrigued," Berke recalled. And slowly he came back to his Jewish roots.

Step by step, he tweaked his lifestyle, adopting a kosher diet and then observing with his family the weekly Shabbat, or day of rest that starts at sundown Fridays. Today, he attends the Chabad's synagogue in West Bloomfield, known as the shul. Most of the members of the synagogue, including Berke, are not Orthodox.

"The idea is to make Judaism accessible," said the shul's head, Rabbi Kasriel Shemtov. "We wanted to have a place where Jews of all walks of life would feel comfortable."

Fifty years ago, it was Shemtov's parents who moved to Detroit to start Chabad's movement in Michigan. They were newly married and didn't know English well because they had grown up in Russia. Last Sunday, more than a thousand people gathered in Novi to celebrate the group's success, listening to a talk by the former Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel, Yisrael Meir Lau.

"Lubavitch is different," Lau told the crowd, because of its willingness to reach out beyond the Orthodox community.

Berke isn't fully observant yet. But both his kids are enrolled in a Jewish day school, and he sees himself at the start of a long journey back home, thanks to Chabad.

"They teach you to find that inner spark inside," he said.

Contact NIRAJ WARIKOO at 248-351-2998 or

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