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Monday, June 16, 2008

We're all right, Shmuley

Jun. 16, 2008
Dovid Eliezrie ,

THE JERUSALEM POST
Like many others, I wondered about the Chabad future after the Rebbe - Rabbi Menachem M. Schneersohn - passed away in 1994. I especially worried whether Chabad emissaries would attend their convention, scheduled for a few months later. Those fears dissipated when 700-strong showed up from around the globe.

Fourteen years later, the numbers are up again. Over 2,200 shlichim (emissaries) attended last year, reflecting a remarkable rate of growth.

One of the early challenges in the post-gimmel tammuz era (the Hebrew date of the Rebbe's passing) was Rabbi Shmuley Boteach's management of the Chabad L'Chaim society at Oxford University. He had involved large numbers of non-Jews in his programs, a radical departure from the Chabad norm, focused as it is on drawing Jews closer to their tradition. Some of his other activities also did not reflect Chabad standards.

During that confusing time, Chabad in the UK could have just turned a blind eye. Instead it made the decision that Shmuley's methodology did not meet Chabad policies.

No one doubted his creativity, his writing ability or his commitment to Judaism. Some said "it was nothing but politics - these older rabbis in London."

As Shmuley wrote in The Jerusalem Post last week (June 10), he feels to this day that he was in the right. In my mind, however, it was a turning point. Chabad in the UK took a courageous stand, insisting that our principles were sacrosanct. Coming shortly after the Rebbe's passing, it sent a strong message throughout the Chabad system that standards were not to be lowered.

THE LAST 14 years have been a period of both great success and serious challenge, internally and externally. The Rebbe had already laid the foundation for the transformation into a communal decision-making system by setting up an organizational structure guided by committees and boards. Rabbinical courts were appointed as the final arbitrators of policy and direction. More and more, Chabad become a consensus-driven culture.

Still the shift did not come without internal politics and dissension. When it comes to tough questions, the debate is, "What would the Rebbe have said?" or "What did he say?" in such a situation. There is debate and dialogue, and not everyone shares the same understanding of which precedent should apply.

CHABAD TODAY is the largest Jewish organization in the world, operating in 75 countries and 48 states. With over 5,000 rabbis and their wives on staff, there is no question that there will be issues. In such a large system there will be institutions that have financial or management problems. The Rebbe taught us to live up to high ideals, which, being human, we fail at times to reach. Chabad emissaries have the same frailties as anyone. At times those weaknesses trickle down to the institutions we are involved in.

There will be internal organizational politics. How many Chabad centers can we open, and who should run them? Who should be assigned to a suburb with great demographic potential? How do we resolve issues when there is internal conflict?

Chabad's expanding role in itself poses a new set of challenges. As Dennis Prager said recently to a group of Chabad rabbis, "For years Chabad was the outsider. Now you are becoming the establishment, and that demands a different type of responsibility."

Moving from the periphery to the mainstream must cause us to see our role differently.

INTERNALLY, CHABAD must address additional issues: How do we inspire our children to have the same passion and ideals that we learned firsthand from the Rebbe? How do we create viable communities of hassidim that meet the spiritual and educational needs of a more diverse and growing population in a wide variety of geographic settings? How do we live our lives to the high standards that the Rebbe aspired to?

How do we ensure economic stability for hassidim who do not enter into Jewish education or outreach? For instance, a leading Chabad rabbinical figure in Israel talked to me about the need to help his community develop more varied job skills.

None of these questions has an easy answer, and they cannot be debated in the pages of The Jerusalem Post.

Chabad is a culture of intense self-analysis. Be it in the local synagogue, in conventions both regional and international, or on the various Web sites, the dialogue and debate is real. Just this week members of Chabad rabbinical courts convened in New York to talk about many of these questions. What is striking about Chabad is the personal sense of empowerment that most of its hassidim feel, which enables them to express their opinions openly and strongly.

WITH ALL its challenges, Chabad is booming. The network of Chabad Centers is growing in many ways. In Russia, Judaism has been rebuilt from the bottom up. In Israel, Chabad serves as a bridge between secular and religious in a polarized society. In the US and other Western countries, Chabad centers are growing in suburbia, creating a new synagogue movement involving hundreds of thousands of Jews.

In campus and adult education there is phenomenal growth and innovation. Internally the hassidic community is learning to find solutions to different challenges with innovative yeshivas and seminaries. A new generation of Chabad rabbinical scholars is providing much-needed spiritual direction to hassidim.

There are problems. And there will be new ones in the future. Still, the system the Rebbe put in place is proving itself responsive and resilient, both in sparking a Jewish renaissance around the world and in creating a viable community for Hassidim.

The writer is a Chabad emissary in Yorba Linda, California.

rabbi@ocjewish.com

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