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Tuesday, December 23, 2008

In Mumbai's shadow, Chabad cast in new light on Hanukkah

By Janet I. Tu
Seattle Times staff reporter

To many in this area, the Chabad Lubavitch movement may have been best known — if at all — for the large menorah displays it sponsors each year in public places such as Westlake Park and the state Capitol.

But this year, after terrorists targeted the Chabad center in Mumbai, India, and killed a rabbi and his wife, e-mails of condolence have poured into Chabad centers, including those in Washington state.

Strangers at grocery stores have stopped to express sorrow and offer their respects, said Rabbi Sholom Ber Levitin, regional director of the Chabad movement in the Pacific Northwest. "We've had a tremendous outpouring from the Jewish community and beyond."

The Mumbai attacks, along with the annual menorah displays — including lightings today at Westlake Park and the Capitol to coincide with this evening's start of Hanukkah — have put a spotlight on Chabad.

The at-times controversial movement has remained relatively unknown despite its dramatic growth in the past decade and its extensive worldwide outreach.

Chabad Lubavitch is a branch within Orthodox Judaism's Hasidic movement, which emphasizes devotion in prayer and joyous celebration of God in everyday activities.

The word "Chabad" comes from an acronym of the Hebrew words for wisdom, comprehension and knowledge, while the name "Lubavitch" comes from the Russian town where the group's founders were based.

The black fedoras and long beards worn by Lubavitch men come in part from the customary dress of that place and time, and in part from commandments in the Torah.

The Chabad Lubavitch organization, which has its worldwide headquarters in Brooklyn, reaches out to nonpracticing Jews. It believes God wants people to make themselves and the world more holy by doing acts of kindness and other good deeds, called mitzvot.

Lubavitchers see themselves as mentoring Jews, deepening their faith and practice, and guiding them to "their innate soul," which can be revealed by performing mitzvot, Levitin said. Also, they believe that each time a Jew performs such a deed, it brings closer the arrival of the Messiah.

As part of its outreach, the organization sponsors thousands of menorah displays worldwide. Chabad leaders say the displays are symbols of religious tolerance over oppression, and that many who have seen them have been touched. But it's also a practice that's been regarded as controversial by many Jews — even before it led to various "War on Christmas" brouhahas, including in 2006 when a Chabad rabbi requested a giant menorah be put up at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

Instead, Port officials took down the Port's Christmas trees, prompting a national furor.

"We strongly believe in the separation of church and state," said Rabbi Anson Laytner, executive director of the Greater Seattle Chapter of the American Jewish Committee. "Most Jewish organizations see what Chabad is doing as being a blurring of that line to the detriment of all of us: Jews, Christians, atheists, everyone."

Another point of contention between Chabad and other Jewish groups is that some Lubavitchers regard the former head of the movement, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, as the Messiah. That's not a position the movement itself teaches, Levitin said.

What the movement does emphasize is re-engaging unaffiliated Jews all over the world. It has about 4,000 "emissary" families — typically a rabbi, his wife and their family — in 73 countries, including Serbia, South Korea and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Passover seders have been held in places from Nepal to Peru.

On average, four new couples set out to somewhere around the globe, and more than two Chabad institutions are established, each week, according to the organization.

In Mumbai, Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg and his wife, Rivka, offered services such as classes on Judaism, Shabbat services and kosher meals.

Chabad leaders, through their Web site www.chabad.org, are encouraging people to perform mitzvot in the Holtzbergs' honor. Thousands of people have pledged to do everything from saying a prayer to studying the Torah.

In addition, about $1 million has come in to help raise the Holtzbergs' children and to help rebuild Chabad of Mumbai. And about 10 Lubavitch couples have already applied to go to Mumbai to continue the Holtzbergs' work.

In Washington state, where there are 16 Chabad rabbis and a presence in various counties, the organization held a memorial the weekend after the attacks.

At the public menorah lightings this week, the rabbis will say a few words about the Holtzbergs.

And "we've rededicated our work in their memory," Levitin said. "Chabad all over the world has recommitted itself to do more and more goodness and kindness."

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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