by Adam Dickter
Assistant Managing Editor
In the weeks since the Mumbai terrorist attack, the Chabad movement has directed contributions from supporters primarily to two campaigns: One to aid the child whose emissary parents were slain, and another to rebuild the badly damaged outreach center and re-establish operations there, which could cost as much as $1 million, according to a Chabad estimate.
But at the same time, some Chabad leaders are acting on their own to secure funds and resources to make dozens of Chabad houses in far-flung outposts safer.
A group of emissaries in southeast Asia, led by Rabbi Yosef Kantor, who is based in Bangkok, Thailand, has launched a campaign aimed at improving security at their centers, and distributed donation cards at Lubavitch world headquarters in CrownHeights, Brooklyn, last week.
And Rabbi Shea Hecht, a member of a prominent Chabad family well entrenched in the emissary movement, told The Jewish Week he has been working the phones since the tragedy to try to arrange security upgrades and protection.
“Security has to be the No. 1 priority,” said Rabbi Hecht of the Lubavitch-run Committee for the Furtherance of Jewish Education. “If you are not alive, it doesn’t make much difference if you can put bread on the table. One you stay alive, you can worry about the bread.
“If any of us could spend a million dollars to save just one soul, isn't it worth it?”
Rabbi Hecht, who is one of 12 siblings and has six children, and whose wife also comes from a large family, has more relatives than he can count working as emissaries of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, trying to promote Jewish observance.
“In my family alone we are talking about tens and tens of shluchim,” he said, using the Hebrew word for emissary. “Among my immediate friends, tens and tens [more] shluchim. The Hechts are not people who sit on the sidelines. We roll up our sleeves and get the job done.”
While not in any way criticizing the central Chabad operation, Rabbi Hecht, who has developed many political connections in New York, said he expected many emissaries to reach out to him for advice and wanted to have information available for them.
“When they call me, I want to have a file with a lot of information,” he said.
He said he hoped to meet with members of the security consulting firm run by former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and had already spoken with another top consulting firm, Kroll Security Group, for help in securing the centers. Spokepersons for both agencies did not return calls for comment.
The spokesman for Chabad, Zalman Shmotkin, would not comment on any fundraising for security. “It is still, unfortunately, too early to discuss these efforts,” he said on Tuesday night.
Rabbi Hecht said that supporters of Chabad around the world were responding generously in the wake of the Mumbai tragedy and that some of them had requested that donations be used for security. He said one of his sons, an emissary in upstate New York, had received such a contribution.
“It wasn’t exactly earmarked, but it was suggested that some of the money be used that way,” said Rabbi Hecht.
While stressing that no one in the movement believed that Chabad centers were more at risk than any other Jewish organization, he said that individual Chabad centers should assess their own security needs and decide how much of the money they raise should be used for security.
“There is a big difference between those in New York City or L.A. or other places in the U.S. and those in Asian countries or African countries,” he said. “There are some that have to be very careful what they do and how they do it. An assessment has to be made on many levels, and I am doing my own study.”
Since the tragedy, the Chabad movement has conducted an orchestrated marketing and public relations campaign. Chabad officials in New York and emissaries around the world are conducting media interviews, and constituents who have been touched by the movement are reaching out in droves to local and international publications to extol its praises.
Chabad handpicked emissaries to speak with the media that officials believed would best represent the movement to a general public that may have had little or no knowledge about it.
The message was twofold: Gavriel and Rivkah Holtzberg, the emissaries killed in Mumbai, would have wanted their deaths to inspire and bring Jews closer to Chabad and Judaism, and the movement’s late spiritual leader, Rabbi Schneerson, taught that it was a religious obligation to take a dark moment and turn it into a positive.
The strategy is to help the audience to “become a continuum of the holy world of Gavi and Rivkah so that they have a way to channel their own personal grief in a manner that makes this world a better place,” Shmotkin told JTA. “A shaliach has to be able to sensitively and articulately convey the basic messages of urging people to increase their own acts of goodness and kindness” in response to tragedy.
Within a week of the attacks, Chabad had raised about $1 million through mailboxes it had opened on Chabad.org.
“[The fundraising] is an opportunity to connect more and more Jews to the mission, and to the Rebbe’s mission of getting every Jew involved. And part of that is channeling the empathy people are now feeling,” said Rabbi Kantor, the director of the Chabad of Thailand, who helped establish the movement’s presence in Mumbai prior to the Holtzbergs’ arrival.
“I see this as being a big package or opportunity to be able to inspire and direct Jews on how they can channel their outpouring of support and sympathy, their emotion, rage, outrage and frustration,” he said.
While the immediate fundraising was geared toward helping the toddler and rebuilding in Mumbai, the stepped-up publicity may also prove to be a boon for Chabad houses. Chabad emissaries usually receive minimal seed money to start their outposts, but each house is responsible for raising its own budget each year. Though Chabad does not keep a formal database on how much each outpost raises, officials estimate that the emissaries combined take in more than $1 billion per year.
JTA contributed to this report.