Editor’s Notes: The Rebbe’s army marches forward

By David Horovitz November 19, 2004

For a movement that went into a shocked tailspin with Schneerson’s death 10 years ago, Chabad shows every sign of having bounced back, and then some

As the General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities was getting under way in Cleveland this week, another convention, far more overtly passionate and barely less numerous, was winding down a short flight away to the east.

Converging on the vast 69th Regiment Armory in Manhattan, these delegates were instantly recognizable: Clad to a man in black suits and white shirts, they were the shluchim – the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s global army of emissaries.

The late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson’s legions of singular troops were briefly occupying this headquarters of the more traditional military at the finale of several days of consultation and reinvigoration, before heading back to their branch offices at most every outpost of Jewish life. (There were no women present; they have their own gathering in February.) The scene in the minutes just before the conference’s culminating banquet, with the milling bearded crowd unaffectedly incongruous beneath pictures of regimental ties and signs pointing to army veterans’ rooms, was chaotic and good-natured.

‘About 2,100 of the 2,500 people here tonight registered ahead of time,’ one of the three overworked Chabadniks manning the computers shouted cheerfully to me amid the hubbub. ‘The other 400 are trying to do so now.’

Beneath the soaring curved roof inside the main hall, the Rebbe’s soldiers were hugging and catching up as Schneerson’s features, at once avuncular and filled with almost feline intensity and energy, gazed approvingly from eight giant video screens.

‘Twenty-two years ago,’ Rabbi Dovid Eliezrie from California, my host for the evening, told me, ‘there were 43 of us in an upstairs room’ at 770 Eastern Parkway, Chabad’s Brooklyn headquarters. Now there are some 4,000 shluchim worldwide. He waved his arm across the sea of celebrating emissaries, at tables so tightly packed the waiters could hardly get through to serve them dinner.

‘Look at us. We’ve outgrown all the hotels in this city. Soon there’s going to be nowhere big enough to hold us all. We open a new Chabad center somewhere every 10 days.’

For a movement that went into a shocked tailspin when the unthinkable, Schneerson’s death, happened 10 years ago, Chabad shows every sign of having bounced back, and then some.

There are still many who cling to the notion of Schneerson as messiah and impatiently anticipate his revelatory return – perhaps 30 percent of the movement, another of my fellow diners estimated.

Eliezrie stressed that there was nothing blasphemous about the notion, citing a Talmud suggestion that the redeemer may come from the ranks of the living or the dead. And it was understandable, another voice chimed in, that in the aftermath of the Rebbe’s passing, many adherents found it hard to accept that he had gone for good.

BUT CHABAD as a whole, all at my table chorused, is moving forward – bent not on maintaining a supernatural vision of the Rebbe, but rather on advancing his ideals. Those, said Eliezrie, kindly and straight-speaking, ‘is to accept every Jew non-judgmentally and to encourage him to grow in his observance and his knowledge of Torah.’ The ultimate aim, he continued, ‘is to transform the world into a place of goodness and holiness and thus to bring the messiah.’

Unlike the modern Orthodox, ‘who seek to integrate with Western culture,’ and the haredim, ‘who seek to insulate themselves from it,’ Chabad ‘wants to engage,’ Eliezrie said. ‘We’re focused on Jewish continuity and survival – on connecting, Jew by Jew.’

It’s working. The current estimate is that up to a million Jews identify with their faith primarily through Chabad – even if only by attending one of the movement’s synagogues on Yom Kippur. With an annual budget of some $1 billion, funded largely by private donations, often from non-Orthodox Jews, Chabad’s engagement campaign – carried via day schools, Sunday schools, bar and bat mitzva programs, adult education and much more – is the increasingly acknowledged envy of rueful rabbis from all other streams of the faith.

Eliezrie: ‘Orthodox Judaism didn’t used to exist in the [North American] suburbs. It does now. The OU, not to denigrate it, has 20 synagogues in California; we have 140 Chabad centers.’

Unlike other Jewish organizational and rabbinical hierarchies, the Chabad shluchim, once dispatched, generally stay for life. That guarantees a unique measure of familiarity with the local population.

They tend to spend less money on wages and overheads. ‘For every Conservative rabbi, you get two from Chabad. For every Reform rabbi, three. And for every Reconstructionist rabbi, four,’ a participant told me, with the hint of benevolent triumphalism that proved a subtle feature of several banquet conversations. ‘Philanthropists feel that Chabad gives them the most for their dollar.’

And Chabad is also bang up to date. One major indication: It has introduced new programs offering ‘havrusa’ study programs over the Internet. A minor one: The slick, full-color autumn 2004 Lubavitch International Update magazine, placed on the tables and filled with page after page of photos of new Chabad community centers, teacher academies and camps, already featured reporting from this conference, detailing the sessions on fund-raising, media relations and campus activism, and listing some of the more unlikely locales from whence my fellow diners had traveled, including ‘the remote backwaters of China, Peru, Siberia, Greece and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.’

ITS WELCOMING, easygoing nature notwithstanding, Chabad stands for the firmest Jewish Orthodoxy – in the Rebbe’s image.

Eliezrie said that he and other Chabad rabbis have good relationships with Reform and Conservative clergy. A local Reform rabbi, he said, ‘comes to my house on Yom Tov and jokes, ‘Rav, need any lights turning on?” Eliezrie also told me that the Rebbe barred him from getting engaged to his beloved, whose father was a Conservative Jew and disapproved of the match at first, until the latter was won over. And that while some newly Orthodox Jews were overly zealous in their practices, to the extent of offending their parents by refusing to eat at their table, the Rebbe always emphasized the primacy of respect for one’s parents and the imperative not to humiliate them.

But Eliezrie also briskly recounted the story of a White House Hanukka ceremony during Jimmy Carter’s administration, when the president, though it was only day four of the festival, wanted to see all the candles burning. The Chabad representative, trying to be accommodating and having failed to persuade Carter that the menora should blaze fully only on day eight, resorted to having a young child kindle the remaining lights. Far from being praised for gracefully averting a potentially awkward stand-off, I was told, the Chabad man was reprimanded by Schneerson with words to the effect of: ‘I thought you would be stronger.’ The underlying point: There can be no compromising on the essence of Judaism.

In similarly uncompromising vein, while every single person I spoke with was adamant that Chabad does not meddle in Israeli politics (the pro-Netanyahu campaign of 1996 was much disputed and is never to be repeated, it is said), the Rebbe is perceived by his followers to have laid down the law against territorial withdrawal.

A video that was screened during the banquet featured clips to underline the point: the Rebbe, who was not a Zionist but regarded the state as ‘a gathering of Israel’ that had to be protected, was shown insisting on the need for ‘a strong Israel including all the parts which God gave us,’ and declaiming that ‘every one of us is the owner of every inch, every part, of Israel.’

Eliezrie: ‘We believe that giving up territory will endanger Israel. As citizens we have a right to state our opinion. Sharon knows we are motivated by love.’

A fellow journalist covering the event remarked to me that it was unfortunate that the Rebbe, so unusually broad-minded in so many ways for an Orthodox leader, was now, in death, locked irrevocably by his adherents into positions he elucidated a decade and more ago.

In that light, the answer he gave to the assassinated Moledet leader, Rehavam Ze’evi, in a tete-a-tete included in the video presentation, seemed particularly interesting.

Ze’evi, his deferential body language a testament to his respect for Schneerson, asked the Rebbe what more he could be doing in the Knesset.

Schneerson’s response, intriguing in this era of acute Jewish demographic dilemmas between the river and the sea, was to urge Ze’evi to make plain that the importance of Eretz Israel was not only in ‘the piece of land,’ but that ‘it should be recognizable that the person lives in a land where Judaism is inherent.’

THE EMOTIONAL highlight of the almost five hours I spent at the banquet (and it was still in full swing when I left) was Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky’s roll-call of the shluchim from around the world – the hugely amplified legacy, Eliezrie said, of that get-together 22 years ago when the few dozens had first stood up and introduced themselves to each other.

Continent by continent, Kotlarsky traversed the globe, as the video screens offered photos and information on when Chabad first sent emissaries to each country and how many were currently active.

Across Asia he swept, pausing to mention the 1,400 Jews who gathered under Chabad’s aegis on a Thai beach for Rosh Hashana services this year.

On into Africa he went, and Australia and the Middle East (500-plus shluchim in Israel). The 262 Chabad rabbis in the former Soviet Union – ‘most of Judaism in the FSU,’ said Eliezrie – enjoyed a relationship with the authorities that, given Judaism’s recent terrible history there, simply ‘defies belief,’ Kotlarsky said. Chabad was active in a great list of FSU countries and many more in Eastern Europe. Then it was on to America, north, central and south.

At every destination – I lost count of the countries somewhere in the Sixties – the relevant shluchim in the Armory rose, cheered and were cheered. In every continent, the numbers were up on last year. (That is testament, said Eliezrie, to the fact that Chabad has the opposite of the establishment’s recruiting crisis, in that it is grappling with ‘a surfeit of young, highly motivated people,’ anxious to go out into the community.) When the roll-call was over, Kotlarsky invited those who ‘went out’ in the 1950s to rise; then those in the Sixties, the Seventies, and on to the present day.

And when the whole hall was standing and clapping and cheering, the music started, and snake lines of singing rabbis wended their way around the hall, navigating the narrow paths between the tables in a joyous display of camaraderie and accomplishment.

Inviting me to stand on my chair to better survey the scene, Eliezrie put his mouth to my ear and made two assertions: ‘You won’t see this at any GA.’ And, ‘This is the future of the Jewish people.’

© The Jerusalem Post