Chabad Today

The Lubavitcher Hasidic movement continues to grow, influence extending far beyond Jewish Orthodoxy.

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It's easier to count buildings and bank accounts than believers. No one knows exactly how big Chabad is in terms of actual Lubavitcher Hasidim. There's no membership roster, no official census. Many reporters use the figure of 200,000 Lubavitchers worldwide, but that's little more than a guesstimate.

Success Beyond Chabad Hasidim

Numbers don't tell the whole story. Chabad is of interest not because of those relatively few Jews who lead Hasidic lives, but because of the success with which these Lubavitchers have made their mark in the non­-Hasidic public arena. "You can't measure their influence by the number of guys they have in black hats," points out Samuel Heilman, sociology and Jewish studies professor at City University of New York and author of Defenders of the Faith: Inside Ultra-Orthodox Jewry….

One telling indicator is the number of Chabad rabbis filling leader­ship positions within the mainstream Jewish communities of many coun­tries. At least half the pulpit rabbis in England, Italy, and Australia, and almost all in South Africa and Holland, are Lubavitchers, and Chabad exerts considerable influence in the Jewish communities of France and Germany. Chabad rabbis control kashrut (kosher food) supervision for several key cities around the world, and a Chabad rabbi heads the rabbini­cal council in Montreal. In the former Soviet Union, Chabad has emerged as the mainstream denomination in what is now the world's third-largest Jewish community….

chabad busChabad does not wield anywhere near the same Jewish institutional muscle in the United States. But the past decade has witnessed a sharp increase in the number of Lubavitchers teaching in non-Lubavitch Jewish schools and filling pulpit positions in non-Lubavitch synagogues in this country. And in the fast-growing Jewish communities of Florida and Cal­ifornia in particular, where Chabad Houses have been opening with great alacrity, Chabad is very often the only Orthodox presence in a given town or city. It is becoming the face of Jewish Orthodoxy for the Jewish and the general public.

Reasons for the Success

What is the key to the movement's success? Chabad has money, sure, most of it donated by non-Orthodox Jews. Chabad has a formid­able infrastructure. It has an elegant and fascinating theology, an inter­pretation of reality based on the kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism, that many Jews find intellectually and spiritually compelling. Lubavitchers are adaptable--more than any other Hasidic group, Chabad has been able and willing to use the political and technological tools of 20th-century America to promote its cause.

But above all, the reason for Chabad's continued vitality and phenom­enal growth can be found in the shlichim--thousands of smart, idealistic young men and women filled with zeal, energy, and love of the Jewish people, young Hasidim in their early 20s who are willing to leave their comfortable homes and fami­lies and move to Shanghai or Zaire, where they dedicate their lives to run­ning Chabad operations they more often than not build themselves from the ground up. And they do it, they say, because the rebbe wants them to.

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Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is a special correspondent for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, based in Northern California and covers American Jewish issues, with a special focus on Jewish identity and affiliation. She was previously the associate editor of a weekly newspaper in Monterey, California and a regular contributor to the Jerusalem Post, Moment magazine, and other Jewish publications.