Chabad Today

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

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"We're carrying on the Rebbe's revolution," says one Lubavitch woman in her early 20s, who moved from Brooklyn with her new husband to establish a Chabad operation in Russia's Far East.

That "revolution" began in 1950, even before Schneerson took over Chabad's helm from his father-in-law, the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe. One of his first actions was to send a shliach couple that year from Brooklyn to Morocco, beginning the worldwide outreach campaign for which Chabad is now known. By 1995, the first anniversary of Schneerson's death, two or three Lubavitcher couples were being sent out from Brooklyn every week, ready to teach Torah and bring Jews back to Judaism.

And they don't go for a year or two, but for the rest of their lives. These young, newly married Chabad couples leave home with one-way tickets and--if they're lucky--a year's salary. After that, most are expected to make their own way financially, by charging for certain services, such as day school or summer camps, by drumming up donors, and by taking related jobs in the local Jewish community. Chabad headquarters ­in Brooklyn will supply them with resource materials, adjudicate dis­putes, and set the general course of the movement's work internationally, but the individual shliach couple is pretty much on its own, with only pluck and willpower to sustain it. Chabad is thus a highly centralized, yet profoundly decentralized movement….

"Chabad has the biggest army of people in the Jewish world ready to live on the edge of poverty," says historian Arthur Hertzberg, author of numerous books on Zionism and Jewish history. Hertzberg wasn't always a fan of Chabad. When messianic hopes began to swirl around the dying rebbe in the early 1990s, Hertzberg told the New York Times that Chabad resembled the followers of Shabbetai Zevi, the notorious 17th-century false Messiah.

But his personal encounters with Chabad shlichim since the Rebbe's death have changed his thinking. His daughter, a member of a Conservative congregation in Fresno, California, sent her children to the local Chabad school, a fact Hertzberg relates with pride.

"Those thirty-five hundred shlichim are the most holy group in the Jewish world today," he declares. "They are every day engaged in kiddush Hashem [sanctification of God's name]. Everywhere I go, I bump into one of these young couples working their heads off. They live on nothing, and they stay with it. I can disagree with their theology, but I can only admire them."

Critics of Chabad

Not everyone likes Chabad. The movement's highly public, in-your-face brand of Judaism makes it off-putting to some American Jews, as does the way shlichim seem to steamroll into town, setting up shop with great fanfare in communities where the Jewish population has maintained a more circumspect profile. Chabad's refusal to recognize non-Orthodox Jewish denominations puts the group at odds with the majority of rabbis working in this country, and with most national Jewish organizations. Chabad has been taken to court many times, for everything from zoning violations to public menorahs--most of the time by other Jews.…

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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.