Although many Hasidic sects exist today, Chabad-Lubavitch is by far the most well-known, because of its public profile. Starting in the 1950s, the group’s leader, Menachem Mendel Schneerson–the seventh and last Chabad rebbe-emphasized outreach to non-observant Jews. To increase Jewish observance, he sent emissaries around the world to revive small communities, bring individuals to more traditional practice, and establish Jewish communities where none existed before.
Schneerson died in 1994 at the age of 91, after which media coverage of Chabad focused mostly on the belief of some Lubavitchers that the rebbe was the messiah and would come back from the grave as King Messiah. As the following article shows, there is another story of Chabad in the years since Schneerson’s death.
In the decade after Schneerson’s death, Chabad’s infrastructure grew faster than during his lifetime. Between 1994 and 2002, more than 610 new emissary couples took up their postings and more than 705 new Chabad institutions were opened, including 450 new facilities purchased or built from scratch, bringing the total number of institutions worldwide–synagogues, schools, camps, and community centers–to 2,766. In the year 2000, 51 new Chabad facilities were established in California alone.
Annual operating costs of Chabad’s empire today approach $1 billion. And that budget doesn’t include construction costs for new buildings, which have been going up at an astonishing rate since Schneerson’s passing: a $10 million synagogue in Bal Harbour, Florida; $25 million for a Chabad complex in San Diego; $20 million for a Jewish Children’s Museum in Crown Heights; plus a $1 million Chabad center in Las Vegas, $2 million for American Friends of Lubavitch headquarters in Washington, D.C., $5 million for a day school in Pittsburgh, and $3 million for a community center in Montreal.
Chabad building projects around the world have kept pace with those of North America: a $15 million girls’ school outside Paris; a $14 million community center in Buenos Aires; plus soup kitchens in Brazil, synagogues in Germany, schools in Latvia and Lithuania, and orphanages in Ukraine. Chabad’s expansion into the former Soviet Union alone is phenomenal. In 1994 the movement maintained emissaries in just eight cities in Russia. By January 2002, Chabad had full-time emissaries placed in 61 cities across Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, the Baltics, and Central Asia, with 13,000 children studying in their day schools and thousands more attending their kindergartens and summer camps….
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 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.
“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.…
Chabad’s right-wing stance on Israel, its interference in Israeli elections, and its support in the U.S. both for a “moment of silence” in public schools and federal funding for parochial schools places the movement on the far right edge of the American Jewish dialogue. But unlike other Hasidic groups, they are still very much a part of that dialogue. Other Jewish leaders say that, like it or not, Chabad’s impact on the American Jewish scene has been far-reaching.
Excerpted with permission from The Rebbe’s Army: Inside the World of Chabad-Lubavitch (Schocken Books).
Pronounced: khuh-BAHD loo-BUV-itch (oo as in boot), Hasidic sect known for its outreach to the larger Jewish community.
Pronounced: khah-SID-ik, Origin: Hebrew, a stream within ultra-Orthodox Judaism that grew out of an 18th-century mystical revival movement.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.