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How did a small Hasidic court become a phenomenon that is fomenting something of a revolution in the Jewish world? The 4,000 Chabad emissaries who convened in New York offer a simple answer: energy, motivation, love and tolerance.

Yair Ettinger
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Yair Ettinger

NEW YORK - Inspector Charles Scholl scurried back and forth, barking orders and keeping a close eye on the preparations. The veteran Brooklyn South officer, a kind of local sheriff in the Crown Heights neighborhood, did not let the euphoria around him on this bitterly cold November morning distract him from the weight of his annual fall task: to make it possible for a huge number of Hasidim to gather for a group portrait against the backdrop of a certain brick building on the main avenue.

"From early this morning," the veteran police officer said without batting an eyelash, "we blocked traffic on the road and made sure there is no exaggerated crowding, so the regular flow of life can continue. But our main concern is for the photograph to be done safely. With all the benches and scaffolding here, it could be very dangerous - it could collapse under the Hasidim. If there's an overload, we will have no choice but to intervene."

Chabad emissaries pose for a group photo in front of the Lubavitcher rebbe's home in Brooklyn during the annual Kinus. Something like a business conference.Credit: Meir Alfasi

The traditional photo of the Hasidim in front of the building at 770 Eastern Parkway, where the Lubavitcher rebbe lived until his death in 1994, is one of the high points of the annual International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Emissaries, which was held last month in New York. It's a manifestation of the strength of the Hasidic movement, which in recent years has become a global force, exercising dramatic influence on the Jewish world - mainly outside Israel - with bases in 76 countries and some 4,000 shluchim - literally "sent ones," or "emissaries" - not counting the families that accompany them.

According to the documentation stored in the computer of Chabad's Brooklyn-based Merkos L'Inyonei Chinuch - the movement's educational arm, which is in charge of the worldwide network of emissaries - every two or three days on average, another Hasid leaves for another part of the world on a one-way ticket. He may open a new center or join an already existing one.

"Many Hasidim want to be emissaries these days, and our problem is to find new places for them," says Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, vice chairman of the educational center and the dominant figure in the management of the global network.

This is the big picture, and it's worth a look. Masses of men sit shoulder to shoulder, chest to back, row upon row, smiling in their standard uniform - unkempt beard (a Chabad custom ), white shirt, fedora and black suit. But they speak different languages and come from different worlds - from five continents, from cities and villages, from climates with temperatures of 40 above and 40 below Celsius. The conference, or Kinus, as they style it, is in large measure an alternative Jewish Congress of a stream that was always on the margins and is now consolidating itself in the center, thanks in part to a minor change of agenda: less trying to make secular Jews religiously observant, and more striving to reach every Jew everywhere.

Chabad, especially outside Israel, is now aiming at the lowest Jewish common denominator and learning how to swallow even Jews who are "hard to digest" from the ultra-Orthodox point of view: Reform, Conservative, feminist, gay, and also those who are not Jews according to halakha, or Jewish religious law. In the past couple of decades, and especially since the rebbe's death, shlichut - the sending of emissaries - has become the movement's major project.

The first rows in the photo are reserved for the longtime emissaries, whose beards are by now white or gray. They are now a small minority, testimony to the rapid increase in the number of global messengers. The Kinus is also an opportunity to get a glimpse inside this Hasidic movement 16 years after the death of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who did not name a successor, and whom some of the Hasidim - the messianists - believe is still alive and will be revealed soon as "King Messiah." The messiah question remains a subject of contention in Chabad, but has not caused a split in the movement (see box ). The rebbe's charismatic image continues to be the engine of the movement, which has tens of thousands of followers, and the emissary project, which was established in the 1950s, has since increased tenfold. The photograph overseen by Inspector Scholl shows only a third of the emissaries.

A lifetime mission

When a Chabadnik from Tokyo or Nebraska meets a Chabadnik from Congo or Alaska, what does he do? The first thing he does is kiss his colleague on the cheek, or sometimes literally falls on his neck with affection and longing, in physical gestures you will never see between Haredi men. Afterward they take part in lessons and workshops and prostrate themselves at the rebbe's grave in Queens, which, in another unusual custom, they will approach only after removing their shoes. On Shabbat they convene for a farbrengen, a Hasidic gathering, centering around a fiery sermon, interrupted from time to time by a raising of glasses and the double declaration "Lechayim - Lechayim," of "weisse o gele" - white or yellow, vodka or whiskey. The next morning they will have their picture taken in front of the rebbe's home and in the evening will arrive freshly washed for a glittering, immaculately produced gala dinner, to which some of the wealthiest people on the planet are invited. After five intense days they will disperse to their homes via the city's airports.

Even the official spokesmen of Chabad find it difficult to supply exact figures about budgets or the current number of emissaries and centers. True, all the centers - other than a few that are controlled by the messianist stream of Chabad, such as those in Sri Lanka, Bolivia and most of the branches in India - are subordinate to Lubavitch World Headquarters in Brooklyn, but possess considerable autonomy. In most cases the emissary receives an initial sum of money to establish a Chabad House, but afterward he has to rely on contributions from the community. The system is meant to ensure that if the world institutions of Chabad should collapse, the network will not be affected.

Most Chabad Houses are geared toward the local Jewish population, though some - with which many Israelis are familiar - aim at tourists. In Bangkok, for example, there are two large centers: one for the city's Jewish population, the other for Israeli backpackers. Most of the services offered in Bangkok, such as mass meals on Shabbat and Jewish holidays and accommodation at the home of the emissary, Rabbi Nehemia Wilhelm, are given free of charge and without the recipients having to undertake religious commitments. Contrary to the image of Chabad as a missionary movement, no one will try to induce young Israelis to become religiously observant or ask them to attend prayer services. Rabbi Wilhelm from Bangkok is the role model for Akiva Kamisar, 26, who was about to move to Amsterdam with his wife and their infant daughter to open a new Chabad House expressly for Israelis - alongside other Chabad centers there that are geared to Dutch Jewry. "There are 9,000 Israelis in Amsterdam and three flights a day from Israel," he says. "Israelis do not like to pay synagogue dues and they feel a little lost there, but they are willing to pay for social activity, and that is what we will offer them. At the moment I am not asking for money from the local community - we have support from Israel and from Geneva."

Being an emissary is a kind of indefinite franchise granted to young married men, and from Chabad's point of view, it is meant to last until retirement. "I will be there until the arrival of the righteous messiah," Kamisar says. "If an emissary has the idea of going to live somewhere only for a few years, he will be better off not going at all."

Kamisar (like most emissaries in Thailand ) is Israeli. Globally, though, the majority of the emissaries are Americans, and the movement has a potent presence in North America as well. Of the 4,000 emissaries, the official number in the United States alone is 1,430, and if you add the unofficial number in Canada, the number of emissaries in North America stands at about 1,900. The Chabad House is first and foremost an American phenomenon.

No conspiracies

Rabbi Dovid Eliezrie is a veteran emissary who was sent by the Lubavitcher rebbe to the suburb of Yorba Linda in Orange County, California. "When I got there 25 years ago, at the age of 27," he says, "just about the only ones there were Conservative and Reform. Those congregations fought me, but little by little I discovered that people wanted to buy my kugel. Today we are seeing a revolution in American Jewry. In many places, the Conservatives, according to their surveys, are losing dozens of percent of their congregations. Some of the sons of those who fought me now wear a caftan. American Jewry is undergoing a transformation: Chabad is becoming mainstream."

How does he explain the change? "We treat every Jew as a Jew. Even if he has a non-Jewish father, we treat him as a Jew. We treat people as people and are committed to accept everyone as he is. Another thing is that in the United States synagogues usually charge membership dues. Even before you have attended services once they might ask for $2,500. But with us it's the opposite. I invite everyone to my lessons. Afterward, they themselves want to donate, because of the way we received them. Ninety percent of those who come to us are non-Orthodox, and I estimate that across the United States their numbers total hundreds of thousands."

According to Eliezrie, his "kugel" is also preferable for another reason. "Everyone who comes to me knows that I feel his sorrow. There was one young man, a declared homosexual, who thought that I did not accept him. But when he fell ill and was hospitalized, I was the one who went to New York to visit him. He knows my position in regard to his inclinations, which is the position of the halakha, but he will tell you that that is an advantage. I live among non-religious Jews every day and they know that in contrast to a Reform rabbi, I will not sell them a bill of goods. We in Chabad possess both love of Jewishness and principles."

One reason Chabad has become stronger in the United States, says Prof. Chaim Waxman, a senior fellow of the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute whose specialty is the sociology of religion with an emphasis on American Jewry, is the diminishing importance of the Jewish establishment in the self-definition of Jews. "People are no longer looking for affiliation with one of the streams of Judaism, and they are finding that it's easiest with Chabad," he says. "You don't have to connect with any stream or any synagogue. You can come and take what you want from the experience and that is it. People like it that there are no hard and fast rules, that there is communication with other streams. Chabad has sincerity, and people recognize that." Waxman notes that he visited a Chabad kindergarten in Palm Springs where "almost all the parents were in mixed marriages, even the president of the kindergarten. Chabad is now going to the farthest places."

But doesn't Chabad also have a hidden agenda? Isn't the movement engaged in Jewish proselytizing, as the Chabad activists in the Tel Aviv neighborhood of Ramat Aviv are suspected of doing? Emissaries I spoke with in Crown Heights, all of whom are active in the United States, were amazed at the question.

"We have no hidden agenda, and therein lies the strength of Chabad, especially in the United States," said one emissary. "Possibly Israelis are more suspicious, but we have no conspiracy beyond helping every Jew everywhere, unconditionally. We aspire to bring every Jew a degree closer to the Torah and to the Holy One than he is today, and that includes people who are defined as religious. There is no conspiracy to steal anyone's children away from him."

Rabbi Yossi Lipsker, who founded Chabad House in Swampscott, Massachusetts 19 years ago, intervenes in the conversation. "We will never do anything that departs from the halakha, but each emissary also has a lot of room for self-expression," he says, thereby also explaining his unusual exterior appearance, which adds to the Chabad look relatively long hair that is mostly hidden by a wool skullcap, along with fashionable spectacles. He describes the emissary's role in Hasidic-hippie terms of "plying people with love, giving them hope. We do not judge anyone for his acts and his opinions; we do not look down on others. We are part of the community and its needs. The role of a Chabad House is to create a community, mutual surety and true friendship; to forge a place where there is creativity."

End of ideology

Richard Sinkoff is a town planner and a senior manager at the port of San Francisco. Formerly a member of a Reform congregation, he is now a central activist in the Chabad community of east San Francisco. He observes Shabbat, but not necessarily the other commandments. He does not wear a skullcap. "I live in a very urban section of San Francisco," he notes. "One Shabbat, I saw the Chabad emissary in the street, in a suit and hat. I was with a Jewish friend and said to her, 'Wow, there's a real rabbi here.' That's really unusual in San Francisco. His exterior identity was almost flagrant, challenging, but not in a negative way. We started to talk and he was exceptionally friendly. I was very involved in the Reform synagogue, but I guess that wasn't enough, it didn't speak to me on a deep level.

"One Shabbat," he continues, "I decided to check out Chabad. It wasn't a turn-off. The emissary, Rabbi Gedaliah Potash, honored me immediately with an aliyah to the Torah. I fled after the service, but a week later I came back. And the more I went there, the more I discovered more and more people like me, who used to belong to Conservative or Reform congregations. It's very diversified there, and the diversity spoke to me. It's more diversified than the congregations I was familiar with. Chabad responds to the local community conditions. They show a lot of flexibility, which is truly humanistic - their view is that the Jews in our neighborhood are whoever they are and that it is impossible and pointless to change them or judge them. That drew me. Strangely, I discovered that the Chabad experience is less Orthodox than most of the Orthodox synagogues I was familiar with. They want the Jews as they are. They say, 'Come to us with your questions - they have a place.' In contrast to their image, which turns people off, they do not come with ready-made answers.

"People ask me how I can abide the existence of a barrier between men and women in the synagogue. In Chabad the answer is that there is an Orthodox model, and you are invited to take what you want. They do not force their model on you. It's a fine concept, to bring Hasidism to small places, like a ray of light arising in the dark. My feeling is that the Judaism they are showing me is something good. It's what we are, we are proud of it, happy in it. I longed for it for a long time."

Not everyone in Chabad likes the talk about rays of light in the dark or about humanistic activity. Menachem Zigelboim from Bnei Brak, the largely Orthodox city adjacent to Tel Aviv is a declared messianist and the editor of a weekly magazine called "Beis Moshiach." He came to New York even though he is highly critical of the emissary project as administered by the non-messianist establishment. "Chabad has turned into a type of prettified humane movement whose task is to help tsunami refugees and survivors of plane crashes, and is ready to carry out any order. I personally want to help every Jew; the rebbe said it is the role of every Jew to help. But we must not deviate from the main thing.

"We have become too pretty a movement," he continues. "We have to remember the primary mission the rebbe imposed: to prepare the world for the messiah. It's nice and it's fine to be concerned. My feeling is that the trivial has become the essence. I am outraged by the term 'Chabad emissaries.' We are not Chabad emissaries, we are not the Bnei Akiva youth movement and we are not the Jewish Agency. We are the emissaries of the rebbe. What is the strength of an emissary? It is the rebbe's strength. We are on a mission of the exalted one of the generation, of the messiah of the generation. The rebbe draws his powers from the infinite. The atmosphere today is leaning toward the emissary mission, because the main objective rings less nicely, but the central pillar is the messianic one." At the same time, he notes that his criticism is aimed not at the emissaries but at those with vested interests who are using them for their own ends. A different critique is offered by a person who is well known in the Chabad community in Israel and is among the opponents of the messianic group. "In a certain sense," he says, "Chabad is the successor to the Conservative congregations, with pronouncements such as 'We will give you togetherness and we will not probe your beliefs.' We are selling the world a light, flexible Judaism. It's a form of goods that will be familiar to anyone who ever attended a Conservative congregation. The question is: Who will preserve the fine Chabad that used to exist? Today in Chabad there is a spiral of fund-raising, and the emissaries have become a kind of elite, but they are engaged in a narrow world of providing Jewish services. The Chabad Hasidic movement, which was always extremely intellectual, is today preoccupied with the most technical aspects of Judaism. We took talented young men and made them mediocre. What will become of the true Chabad in 10 years' time?"

Officials in the Chabad establishment confirm that the emissaries have become a model for the young people in the movement, but insist that they are also cultivating the yeshivas. "In contrast to the [non-Hasidic] Lithuanian communities, the Lubavitcher rebbe did not want to look after the Torah world only," Rabbi Dovid Eliezrie says. "The Haredi world is on the defensive against modernity, whereas Chabad always strove for contact with the modern world, but without making compromises. There is something deep about this. We share the destiny of the Jewish people. The Haredi world wants to receive, and large parts of it do not want to give of themselves to the commonalty. That was always the essential difference."

According to Prof. Menachem Friedman, co-author of a recently published book about the rebbe (see box ), "Chabad's scale of success has absolutely nothing to do with messianism or with the theological side, but is proof that sociology was victorious. There is no ideology here. The Lubavitcher rebbe changed the face of Chabad. In the past, the two heroes of Chabad were the maskil, the educated person who is well versed in the writings of the great teachers, and the oved, the worshiper, who prays long and with intentionality. During the period of the seventh rebbe" - Menachem Mendel Schneerson - "those two models disappeared almost completely. These days it's the emissary, the mission, that's important. That reflects the new conditions that evolved in the Jewish world in the second half of the 20th century and in the 21st century, in which Jews are no longer seeking the answer to the problems of existence, but are in need of essential services. Chabad is very generous in this way and will give you all the services, but they do not provide intellectual answers. It's no longer about wisdom, understanding and knowledge [for which "Chabad" is an acronym] but about rhapsodizing over a Seder night they held somewhere."

Business conference

The annual conferences deal with many subjects and have one central theme. This year's theme was "the Jewish home," with the aim of placing the lives of the emissaries and their families at the center. Indeed, the emissaries' families sometimes pay a steep price: the children grow up alone in a non-religious and non-Jewish environment, often in the absence of Orthodox and certainly ultra-Orthodox educational institutions. Chabad invests a great deal in the "emissaries' young ones," as the children are termed. The movement has created online schools for them, in Hebrew and English, in which children from different places "attend" virtual classes.

As is apparent from the nearly 100 workshops held during the conference, Chabad does not flinch from addressing urgent issues and does not leave the stage only to rabbis. For example, psychologists and educators also took part in a workshop about adolescents. The workshops, which were almost all in English, dealt with a wide variety of subjects, most of them not religious in character. Chabad is immersed in the practical world; the Kinus at times resembled the conference of a global business enterprise that is upgrading its franchisees. Examples of the workshops from the conference schedule: "Fund-raising During Difficult Times," "Genetic Engineering and Cloning [according to] Torah," "Creating a Five-Year Strategic Plan," "Effective Public Speaking," "Community Building From Day One." There were also sessions on how to protect your Chabad House from government investigations and the secrets to obtaining grants from the U.S. government.

Although the workshops hardly touched on saliently religious topics, they left considerable scope for spiritual matters and issues of principle. Many workshops were aimed at helping the emissaries as religious figures in their community, with topics such as how to be a successful marriage consultant, treatment of terminal patients, conversion to Judaism, the role of the emissaries in dealing with juvenile drug addiction, "Spirituality and Intimacy" and "Being There in Times of Need."

Haaretz was allowed to audit several of the workshops, some of which dealt with sensitive internal topics related to the experiences of the emissaries. About 200 emissaries, most of them young, took part in a workshop in which they were able to ask two experienced emissaries, from London and Brooklyn, how to respond to dilemmas of principle in their communities. For example, what to do in the synagogue if a member of the congregation has a non-Jewish wife, whether to honor a declared homosexual with an aliyah to the Torah, and how to respond if a woman wants to deliver a sermon on Shabbat or dance while holding a Torah scroll.

It's rare for the Orthodox halakha, certainly in the Haredi world, to address problems like these. Chabad does so, though refusing to discuss any sort of compromise with regard to halakha. The answers, as given in a completely internal discussion, surprised even the young emissaries. To the question of whether it was permissible to call a self-declared gay man to the Torah on Shabbat, Rabbi Chaim Rapoport, from London, replied, "You must always remain the friend of every Jew. If a person is homophobic, that is not necessarily connected to the halakha. There are situations in which we must remember that it does not matter how far a person fell, he is still part of you. A Jew is a Jew is a Jew."

From the other end of the hall, another emissary responded to this by saying he had the opposite problem in his congregation: "Homophobes are assailing me in my congregation, because I am willing to accept the presence in the synagogue of someone who is a self-declared homosexual. Some of these people are part of a mixed marriage, but it this problem that bothers them. What should one do?" Rapoport, from the stage, reasserted his unequivocal opinion. "The hypocrisy on this subject is unbelievable. Most people have something against homosexuality - it's a matter for psychologists. Someone once asked me whether by giving a gay man an aliyah I wasn't encouraging homosexuality for young people in my congregation. There are very few people who chose to become gays just because someone received an aliyah to the Torah. When you see the tears of a person who is coping with this, it's not easy to say 'He didn't try hard enough [not to be gay].' There are people who try to change but can't, so the answer is far from simple. Religiously observant people, Lubavitch Hasidim, emissaries - there is no ethnic group that is free of these problems. Our role against those who object to the integration of gays is to explain that they are people who feel alone and need moral support. Gays in the religious community need special empathy."

This is perhaps the most acute paradox in the Chabad movement. Its members are fraught with high messianic tension, even the moderates among them. But on the other hand, Chabad is a habitat for energetic, involved, contributing, straight-talking people of practical action. You can meet a great many intellectuals - modern, open people - in Crown Heights. Both of the homes we visited had large private libraries that included hundreds of books on art and science as well as works of fiction, in Hebrew and English, alongside hundreds of volumes of the writings of the Lubavitcher rebbe.

The five days of the conference concluded with the "Gala Banquet" event held at the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal at Pier 12. The organizers of this glittering and gargantuan event went all the way to Brooklyn's Red Hook section because that was the only place they could find with a large enough space to accommodate the 350 tables and 4,700 guests. The New York Times declared the event the largest sit-down dinner in the history of the city and was awed by the numbers: 90 chefs, 340 waiters, 15,000 glasses, 182,000 square meters of a spectacularly beautiful structure, with a view of the Statue of Liberty.

The United States may be economically depressed, but the flow of donations to Chabad looks stable - philanthropists around the world seem to be lining up to contribute. At the dinner, praise was heaped on the donors to the network of emissaries, among them Lev Leviev, George Rohr, Chaim Fink, Dudi Hager, Motti Zisser, Jacky Ben-Zaken and others. But the person who bestrode the conference like a colossus was Gennady Bogoliubov, from Ukraine, who is probably the largest single donor to Chabad today. After establishing magnificent institutions for Chabad in his country and injecting tens of millions of dollars into the movement's branches around the world, Bogoliubov set up a special fund for the families of the emissaries, through which he gives generous gifts for every joyous family event everywhere in the world: a $10,000 grant for every wedding, $5,000 for every bar mitzvah and more. "Thank you very much, and I expect you to send me more requests for checks," Bogoliubov concluded his address.

It was a dazzling affair, brilliantly produced, at times tear-jerking, American style, though also suffused with moments of tremendous power, as befits a global phenomenon on a vast scale, certainly unprecedented in Jewish history. Toward the end of the evening, Rabbi Kotlarsky from the Merkos L'Inyonei Chinuch read out a "roll call" of all 76 countries in which Chabad is represented and invited the emissaries from each country to stand up, to the applause of the audience. "Let's go on a trip around the world," Kotlarsky said, and started to read the list of countries - from Asia via Australia and then to Africa, Europe and the Americas. Like the traditional group photo, this too is one of the non-spontaneous highlights of the Kinus of emissaries, planned to the last detail. But it was shattered by an outburst of authentic Hasidic joy when, at the conclusion of the list, 4,700 people got up and started to dance to the music of an old Chabad melody, like a winding snake, a great chain of people, all dressed in black, representing every corner of the globe.