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Notes from Limmud 2012

How did the Rebbe's Army Become So Large?

Sue Fishkoff

[Standard disclaimer: All views not in square brackets are those of the speaker, not myself. Accuracy of transcription is not guaranteed.]

If the sixth rebbe had not managed to escape Nazi-occupied Warsaw in 1940 with the help of a Wermacht officer and come to New York with the leadership of his court, the Lubavitch leadership might have collapsed, as happened to so many of the other Chasidic sects.

[Faced with decimation during the Holocaust], the other movements turned inward to preserve themselves, but the Lubavitch turned outwards. ll the other movements had done outreach, but only to observant Jews. The sixth and seventh Lubavitch rebbes said they were going to do outreach to non-observant Jews. It shifted the emphasis of the Lubavitch from chassidus to almost pastoral care amongst the rest of the world.

They then had to learn how to cope with the modern world without being tainted by it. They had to learn how to be שְׁלִיחִים whilst living in places like Salt Lake City where you and your family are the only observant Jew in the entire state (as was the case twenty years ago); being able to maintain that balance between personal religious authenticity and adherence to a very high level of Torah observance, and being welcoming and non-judgemental to Jews whose observance level will never match your own.

Unlike British Jewry, American Jewry has never had anywhere near an Orthodox majority. The Orthodox are only 10-15% of the population. Half of the population doesn't even bother to declare themselves Jewish on surveys, because it comes under the category of "faith", and they don't have Jewish practice.

So, forty years ago Lubavitch was centred in Crown Heights, Montreal, Detroit and a few other places, and now has five thousand שָׁלִיחַ couples in eighty 80 countries around th world. They go off to spend the rest of their life—not two or three years like other missionaries—to places where they don't have communities to celebrate Shabbos with, or [etc].

The goal of their lives is to convince Jews to do more mitzvos: For them, you can approach God not just through study or knowledge of observance, but through joy and passion and love from the heart. This speaks to the American spirit. Americans don't like laws; they like being out in the plains and doing it their own way.

The second part of their message is: You matter. You as an individual matter as a Jew, because even if you don't belong to a synagogue, every time you do one mitzvah you bring redemption one step closer. This, too, resonates with the American spirit.

So, Chabad wasn't going to chastise you for not doing enough. As they put it, "The rest of the Orthodox world are God's policemen. We are God's salesmen. We are selling to Jews something they already have on the shelf but have forgotten about."

America has always been a much more religious society than any of the societies in Europe. Chabad has ridden that wave, and contributed to it: Judaism since the War has been publically displayed in the streets of America. It was Chabad who set up the first public menorahs. Now there are more than eleven thousand menorahs set up by Chabad across America.

In many cities the establishment took Chabad to court for doing this. Now the opposition comes from the ACLU. Yet despite that, "I fight them on legal grounds but I love to take my kids to look at them."

Chabad are supported financially by overwhelming Reform and unaffiliated and Consrevative Jews. Not the Orthodox: they don't do outreach to Orthodox Jews. So why is it that Reform etc Jews start going to and giving money to Chabad? And what can the rest of the American Jewish world learn from why people are flocking to Chabad?

The speaker set out to discover this, using her contacts from ten years earlier, when she had been a reporter for the Jerusalem Post, to gain access to the first family, and then using them as contacts for subsequent contacts. Nobody amongst the people she spoke to knew what she was going to write, but she said she was "not there to judge, but to hear your story, why you appeal to so many American Jews."

Twelve years ago she went to Washington DC, to the שָׁלִיחַ's learning lunch for the politicians there. The day she was there they were studying the passage in אָבוֹת about what to do when your government tells you to do something you find morally repugnant. The idea was not to impose Jewish law upo the American public, but that you should be morally holistic: to have the same values whichever domain you are in.

She went to Alaska, which was almost the opposite. There are 5000 Jews in the entire state, half in Anchorage. There's one Reform community who have a rabbi half the time. She went with R. Greenberg, the שָׁלִיחַ, and took a 'plane out into the forest to teach a fourteen-year-old pre-barmitzvah boy, the child of two hippies who'd gotten away from it all and suddenly decided it would be nice to have a barmitzvah.

So this rabbi, who was terrified of flying, went out every week and taught the boy for free, and the family paid it back on their own time and terms because they felt they had got something of value: they felt connected to Judaism again.

That's the way they work across America. They don't solicit money based on guilt. They only ask men for money [audience reaction: this is not the case in Europe or the Former Soviet Union], and they only ask machers.

She went to Salt Lake City. Because there were no observant Jews in the state before they had come. The Mormon Church adores them—believing Christians of any kind are much more comfortable with Jews who look like their conception of what Jews are supposed to be. Also they call Salt Lake City the City of Zion, and have built their Temple, and have sacred undergarments—it's all heavily patterned on Judaism.

The constant energy that drives them they say is the rebbe, and she says is from a movement on the upswing.

Though she does most of her work in the United States, she couldn't not go to Bangkok for the wildest Pesach seder she could ever have believed. Kathmandu was the first seder in the Far East. Two yeshiva bochurs in Melbourne read about how Israelis were doing gap years in the Far East, and they thought: what a great place to do outreach. So they went and knocked on the door of the Israeli embassy, [and explained the situation to them, concluding with] "and we're going to do a Pesach seder on your lawn—by the way, you're invited."

There were over 2000 people at the Kathmandu seder at its height in the nineties. (There are now six or seven hundred people, as there are seders all over the Far East now.) From Kathmandu the phenomenon spread to other countries. They have 2000 people turning up in Peru; they even have a seder in Antarctica.

A number of yeshiva bochurs came from NY to help the rabbis run their operation. You were supposed to buy your ticket in advance, it was £3, nominally, to give them control. But they did not turn away people who did not have one.

And there the speaker was with young Israelis who at home would never have set foot in a synagogue, never come face to face with a man with a black hat and a beard. But here they were in a foreign country, and they'd been to Hindu temples, and here's a touch from home. And here they were singing Yiddish songs and eating gefilte fish and chatting away with religious people.

The people who started this weren't thinking about making peace between חִילוֹנִים and דָתִיִים, but after thirty years of this, is it a coincidence that so many secular Israelis now are opening up to Torah study and exploration of their Jewish identity? (The growth of the Reform and Masorti movements in Israel also has something to do with this.)

No one teaches the Lubavitch how to raise money. There's no school to train them in this; they're just thrown out on their own. Until the mid-eighties the Rebbe would say, "hmm, I think you should go here". After that, until his stroke he would answer letters in which they made suggestions. After that, there was no more direction from above. You'd come up with your own idea, and suggest it to the שָׁלִיחַ in charge of that country or city. The only criterion was that there were a minimum of a thousand Jews in that city, or state in the United States.

They would circle the houses where the Jews lived [on a map] to decide where to have their first house, so they could be within walking distance [on Shabbos].

Young שָׁלִיחַ couples would have a salary for the first year to set them on their way. But after the death of the Rebbe, they would get nothing unless they were in the FSU or a university campus: You'd need to go pavement pounding to raise the money yourself.

Every year maybe a dozen Chabad houses fail, but the vast majority are able to do this with what has become a decentralised infrastructure—each country's Chabad is largely autonomous.

So, why do Jews come to Chabad? There were about four major reasons.

First: the joy and passion that people experienced at Chabad services. This was a real eye-opener for USAn Jews, because the Jewish community has largely patterned itself after the dominant Protestant religion—but that's not the way Judaism was practised in the old country. Something reverberated in the gut of American Jewry. Judaism is not a religion of the head only; it's something for the whole body, including the heart.

Secondly, because there's such a low level of religious knowledge in America, Jewish men and women with rudimentary knowledge who wanted to know a little more, were castigated for not knowing enough if they set foot in an Orthodox synagogue, and if they went to a Reform synagogue, they felt they weren't doing enough. Chabad would be welcoming and non-judgemental, and even the children would go out of their way to teach people: not "Do you know how to light the Shabbos candles?", but "Come, let's [whatever].".

Also ,they are free—hence, a low barrier to entry. This angers the rest of the Jewish world: Everyone else is asking for money, and here's Chabad offering to do barmitzvahs for free, This has affected how the rest of the Jewish world do their business.

Lastly, the Lubavitch seem to actualise the values people learned in Cheder but never put into practice: welcoming a stranger into their house. When someone moves into town, they get a 'phone call from the rebbetzin inviting them for Shabbos dinner. Visiting the sick: Americans have a fear of illness and dying, and this is something they leave to the professionals. If someone has trouble, people think: leave them, they might not want to be bothered. Chabad say no, let's go and visit and help them.

American Jews had forgotten how to be a mensch.

What about the future?

It's now twenty years since the Rebbe passed on. There is not going to be a new Rebbe; if that was going to happen it would have happened soon after his death. But everything he said is now on DVD and in print. Now young American Jews are growing up with his image. But can people be as inspired by his image as by his personality at his farbrengens at 770 [Eastern Parkway, Crown Heights, Brooklyn]?

Chabad appear now to be transforming into a denomination in their own right. They have become part of the American Jewish mainstream; that was unimaginable even twenty years ago when the Rebbe died, when they were still seen as marginal. Whether they become a mainstream denomination with admittedly some emphasis on outreach remains to be seen

Audience questions

Who's in charge now? No one. Upstairs at 770 almost no one works out of the old Chabad HQ office. Downstairs, where the synagogue is, there's meshichists and Israelis and they're constantly involved in legal disputes with each other.

There's Agudas Chasidei Chabad, eleven rabbis who ajudicate, but only about spats between different branches of Chabad.

Who's in charge elsewhere? The head rabbi, who's the first to get to a State of the USA, or a Province of Canada, or a country.

Messianists: In 2003 when the speaker wrote her book, messianism was at its nadir: If you wanted to be sent somewhere as a שָׁלִיחַ, you could not be a messianist. But that office has now lost its power. But there is a cultural/class split: there are no intermarriages between the two. The elite are one end of the meshichist spectrum; it's the Amcha (?) who are the meshichists. But they don't say it's impossible for the rebbe to be Moshiach, because who can say who is going to be Moshiach?

Every Lubavitcher is somewhere on the spectrum. That said, there are cities where the rabbis in charge are more or less of a meshichist, and therefore that city tends to develop in that direction.

Audience question: Who do they go for religious questions? Everyone has his or her מַשְגִיחַ that they go to throughout their life. It's a peer mentor, but someone more experienced by them. The Agudas do set policy, but it's not enforceable. But people are shaped by the yeshiva where they learned. There is no one person to pasken on the rebbe's decisions.

[In response to a question of mine (on a slightly different subject):] In the States there are very few Lubavitch rabbis serving as pulpit rabbis of Modern Orthodox communities as is the case here. When the rebbe was alive, he strongly discouraged his rabbis from going into cities where there was a functioning Orthodox community. Now he is gone, that may no longer be the case.

[Audience question:] To what extent do you see the rise of the Lubavitch paralleling the rise of evangelicals amongst the Christian community? Answer: In both cases, the mainstream has been declining, and New Age, or Chabad, or (other) outreach communities risen. This is across all the denominations in all the religious communities.

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