Chabad House 311.
I recently attended the international Chabad emissary conference – the Kinus
Hashluchim Ha’olami – for the first time in 16 years. While I was the Rebbe’s
emissary at Oxford, I came annually. But with the split from Chabad over my
inclusion of non-Jewish students, I stopped.
A lot has changed in that
time. The man responsible for my firing was himself fired. My close friend Cory
Booker, whom I made president of our organization and who became a symbol of the
non-Jewish outreach that cost me my position in Lubavitch, has become a
political superstar and one of the most sought-after speakers in the American
Jewish community. He will be the guest of honor at next month’s Kollel Chabad
dinner. Most significantly, the Rebbe passed away a few months after the last
conference I attended.
RELATED:4,000 Chabad emissaries flock to Brooklyn In the footsteps of Joseph
So it was with some trepidation that I joined my
former colleagues at Chabad’s annual celebration of its global network of
How did it feel? Like being reborn. Like coming home and
having a central riddle in one’s life make sense again.
What motivated a
Modern Orthodox boy of eight to fall in love with a hassidic Jewish group which
in the 1970s was largely dismissed as a cult? More than anything it was this:
Chabad made me feel like my life mattered. In a private audience, the
Rebbe told me I was born for great things. I was part of an eternal people – a
people who had vastly contributed to the dissemination of God’s light in an
otherwise dark world. Through persecutions and holocausts, assimilation and
intermarriage, materialism and ignorance, that people were endangered. Now there
was a sage who lived in Brooklyn, whose English was broken but whose
determination was absolute. He would, before he died, breathe new life into a
fading nation. He beckoned me to join him.
Chabad became the passion of
my life. Defying my parents’ strong objections, I left home at 14 to be part of
the Rebbe’s dream of a global Jewish renaissance, and never looked back. A few
years later, I was his official representative at an important center of higher
education, surrounded by impressionable young minds thirsting for spiritual
I knew then in theory what I just witnessed in practice: Chabad
emissaries would one day take over the Jewish world. Why? Because of the
grandness of their vision and the passion with which they pursued their mission.
Other Jewish organizations sought to educate people about their tradition, but
Chabad sought to raise all Earth’s inhabitants to a higher God-consciousness,
and to make Judaism the driving force in every decision of daily
The passionate dedication of the Chabad emissaries was infectious.
They did not preach the Torah. Rather, it coursed through their veins, seeping
out of every pore. Hassidic teachings about the approachability of God
and the accessibility of a higher spiritual reality were grafted onto the
average Chabad activist’s very DNA, becoming an inseparable part of his or her
character and personality.
WITNESSING THE fulfillment of that promise at
the conference was an awakening. Chabad is no longer merely a Jewish movement.
It is Judaism. I find it astonishing that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu flew
in to attend the Jewish federations’ annual General Assembly but bypassed the
Chabad conference. If an Israeli prime minister wants to be part of the
unfolding of modern Jewish history, he has to address Chabad. No other
organization even comes close to its global reach or grassroots
impact. And it is growing exponentially.
When I last attended the
Chabad Shluchim conference, there were a few hundred of us from about 20
We all fit into a small ballroom. A decade and a half later,
there are 5,000 from 80 countries. No doubt, with its staggering birthrate and
about half of all its members dedicating themselves to lifelong postings, by
2020 Chabad will be fielding more than 15,000 emissaries in nearly all nations,
and will be the mainstream Jewish branch in most. In countries like France,
Russia, Australia and Britain, this has largely happened already. But even in
countries with robust and highly developed Jewish communities, like the United
States and Canada, the smart money will be on Chabad to emerge as
Of course, it is not just Chabad which has changed over the past
16 years. I have changed as well. My love for Chabad is just as deep, but I am
past my infatuation. I see flaws that need to be corrected. The leadership must
strive to be more democratic. A growing nepotism must be reversed in favor of
the meritocracy which was responsible for Chabad’s astonishing cultivation of
entrepreneurial talent. Most of all, if it is to affect the mainstream rather
than just the Jewish world, Chabad must finally overcome its Jewish insularity
and embrace the Rebbe’s vision of a global messianic awakening.
what was most missing from the gathering was the Rebbe’s tangible presence.
Chabad was never about money. Indeed, for me it was a refuge from modernity’s
corrosive materialism. Yes, a global movement with an enormous budget must honor
the heroic philanthropists who make its work possible, but this must be done in
a manner that never compromises the Rebbe’s practice of treating paupers and
billionaires as beings of equal and infinite value.
But whatever my
reservations, the electrifying spectacle more than compensates. Not long ago the
Jewish people were made to believe that if they were to succeed in the modern
world, tradition would have to be compromised. Scraggly beards would have
to be shaved off. Large families would have to give way to two kids and a dog.
Names like Elazar and Tova would have to change to Leo and Tiffany. Yeshiva and
smicha would have to be forfeited in favor of Wharton and a master’s. Even
Orthodox Jews embraced this vision, if not in the name of progress, at least in
the name of survival.
And yet the movement that has superseded them all
is that which continues to believe Judaism is so potent that the world will
slowly bend to accommodate it, rather than the reverse.The writer,
international best-selling author of 24 books, heads This World: The Values
Network, an organization dedicated to spreading universal Jewish values to heal
America. His newest book is Renewal: A Guide to the Values-Filled Life. Follow
him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.
Relevant to your professional network? Please share on Linkedin