No Holds Barred: An outsider comes home

Chabad is no longer merely a Jewish movement. It is Judaism

November 8, 2010 22:57
Chabad House

Chabad House 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

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.

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 ambassadors.

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 purpose.

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 life.

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 countries.

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 leader.

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.

Indeed, 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.

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