Recently, my daughter Shaina got engaged to a young Chabad activist who works with at-risk Orthodox youth. His students came in droves to the engagement party. They sang and danced, serenading him with beautiful and heartfelt melodies. I have been part of Chabad since I was a boy. Still, I was in awe.
What is it about this movement that it’s able to touch so many Jewish lives and inspire such deep Jewish commitment? A few nights later I was at the global Chabad Shluchim Conference dinner in Bayonne, New Jersey, where approximately 4,000 Chabad rabbis from all over the world gathered. The dinner begins with a roll-call of emissaries from across the globe. From Angola to Uganda to Vietnam to Washington State, Chabad is there.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that Chabad’s global network probably dwarfs that of the United States government, which cannot possibly operate as many embassies worldwide as Chabad. In Russia there are 400 Chabad emissaries. In France, more than 200. In Thailand, 10.
And what is its secret? There is no Jewish movement on earth drawing as much talent as Chabad, which puts its Shluchim on the highest social pedestal, ahead of bankers, politicians and athletes. At the top of the Chabad pedestal is not money but religious commitment, not political power but spiritual purpose, not Silicon Valley billions but synagogue prayer and study.
Every social group determines where its talent is channeled by what it chooses to respect. So, if American society respects billionaire tech entrepreneurs, then its smartest people will go into tech. If it respects acting, then its best talent will go to Hollywood. If it worships the body then its best talent will dedicate themselves to sport. In Chabad, shaliach-emissary is easily the most respected profession. So its best and its brightest ship themselves off to South Africa and Australia to spread Judaism.
If modern orthodoxy puts its rabbis on the highest rung of the social ladder then they too would draw the best talent to Jewish leadership.
An unapologetic and uncompromising passion for Judaism and all that it represents is the hallmark of Chabad.
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The movement refuses to make any compromises whatsoever on Jewish observance, Jewish law, or Jewish thought.
And its stalwart commitment shows in everything it does.
Elsewhere, I have written about my decision to join Chabad at an early age. I was a child of divorce searching for meaning and rootedness. And what did Chabad give me? More than anything Chabad made me feel like my life mattered. In a private audience the Rebbe (Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson) told me I was born for great things. It was not a message reserved for me but rather one that permeated his interaction with all whom me met.
The Rebbe made me feel that I was part of an eternal people who had vastly contributed to the dissemination of God’s light in an otherwise dark universe. But through persecutions and holocausts, acculturation and intermarriage, materialism and ignorance, the Jewish people were now endangered.
The Rebbe was determined to breathe new life into this imperiled nation. And he weaponized his small hassidic movement to become an arsenal against assimilation. He beckoned me to join him as an agent of Jewish renewal.
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 my wife and I were his emissaries at Oxford, building Jewish life at an ancient university.
I knew in my bones that Chabad would continue to spread until it took over the Jewish world. Why? Because of the grandness of their vision and the passion with which they executed their mission. Other Jewish organizations sought to educate the people about their tradition, but Chabad sought to raise the earth’s inhabitants to a higher God-consciousness and to make Judaism the driving force in every decision of daily life.
Chabad is no longer a Jewish movement. It is Judaism.
Even those who were once critics now travel to Caribbean island vacations and are blown away that they can pray with a minyan and get kosher food because of Chabad.
No other organization even comes close to its global reach and grassroots impact.
And it is growing exponentially.
At the conference they announced the 100th country where Chabad has now opened. No doubt, with its staggering birthrate and about half of all its members dedicating themselves to a lifelong posting, by the year 2020 Chabad will be fielding more than 15,000 emissaries in nearly all the world’s 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.
Not long ago the Jewish people were made to believe that if they were to succeed in the modern world they would have to make accommodations with strict adherence to tradition. Scraggly beards would have to be shaved. Large families would have to give way to two kids and a dog. Names like Elazar and Tova would have change to Leo and Tiffany. Yeshiva and smicha (rabbinical ordination) would have to be forfeited in favor of Wharton and a masters degree. Even Orthodox Jews embraced this vision, if not in the name of progress than at least in the name of survival.
And yet, the movement that has superseded them all is the one which insisted that Judaism is so potent that the world must bend to accommodate the Jewish people rather than the reverse.
And now, with so much of the Jewish world already covered by its emissaries, what is the future for Chabad? Surely it lies in transcending Jewish insularity and embracing the Rebbe’s vision of influencing the non-Jewish world with the light of Jewish values and the blessing of Jewish teachings.
The author is the international best-selling author of 31 books, most recently The Israel Warrior. The winner of the London Times Preacher of the Year Award, he has been called by Newsweek “the most famous rabbi in America” and named by The Jerusalem Post as one of the 50 most influential Jews in the world. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.
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