Public menorah displays show growing acceptance of Chabad

This Chanukah, Chabad-Lubavitch plans to light more than 11,000 large public menorahs, from Bangkok to Miami Beach.

Ten years ago, the American Jewish Congress sued the city of Beverly Hills, Calif., to block the local Chabad house from erecting a 27-foot menorah in a public park near City Hall. Displaying the menorah - a Jewish religious symbol - on public property, the AJCongress argued, was unconstitutional. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the city, allowing Chabad to put up the large candelabra. A three-judge panel of the US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals later reversed the decision. When it comes to displaying menorahs in public places, what a difference a decade makes. This Chanukah, Chabad-Lubavitch plans to light more than 11,000 large public menorahs, from Bangkok to Miami Beach. Those lighting the Chanukah candles won't come strictly from the ranks of America's Chabad chasidim; leaders of Jewish organizations across the spectrum, eager to take part in the public celebration of the Festival of Lights, will also be lighting Chabad's candles. The growing acceptance of the Chabad menorahs is just one example of a broader trend: As Chabad spreads throughout the United States and the world, America's mainstream Jewish community is increasingly willing to embrace the movement, whereas in the past many Jewish organizations preferred to keep it at arms length. "I think there's less fear and more openness on the parts of both Chabad and the broader community to support all who can reach and touch Jews," says John Ruskay, executive vice president and CEO of the UJA-Federation of New York. "That translates at the moment less programmatically and more in terms of communication and tone. It will be very interesting to see how this proceeds in the future." Chabad, though, says the recent past offers some indication of how far things have come - and where they may be headed. "Chabad has not changed that much in a generation," says Rabbi Levi Shemtov, director of the Washington office of the American Friends of Lubavitch. "The organized Jewish community has gone from being indifferent or harsh to being much more welcoming." Rabbi Berel Shemtov, who has been director of Chabad-Lubavitch in Michigan for some five decades, has had front row seats to the long progression. "Fifty years ago, to build a Conservative or Reform temple, you were able to get millions of dollars. For Chabad this would not be possible," he says. "Today, Chabad is getting bigger support than the others. People realize how important Chabad is." Chabad insiders and observers cite several developments that highlight the change:
  • Jewish federations around the country are funding Chabad projects, inviting Chabad rabbis to sit on their boards and committees and including Chabad synagogues in their listings of local places to pray.
  • With each passing year, more US Chabad houses become dues-based congregations - like most mainstream Jewish congregations - running on membership payments rather than simply on donations.
  • Most Jewish groups no longer sue to prevent Chabad from erecting public menorahs.
  • Chabad continues to secure support from Jews outside the movement, even non-Orthodox Jews like Harvard law school professor Alan Dershowitz. Dershowitz said he was dubious when he heard several years ago that Chabad intended to open a center at Harvard. "My idea was: Siberia - that's nothing; Central Africa - that's a breeze. Chabad at Harvard? Impossible," Dershowitz said last month at Chabad's annual convention of emissaries in New York. "How could that ever happen? Kids come to Harvard to rebel against their parents, to rebel against religion, to look for other ways, to look for more liberal attitudes. Could Chabad possibly ever succeed at Harvard?" But succeed it has, Dershowitz says, quickly becoming a thriving center for Jewish students to meet, eat, discuss - but not necessarily to pray. This past Rosh Hashanah, Phil Kaplan and his surfing buddies attended services at a Chabad shul in Orange County, Calif. Kaplan, at 39 years old a major giver to the Jewish Federation of Orange County and the vice president of its annual campaign, is not a particularly observant Jew - but he prays with Chabad and gives them money. "It seems like a lot more of the people we know are attending services with Chabad. I'm talking about mainstream people; I barely know any Orthodox people," Kaplan says. "In my opinion, it's because Chabad is very open and accessible. Despite the fact theat the practice here is Orthodox, they make Judaism very accessible. With Chabad you can find your level and there's encouragement." Many of Chabad's new programs are being underwritten by George Rohr, a modern Orthodox businessman and philanthropist from New York. The movement says its annual budget comes in at more than $1 billion, much of it raised by emissaries in the field for their own programming. Those familiar with Chabad cite several reasons for its growing acceptance in America. First, Chabad has made extraordinary efforts to reach out to Jews of every stripe, some of whom have grown to embrace the movement. "In the market of outreach, Chabad looms large," says Samuel Heilman, a sociology professor at Queens College. Dancing rabbis on Chabad fund-raising telethons have given the movement a public face, as have the movement's mitzvah mobiles and the army of young Chabadniks who spend days out on city sidewalks asking passers-by if they'd like to put on tefillin or sit in a mobile sukkah and shake a lulav. In addition, when Chabad emissaries land in a new place, they quickly make contact with local Jewish newspapers to introduce themselves and pitch stories. Over the years, Passover and Chanukah stories about Chabad have become the norm in many such papers, introducing Jews around the country to the movement. Chabad has made efforts to gain a foothold in areas where more mainstream Jewish organizations have typically reigned, areas like college campuses. Chabad now has about 100 emissaries at US colleges and universities. The major player in Jewish campus life has long been Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life. When Chabad came on the campus scene, the two groups were often seen as rivals vying for the allegiance of the same students. But today, Chabad "is definitely being embraced by Hillel," says Avraham Infeld, Hillel's president. "Hillel has a commitment to ensure that more and more students have meaningful Jewish experiences," Infeld says. "Chabad is one of those agents on campus that provide meaningful Jewish experiences. To us they are a partner not a competitor. We don't agree ideologically on everything, but we have high respect for them and their work." Still others say that Chabad's growth has coincided with a general resurgence in the Orthodox community. "I think that Chabad and much of Orthodoxy have come of age," Heilman says. "Orthodoxy in general is much more a part of the discussion. Within that, there's been a recognition that Orthodoxy is not just one thing." Part of the reason Jewish groups were wary of Chabad was the impression that the movement was not out simply to offer Jews positive Jewish experiences, but wanted to make unobservant Jews Chabad adherents. Chabad rejects this notion, although its officials do acknowledge that they wouldn't mind if those who come in contact with them take on more Jewish rituals. Also dogging Chabad throughout the years has been strident opposition to the movement's messianist wing, whose adherents believe that Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the movement's late charismatic leader who died 11 years ago, is the messiah. The prevalence of such messianists is the subject of debate: Some Chabad opponents say that the majority of Chabad Chasidim are messianists in this vein. Top Chabad officials insist it's a dwindling minority. David Berger, a history professor at Brooklyn College, says Chabad's spread is an "acute danger to authentic Judaism." The author of The Rebbe, The Messiah and the Scandal of Orthodox Indifference, Berger says the messianism means that "some of the core beliefs of the Jewish religion have been abolished" and that the "theological distinctions between Judaism and Christianity have been erased. I consider this to be a historic catastrophe." But Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, a leading figure in the worldwide Chabad movement, dismisses such arguments, insisting that the level of messianism in Chabad is "very overstated." "It's just used by some people to confuse others," he says. Meanwhile, as Chabad begins to prepare is enormous menorahs for display, Krinsky boasts of Chabad's successes. "I think Chanukah has become one of the most widely celebrated holidays by Jews in the world today - probably singularly because of the Chabad effort," he says.