Emissaries of God

An illuminating look at the far-flung worlds of Chabad ‘shluhim.’

Chabad Rabbis Shmuel Segal and Yehuda Teichtal light Hanukka candles in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin in 2012 (photo credit: THOMAS PETER/REUTERS)
Chabad Rabbis Shmuel Segal and Yehuda Teichtal light Hanukka candles in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin in 2012
(photo credit: THOMAS PETER/REUTERS)
 The Jewish publishing world seems to be going through a Lubavitch stage. In May 2014, Maggid Press published My Rebbe, by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, all about his personal relationship with the Lubavitcher rebbe.
Then in June 2014, Rebbe: The Life and Teachings of Menachem M. Schneerson, the Most Influential Rabbi in Modern History, by Joseph Telushkin, was published.
And now, Toby Press has just published The Secret of Chabad: Inside the World’s Most Successful Jewish Movement, by David Eliezrie.
The secret of Chabad turns out to be its shluhim – those Jewish emissaries of the rebbe who set up camp in sometimes exotic, sometimes pedestrian settings, in order to serve the Jewish people there. According to Eliezrie, there are 4,000 shluhim posted in over 80 countries today.
If you’re looking for a chronological story line, you won’t find it here. Eliezrie wrote themed chapters that jump back and forth through time. His opening chapter is a powerful one that tells the story of Gabi and Rivkie Holtzberg, who were murdered in their Chabad House in Mumbai in 2008. Eliezrie’s retelling includes insider details that you likely haven’t heard before.
The Secret of Chabad is a companion to books that focus on Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the last Lubavitcher rebbe, helping to round out the story of Chabad, and the rebbe’s influence is felt throughout the book. On the occasion of the rebbe’s 70th birthday, discussed in “Chapter Six: The Birthday Present,” the rebbe began empowering young people to dramatically increase the number of shluhim doing their work throughout the world.
What would make a young Chabad rabbi and his wife agree to leave Brooklyn and go to live in a remote locale, far from the familiarity of an Orthodox community? According to Eliezrie, “The Rebbe’s approach was one of personal empowerment, to foster the creativity and abilities inherent in each person. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks describes the rebbe’s approach to building Jewish leaders: ‘He could find in each individual the unique contribution that the individual could make to the totality of the Jewish people.’” In a nutshell, the rebbe empowered young people to use every bit of ingenuity they possess to make a difference in the lives of Jews. “Chapter Four: The Great Escape” introduces the first shaliah, Rabbi Michoel Lipsker, who was sent to North Africa in 1950. In addition to telling Lipsker’s story, the tasks of shluhim are revealed in this chapter.
Contrary to popular belief, shluhim are not supported by Lubavitch headquarters in Crown Heights. Every Chabad House, and every family of shluhim, is self-funded. Shluhim have to raise the money necessary to serve the communities to which they are assigned.
They are charged with building synagogues and schools and drawing in the local non-Orthodox Jews. That costs money.
In addition, shluhim have to deal with community politics. It’s no understatement to say that Chabad shluhim are not always welcome in the communities to which they are sent, especially if there is already an existing Jewish infrastructure. In “Chapter Seven: The Menorah Wars,” Eliezrie recounts not just the opposition Chabad faces from liberal Jews but also the competition between Hillel and Chabad on America’s college campuses.
One of the most fascinating chapters is “Chapter Eight: Every Shaliah Is an Entrepreneur.” Here, Eliezrie delves into what life is like for an individual shaliah. It was startling to learn that when shluhim are sent to a community, they’re there for life. Knowing that this community is their life’s work, their approach is necessarily different from a rabbi who might see a particular pulpit as a step on a career track.
Every Chabad House is its own independent franchise operation and reflects the personality, creativity and skill of its shaliah and his wife.
Shluhim answer to no board of directors.
As Eliezrie explains, “Chabad rabbis are empowered to decide and move forward, limited only by the money they can raise.”
The need to fund-raise is a crucial part of the rebbe’s vision for shluhim.
The Lubavitch way is to involve as many Jews as possible in whatever activities it undertakes. As such, every Jew who contributes to a local Lubavitch operation becomes a partner in its success.
Eliezrie, himself a veteran Chabad shaliah based in Yorba Linda, California, quotes Dr. Ron Wolfson, a wellknown author and professor of education at the American Jewish University, on the financial success of Chabad.
“Chabad is the Starbucks of Jewish outreach. Chabad collects in excess of a billion dollars annually, ranking it among the most financially successful Jewish organizations on the planet.”
“Chapter Thirteen: Balancing on the High Wire” is another especially interesting chapter. It addresses the challenge shluhim have in educating and socializing their children outside the framework of an Orthodox community.
It was disappointing that Eliezrie did not devote a chapter to the distinct experiences of the shluhos, the wives of the rabbis.
Every chapter in The Secret of Chabad is meticulously researched. The book includes quotes from hundreds of shluhim and myriad specific details, dates and events. It concludes with 79 pages of endnotes. If you’re not part of the Lubavitch world, you might find that level of specificity tedious.
However, when you focus on the bigger story this book tells, you’ll surely close the book with great admiration for the challenges Chabad shluhim take on, reaching out to Jews who are far from observance and bringing them, patiently and without coercion, a little closer.