The white truck was parked on 49th Street just west of Fifth Avenue. As I peered into it I saw a young bearded man putting phylacteries on another young man. Just then, I heard a voice asking me if I was Jewish. I turned to see yet another young man. When I replied “Yes,” he asked if I would like to learn how to light Shabbat candles. “Thank you” I said, “but I know how.” We both nodded and I continued walking to 5th Avenue to catch a cab to NYU.
That was my first encounter with a mitzvah tank—a vehicle used by Chabad members involved in outreach as a portable “educational and outreach center” and “mini-synagogue” (or “minagogue”). Commonly used for advancing Mitzvah campaigns, mitzvah tanks have been commonplace on the streets of New York City since 1974. Today, they are used wherever Chabad is active. And Chabad is very active.
In 1951, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, became the seventh and last Lubavitcher rebbe, and transformed it from a small Chasidic movement into the largest and most widespread Jewish movement in the world today. The Chabad movement represents an intellectual-mystical school of thought established and led by a dynasty of Chasidic rebbes. Few understood the immense scope of Rabbi Schneerson’s vision. Those who did thought the goal difficult, if not impossible, to attain.
He initiated a movement to what has become known as shlichus (“serving as an emissary [performing outreach]”). As a result, Chabad shluchim (“emissaries”) have moved all over the world to assist Jews with all their religious needs, as well as with physical assistance and spiritual guidance and teaching. The goal is to encourage Jews to learn more about their Jewish heritage and to practice Judaism.
Typically, a young Lubavitch rabbi and his wife, in their early twenties, will move to a new location, and as they settle in will raise a large family. This family unit will aim to fulfill their mandate of bringing Jewish people closer to Judaism and encouraging non-Jews to adhere to the Seven Laws of Noah.
The Rebbe established a network of more than 3,600 institutions that provide religious, social and humanitarian needs in over 1,000 cities, spanning 80 countries and 49 of the 50 American states. Chabad provides outreach to unaffiliated Jews and humanitarian aid, as well as religious, cultural and educational activities at Chabad-run community centers, synagogues, schools, camps and soup kitchens. When the Rebbe passed in 1994, there were 1,032 shluchim; today there are over 4,200. The growth of the movement and its impact on the Jewish community worldwide is the focus of Rabbi David Eliezrie’s book “The Secret of Chabad.”
Because of its outreach to all Jews, including those quite alienated from religious Jewish tradition, Chabad has been described as the one Orthodox group to evoke great affection from large segments of American Jewry. Considered one of the most influential movements in modern Judaism, writers have speculated for decades about the unparalleled success of Chabad Lubavitch. Eliezrie attempts to provide the answer.
Eliezrie who attended rabbinical school in Israel and completed his studies in Brooklyn, founded the Chabad House Jewish Student Center at the University of Miami and served as a chaplain at the school. He came to North Orange County with his wife Stella twenty years ago and started the Chabad Center in Anaheim. They moved the center to Yorba Linda in 1988 and purchased the present campus and founded Congregation Beth Meir HaCohen.
Today, Eliezrie is the president of the Rabbinical Council of Orange County and Long Beach. He serves on the board of the Jewish Federation of Orange County. He also serves as Chabad’s National laison to Jewish Federations of North America as well as being involved in Chabad national affairs as a member of the Internet Commission of Lubavitch World Headquarters, the Advisory Committee of the Jewish Learning Institute, the Coordinating Committee of the National Jewish Retreat and the International Conference of Shluchim.
“I began writing the book ten years ago with the intention of explaining what Chabad is about,” said Eliezrie. “I felt that the centrality of the role of Chabad in the renaissance of modern Jewish life was not properly understood.” As an insider he felt he needed to find the ability to step back and take a balanced perspective of Chabad.
“There was a great deal of self-reflection in the process of writing this book,” admitted Eliezrie. While originally he wanted to change the perception people have of Chabad, he found perhaps the real story was how and why Chabad has been so successful. This, “the largest growth in the Jewish community,” is something many in that community want to understand.
After over 200 interviews, Eliezrie provides an inside view of Chabad’s growth by weaving together personal stories with history and philosophical insight. He includes a number of interviews with shluchim and Chabad leaders from across the globe who share their challenging experiences and heart-warming successes.
Eliezrie also addresses the struggle with modernity. While other Chasidic sects chose to insulate from the modern world, Chabad chose a different path. In what he calls, “principled engagement,” three precepts of the Rebbe are closely adhered to: love of G-d, love of Torah and love of the fellow Jew—at whatever level of observance he or she might be. Chabad chose a new approach to how Jews should relate to each other. That meant interacting with the modern world while maintaining the core principles of orthodox halachic Judaism. “Much more challenging,” said Eliezrie. But much more rewarding; it enables Chabad to reach out to all Jews, affiliated or not, in the larger community.
“We have reached lots of people in an incremental way,” said Eliezrie. “While very few Jews become Chasidic, they may move toward higher observance. We encourage Jews to strengthen their Jewishness and we are there to motivate that development.”
Perhaps very significant is how the shluchim work. Once a young rabbi and his wife arrive in their town or city—usually a small concentrated area—they work to determine what the Jewish community really needs. Is it a shul, a school, a senior or college center? Then they create it! It is highly focused on the individual needs of that particular community.
One finds Chabad houses across the globe, in friendly and not so friendly communities. Interestingly, it is the strongest Jewish movement in Russia. “With the fall of the Soviet Union,” Eliezrie writes, “Judaism would emerge from the shadows. Chabad would take the lead in building from the bottom up.” In fact, in 2013 thousands attended the opening of the Chabad Synagogue in Novisibisk, the capital of Siberia.
When the Pew study of American Jews was released Eliezrie was one of several Chabad rabbis who claimed that the lack of questions about Chabad in this study was a grave mistake. “The study,” he wrote, “ignores the fastest growing segment of the Jewish community, Chabad.”
Eliezrie believes that “American, and for that matter, world Jewry is headed in two opposite directions. Sadly, on one side there are serious effects of assimilation, yet on the other side the Jewish community is becoming more connected to tradition.” He believes that Chabad is the primary locomotive of that shift.
“Many in all segments of the community are deeply impressed by the success of Chabad,” said Eliezrie. “I am hoping that Jews of all backgrounds and affiliations can learn from the Chabad story.”
Florence L. Dann, a fourth year rabbinical student at the Academy for Jewish Religion in LA has been a contributing writer to Jlife since 2004.