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Judaism's Thriving Concern
Yahoo! News - Judaism's Thriving Concern Welcome, Guest Personalize News Home Page - Sign In Yahoo! News Tue, Jun 22, 2004 Search for Advanced News Home Top Stories Crimes and Trials Most Popular U.S. National Business World Entertainment Sports Technology Politics Science Health Oddly Enough Op/Ed Local Comics News Photos Most Popular Weather Audio/Video Full Coverage News Resources Providers · AP · Reuters · AFP · washingtonpost.com · USATODAY.com · Los Angeles Times · Chicago Tribune · U.S. News & World Report · NPR · Reuters Features · AFP Features · News Alerts News via RSS Top Stories - Los Angeles TimesJudaism's Thriving Concern1 hour, 39 minutes ago Add Top Stories - Los Angeles Times to My Yahoo!
By William Lobdell Times Staff Writer
If the non-Jewish public is even vaguely aware of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, it's probably because its annual telethon draws celebrities including Adam Sandler, Michael Douglas, James Caan, Whoopi Goldberg and Anthony Hopkins.
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But within the Jewish world, this small branch of Judaism is generating outsized levels of interest — and concern.
On the one hand, Chabad — with its rigorous observance of Jewish law and rabbis in long beards and wide-brimmed black hats — has become an island of growth, innovation and success at a time of aging synagogue memberships and stagnant population elsewhere among American Jews.
On the other hand, there's the matter of the Messiah.
Today thousands of Chabad faithful are expected to gather in Queens, N.Y., at the grave of Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson to mark the 10th anniversary of his death. Among them will be a fair number who believe Schneerson is soon to be resurrected.
Such passion might be ignored by mainstream Jewish leaders if it were not for the remarkable efforts of the Brooklyn-based Lubavitchers to foster Judaism worldwide. Last spring, they held Passover seders for travelers and locals in Katmandu, Nepal (1,800 guests); Cuzco, Peru (800 guests); and more than 200 cities in the former Soviet Union, Chabad officials say.
About 4,000 rabbis and their families now serve lifetime assignments in 2,700 posts in 61 countries. The number has roughly doubled in 10 years, Chabad statistics show.
Chabad's fundraisers, including the widely publicized West Coast telethons, bring in about $800 million annually. Around the world, $100 million worth of projects are under construction, with a new Chabad center opening somewhere every 10 days, movement officials say.
The projects include 45 Chabad centers on American college campuses by 2005; a $19-million, 27-acre campus with a school and synagogue in Scripps Ranch in San Diego County; and a recently opened $15-million, 77,000-square-foot facility on Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles that houses a girls' preschool, elementary school and junior high.
"I disagree with Chabad about practically everything," Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, leader of the liberal Reform Jewish movement, said in a speech last year. "But I envy the selflessness of their young men and women who fan out across the world to serve Jewish communities in distress. We must foster among our members the same sense of mission and spirit of service to the Jewish people."
Others rue the spread of Lubavitch influence.
"The Jewish community is becoming deeply dependent on them for religious services and ceremonies, education and social services," said David Berger, an Orthodox rabbi and a history professor at Brooklyn College who has written a book on Chabad. "It's a clear and present danger to Judaism."
The prime issue for Berger and Chabad's other critics is the belief by some Lubavitchers that Schneerson — the movement's last leader, who died in 1994 at age 92 — is the Messiah long foretold in Hebrew Scriptures.
Chabad's leaders officially reject that doctrine and insist it is fading in their ranks. Still, within the movement others fervently embrace it. And outside Chabad, some Jews fear that the organization's growth and vibrancy are merely cover for a sect they see as undermining traditional Jewish beliefs.
Chabad, a Hebrew acronym for wisdom, understanding and knowledge, took root in the late 18th century in the then-Russian city of Lubavitch. It's a form of Hasidic Judaism, which is characterized by its embrace of uneducated Jews, mystical and often ecstatic piety and devotion to a single leader, the rebbe.
Schneerson's father-in-law, who preceded him as rebbe, fled the Nazis and moved Chabad headquarters to Crown Heights, in Brooklyn, in 1940. Shortly after, Chabad began to emphasize reaching out to nonreligious Jews — a striking difference from other Hasidic groups, which often advise members to isolate themselves from the temptations of the world.
The idea was to patiently and nonjudgmentally lead Jews back to Orthodoxy one small step at a time — attending a Sabbath service, lighting candles Friday night, listening to a lecture from a Jewish speaker.
"When a Jew alienates himself from his people, God forbid, it is only because he is thirsty," Schneerson once said. "His soul thirsts for meaning in life, but the waters of Torah have eluded him. So he wanders about in foreign domains, seeking to quench his thirst.
"Only a shepherd who hastens not to judge the runaway kid, who is sensitive to the causes of its desertion, can mercifully lift it into his arms and bring it back home."
The charisma of Schneerson's leadership was such that in the final years of his four decades of leadership, increasing numbers of Lubavitchers believed the rebbe had the potential to be moshiach, the Messiah.
Messianism — the belief that God will choose a person to redeem the world — has been a central element of Jewish belief for 2,500 years. Among many liberal Jews today, the idea has become muted or transformed into the belief that Jews collectively should work to repair the world's ills. But among traditional believers, the imminent coming of the Messiah remains a powerful hope.
From time to time through the centuries, groups of Jews have fastened those hopes on an individual. Two millenniums ago, the followers of Jesus of Nazareth founded the Christian church based on that belief.
When Schneerson died, many expected the whispers that he was "the one" would dissipate: Traditional Judaism holds that the Messiah would be a living person.
Though the belief has waned since the rebbe's death, some believers in Schneerson adopted an idea associated with Jesus: resurrection.
On the streets around Chabad's headquarters, signs of belief in Schneerson's resurrection are highly visible — to the chagrin of many Lubavitch leaders.
Signs on storefronts proclaim Schneerson as moshiach. A small blimp flying above a Sunday neighborhood parade recently featured a picture of Schneerson with the words "Moshiach is ready, are you?"
Lubavitchers ride New York subways with posters under their arms proclaiming the rebbe as king. Some attribute miracles to him.
The messianists believe Jews can prepare the way for Schneerson's return by observing the Bible's commands and performing good deeds that will lift the state of the world.
In the synagogue in the basement of Chabad's headquarters, a group of students, mostly from Israel, pray for and await the rebbe's return. Other Lubavitchers have nicknamed the students "the Taliban" for their rigid belief. "It doesn't take an Einstein to figure out the rebbe is the Messiah," said a 22-year-old student who asked not to be named. He said the belief is held by nearly all in the movement, whether publicly or privately.
Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, a key Chabad administrator and former Schneerson secretary, said talk of the rebbe as the Messiah is "nonsense." He won't attend services at the basement synagogue because of the messianic contingent, he said.
Another rabbi said he tried to take down a messianic banner in the synagogue one morning but was hit by one of the students.
Leaders find it difficult to explain to outsiders why, if they reject the messianic belief, they have not taken aggressive action to root it out.
Some say they don't want to trigger a bitter civil war. Others say they want to follow the rebbe's teachings and not stand in judgment of another Jew.
Many Chabad leaders who worked with Schneerson acknowledge that they once believed he had the potential to be a Messiah, but that hope ended with his death.
The leaders said they did not name a new rebbe because no candidate appeared to match Schneerson's magnetism and depth. The movement is now headed by a council.
Critics see another possibility: A new rebbe would undermine the messianic attachment to Schneerson.
"This is the dominant aspiration," said Jacob Neusner, a professor and senior fellow at Bard College's Institute of Advanced Theology in New York.
Some critics say the movement's success has caused thousands of Jews who support Chabad or attend its programs to unwittingly donate money and energy to an effort that is akin to a dangerous cult.
The belief in a resurrected Messiah could distort Judaism "profoundly and perhaps permanently," said Berger, the Orthodox rabbi and history professor.
Supporters of Chabad dismiss such talk. "In our area, it's a nonexistent issue," said Jeffrey Lee Cohen, a 48-year-old real estate investor who has attended the Chabad Shul Potomac in Maryland for 16 years.
Rabbi Mark Miller, who runs a Reform synagogue in Newport Beach, has enrolled two of his children in a Chabad day school. He said guilt animates Chabad's critics. They "see Chabad and Orthodoxy in general as fidelity to ways of the past that many people had broken with. And that weighs upon them."
Those who support Chabad without joining the organization praise its success in touching people's lives.
George Rohr, a New York investment manager, gives an estimated $12 million a year to Chabad projects around the world.
"Where were we going to get the biggest bang for the buck?" Rohr asked. "The track record of Chabad in terms of bringing the light of Judaism and the warmth of Torah around the world is unparalleled."
In keeping with Schneerson's ideas, Jews exploring their faith in Chabad centers don't have to accept all — or any — of the group's Orthodox practices. They need not join a synagogue or pay dues.
"I was adamantly against going" to Chabad, said Melissa Breiter, a 39-year-old mother of three who attends Congregation Beth Meir HaCohen-Chabad Center of Yorba Linda.
Her parents were Reform Jews whom she describes as anti-Orthodox. But Chabad, she said, is "Judaism at its heart — what it should be."
In Aspen, Colo., Rabbi Mendel Mintz, a Chabad emissary, said his center attracts 30 to 50 worshippers in peak seasons.
But Chabad recently bought an entire block on the town's Main Street for $6.3 million with contributions from Jews — mostly neither Orthodox nor Lubavitchers — who live full time or part time in Aspen.
The idea is to create a 16,000-square-foot center for the town's Jews to attend services, enroll their children in the preschool or take Mommy and Me classes.
"I feel very honored and blessed that I'm part of the rebbe's army to reach out to every Jew no matter their level of observance," said Mintz, who began Chabad in Aspen five years ago. "It's been really miraculous."Story Tools
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