Missionary fervor of Chabad impacts movement, world

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More than five years after his death, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson seems to be influencing more people than he ever did in life. But not in ways he might have expected.

It's ironic, perhaps. Pundits were sure Schneerson's death in June 1994 would lead to the disintegration of the Chassidic movement he led for nearly a half-century. Instead, the movement has experienced an explosive burst of growth. New Chabad-Lubavitch outreach institutions are springing up worldwide at a rate of more than 100 a year, perhaps double the rate of a decade ago.

Growth could be having an unexpected effect, though. Movement officials deny it, but an outside observer might conclude that Lubavitch's massive involvement in the world around it isn't only influencing the world anymore. It's beginning to influence Lubavitch, too.

Of the two effects, Lubavitch's impact on the world is easier to detect. The movement recently dedicated its spanking new, five-story outreach center on Embassy Row in Washington.

The festivities featured a senator, a cabinet member and various other dignitaries, all singing the praises of Lubavitch and its affable Washington representative, Rabbi Levi Shemtov. Just 31, Shemtov has made himself one of the most unlikely players in the nation's capital.

In southern Florida, Lubavitch recently announced plans for a $3.5 million, 18,000-square-foot synagogue complex in Boynton Beach, near Palm Beach. The new, um, synaplex will be located just 12 miles from an even larger, 22,000-square-foot Chabad complex that opened this year in Boca Raton. Neither community, incidentally, has any Chassidic population, other than the local Chabad rabbis and their families.

Moving east, Chabad plans to open a nursery school this fall in its newest outpost, Shanghai. The school will initially serve a dozen children of Western Jewish businessmen residing in China's commercial capital.

That's just a sample. Over the last five years, fully 511 new Chabad institutions — synagogues, schools, outreach centers — have opened around the world, bringing the worldwide total up over 2,500. That doesn't include institutions in Brooklyn's Crown Heights section, Lubavitch world headquarters.

Worldwide operating costs are estimated at $750 million a year, excluding construction.

"I don't have any rational explanation for it," says Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, the movement's caretaker administrator since Schneerson's death. "The exponential growth counters everything that the prophets of doom predicted."

The growth circles the globe from California to Hong Kong, Brazil to Belarus. Lubavitch officials invariably seek to explain it as resulting from spiritual forces in the air.

"The world today hungers for spiritual direction, more than at any other time," says Rabbi Hirsch Zarchi, 26, director of the Chabad House at Harvard University that opened two years ago. "People are reaching out. It's happening all around the world. People are turning to the teachings of Chassidism. "

Maybe so, but there's at least one other reason: the growing missionary passion sweeping young Lubavitch rabbis like Zarchi himself. Figures provided by Lubavitch officials suggest that of the 220-odd Lubavitch men ordained as rabbis each year, about half become shluchim, or outreach workers. Most take up their posts a year after ordination and marriage. The posts are considered lifelong commitments.

Schneerson's 1994 death, at first expected to weaken the zeal, appears instead to have strengthened it.

"My initial reaction was that I'm coming back to New York," says Rabbi Yosef Chaim Kantor, 30, who had been posted to Thailand in 1993. "But the next moment I thought, 'No, that's not what the rebbe taught us. This is a time to add, not take away.' The rebbe taught us to use our energy to move forward and inspire others."

Kantor has since brought two more rabbis to Bangkok.

All told, some 3,900 Lubavitch families are scattered around the world today as shluchim. Counting husbands, wives and children, that means at least 12,000 to 15,000 Lubavitch Chassidim are out in the field. Scholars estimate the total Lubavitch community at between 25,000 and 50,000. (Lubavitch doesn't keep population figures).

The math is clear. One-fourth to one-half of all Lubavitch Chassidim now live outside the cloistered framework of the traditional Chassidic community, interacting daily with non-Orthodox Jews rather than with their fellow Chassidim. Put differently, one-fourth to one-half of all Lubavitch adult males now serve as rabbis in congregations whose members mostly drive to services on Saturday.

Their impact on their neighbors hardly needs reciting. Even Chabad's harshest critics acknowledge the affection it inspires and the lives it has transformed.

"Many, many Jews will tell you that a Chabad rabbi was the first one to care, to really care, about their spiritual lives," Reform leader Rabbi Eric Yoffie said in a speech last April.

Less obvious is their neighbors' impact on them. It's subtle, but it's accumulating. Quite simply, Chabad rabbis are becoming more liberal.

The liberalism shows up in countless small gestures. Joint appearances in panel discussions with Reform and Conservative rabbis. Participation in programs inside Reform and Conservative synagogues. Encouraging Jews to observe a mitzvah even though it may entail violating another mitzvah, like driving to synagogue. Increasing adoption of modern concepts, like "empowerment of women."

All of these are longstanding trends in Lubavitch outreach work, officials note, and all derive from Schneerson's own teachings. But as long as Lubavitch was primarily a Chassidic community based in a few cloistered neighborhoods, the liberalism existed at the margins. As the balance tips toward dispersal, it's becoming the norm.

The snowballing dispersal of shluchim is changing Lubavitch Chassidism into some new hybrid, half Chassidic shtetl, half something that doesn't yet have a name, resembling nothing so much as a Jewish version of a Catholic missionary order.

Its members are as strict as ever in their personal observance of Torah law. But by ministering on a mass scale to flocks that don't observe, they are becoming, despite themselves, a force for tolerance. Slowly, Lubavitch rabbis are taking the place once occupied by modern Orthodox rabbis, as a bridge between Orthodoxy and the rest.

When Schneerson was alive, the force of his personality acted as a braking force on his followers. Moreover, his radiant warmth toward non-Orthodox Jews was balanced by his militant hostility toward non-Orthodox Judaism.

With the rebbe dead, his followers are left largely to follow their own consciences and instincts. Most claim they still obey him as closely as ever, by consulting his writings. But writings don't talk back.