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Judaism's Thriving Concern

Chabad-Lubavitch is a successful, inviting branch of the faith with worldwide reach. But the issue of a Messiah is no small matter.

June 22, 2004|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.

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.

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