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Thriving Sect Sends Emissaries Abroad

In a branch of Hasidism, rabbi-and-wife teams proselytize. Some call the movement extreme.

September 11, 2006|William Lobdell | Times Staff Writer

David Eliezrie is a rabbi -- the head of a Yorba Linda synagogue. One of his sons is a rabbi, and two of Eliezrie's daughters married rabbis.

The three children are schluchim, or members of rabbi-and-wife emissary teams sent around the world under the Chabad-Lubavitch banner, a small, growing and controversial Hasidic branch of Judaism.

In an era where some denominations -- Roman Catholicism, for example -- have left pulpits empty because of clergy shortages, the offspring of Chabad rabbis are following in their parents' footsteps in such numbers that a surplus of about 200 new rabbis and their wives are now staged in Brooklyn, awaiting assignments around the world, Lubavitch officials said.

To become an emissary is "like getting into Harvard, only better," said Naomi Blesofsky, 24, one of David Eliezrie's daughters. "To live this life gives you purpose and is an honor in our community."

In California, a remarkable 67% of the Chabad rabbis' married children have become emissaries -- rabbis or wives of clergy -- according to the movement.

Nine more children are in their final stages of becoming schluchim, giving California 100 emissaries who have followed their parents' calling. Those schluchim -- pronounced sh-LOOK-um -- come from 25 families.

Chabad doesn't keep national or international statistics on the phenomenon, but officials said California's percentage reflects what's happened elsewhere.

It's unclear how many second-generation rabbis are produced, on average, within other Jewish traditions, but experts agree that the percentage is far below Chabad's.

Lubavitchers say their success in attracting new emissaries from rabbi-led families confirms the authenticity of Chabad's belief that its highest calling is to help other Jews.

Chabad critics say the statistics are evidence that the movement is clannish, with an unhealthy devotion to its late leader, viewed by some as the Messiah, and with overly aggressive tactics.

"They have this sense of manifest destiny to promulgate, to proselytize, to spread the word everywhere, every day, throughout the world," said Stephen G. Bloom, a University of Iowa journalism professor. His best-selling book, "Postville," chronicled the clash of cultures between residents of a small Iowa town and Lubavitchers who moved to the Midwest to operate a kosher slaughterhouse.

"For them, this is a deadly serious holy war," he added.

Gary Rosenblatt, the editor and publisher of Jewish Week, said that although he had "bones to pick with Chabad," he saw the large percentage of children who become schluchim as honorable.

"The highest value in their culture is for their kids to become schluchim and dedicate themselves to go anywhere in the world, sometimes for a lifetime," he said.

Yehoshua Eliezrie, one of David Eliezrie's sons, said his father's passion for reaching Jews in unlikely places inspired his own spiritual journey.

Yehoshua Eliezrie, 26, was 10 when he overheard his father arguing with a visiting Los Angeles rabbi who couldn't understand why David Eliezrie would try to establish a synagogue in Yorba Linda, best known as the birthplace of Richard M. Nixon.

"What are you doing here?" the visiting rabbi chided him as they walked home from a sparsely attended Friday evening service. "Nothing's going to happen. You're wasting life."

Young Yehoshua was devastated, but then inspired.

"My father started to argue with him right there," he said. "He had a vision of what he wanted to do, the Jewish people here he wanted to help, and he wouldn't let anyone talk him out of it."

Chabad, a Hebrew acronym for wisdom, understanding and knowledge, took root in the late 18th century in the then-Russian city of Lubavitch. It is a form of Hasidic Judaism characterized by mystical piety, the embrace of Jews unschooled in the faith, and devotion to a leader, the rebbe.

To the public, Lubavitchers are best known for their rabbis, who wear long beards, black suits and fedoras, and their annual telethon. This year, the show aired Sunday with appearances by James Caan, Elliott Gould, Regis Philbin, Jon Voight and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

In 1940, the movement's leaders fled Nazi Europe and moved Chabad's headquarters to the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn.

Unlike other Hasidic groups, which often advise members to isolate themselves from the temptations of the world, Chabad emphasizes outreach to nonreligious Jews.

The last rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, who died in 1994, said there was no higher calling.

"A Jew may say to you, 'Why can't you leave me alone?' " Schneerson told his followers. " 'Why can't you just go and do your thing and let me do mine? What does it bother you if I drill this little hole in my little boat?'

"You must answer him, 'There is only one boat, and we are all in it together.' "

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