The Secret of Chabad

By

Ruth Judah

November 1st was the day the clocks went back an hour. There were also thousands of Rabbis who journeyed back in time to the values and hopes of the late Rebbe of Lubavitch. The weekend Kinnus event convened once again at Chabad-Lubavitch world headquarters, welcoming a vast gathering to the 2015 International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Emissaries. They came from near and far which was to be expected given that Chabad hosts synagogues in 86 countries. Who else would provide Jewish community support in places as distant as Jamaica, Angola and Ghana?

The Conference attendees debated issues of Jewish awareness and religious practice as it applies to a vast network of communities across the globe. The attendees visited the tomb of the Rebbe and attended lectures at the vast Bedford-Union Armory in Crown Heights. The final Gala Banquet was staged at the South Brooklyn Marine Terminal in Brooklyn, which was completely transformed for the ceremony.

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Chabad.org posted their ambitious plans, “The concrete floor, drab interior grays and steel beams have seamlessly melted away as the venue is converted into an elegant space where workshops, classes, lectures, meals, learning and more will take place for some 5,200 Chabad emissaries and guests from around the world.”

No longer is the Chabad world shielded from view. The Kinnus event allows for guests to freely participate. Meanwhile, lectures and information are constantly disseminated across the network of Chabad.org, the site which has 37 million visitors per year. This year’s extensive range of topics included, “”Better Fundraising” and ”Eight Ways to Think and Work Smarter” and “Effective Parenting.”

If you still wondered how the Chabad family has grown to such immense proportions, Rabbi David Eliezrie’s new book, The Secret of Chabad, is now widely available and explains everything, and more. Eliezrie explains the vibrant and successful model that has fueled the rise of Chabad’s largescale influence. Leadership, infrastructure, concept and management of the movement is broken down for the reader. This is a personal and detailed account of the practical elements that have paved the success of Chabad. It is an intriguing story.

Eliezrie explained that the book has been a labor of love, taking him ten years to research and write. Publishing company, The Toby Press, previously printed the award-winning, The Prime Ministers, by Yehuda Avner. Avner’s book was mesmerizing in its depiction of the drama and the dialogue of the leaders of Israel. And so it is, once again, that Toby Press has another gem. Eliezrie’s book is a sweeping tome that runs 350 pages, with an additional 80 pages of footnotes.

With the 1994 passing of the Rebbe, Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, there was talk of the Chabad network collapsing, but the legacy of the Rebbe went far beyond his personal leadership. In the four years since the Rebbe’s wife died, and until he suffered from a debilitating stroke, the Rebbe shored up the legal issues, the leadership and the infrastructure of the organization and thus propelled Judaism into the future.

Eliezrie spoke to the Jewish Home while on a trip to Israel, saying, “It’s not just that Chabad is doing the right thing, it’s a combination of many ideas that make our success. For instance, it wasn’t an easy thing to get people to become shluchim in the beginning. This was a gutsy idea. Yet, the core of Chassidic philosophy is to see the world as a good place. Other frum movements are afraid of this, but we have a sense of responsibility.”

In Israel, Eliezrie has seen first-hand the cautious Chareidi movement which has a fear of engaging in the wider world. In contrast, Chabad philosophy views the greater community as a holy obligation. “I spent the Shabbat of October 23rd with soldiers on duty in Chevron. Perhaps 40% were religious, the rest were not. Between border patrols we had Shabbat dinner and I told them that the Rebbe said it was holy and legitimate to break Shabbos in order to save the lives of Jewish people. They were overwhelmed and emotional to hear this.”

Eliezrie shares the wise words of “Rabbi Adin Even-Yisrael Steinsaltz, the famed Israeli scholar and translator of the Talmud into English, (who) put it into perspective in 1995 at the Living Legacy conference in Washington…he explained: “The Rebbe did not leave a legacy, he left us marching orders.”

Indeed, the shluchim have marched. The book describes the growth to date with the growth of Chabad’s relationship with leaders and politicians, both local and national, a dedication to the smallest communities and the rebirth of Russian Jewry. Meanwhile, there is a massive investment in yeshivas and Jewish schools across a breadth of communities, in more than 80 countries worldwide. A 2009 census of Jewish schools in America reported 73 Chabad schools and the number has grown. Eliezrie writes, “In European countries, 25 percent of the rabbis are Chabad.” In the footnotes he expands, “In Hungary, Chabad rabbis are 85 percent, Holland, 80 percent, Austria 50 percent, Italy 50 percent, Britain, 25 percent, France 25 percent.”

Eliezrie is certain of the future, “Chabad still has the potential for growth in so many ways, it’s unbelievable.” At the same time, he recognizes, “that shluchim are going to have to learn to create stronger partnerships with local communal institutions.” Certainly, the shluchim are supported by Crown Heights headquarters along with regional leaders who offer guidance. Fundamentally, however, each family is left to swim the deep waters of the unknown, on their own.

In the footsteps of last year’s three books about the Rebbe, Eliezrie has avoided a description of the life and magic that was the Chabad leader. He shares just two stories of prophecy, including the Rebbe’s accurate prophecy that Gorbachov’s policies of glasnost and perestroika would end the era of Russian antisemitism.

A strong theme of the book is the explanation of the path of Russian Chassidism whose, “bond to Israel goes back to the very genesis of the Chabad Movement.” Chabad was birthed as a Jewish movement that would heal the global problems of world Jewry while simultaneously educating Rabbis to the highest level. It was way back in 1778 that funding from Russian Jews created the oldest charitable organization in Israel which is still vibrant today. The Colel Chabad that was started more than 200 years ago has ballooned into a network of institutions that now provides meaningful social programs in 60 Israeli communities.

The Rebbe holding a farbrengen in the early years of his leadership, 1950's

The Rebbe holding a farbrengen in the early years of his leadership, 1950’s

This is the essence of Chabad; it is a global Jewish movement that is the product of its rigid learning of text, its spiritual learning of ancient mysticism and its understanding of the needs of Jewish people. Eliezrie explains that the Chabad movement has outgrown its Russian roots and yet, it is those roots that have created the leadership skills that the Rebbe developed and utilized in his pursuit of Jewish identity for the Jews of the world. The Rebbe’s vision was to create passionate, mature adults who would build their lives in communities which needed Jewish education, learning opportunities, prayer, holiday celebration and observance.

The chapter on fundraising is worth reading by all religious and business owners because Chabad success is a proven case study in the ancient mechanism of grassroots advocacy that births entrepreneurs. Eliezrie highlights several key elements that are necessary for a successful business – deep felt passion for achieving ones goal, a certainty that failure is not an option and the ability to find a drive and purpose without a board of directors orchestrating each step forwards.

American opinion has been heavily influenced by media reports which insist that religious observance is falling away and with that comes a justification for the loosening of our moral and ethical obligations. Eliezrie begs to differ with public opinion. “Chabad takes Judaism in a different direction and chooses a reorientation of American Jewry. Of course, there is a problem of assimilation, but that does not change the fact that traditional Judaism is blossoming.”

Today, Chabad has matured into a global community that numbers more than 4,000 families. Eliezrie shares the findings of a 2014 demographic study by the Greater Miami Jewish Federation, which documented 47 percent of Jews under 36 who said they were active in their local Chabad. 42 percent of families with children were involved, along with 26 percent of the Miami community at large.

Rabbi Eliezrie giving a class at the North County Chabad Center

Rabbi Eliezrie giving a class at the North County Chabad Center

The numbers lead Eliezrie to make his projection for the future of American Jewry, “We are witnessing the first stages of a reorientation of American Jewry toward tradition. This trend will continue to grow for two reasons. Chabad today is ubiquitous….The second element is a shift of attitudes of many Jews toward Chabad.” He articulate the difference in today’s Jewish families who are no longer bound by the prejudices to tradition that their grandparents expounded. We never experienced pogroms or holocausts and we are therefore free to build our personal identity which is our Jewish identity, which comes straight from the infinite truths of the Torah.

Perhaps the first 100 pages of The Secret of Chabad lacks the magnetic energy of the remainder of the book. Perhaps the footnotes could have been edited freely within the chapters they reference. Perhaps the flashbacks and fast-forwards slow down the reading experience, but keep going until the very end. It’s worth the effort.

What’s next for Eliezrie? “I’m contemplating the future. Meanwhile, I have a global book tour to attend to. There’s even an invitation to speak at the Wharton School of Business.” Attendees will not be disappointed because Eliezrie does not hold back in explaining the secret of Chabad and it’s actually no secret at all.