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January 28, 2016 5:34 am

Tracing Chabad’s History and Success (REVIEW)

avatar by Steve Wenick

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. Photo: Wikipedia.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. Photo: Wikipedia.

The secret of Chabad’s worldwide success is revealed by veteran Chabad shliach (emissary) Rabbi David Eliezrie in his new book, The Secret of Chabad.

The Chabad movement was founded by Rabbi Schnur Zalman of Liadi, Belarus, in 1775. Years later it came to the US with the arrival of Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn in 1940, after his escape from Nazi-occupied Warsaw. Upon his arrival in New York, a number of his co-religionists advised him that there was no place for traditional Judaism in America. In response to their gloomy outlook, the rabbi made an interesting and prophetic pronouncement. He defiantly asserted in Yiddish, ‘America Iz Nisht Anderish’ (America is no different).

His son-in-law, the seventh Lubavitch Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, affectionately referred to as the Rebbe, recognized the difficult challenges the movement faced. He recognized that Chabad had to respond to the changing times if it wanted to make an impact on Jewish life in America. He also believed, like his father-in-law that ‘America is no different.’ He refused to be deterred from pursuing his mission in life, namely to bring Jews closer to their traditional practices and closer to God.

Eliezrie details the litany of events that made Chabad the successful movement it is today. In its early years, Chabad’s approach was to dispatch its shluchim to communities in response to institutional needs.

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Although the Rebbe continued to honor the practice of sending shluchim to fill the vacuum of vacated positions, he added a more ambitious dimension to his mission. That additional feature was called outreach. He introduced a wide range of Jewish institutions and services in communities where none had previously existed. His new approach and unique initiative represented a paradigm shift of Chabad’s outreach model.

For reasons the author details in his book, there were efforts by some groups to push back on Chabad’s innovations. For example, there were attempts to dismantle an educational program originated by Chabad called Released Time. The program was designed to release public school students from school one hour a week for religious education, on a voluntary basis. The main battlegrounds were set in New York and Los Angeles and even after the United States Supreme Court ruled that Released Time was not a breach of the separation of church and state, there was continued resistance by the more strident groups.

Released Time was not the only legal battle Chabad had to face. Rabbi Eliezrie describes a second legal encounter in what he calls the Menorah Wars. Several establishment organizations were against displaying a Chanukkia (a menorah used only on Chanukah) on public property. Once again, Chabad prevailed when in 1989 the United States Supreme Court ruled to permit menorahs in public places as long as they were funded by private funds.

In addition to a great amount of research in writing his book, Rabbi Eliezrie had the good fortune to experience personally many of the events he describes. His attention to detail and historical accuracy place the reader on the steps of Chabad headquarters located at 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, New York.

Rabbi Eliezrie attributes much of Chabad’s success in attracting both young and old to its uncompromising scrupulous adherence to its beliefs and practices, while enthusiastically welcoming even those who do not necessarily share its views. I recommend this book for those who are interested in learning about the history, politics, and personalities that have made the Chabad movement a dynamic and worldwide success.

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