Days of Their Lives

Samuel G. Freedman | Posted on 04/01/09

On a drizzly and drunken New Year’s Eve in 1978, I twisted two bunches of my shoulder-length hair into curls hanging alongside each ear. Then I popped a thrift-shop fedora atop my head. Thus attired, I threaded my way through the revelers in Times Square, tugging on the sleeve of one after another, and asking in my best Yiddish accent, which actually was pretty lousy, “You are Jewish?”

This spectacle amused mostly me. I was imitating and ridiculing the young men of the Lubavitch Hasidic sect, whom I’d often seen descending on civilians from the mobile homes known as “mitzvah tanks.” They especially targeted the ones like me, whose dark hair and olive skin raised the odds they were Jewish. The Lubavitcher shlichim, or emissaries, wanted us to put on tefillin, the phylacteries an observant Jew dons each weekday morning, or to wave the lulav and etrog, the branch and fruit associated with the holiday of Sukkot.

Not that I even knew the term shlichim at that point in my proudly agnostic life, or cared a whit about the mitzvot, the 613 commandments that covered tefillin and the lulav and etrog, among myriad other things. No, all I knew was that these intrusive hucksters, barely old enough for their beards, frail and reedy under their wide-brimmed hats, gotten up in the black garb of eighteenth-century Poland, were good for only one thing: a cheap laugh.

A few days after Thanksgiving in 2008, I strode solemnly into a brownstone a block off the Columbia University campus, where I have been a journalism professor since 1993. The building served as the Chabad house for the shliach, or emissary, at Columbia, Rabbi Yonah Blum, as well as the residence for his family. I sat on the faculty advisory board for Chabad at Columbia, and had strongly and successfully advocated for Rabbi Blum to be designated a university chaplain.

Over the previous several years, I had visited the Chabad house for many joyful occasions – Shabbat dinners, Sukkot celebrations, most recently the ritual when Rabbi Blum’s son received his first haircut, by Jewish tradition at the age of three. The event on this afternoon was quite different. Rabbi Blum was convening a memorial service for two shlichim, Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg and his wife, Rivka, who had been murdered by Islamist terrorists at the Chabad house in Mumbai.

The journey I had made from mocking the Chabad movement to admiring it was hardly mine alone. It very much paralleled a growing regard for Chabad in the broader Jewish world. A mere sliver of the Hasidic subset of the Orthodox denomination that in the United States represents barely 10 percent of Jews, Chabad has left its footprints around the country and indeed around the globe, dispatching its shlichim to the most distant and improbable places – Alaska, Nepal, Paraguay. They assist primarily non-Orthodox and even nonobservant Jews with services ranging from nursery school to Torah study to prison ministry to Passover seders for backpackers. The killing of the Holtzbergs in the course of doing good, doing nothing but good, offered a profound and tragic example of the Lubavitcher ethos.

What struck me most, though, was not how the Holtzbergs died but how they lived. We Jews have mourned enough martyrs to tide us over for the next few millennia without adding more names to the list. The grit embodied by the Chabad shlichim, who now number 4,500 in 1,092 cities in 73 countries, should not be measured only by the courage to face death. The attack in Mumbai may have brought the Chabad story to the non-Jewish world more fully than ever before, but that story would be as impressive and instructive were the Holtzbergs today alive and doing the things they had been doing right up until November 26 – making challah, teaching Talmud, welcoming tourists and diamond merchants and Israelis footloose after their army service, even slaughtering chickens themselves in the proper kosher way.

What the Holtzbergs typified was the kind of guts required to leave a small, clannish, predictable, secure, and in many ways unchallenging enclave and step on faith into the wider world, the world of doubters and disbelievers, the world of pop culture and consumerism, the world in which a Jewish community might consist of a couple dozen families from horizon to horizon and believe that they, the Chabadniks, have something vital and essential to provide it.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the late Lubavitcher rebbe and in large measure the originator of the schlichim system, once declared that the emissaries’ role was “paving the unbeaten path.” He elaborated on that imperative in another address, saying that “God wishes for His mission to be carried out,” meaning both in terms of being fulfilled and taken to the farthest compass points of Jewish presence.

In Chabad theology, the concept of ahavat Yisrael, the love of all Jews, is a transcendent value. And any mitzvah completed by any Jew – lighting Sabbath candles, putting on tefillin, hearing the Purim narrative read aloud – brings the messiah closer. To accomplish this, the rebbe taught, “The shliach must throw his entire being into succeeding through his own efforts,” using “every resource and every avenue,” “body and soul,” both “physical and spiritual” energy.

The message animates the mission of the shlichim. “The Rebbe always told us, ‘If what you do isn’t perfect, isn’t the absolute best, that’s how people will view Judaism,’” the Chabad shliach in Alaska, Yossi Greenberg, told Sue Fishkoff in her definitive book, The Rebbe’s Army: Inside the World of Chabad-Lubavitch. “We are on stage twenty-four hours a day. Everything we do is in the public eye.”

When the rebbe died in 1994, many observers of the Lubavitcher sect expected it to shrink and lose direction. Yet while there have been some internal schisms over whether the rebbe might have been the messiah, the work of the shlichim has gone on stronger and more influential than ever. The mission has outlived the man.

To fully appreciate the achievement of the Chabad movement, and to fathom just how unlikely that achievement is, it helps to know some of the history. The Hasidic movement as a whole began in eighteenth-century Europe as a mystical and visceral reaction to the highly legalistic, relentlessly intellectual style of Judaism propounded in the dominant yeshivas of the day. The type of cerebral religion that stirred a highly educated Talmudist in a center of Jewish learning like Vilna spoke poorly, if at all, to the poor, beleaguered Jews of Eastern Europe’s shtetls. At its beginnings, the Hasidic movement was widely attacked by Jewish religious authorities as heretical, but its emphasis on joy in worship and on God’s presence amid humanity attracted a growing following.

Disinterested in, or even disdainful of, the two Jewish routes out of Europe – immigration to the United States or Zionist aliyah to Israel – the Hasidic community was sitting in place, completely vulnerable, for both the Bolshevik Revolution and the Holocaust. The first led to governmental suppression, including the imprisonment of the then rebbe of the Lubavitchers in the late 1920s, and the second to the near extermination of the Hasidic population and the destruction of its communities. The remnant of Hasidic Jews who reached America after the war was primarily, and understandably, concerned with survival.

While the United States afforded the Hasidic refugees tolerance and safety, it presented challenges of its own. Orthodox Judaism of any kind had been waning in America throughout the twentieth century, its stringencies seemingly ill suited to a society that hallowed free choice, its former monopoly on affiliation eroded by the burgeoning Reform and Conservative denominations. The response of all the Hasidic sects, initially including the Lubavitchers, was to hunker down in a particular neighborhood – Williamsburg and Borough Park in Brooklyn, Lakewood in New Jersey, parts of Baltimore and Cleveland – and shutter the windows against the corrupting influences of polyglot, materialistic America.

It was from the Brooklyn neighborhood of Crown Heights that Menachem Mendel Schneerson reversed the equation. Soon after succeeding his deceased father-in-law as rebbe in 1951, Rabbi Schneerson started to send young Luba­vitchers out into the world. Very much in the style of Mormons selecting young men for mission, the Lubavitchers chose their best people for the task, the most nimble and charismatic and entrepreneurial. To be picked as a shliach was an honor, not a banishment. The typical shliach, Fishkoff writes in her book, would be sent off with a one-way ticket and at most a single year’s salary. Beyond that, every shlichim couple, and they were usually married couples, had to raise their operating money locally. (The Holtzbergs in Mumbai, for instance, started out with a rented hotel room and went on to build a four-story Chabad house.)

For a shliach succeeding in the field meant not imposing programs and values on a resistant audience, not passing caustic judgment on other Jews for being insufficiently religious, but meeting the rank-and-file where they were while exemplifying a fully observant life. Hence the glorious anomaly of the shliach: accepting and serving even the Jew who eats pork and drives on Shabbat while rigorously following religious law, despite sometimes being hundreds of miles from the nearest yeshiva, kosher butcher, or ritual bath.

Rabbi Schneerson spared no sensitivities in daring Chabad’s emissaries to leave the womb of Crown Heights. “Don’t convince yourself that you can live off the fat of the land and reside in these few blocks,” he told an annual gathering of shlichim. “You had the unearned privilege to be brought up with Torah and mitzvot.” Far from feeling superior to religiously ignorant Jews, he told the emissaries, “Why should you be better? Perhaps they’re better than you. If you have not used your treasures for this, it must bother you.”

Isaac Jaroslawicz, the product of a traditional Orthodox education, left a career in corporate law to work for Chabad among Jewish prison inmates. “I went to yeshiva all my life,” he says in Fishkoff’s book. “You put your nose in the books, you don’t get in trouble, you become a rabbi, and you’re out of there. In Lubavitch, you have to get in those mitzvah tanks and annoy people on the streets, you have to go into hospitals, into prisons. That’s something you don’t see much of in the Orthodox community.”

I know what I have seen in the years since my contemptuous bit of performance art in Times Square. I have seen Rabbi Blum bring a clown to my daughter’s hospital bedside as she recovered from spinal-fusion surgery. I have seen him turn up in my own hospital room in Baltimore just hours before he was due back in New York for Rosh Hashanah, dropping off a high holy days prayer book as I convalesced from an operation for prostate cancer. I have seen him walk along the Columbia campus in a long leather jacket and joke when I commented on his fashion statement, “It’s my Morpheus coat,” a man confident enough in his Orthodoxy to be at ease with the pop culture of college students.

On the afternoon of the memorial service for the Holtzbergs, Rabbi Blum showed a film about the couple that the Chabad movement had quickly put together and disseminated. At one point, Rivka Holtzberg was explaining why she had left her own family in Israel and then the Lubavitch stronghold of Crown Heights to work 24/6 (as Sabbath-observant Jews wryly put it) in distant Mumbai. An off-screen interviewer asked her if she minded the constant meals, lessons, worship services, strangers. She appeared perplexed that anybody might find that way of life odd. “What else,” she replied, “did I come here for?”

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