The Secret of Chabad: Inside the world’s most successful Jewish movement
By Rabbi David Eliezrie
As the subtitle says, this is an insider’s book. The author, Rabbi David Eliezrie, is a Chabad shliach in Yorba Linda, California, whose first contact with the seventh Lubavitcher rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, was in 1966, at age 14, on a school trip from Montreal. He describes the event reverently, and with affection, and tells how it changed his life.
After this introduction, the book gives a brief history of the Lubavitch movement, starting with Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov’s introduction of Jewish mysticism to the daily life of East European Jews in the 18th century. This was the beginning of Chassidism. “The Baal Shem Tov emboldened the common man with a sense of spiritual dignity and purpose,” writes Rabbi Eliezrie.
A number of Chassidic sects developed, each centred on a rebbe. Often the rebbe was considered to have special access to God, and to have the ability to make minor miracles. The Lubavitch sect was founded by Rabbi Schneur Zalman. It took its name from a small town near Smolensk, where the founder’s son, the second Lubavitcher rebbe, settled, and where four of the seven Chabad rebbes lived.
The word Chabad is an acronym of three Hebrew words, chochmah, binah, da’at (wisdom, understanding, knowledge), which have their own mystical meaning in Kabbalah. It seems to have been used for the first time as a name in 1788, when Rabbi Schneur Zalman founded Colel Chabad to support the Chassidic community in Palestine. Today, it is synonymous with Lubavitch as the name of a movement.
The movement began to take its modern form, having not only religious but political effect, after the Bolshevik revolution. Lenin decreed a materialistic state organization governed from the top with no place for divinity or mysticism. The Jewish department of the Communist Party, the Yevsektsia, took on the job of stamping out Jewish religious observance and secularizing Jewish life. The sixth rebbe, Rabbi Yitzchak Yosef Schneersohn, resisted openly. He was jailed and exiled, and finally forced to leave Russia. He organized an underground system of shluchim (messengers), who were able to maintain religious schools and observance, at great risk, until the end of the Bolshevik system.
In 1940, the sixth rebbe, suffering from multiple sclerosis, made his way to the United States. He was distressed at the state of Jewish observance generally, and especially at the weakness of the Lubavitch movement, and set out to build up Chabad. He found funds to acquire the building at 770 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, now known as 770, the world centre of Chabad. The sixth rebbe, now known in the movement as Der Frierdike Rebbe (the previous rebbe), built up a staff and, throughout the 1940s, sent shluchim to various destinations “with specific tasks: open a school, become a rabbi of a synagogue, or a teacher.” He died in 1950 and was succeeded by his son-in-law, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who became the seventh Lubavitcher rebbe.
As told by Rabbi Eliezrie, the seventh rebbe’s approach was different. His practice was to send young rabbis, usually with a rebbitzin, to destinations all over the world, wherever there might be Jewish life, to settle, to make local contacts, and to set up shop: a shul, a school, a Chabad house. Most of the book is an anecdotal account of the growth of Chabad from “a sideshow in Brooklyn” in the early 1950s to a worldwide movement with over 4,000 shluchim in 80 countries.
Chabad’s “secret” is explained in Chapter Eight, “Every Shliach is an Entrepreneur.”
While there is seed money available from major donors, it is up to the shliach to contact community members, start operations, and raise funds to keep going and support himself and his family. Rabbi Eliezrie contrasts this with the model in which a Jewish organization is created when a group decides to form a congregation, a school or a social agency. The directors hire and fire the rabbi or other professional. “Congregational rabbis and Jewish communal professionals have to tread softly. … Chabad rabbis are empowered to decide and move forward, limited only by the amount of money they can raise.”
The intimacy of this book makes the reading comfortable. It is not a scholarly book, and it is not a history. It is a farbrengn (gathering) in print, which seems written with a view to invite readers into the mishpacha. It achieves that, but there are concerns. There is no index or bibliography. Statements are put forward as factual that are hard to accept. We are told that the first rebbe was once imprisoned in St. Petersburg, and the czar came in disguise to visit him in his cell; and that the sixth rebbe once prevented an anti-Jewish decree by entering the office involved when it was unoccupied during lunch hour and finding the government minister’s rejection stamp and affixing it to the document.
The book is, of course, written from a Chabad perspective. The Haskalah – the Jewish enlightenment movement of the late-17th and early-19thh century – is dismissed as an effort to secularize the Jewish people. The word Yiddishkeit, which for many people has a cultural meaning, is equated with Judaism, the Jewish religion.
Still, success speaks with its own voice. The worldwide reach of Chabad is not hard to show. As this review was being written, the April 18 edition of the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin arrived, with stories about a Chabad youth Shabbaton in Ottawa and a coming Chabad Passover seder in Nepal.
The seventh rebbe died in 1994. Many followers believed he would be revealed as the Moshiach (messiah) before his death. He did not groom a successor and he is still referred to as the “Rebbe.” There is a Chabad-Lubavitch secretariat, which operates at 770, and dispatches shluchim around the world. The cover photograph of the book shows hundreds of bearded, black-hatted shluchim posing in front of 770. It is inescapable that behind those beards there is much organizational shrewdness and administrative energy.