The Secret of Chabad: Inside the World’s Most Suc­cess­ful Jew­ish Movement

  • Review
By – November 24, 2015

Over the past year, sev­er­al notable biogra­phies were pub­lished to coin­cide with the 20th anniver­sary of the pass­ing of Rab­bi Men­achem Mendel Schneer­son, the Lubav­itch­er Rebbe. Rab­bi David Eliezrie gives us a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive, focus­ing instead on the sto­ry of Rab­bi Schneerson’s inter­na­tion­al net­work of shlichim (emis­saries) who built and grow the hun­dreds of Chabad Hous­es and com­mu­ni­ties that have become the ubiq­ui­tous pub­lic face of Ortho­dox Judaism worldwide.

Eliezrie is a skilled and detailed sto­ry­teller, and his nar­ra­tive begins with Rab­bi Schneerson’s pre­de­ces­sor and father-in-law. Rab­bi Yosef Yitzchak Schneer­sohn, sixth Rebbe of Lubav­itch, escaped Rus­sia and came to Amer­i­ca in 1940,and soon estab­lished a yeshi­va in the Goth­ic revival build­ing at 770 East­ern Park­way. His very first emis­saries were sent to strength­en Ortho­dox life in sev­er­al major Amer­i­can cities at this time, and he main­tained a strong con­nec­tion with the reli­gious under­ground back in the USSR. This con­text is fas­ci­nat­ing, demon­strat­ing how what his suc­ces­sor would lat­er build, both in Amer­i­ca and inter­na­tion­al­ly, though on a much grander scale, flowed organ­i­cal­ly from the Chabad he had inherited.

When Rab­bi Men­achem Mendel Schneer­son assumed the man­tle of lead­er­ship in 1949, the yeshi­va at 770 had thir­ty rab­bini­cal stu­dents. Many of them would go on to become lead­ers of the Chabad net­work, includ­ing sev­er­al still in lead­er­ship posi­tions today. Eliezrie describes the first waves of emis­saries in great detail, show­ing how Rab­bi Schneerson’s ambi­tious ide­ol­o­gy and aspi­ra­tions drove a rapid ear­ly expan­sion of the project, set­ting the stage for the near-expo­nen­tial growth in the gen­er­a­tions to fol­low. Eliezrie, him­self a suc­cess­ful shli­ach who served first at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mia­mi and then in Orange Coun­ty, Cal­i­for­nia, gives Chabad vir­tu­al­ly all of the cred­it for the resur­gence of Ortho­dox life in post-World War II Amer­i­ca, as well as for the net­work of refuseniks who main­tained a secret Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty behind the Iron Cur­tain. In this, per­haps unin­ten­tion­al­ly, we see a bit of the tri­umphal­ism, pride, and sense of pur­pose that have made Chabad emis­saries so attrac­tive and charis­mat­ic, and, at the same time, some­what trou­bling to the com­mu­ni­ty estab­lish­ments they disrupt.

The book essen­tial­ly ends with Rab­bi Schneerson’s pass­ing in 1994. There is lit­tle descrip­tion of how the net­work has con­tin­ued to grow in size and com­plex­i­ty since the Rebbe’s death, despite the devel­op­ment of sev­er­al rival fac­tions that cur­rent­ly vie for for pow­er and influ­ence with­in 770 itself. There is also lit­tle men­tion of the rad­i­cal mes­sian­ism that sur­round­ed Rab­bi Schneer­son toward the end of his life and still grips large parts of the Chabad com­mu­ni­ty, caus­ing rifts and ten­sion with oth­er Jew­ish movements.

To demon­strate what the emis­sary project looks like today, Eliezrie tells the dra­mat­ic sto­ry of the inva­sion of the Mum­bai Chabad House dur­ing a coor­di­nat­ed ter­ror­ist attack in 2008, which took the lives of the shlichim there, Riv­ka and Rab­bi Gavriel Holtzberg. The sto­ry, which spans the entire first chap­ter, high­lights Eliezrie’s key themes: the emis­saries’ supreme ded­i­ca­tion to their mis­sion, the sup­port that the emis­saries pro­vide to each oth­er and their fam­i­lies, and the strong cen­tral coor­di­na­tion of a com­plex inter­na­tion­al net­work. The sto­ry ends, fit­ting­ly, at the annu­al Chabad con­ven­tion that brings the thou­sands of emis­saries home to Crown Heights, giv­ing the world a sense of the immense scope and size of a remark­able com­mu­ni­ty that con­tin­ues to ded­i­cate itself to the grand­est aspi­ra­tions of its vision­ary leader.

Relat­ed Content:

Avra­ham Bron­stein writes fre­quent­ly on top­ics of Jew­ish thought, con­tem­po­rary issues, and their inter­sec­tion. A past Assis­tant Rab­bi of The Hamp­ton Syn­a­gogue and Pro­gram Direc­tor of Great Neck Syn­a­gogue, he lives with his fam­i­ly in Scran­ton, PA.

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