Chabad Seeks to Transform Tragedy into Opportunity

Chabad-Lubavitch leaders are working overtime to transform the Mumbai attacks into an unparalleled opportunity for spreading the movement’s message.

Chabad has received unprecedented media exposure since terrorists struck its center in Mumbai, killing two of its emissaries to the Indian city — Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg and his wife, Rivkah — along with four other Jews.

To capitalize on the wave of attention, the movement has conducted an orchestrated marketing and public relations campaign. Chabad officials in New York and emissaries around the world are conducting media interviews, and constituents who have been touched by the movement are reaching out in droves to local and international publications to extol its praises.

The Chabad media operation, which is run from the office of the movement’s official Web site, Chabad.org, kicked into high gear when news started to filter in Nov. 26 that the Mumbai Chabad house was among the institutions besieged by gunmen in terrorist raids that ultimately saw the deaths of 172 people, including nine terrorists.

By the time the deaths in the Chabad house had been confirmed, the movement’s media liaisons had spent several consecutive days in their New York offices, working on little or no sleep, as hundreds of calls poured in from the international media seeking interviews about the Holtzberg family and Chabad in general.

With the interview requests mounting, according to one spokesman, Chabad handpicked emissaries to speak with the media that officials believed would best represent the movement to a general public that may have had little or no knowledge about it.

The message was twofold: Gavriel and Rivkah Holtzberg would have wanted their deaths used as inspiration to help bring Jews closer to Chabad and Judaism, and the movement’s late spiritual leader, Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, taught that it was a religious obligation to take a dark moment and turn it into a positive.

The strategy is to help the audience to “become a continuum of the holy world of Gavi and Rivkah so that they have a way to channel their own personal grief in a manner that makes this world a better place,” a spokesman for Chabad, Zalman Shmotkin, told JTA. The emissariers are trying to “sensitively and articulately convey the basic messages of urging people to increase their own acts of goodness and kindness” in response to tragedy.

Within a week of the attacks, Chabad had also raised about $1 million through mailboxes it had opened on Chabad.org — one for helping to raise Moshe, the Holtzbergs’ 2-year-old son who escaped the attack on the Chabad house, and one to help rebuild the Chabad of Mumbai, which was damaged badly by explosions and gunfire during the terrorists’ siege and attempted rescue by Indian Special Forces.

Such publicity and fund-raising efforts in the wake of tragedy may strike some as crass, if not inappropriate and offensive. But the approach can just as well be understood as a natural reaction for a movement that prides itself on Schneerson’s success in helping to rebuild Jewish life around the globe after the Holocaust and push ahead to unexpected and unprecedented heights after his death in 1994.

In recent days, Chabad officials have spoken openly about their strategic response to the attacks.

“It is an opportunity to connect more and more Jews to the mission, and to the rebbe’s mission of getting every Jew involved. And part of that is channeling the empathy people are now feeling,” said Rabbi Yosef Kantor, the director of the Chabad of Thailand and the emissary who helped established the movement’s presence in Mumbai prior to the Holtzbergs’ arrival.

“I see this as being a big package or opportunity to be able to inspire and direct Jews on how they can channel their outpouring of support and sympathy, their emotion, rage, outrage and frustration,” he said.

Even within the context of mass executions, the story of the Holtzbergs is compelling. A young couple from New York in their early 20s set off for an exotic land to fulfill a benevolent, religious mission to provide a home away from home to traveling Jews and Israelis. After establishing themselves and building a community, they were struck down in a horrific terrorist attack — apparently targeted specifically because of their Jewish mission — leaving behind their toddler son, who was heroically rescued by his Indian housekeeper the day before his second birthday.

It is difficult to quantify exactly how much press Chabad has received as the result of the Mumbai massacre, but a few days after the attacks a Google news search of “Chabad and Mumbai” turned up more than 3,000 entries, compared to about 5,000 in a search only containing “Mumbai.” Many major newspapers published features on Chabad’s local and global efforts. CNN.com posted at least 10 video segments featuring Chabad and the Holtzbergs, including a four-minute segment dedicated exclusively to describing the movement’s activities.

In addition to the straight news coverage, major newspapers around the world, including The Wall Street Journal, published opinion pieces lauding Chabad from writers who have been personally affected or touched by the movement.

Dozens of print journalists, as well as camera crews form major news networks, covered a Chabad-organized news conference on Nov. 28 at the movement’s Jewish Children’s Museum in Brooklyn, N.Y., shortly after the Chabad house deaths had been confirmed. Footage from the conference, which featured emotional announcements from top Chabad leaders, was broadcast throughout the world.

The news conference became the platform as well for the chairman of Chabad’s education and social services arm, Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, who oversees the movement’s emissaries, to announce that Chabad was starting a fund to pay for Moshe’s upbringing.

While the immediate fund raising was geared toward helping the toddler and rebuilding in Mumbai, the stepped-up publicity may also prove to be a boon for Chabad houses. Chabad emissaries usually receive minimal seed money to start their outposts, but each house is responsible for raising its own budget each year. Though Chabad does not keep a formal database on how much each outpost raises, officials estimate that the emissaries combined take in more than $1 billion per year.

Fund raising in the aftermath of Mumbai is more than a necessary evil, Chabad officials say — it is part and parcel of their mission to bring Jews closer to their Judaism.

Chabad doctrine mandates that Jews bring other Jews closer to their religion. Ideally, say the Chabad rabbis interviewed by JTA, that would mean greater religious observance and Torah study. But since not every Jew can be drawn into a synagogue, the first goal is to have Jews become more involved in the Jewish community, even if it means only convincing them to help fund Jewish causes — in this case aiding an orphan or rebuilding a religious institution severly damaged in a terrorist attack.

The approach is not only in keeping with the movement’s theology, but has the added benefit of potentially providing a needed boost to Chabad houses. Movement insiders say the houses, like many other nonprofits, have struggled mightily in their fund-raising efforts in recent months.

“What I see from my colleagues is that they are using this to inspire Jews and to channel this into a positive Jewish experience,” said Kantor, the Chabad rabbi in Thailand. “I believe that fund raising in this case is a mitzvah, trying to elicit the maximum response from everyone who was glued to CNN, who was totally affected, to help them in channeling that resolve.”

“There are a lot of people who are on the front line who won’t be motivated to do a mitzvah in the ritual sense,” he said, “but for them the way to express it is through their checkbook.”

People are responding to the message in the immediate aftermath of the massacres, said one of the rabbis handpicked to represent Chabad to the world.

“I see this tragedy as an opportunity of waking up the Jewish soul for millions of Jews,” Rabbi Shalom Paltiel, the director of the Chabad of Port Washington, N.Y., told JTA.

Paltiel appeared on both CNN and on NBC’s “The Today Show” to talk about his friends, the Holtzbergs, and the “miraculous” rescue of their son.

“I have gotten countless e-mails and phone calls and visits from people who have never come into Chabad,” he said. “People who have never come are coming.”

Shmotkin, the Chabad spokesman, stressed, however, that Chabad emissaries are engaged in honest, genuine work and are not simply seeking to cash in on a situation.

“The issue here is not about involving people in Chabad. It is about doing another mitzvah, about ensuring that we each keep adding light in our homes and communities, not about affiliation,” he said.

“I think that in addition to all of the learning and conditioning we’ve had over the years, and all the remembering and learning that we each do of how the rebbe, of righteous memory, dealt with tragedy, one can say that on a very deep, raw, visceral level, many shluchim are driven to simply ensure that Gabi and Rivkah’s deaths will not have been in vain.”

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