There is an old joke that Orthodox Jews tell: “What is the closest religion to Judaism?” Chabad-Lubavitch is the punchline. Everyone “gets it.” Everyone thinks they know about Chabad’s messianism, that a few Chabadniks believe that the rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who died in 1994, is still alive.
In fairness, the rebbe’s messianism or divinity is not advocated in any of Chabad’s official literature; it’s even reprimanded. But fairness has nothing to do with it.
This past weekend, just about all the shluchim, nearly 3,000 of the rebbe’s emissaries to 72 countries and 47 states, along with 1,900 of their philanthropic backers, returned to New York for their annual convention. The rebbe was spoken of in past tense, the messiah in future tense.
David Berger, chair of Jewish studies at Yeshiva University, recently wrote in the YU newspaper that because of its messianic pretensions, Chabad is “an existential threat to the Jewish religion.” He says Chabadniks ought to be treated with the same halachic mistrust that “Modern Orthodox Jews [have for] traditional Conservative Jews.”
But Conservative Jews also are dismissive of Chabad. Andy Silow-Carroll, editor of the New Jersey Jewish News, reported that earlier this year, at the Jewish Theological Seminary, “someone mentioned ‘Chabad,’ and the roomful of rabbis and professors broke out into knowing titters. Dr. Alan Cooper, the JTS provost, rode the titters into a wave of laughter when he repeated the old line: ‘Chabad is the religion closest to Judaism.’”
This year’s conference was held in Crown Heights, with the plenary banquet in Pier 94, a vast, several blocks-long former docking hanger on the Hudson River.
One shaliach, Rabbi Shlomo Matusof, 91, flew in from Morocco. In 1950, Matusof, a war refugee and former prisoner in Stalin’s gulag, was about to board a ship to join his rebbe in Crown Heights but the rebbe asked him to go to Morocco instead. In the wake of Israel’s independence two years before, Jews in the Arab world were about to experience an upheaval. Matusof built 70 Moroccan Jewish institutions in the last 57 years. He stayed, even when most Moroccan Jews left, tending to the few who didn’t.
As God would have it, Rabbi Matusof passed away Saturday night, in the Crown Heights he once thought would be home.
Rabbi Levi Shemtov, the rebbe’s emissary to the Bronx, said that Sunday morning they announced Rabbi Matusof’s funeral would be at 11 a.m. After all these years, New York would be his resting place, at the Old Montefiore Cemetery in Queens, a few yards from his rebbe. Instead of a small funeral in Morocco, the old shaliach “had more than 2,500 shluchim at his funeral,” said Rabbi Shemtov.
At Pier 94, Rabbi Shemtov remembered, “In 1985-86, 12 of us American boys were sent by the rebbe to be with Rabbi Matusof in Morocco. The dedication that we saw for Yiddishkeit, the love for Jews — now almost everyone of us is out somewhere in the world for Chabad. I like to think that we picked up some of his dedication.”
Odd juxtapositions are the charm of these affairs. From the Bronx it was a few tables to Beijing, where Rabbi Shimon Freundlich, who was sent in 2001, is posted.
Everyone knows Jews love Chinese food, often unkosher, and Rabbi Freundlich is the closest thing to those Jews, but with a twist. After opening a shul and a Jewish school, he opened a 75-seat Chinese restaurant in China — kosher, of course. They deliver anywhere in Beijing.
No group ever displayed more antagonism to Chabad than Satmar. Yet Rabbi Freundlich was joined at the banquet by 20 Satmar chasidim grateful to have a chasidic port of call in China. To YU’s Berger, Chabad is “an existential threat to Judaism,” but when the uber-halachic Satmar businessmen come to Beijing, they happily daven and eat with Rabbi Freundlich. Satmars even contributed more than $150,000 to Freundlich’s new Beijing mikveh.
The banquet is a place to renew old friendships. “We met last year,” says Congo’s Rabbi Shlomo Bentolila to a familiar face, “and here we are!”
On holidays, the Congo Chabad sends circuit rabbis to Jews in Kenya, Nigeria, Lagos, Namibia, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Angola, Rwanda and Zimbabwe.
“There is no Jew in Africa who is out of reach,” said the shaliach. “We intend to offer something to every Jewish child, expatriate, or businessman, every Jew we can find.”
In Kinshasa, “We have a shul, 40-50 people on a Shabbos. We have a kosher bakery, and 25 kids in our afternoon school.”
From the podium, Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky called the “roll call” of every country and state, beginning with Chabad of Cyberspace, the chabad.org Web site with links to numerous topics and 900 individualized sites for every Chabad in the world.
Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, who 50 years ago first joined the rebbe’s secretariat and remains as the pivotal administrator of Chabad International, recalled that in 1984, when these gatherings started, there were only 60 shluchim, and only from the United States. It was always like a family reunion for the rebbe, said Rabbi Krinsky.
After the roll call the room erupted into dancing, though there must be a better word to describe the prancing, leaping, pounding and stomping that had thousands of glasses on every table bouncing, rippling the wines, rippling the waters. Lev Leviev, the mega-philanthropist, was dancing with chasidim, hands on shoulders.
Leviev had earlier addressed the gathering in Hebrew, recalling how the rebbe advised him in business, and praising shluchim who operate “behind enemy lines.” Nothing he said was as powerful as the joy in his dancing feet and smiling face.
Hey, over there, were Tuvia Teldon and Anschel Pearl, shluchim on Long Island. And over there, hey, it’s Menachem Hartman, the 26-year-old shliach to Vietnam.
On Shabbat in Ho Chi Minh City (old Saigon), Rabbi Hartman may be “the closest thing to Judaism,” or maybe there is no truer Judaism than his, in which no Jew is left behind. Surely, those who mock Chabad could get in on the action and find a young rabbi to devote the rest of his life to, say, the Beth Conservative Temple of Hanoi, or the Young Israel of Phnom Penh. While everyone’s joking, Chabad has also opened a Chabad House in Laos.
Is there a future for Jews in Ho Chi Minh City?
“For sure,” said Rabbi Hartman, beaming. “B’ezrat Hashem, we’ll be opening a kindergarten. Vietnam is the next tiger in Asia!”
I was going to ask him what he thought about the jokes people tell about Chabad but I didn’t have the heart. Maybe on a sweltering Vietnamese night he might get to feeling lonely, and when that night comes I didn’t want him to know that Jews in New York were cracking jokes at his expense.
This young shaliach would soon be on a plane, heading off to where most of us would never dare. He was the rebbe’s representative. He was pure, the closest thing to Heaven.