Fast-Growing Chabad Asks: Who Will Be Leader for Next Generation?

With Rebbe Gone, Transition Is Tricky at Influential Movement

Transition Time? Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky (left) and Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky (center) join Rabbi Abraham Berkowich in Mumbai, India, at a November 2009 memorial service for a Chabad family slain in a terrorist attack.
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Transition Time? Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky (left) and Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky (center) join Rabbi Abraham Berkowich in Mumbai, India, at a November 2009 memorial service for a Chabad family slain in a terrorist attack.

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

Published May 28, 2013, issue of May 31, 2013.
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Krinsky is technically Kotlarsky’s boss at Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, the outreach group that sends Lubavitch men and women to set up synagogues in towns, cities and college campuses across the United States and around the world.

The Merkos is one of four central organizations that make up Chabad’s institutional apparatus. The other core Chabad institutions include a publication arm, a social service arm and an umbrella group. Schneerson appointed Krinsky and Shemtov to leading roles within three of the institutions; Krinsky’s son-in-law, Rabbi Yosef Friedman, runs the fourth.

Even a decade and a half after the Rebbe’s death, the fact that Schneerson picked Krinsky and Shemtov carries major weight.

“Chabad is a Hasidic movement,” said Rabbi Chaim Dalfin, an ethnographer of Hasidic Judaism and a Lubavitcher. “A Hasidic movement works from the Rebbe down.”

If Krinsky and Shemtov have the imprimatur of the Rebbe, however, Kotlarsky has the Rebbe’s army. Since Schneerson’s death there has been less to tie Lubavitchers to Crown Heights, reinforcing the already central role Chabad’s missionaries played in the movement’s life and its theology.

The importance of the missionaries, operating from their own semi-autonomous bases, has grown along with their numbers. There are 4,000 emissary families today, more than four times as many as two decades ago, according to Chabad.

“The central institutions are not as important any longer as the shluchim,” or emissaries, Heilman said. Referring to annual gatherings that bring the emissaries back to Brooklyn from their outposts around the world, he said, “Life in Crown Heights only comes alive when there are these gatherings that bring people in from the periphery.”

It’s Kotlarsky’s job to be the link between those emissaries and the central institutions. He functions as a roving fundraiser and troubleshooter for the Merkos, sometimes mediating local disputes, other times managing tragedies. When interviewed by the Forward, Kotlarsky had just returned from Vancouver and was about to leave for Ukraine. When terrorists attacked a Chabad house in Mumbai and killed Chabad’s emissaries there, it was Kotlarsky who was dispatched to speak at their funeral.

The emissaries don’t necessarily rely on the Merkos to pay their salaries or to give them day-to-day instruction. Instead, powerful senior emissaries wield administrative authority over entire regions, approving hires and new outposts. Kotlarsky, however, has found ways to make himself indispensable to the far-flung missionaries.

It’s Kotlarsky who has cultivated Chabad’s relationship with George Rohr, the investor who funded the movement’s expansion on college campuses. Rohr provides startup grants to Chabad campus houses through the Chabad on Campus International Foundation of which Kotlarsky is chairman. Kotlarsky is also chairman of the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute, which creates classes for local Chabad houses, some of which can provide income for the local rabbis.

Kotlarsky’s political savvy is on full display in a 2010 article on a Chabad website with pictures of Kotlarsky sending out $1.25 million in checks from donors to pay for the weddings and bar mitzvahs of emissary’s children.


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