Chabad Makes Inroads at Parley

By Nathaniel Popper

Published November 18, 2005, issue of November 18, 2005.
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TORONTO — Before Eliezer Zalmanov came to Munster, Ind., no Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi had ever been the recipient of the local Jewish federation’s rabbinic award.

There was a Chabad rabbi before Zalmanov. However, Zalmanov, 26, said that when he moved to Munster two years ago, the rest of the community still had suspicions about his ultra-Orthodox Hasidic movement. “They thought I was out to convert everyone to Chabad,” he said.

Zalmanov worked hard to disabuse the people of such notions, cooperating with the city’s four other congregations and enlisting his wife as a Hebrew school teacher at the local Conservative synagogue. He received a stamp of approval this year with the federation’s rabbinic reward.

As a part of his award, Zalmanov was given funding to travel with his federation to the annual General Assembly of United Jewish Communities — the main event of the organized Jewish community’s major charitable network. He was not the only Chabad rabbi making his first appearance at the conference, known as the G.A.; this year, more than a dozen Chabad rabbis came to the annual gathering, about twice as many as last year. For the first time ever, Chabad rabbis were featured speakers on major panels at the G.A., proffering advice for the assembled Jewish fund raisers and donors.

This participation points to what both sides say is the increasing integration of Chabad into the Jewish community’s well-established communal infrastructure. The increasing cooperation comes despite previous tensions over Chabad’s efforts to keep Israel from recognizing non-Orthodox conversions, and despite concerns over the efforts of some of the movement’s members to depict their late religious leader, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, as the messiah.

The largest Chabad community is still a secluded one in Brooklyn, but the movement also has emissaries, or shaliachs, in 45 states. Idaho and Montana joined the list earlier this year. Chabad used to be resisted in many communities, and, at the same time, it used to resist participation in the mainstream Jewish community. But in at least some places, connections are now being made.

Earlier this year, Rabbi Yehudah Krinsky, Chabad’s top official, was invited to meet with Howard Rieger, CEO of UJC. Rieger said he encouraged more Chabad participation in the G.A. this year.

One of the people who helped organize the Krinsky-Rieger meeting, Rabbi David Eliezrie, is a major voice in Chabad’s ill-defined national leadership structure. “We’re the biggest success in Jewish continuity,” he said, referring to Chabad’s work in engaging unaffiliated Jews.

“They’ve got to learn from us. They’re beginning to realize that,” Eliezrie added.

Eliezrie said that before Rieger came to the UJC last year, Chabad only had occasional mid-level contacts with the organization. Now the contacts are at the top. A similar openness to Chabad has developed at the campus organization Hillel, since Avraham Infeld became its president two years ago.

In part, the growing acceptance of Chabad is a natural result of its reach. The movement is now on 55 campuses. However, Chabad’s most unique position is in the former Soviet Union, where its rabbis have established more than 100 local centers. The head of the Boston Jewish federation, Barry Shrage, said he does not think that Chabad is an important religious player in Boston. But Shrage said that in Russia, “if you want to play, you go to them.”

One result of Chabad rabbis’ willingness to go to far-flung places appears to be that some of them are learning how to work more easily with non-Orthodox Jewish leaders on non-religious matters. In Indiana, for instance, Zalmanov’s wife feels comfortable teaching Hebrew at the Conservative synagogue because it does not involve any matters of religious law.

“We realized we were in a small community and we had no choice but to work together,” Zalmanov said. Because of the relatively loose oversight provided by Chabad’s New York headquarters, especially since Schneerson’s 1994 death, the local emissaries are free to make many decisions on their own. Notably, only one of the dozen Chabad rabbis at the G.A. came from the more isolated Chabad community in New York, where a majority of Lubavitchers live.

The Chabad rabbis said that they hoped their participation leads to greater financial support for their social programs in local communities. But they are also unabashed in saying that they hope they can use their position to push for a greater religiosity in mainstream organizations.

“Our question to the UJC, constantly, is going to be where is the Torah,” Eliezrie said. “We want Torah to be their touchstone.”

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