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A Place All Their Own in the Jewish Kaleidoscope

In the Jewish kaleidoscope, they occupy a place all their own. The followers of the Lubavitcher rebbe, with their strict emphasis on Halacha, or traditional rabbinic law, are certainly not part of the more liberal branches of Judaism, even if, paradoxically, they appear to be most comfortable operating among those adherents. But they are not quite part of the traditional world either, not even the chasidic world. Unlike the other sects that revere a dynastic rebbe, they single-mindedly devote much of their energy to turning other Jews toward a more forceful observance of Jewish life, proselytizing in aggressive ways that sometimes repel others within their own Orthodox circles.

With a worldwide empire operating at a combined budget of close to $1 billion and an army of thousands of emissaries, they have been able to make inroads in exclusive bastions like Hollywood, Congress and the White House that the other branches must envy. Yet, they seem perpetually on the verge of fragmenting, unable to pick a new leader, roiled by a conflict over impassioned messianic beliefs, accused by outsiders of espousing virtually a Christian theology in believing, as many Lubavitch do, that their dead rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, will soon return to Earth.

What then is one to make of them? Sue Fishkoff’s book, “The Rebbe’s Army: Inside the World of Chabad-Lubavitch,” is as well-reported an account as we have had on this fascinating group. While not as intimate nor as quietly lyrical as Lis Harris’s “Holy Days” (Summit Books), the 1985 book that studied Lubavitch life in Crown Heights through the prism of a single Lubavitch family, Fishkoff’s book is far more ambitious. She has traveled across the country and assembled a vivid and often entertaining portrait of the most characteristic members of the Lubavitch chasidim – the shlichim, or missionaries, who try to persuade those who are Jews by birth to reconnect with Jewish observance. (Though Fishkoff uses the Israeli Hebrew term shlichim, Lubavitchers themselves use the parallel term from medieval rabbinic Hebrew, shluchim.) In the process, she impresses us with the growing power and influence of what even two decades ago many Jews considered a sweet but trivial oddity.

Fishkoff takes us along to Portland, Ore., where the Lubavitch emissary says Jews are more responsive than those in New York to being buttonholed and having tefillin wrapped around their arms. “It’s more of an exotic whim, like trying out a hula hoop,” he explains. She describes how this emissary approaches an unkempt man with a heavy-metal band T-shirt and persuades him to put on tefillin. This contact with Judaism after so many years of spiritual exile leaves the man with tears in his eyes.

She takes us to some of the 41 campuses where Chabad has houses and brings to animated life the role the shlichim play in the lives of lonely college students far from home. She journeys to Alaska, a state that has 3,000 Jews and just one rabbi, and where in the summer Shabbat begins in the early afternoon and ends in the wee hours of Sunday morning. There, she enchants us with the restless fervor of Yossi Greenberg, who hops on small planes and drives a ramshackle station wagon across the sprawling state to perform weddings, teach bar mitzvah boys and raise money to support his Chabad house. In one of the more touching vignettes in the book, she takes us to a jail where Chabad tries to get the Jewish inmates to put on tefillin.

Along the way, she shows us how paradoxically cutting edge the Lubavitch are. A sholiach in Illinois pays for market research surveys and mailing lists to analyze the Jewish people he’ll be dealing with and find if they’re likely to provide the funds he’ll need to keep his mission alive. Chabad emissaries hold telethons with Hollywood stars like Jon Voight, win the financial support of such tycoons as Ronald Lauder and Ronald Perelman and such entertainment moguls as Bob Dylan and film producer Jerry Weintraub. In the most revealing parts, she shows us how a Chabad teacher calculatingly uses New Age language to persuade nonobservant women to dip in the mikvah once a month.

“You can’t be intimate with someone if you’re not whole yourself,” she says. “The need to recognize where I end and my husband begins is essential to developing intimacy. Mikvah helps define that.”

The Esalen Institute, the California hot tub and group therapy center which promotes such fuzzy aims as the “realization of human potential,” would have been proud of her message.

Fishkoff’s journalism is detailed, her writing flavorful and thoughtful. One is impressed by the trust so many shlichim, as well as the top brass of the Lubavitch, clearly have placed in her. Yet I wish she had grappled with some essential questions more unflinchingly. What precisely is the draw of the Lubavitch? Nostalgia for a childhood flicker of Judaism seems to me an insufficient explanation. Are they tapping into a disenchantment with the purported benefits of assimilation in an America, where Jews are now virtually equal members? Are they exploiting the collapse of the 1960s ideal of human solidarity, which flamed out in such events as the Crown Heights riots? Are they capitalizing on the repugnance intelligent people must feel with the idiotic reality shows and tasteless movies that pass for American culture these days?

Fishkoff is too uncritical and at times a bit too deferential, and I would have preferred more of an ironic appreciation of the distance between Lubavitch statements and ordinary reality. She praises the “patience and quiet persistence” of their shlichim as if they were canny fishermen waiting to land a trout instead of a singular breed of acolytes driven by a special kind of religious zeal. She quotes shlichim attributing their successes to the rebbe, as if he was some avuncular, still breathing baseball coach. She notes in passing Chabad’s “right-wing stance on Israel” and “interference in Israeli elections” — issues that are little known in this country but central to the movement’s image in Israel — yet she never returns to answer the implicit questions raised.

Not until the end of the book does she delve into the impact on Chabad of those who believe the rebbe was the messiah and, despite his death, will return. She underplays the perils of the schism and fails to wrestle forcefully with some of the more striking aspects of Lubavitch life: the ubiquitous pictures of the rebbe in Lubavitch homes and the engaged couples who stream to the rebbe’s grave to receive his blessings on their marriages. Many Jews regard such behavior as a form of idol worship. Fishkoff also gives short shrift to the diluted quality of Jewish education that Chabad offers the children of Reform, Conservative and unaffiliated families and the problems that it may engender.

She spends so much time with the shlichim and the movement’s leaders that she never talks to psychologists or social scientists who may help us understand the group’s appeal and the strains it may place on the families whose children it attracts. Nor does she speak to parents who feel they have “lost” their children to Chabad. Also, it would have been helpful for Fishkoff to devote more space in the book on life in Crown Heights, as Harris did. Had she done so, readers might have gotten a glimpse into just how intricately bound up in all the Orthodox rules and regulations the Lubavitch brand of Judaism is. By not doing so, she unwittingly depicts the group as radically eccentric, as opposed to positioning it on the spectrum of Judaism.

But overall, Fishkoff has written a valuable book, one that will make this group less of a mystery and allow it to keep challenging the rest of the Jewish world. Unlike some other Jewish groups, the Lubavitch take their love of fellow Jews to the streets. They do not snub or condemn those who have failed to reach their level of observance. They do not close themselves off from the flow of daily American life. As such, they will be with us for a good long time, exercising their influence, spurring us to think about what it means to be Jewish.

Joseph Berger is a senior metropolitan reporter for The New York Times specializing in the city’s ethnic groups and neighborhoods, and the author of “Displaced Persons: Growing Up American After the Holocaust” (Scribner, 2001).

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