As they gather for the annual convention in New York, a look at how Chabad has flourished in North America.
By Faygie Levy
[This is the first in a series of articles on the growth and impact of Chabad-Lubavitch worldwide.]
In the past several months, a group of young married couples, many with a baby or young children by their sides, left their home towns destined for cities and towns across the United States, including Frisco, Texas; Biloxi, Miss.; and Pittsburgh, Pa.
They joined some 90 other young Jewish couples who have moved out of New York, some going far overseas, since the start of 2014 – as well as many of their contemporaries waiting to do so – in an effort to spread the light of Torah and Judaism throughout the world.
Called shluchim, or “emissaries” in English, they are following a directive that was given to them – and in many cases, to their parents and grandparents – by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory. The 20th anniversary of the Rebbe’s passing, his yahrtzeit, on the third day of the Hebrew month of Tammuz fell this year on July 1.
“Shlichus is really a lifestyle,” says Rabbi Henoch Rosenfeld, 25, who along with his wife, Sarah, 22, and 8-month-old son Mendel moved to Pittsburgh to join a large contingent of established shluchim, including his parents, Rabbi Yisroel and Blumi Rosenfeld.
“As much as the Rebbe left us with his teachings,” the young rabbi says, “he left us with a timeless mission to bring every Jew closer to Judaism and their roots. [It’s a mission] that is as present today as it was 30 years ago, when the Rebbe sent them personally.”
That so many young people continue to go on shlichus is an amazing feat considering that in the days and weeks after the Rebbe’s passing, many predicted that the movement would decline – that it would not be able to sustain its energy and vision after the loss of their leader.
Not only has that proven not to be the case, a renewed vigor propelled the movement forward. Honoring the memory of the Rebbe, his adherents plunged full force into their work.
In fact, a great number of these worldwide emissaries are gathering this week in Brooklyn, N.Y., for the annual International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Shluchim, which takes place Nov. 19 through Nov. 24.
“When the Rebbe passed away, there were maybe 1,500 shluchim,” according to Rabbi Shimon Lazaroff, who along with his wife, Chiena, were sent to Texas by Rebbe in 1972. “Now there are approximately 4,000 shluchim. We have more than doubled because of that vision of the Rebbe to go and follow his directive.”
Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, chairman of Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, the educational arm of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, states that “when you look at the panorama of Chabad around the world, it’s beautiful. There’s nothing like it. But we must remember that we haven’t even begun to scratch the surface.
“It’s amazing to see the respect people have in the community for the shluchim,” he continues. “They don’t just run a synagogue or a center on campus; they are involved with the entire community and in the whole kaleisdoscope of people’s lives. People trust them; they are comfortable with them.”
Still, he emphasizes: “We can’t relax until we reach every Jew. We have a long way to go.”
Reach and Engage
The actual number of shluchim couple serving today is 4,187, though swells to more than 25,000 people worldwide when adding in the children of those couples (the Rebbe considered the children of shluchim to be emissaries in their own right); yeshivah students, or bochurim, who help out in the summer and during holidays; and young unmarried women, who serve as camp counselors and assist with schools and programming as well.
“The Rebbe wanted to reach each and every Jew with the light of Torah and mitzvot, and until that’s accomplished, we can’t rest,” says Rabbi Mendy Kotlarsky, executive director of Merkos 302, which provides programming support to Chabad Houses around the world. “As the number of shluchim grows, we are constantly looking for ways to further empower them in their work, and provide them with tools to reach and engage with more Jews than ever before.”
Chabad may not be everywhere, but it does run centers in more than 80 different countries. In many of these places, Chabad serves as the only link to organized Jewish life for residents and visitors, offering Torah study and classes on Judaism, Shabbat observance, kashrut, Jewish holidays, Rosh Chodesh and more.
Nationwide, that presence is reaching far beyond the confines of major cities like Los Angeles and Miami, where the Rebbe personally sent his emissaries in the 1950s and 1960s. Small towns, far-flung suburbs and even deep into the West – in geographically large states like Wyoming and Montana, where few Jews live percentage-wise – have seen the arrival of Chabad couples, who often work out of their homes at first.
Chabad has a footprint in more than 45 cities and towns across New Jersey, and more than 100 in both California and in Florida respectively.
Even the Hawaiian Islands are host to four different Chabad Houses. (Chabad also has a growing presence in Mexico and the Caribbean, a popular tourist destination, with more and more Jewish individuals choosing to live or retire there.)
In fact, of the 50 U.S. states, only one lacks a permanent Chabad presence: South Dakota. Mississippi became the 49th state to have a Chabad House when Rabbi Akiva and Hannah Hall, and their baby daughter Leah, settled in Biloxi earlier this fall. South Dakota, meanwhile, will be served by “Roving Rabbis,” who come in for various programs, holidays and more.
Canada has also seen plenty of growth over the last 20 years in the number of Chabad Houses and emissaries serving the Great White North, estimated at about 250. More than half-a-dozen centers have opened throughout Alberta and British Columbia, including Kelowna, B.C., which recently also got its first Torah scroll. Farther east, Montreal and its surrounding neighbors can count approximately 100 shluchim in the region.
“In the past 20 years, the network of Chabad-Lubavitch in Canada has literally quadrupled,” says Rabbi Mendel Kaplan, who co-directs Chabad @ Flamingo in Thornhill, Ontario, with his wife, Faygie. “From a prominent presence on the Jewish landscape during the past two decades, Chabad has flowered in an unprecedented fashion. In communities both large and small, Chabad centers and the shluchim of the Rebbe are now seen as trendsetters and at the vanguard of the future of Canadian Jewry.”
Along those lines, Rabbi Yossi Groner, the head emissary in the Carolinas, notes that “the Rebbe generated an energy that was unstoppable.”
In the old days,” he explains, “they used to give a lot of credit to the shluchim on their own, and say they were dynamic, charismatic people. Now they realize it wasn’t that way in a vacuum, but that the young people were trained in the way of the Rebbe, and he inspired them. They realize the power of the Rebbe even more today because while he’s physically absent, his ideas and presence are still growing and growing.”
That influence is felt across Groner’s adopted home state of North Carolina and neighboring South Carolina, as the Charlotte-based rabbi has been instrumental in bringing new shluchim to his region.
To date, the two states have 12 Chabad Houses between them, and Groner isn’t done with his recruiting.
“We believe there will be more couples coming,” he predicts. “There are bedroom communities that need a Chabad, so we will probably aim to send them there.”
Also planning to expand is Rabbi Sholom Ber Levitin, who oversees Chabad-Lubavitch of the Pacific Northwest, which includes parts of the United States and western Canada. The region is currently home to 40-plus emissaries and a number of different Chabad centers, schools and more.
“We just had someone call to apply for shlichus in Washington,” Levitin says, adding that already, “there are four shluchim who are in the initial stages of discussing their potential shlichus” in the region.
Not Lonely in the ‘Lone Star’ State
That news would have certainly pleased the Rebbe, who once asked his followers to mark his 70th birthday by creating 71 new Chabad centers to reach out to other Jews. The Rebbe personally provided seed money for those ventures – some 10 percent of the operating costs.
Among those who answered the call were the Lazaroffs.
“The Rebbe sent me to Texas and told me it wasn’t decided where I should live, so we checked out San Antonio, Dallas, Houston, and then I gave a report. The Rebbe circled Houston, so we went there – me, my wife and my four children.”
Today, more than 30 shluchim work in the Lone Star state from El Paso in the west to the Galveston Bay area in the east.
Rabbi Mendy and Mushkie Kesselman – 25, and 22, respectively – are among the newest. Mushkie Kesselman’s parents, Rivka and Rabbi Menachem Block, are shluchim in Texas, where Mushkie was raised. This July, she and her husband, with their 6-month-old son Nosson in tow, moved to Texas to build their own Chabad community in the town of Frisco.
“My parents are in Plano, 30 minutes away, and a lot of people were coming to them from Frisco and wishing they were closer,” explains Kesselman. She notes that a wealth of job opportunities in Dallas and Plano has prompted young couples to move out to Frisco, where there is more affordable housing.
Kesselman and fellow new shaliach Henoch Rosenfeld, along with their spouses, are examples of a growing trend of younger couples who were raised on shlichus returning to their home communities to continue the work of Chabad emissaries before them.
But a desire to return to one’s roots doesn’t guarantee that a shaliach will be placed there. Rather, an aspiring emissary must demonstrate a need for their services and gain approval from the head shaliach in the region.
At other times, the creation of a new Chabad center comes after yeshivah students return home from their summer or winter touring, where they travel to population centers that don’t have a lot of Jewish infrastructure, indicating that a community could support a Chabad House.
According to Rosenfeld, that’s exactly what transpired in the town of Altoona, Pa., several years ago when he and a group of friends traveled through Western Pennsylvania’s smaller communities and saw an interest for a stronger Jewish presence.
“The follow-up to our visit,” he says proudly, “was that a rabbi moved there.”
A Paradigm Shift
Regardless of how a Chabad House gets started, they all have one thing in common.
As Groner explains: “There needs to be interest from the local community. It has to be in both the desire to learn and connect with Chabad. Also, we try to raise 50 percent of the budget of the first two years from the local community. This forms a solid partnership with the existing community.”
There also must be a commitment by the aspiring emissaries to move to their new city for the long haul.
Despite the massive growth of shluchim around the country and world over the last 20 years, some young Chabad couples remain challenged in finding a place to go.
“If there were a thousand more places, there would be a thousand more shluchim,” states Kotlarsky. “Thank G-d, Chabad is almost everywhere geographically, so we are now turning our focus to demographic outreach by creating programming specific to different age groups, including kids, teens and young adults just starting out in the business world.”
“There’s a need for a paradigm shift in shlichus itself,” says Groner. “New shluchim who enter the system should be willing to bolster existing Chabad institutions – they could bring new life to the infrastructure of these institutions.”
The bottom line, however, is that Chabad’s youth will continue to leave their home communities ad their academic institutions, and reach out to other Jews wherever they are because that was what the Rebbe asked of them – indeed, expected of them.
“The Rebbe once said he would be very satisfied with a small minyan [in his shul] if he knew everyone was going out doing shlichus,” Groner recounts. “And the greatest happiness is to see how many people have been affected and connected as a result of those going out.”
courtesy Chabad.org News