The Growth of Chabbad

Religion & Ethics Newsletter/March 22, 2002

BOB ABERNETHY, anchor: Now a special report on a high-profile and sometimes controversial movement within Hasidic Judaism. Hasidism began in the 1700s in Eastern Europe. It was characterized by strict observance of ritual law, joyous worship, and deep mysticism. Hasidism was almost wiped out during the Holocaust, but was revived by survivors who came to the U.S. Of the several Hasidic groups, the Chabad-Lubavitch movement is by far the most visible. Sunday, March 24, marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of their late chief rabbi, Menachem Mendel Schneerson. Eight years after his death, he continues to inspire Lubavitchers. Some even think he is the Messiah. Kim Lawton has the story.

KIM LAWTON: Rabbi Shea Harlig is on a mission -- to get Jews to embrace a more traditional practice of their faith. As an emissary of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, he works nearly nonstop. He leads prayer services and Torah studies; he and his wife Dina sponsor a Jewish school for children; and they promote keeping a kosher diet. The rabbi is waging his campaign in what may seem an unlikely mission field -- Las Vegas, Nevada.

Rabbi SHEA HARLIG: Once you get away from the Strip, it is like every other city -- except you have slot machines in every grocery store.

LAWTON: The Harligs are part of a vast and sometimes controversial effort aimed at Jews in every corner of the globe. It was the vision of the late Chief Lubavitcher Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who led the Lubavitch movement for more than 40 years. Lubavitchers simply call him "the Rebbe."

Rabbi YEHUDA KRINSKY: The Rebbe established what you might call an outreach program decades ago. The intention: to reach out to Jewish people wherever they are, whoever they are, regardless of background. To teach them about their faith.

LAWTON: Schneerson emphasized traditional Hasidic teachings: strict religious observance and deep mysticism. He also preached that the coming of the Messiah, the Moshiach, was near.

Rabbi HARLIG: The Rebbe has spoke[n] that we should usher in this age when godliness will be revealed to all, and the struggle between good and evil will cease. There will be true peace in the world. So we look at our goal of bringing Jews closer so that they should fulfill the mission as one of the ways we could hasten, speed up, the coming of the Messiah.

LAWTON: Like other Hasidic groups, Lubavitchers fled persecution and political upheaval in Europe, bringing their 18th-century way of life to 20th-century America. They established a flourishing community in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, which has become the movement's international headquarters. While other Hasidic groups maintained a strict focus inward, the Rebbe instructed his followers to spread the Chabad-Lubavitch vision outward.

Rabbi KRINSKY: He often said that he could not rest until every Jewish child, every Jewish person was afforded a proper Jewish education to know how to live as a Jew and as a human being.

LAWTON: Married men and women called "shluchim," emissaries, were dispatched around the world to establish Chabad centers -- even in places where there were only a few Jews. They call themselves "the Rebbe's Army" and they've enlisted for life. There are more than 3,800 emissary couples in 45 U.S. states and 62 foreign countries. Roll calls at Lubavitch meetings such as this recent women's conference show their massive reach.

There's a special emphasis on Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, where the Lubavitch movement has its roots.

LEAH MINDLE LIPSZYC (Emissary to Crimea): Most of the people in the country, through 75 years of communism, were totally, totally deprived of any knowledge of Judaism.

LAWTON: But emissaries are also in other challenging places -- they've led special services in Nepal, and they've lit a Hanukkah menorah in Las Vegas.

Las Vegas -- Sin City -- may be among the last places people would expect to find a thriving Chabad center. This area has one of the fastest-growing Jewish populations in the United States. There are about 70,000 Jews here. Most are secular.

Such a mission field was just what Shea and Dina Harlig were looking for when they arrived more than a decade ago, shortly after their marriage. There was no kosher food. No ritual bath. Little Jewish education. So the Harligs set to work.

Today, they've opened a new $1.5 million Chabad center, with regular prayer services in the "shul," or synagogue, and a "mikveh," a bath, for women's monthly purification rituals.

Rabbi Harlig is now the local kosher food supervisor. Several grocery stores sponsor entire kosher food sections. And there are several kosher restaurants, including a Chinese restaurant, Shalom Hunan.

They established the Torah Tots Preschool and the Desert Torah Academy with grades K through fourth. The instruction is both secular and religious. Most of the parents are non-Chabad Jews.

DINA HARLIG: We have the parents really involved as much as we can, and we explain a lot of what we do; whatever program we do, we always explain and have them understand what's going on.

Rabbi HARLIG: One of the signs of the coming of the Moshiach, it says that the children are going to bring the parents closer, back to Judaism, to observance.

LAWTON: Harlig teaches Jews that observance and good deeds are a way to enhance spirituality and connect with God.

Lynn and Arne Rosencrantz are members of a Conservative congregation who have participated in Rabbi Harlig's classes and donated to Chabad projects.

LYNN ROSENCRANTZ: They make me hungry to learn more. They encourage and motivate me to learn more about Judaism -- to be a better Jew, to aspire to be the best Jew that I can.

LAWTON: But Lubavitchers also generate controversy, especially because of their messianic beliefs. Schneerson died in 1994; he had not designated a successor. Lubavitchers believe he is still guiding them. Every year, people flock to his gravesite in Queens, where they seek his intervention for miracles.

Chabad leaders say every "shaliach," or emissary, continues to be inspired by the Rebbe.

Rabbi KRINSKY: I would say there is not a shaliach in the world who -- and all the members of his or her family, that don't feel the Rebbe constantly looking over their shoulder. His blessing is almost palpable, the success is so phenomenal.

LAWTON: At the time of Schneerson's death, some Lubavitchers believed the Rebbe himself was Moshiach -- the Messiah. That belief has persisted, and apparently grown -- something that offends many Orthodox Jews.

Rabbi DAVID BERGER: The belief that the messianic mission of the true Messiah would be interrupted by his death and burial in an unredeemed world is a position which Jews rejected, and rejected vigorously, vehemently, as part of the defining characteristic of the Jewish religion. I believe that the belief itself is a betrayal of Judaism.

LAWTON: Rabbi Berger, a professor of Jewish history, says while Jews do believe in the coming of the Messiah, the Chabad-Lubavitch interpretation is wrong. This is particularly troubling, he says, because of Chabad's growing global influence. In his writings, Berger criticizes other Jews for not speaking out.

Rabbi BERGER: There is a deep dependence on Chabad by non-Chabad Orthodox Jews. Only in a generation now, if this continues, will people come to realize for the sake of all these good things, they have transformed and undermined their religion.

LAWTON: Chabad leaders are very reluctant to publicly discuss the extent to which Lubavitchers believe Schneerson was the Messiah.

Rabbi KRINSKY: We live in a free country. People could believe in whatever they want. But it is certainly not an obligation upon anyone to campaign or point fingers at anybody saying that this is Moshiach, this is potential Moshiach. I think it's dangerous, actually. People don't understand what the whole concept of Moshiach is really about. It's a delicate subject, and they could get lost in the quagmire.

Rabbi HARLIG: It's possible. Who is it going to be for sure, I don't know. The most important thing, let's do our work. Let's bring as many Jews back to our sacred tradition and the Messiah will show up, and whoever it is going to be, it's going to be, as long as he finally comes.

LAWTON: And Rabbi Harlig says he's doing what he can to see Las Vegas get ready for the Messiah's arrival.

Rabbi HARLIG: My hope is that the Moshiach will be here and the Strip will turn into big yeshivas, rabbinical schools. I envision all these big hotels with thousands of rooms; it could be rabbinical students studying here. That's my vision.

LAWTON: I'm Kim Lawton in Las Vegas.

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