A State-of-the-Sect Message

The New York Times/September 19, 2004
By Elsa Brenner

Racing against a deadline with the setting sun on a recent Friday afternoon, Rochel Butman drove back to Westchester from Brooklyn along the Van Wyck Expressway, her five children in the back of the family van listening to the Yeshiva Boys' Choir on the CD player.

As Mrs. Butman made her way home to Purchase, the auburn strands of her wig swept along her shoulders and her skirt hem fell decorously below her knees. Her legs and feet were shrouded in dark socks and running shoes.

She had just completed the last of a number of errands that week in the Crown Heights neighborhood, site of the headquarters for the worldwide Chabad Lubavitch movement.

She had visited a scribe to pick up several mezuzas, small oblong containers attached to the thresholds of Jewish houses, for holding handwritten verses from Deuteronomy. She had retrieved two of her older children from the houses of relatives and, finally, she had stopped off for fresh-baked challah and some of her family's other favorite foods.

Just outside of Brooklyn, her cellphone rang. It was her husband, Rabbi Velvl Butman, inquiring: "How is everyone? Where are all of you?"

"Just about to go over the bridge," she said into her headset, as the car wove through the rush-hour traffic.

"O.K.," he said, "but drive carefully. There's still plenty of time."

It was 3 p.m., and the sun that day wouldn't drop below the horizon until after 7. In the Butman household, Shabbos (the Sabbath, also referred to as Shabbat) is ushered in with the weekly lighting of candles, which takes place 18 minutes before sunset, and heralds the sharing of the traditional Friday night meal with friends.

It has been about a decade since the couple, who are both in their 30's, were first dispatched to Westchester from Brooklyn by Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who until his death in 1994 was the grand rebbe of Chabad Lubavitch.

Their assignment: to promulgate the teachings of his Hasidic sect, which has its roots in 18th-century Eastern Europe and is now a worldwide religious and social services organization.

When the Butmans arrived in Westchester in 1994 with their 2-year-old son, Avrohom, they brought little more with them than their religious zeal, a pair of Shabbos candlesticks and other religious articles, some household belongings and an initial stipend from Chabad headquarters, which was about enough money to tide them over for a year.

They began their mission by opening the local Yellow Pages and cold-calling area Jewish leaders and organizations, explaining to them that they had arrived in Westchester on behalf of the grand rebbe to encourage other Jews to observe Jewish traditions.

Since then Westchester has proved relatively accepting, thanks in large part to its demographics. As of 2000, Jews made up about 14 percent of Westchester's 923,459 residents - or about 130,000, according to a study of the area's population released last spring by the UJA-Federation of New York. The numbers include Orthodox, Conservative, Reformed, Reconstructionist and unaffiliated Jews.

The Lubavitch movement may fall at the extreme Orthodox end of the spectrum, but that has not hindered the Butmans' efforts to find their niche in the county's Jewish population. Despite the discomfiture that religious and academic authorities say Lubavitchers can generate among more assimilated Jews, and despite the group's perceived rigidity in adherence to ancient custom, the Butmans and those who have followed them here have made a relatively soft landing in the county.

Samuel Heilman, the Proshansky professor in Jewish studies and sociology at the City University of New York, described Lubavitchers as falling into two camps: those who have remained in Crown Heights and maintained their insularity; and the emissaries, or shluchim, who like the Butmans have settled in areas where Jews live and try to persuade them to be more observant.

Today the nonprofit Chabad Lubavitch of Westchester offers: free High Holy Day services (most synagogues require participants to buy tickets); study groups and classes; summer and winter day camps open to all Jewish children (the summer camp was at capacity this year, Mrs. Butman said); bar and bat mitzvah clubs; and a Friendship Circle club that connects teenage Jewish volunteers with disabled children.

The rabbi also visits homes for elderly, talking about Judaism and sometimes schmoozing with residents in Yiddish, a tongue familiar to many of them.

Yet, technically, he has neither congregation nor synagogue. For services, the Butmans rent space at local hotels - they are observing Rosh Hashana, for instance, at the Rye Town Hilton. On holidays like Hanukkah and the imminent Sukkot, the parties are more festive.

Similarly, for the camp and other programs, they rent space in the area. One often-frequented site is the Performing Arts Center at Purchase College.

Although Rabbi Butman describes the movement as reaching out to Jews, to help them be more observant, he denies attempts to proselytize.

"We're looking for people to be more involved in Jewish tradition," the rabbi explained, "but everybody does that in his or her own way. Our goal is to inspire people to do more acts of goodness and kindness, but we're not specifying how they do that."

Such acts, called mitzvahs, are said to convey blessings on those who perform them. One way Jews can perform them is to contribute either money or professional services to Chabad Lubavitch of Westchester, which these days has an annual budget of about $2 million, much of it generated through a fund-raising gala and private contributions.

The Butmans have gathered into their fold a number of influential non-Hasidic supporters who live in Westchester, including Roberta Peters, the opera star, and Barry Slotnick, the lawyer known for his defense of high-profile clients like the 1984 subway vigilante Bernhard Goetz.

Westchester Chabad has also honored politicians like County Executive Andrew J. Spano, his predecessor Andrew P. O'Rourke, and District Attorney Jeanine Pirro at its annual spring gala. During Hanukkah, the rabbi and Mr. Spano ascend 30 feet in a Con Ed bucket to light a menorah at a shopping center in Scarsdale.

Mr. Spano visited Rabbi Schneerson in 1990. "The rebbe was a significant force in the State of New York," he said, "and I was running for state comptroller at the time." Mr. Spano is not Jewish, though his wife, Brenda Resnick Spano, was reared in the Orthodox tradition.

Similarly, he added, Chabad Lubavitch of Westchester represents a local force - "part of the diversity of the county, and a group responsible for charity and good works."

But Rabbi Butman describes fund-raising and the politics that invariably go with it as merely a means to an end, saying the main focus of Chabad's efforts is to teach Jews about Judaism, not to twist anyone's arm.

"We're far more concerned with someone's soul than their wallet," he explained. "I'm not here as a salesman to convince anyone to buy my product."

Rabbi Schneerson began to promote his brand of Hasidism shortly after the Holocaust. He said its teachings offered Jews a spiritual road map, emphasizing the importance of a joyful life.

By the late 1960's, groups of young male Lubavitchers began appearing on New York City streets on Friday afternoons, enjoining other Jewish men to don tefillin (small black leather cubes on tethers bound to the arm and forehead and worn at weekday prayers) and women to light candles.

A van called a Mitzvah Tank would rove the streets of Manhattan, with a loudspeaker belting out Hasidic songs and a large poster beckoning less observant Jews with enticements like, "Mitzvah on the Spot for People on the Go."

These days, the evangelizing of the Butmans and other emissaries outside of Crown Heights is clearly of a subtler nature. And that difference is not the only one within the Lubavitch fold. The most significant: there are those who believe that Rabbi Schneerson is the messiah and those who do not.

Rabbi Butman, for his part, denied the existence of the schism, describing such reports as media hype.

His father, Rabbi Shmuel Butman, the longtime director of a Lubavitch group in Brooklyn, has held publicly that Rabbi Schneerson is the messiah. But he would not comment on his father, saying only: "As representatives of the rebbe our job is to make the world a better place and usher in the time of the messiah."

There are now more than 3,000 Chabad centers in some 60 countries, according to records kept at Chabad Lubavitch world headquarters in Brooklyn, with emissaries like the Butmans educating fellow Jews in the laws of the Torah and the teachings of the Talmud, tending to the poor and sick, and performing other mitzvahs.

But even the emissaries remain essentially insular, said Professor Heilman, the N.Y.U. scholar, noting that shluchim send their children to Orthodox schools and view the surrounding culture as ultimately defiling and corrosive.

Other Jews react to the Chabadniks, as Lubavitchers are sometimes called, with a range of emotions, Mr. Heilman added. Some are drawn to them, seeing inspiration in their efforts. But many view them as a throwback to an uncomfortably literalist form of Judaism - one that is out of synch with the modern world.

In Westchester, the reactions of non-Hasidic rabbis run the gamut.

"In many ways," said Rabbi Daniel Wolk at Temple Emanu-El of Westchester in Harrison, "I appreciate what the Lubavitchers are doing - bringing Jews back to Judaism and bringing a sense of life to the religion.

"But I question whether they accept reformed Jewish rabbis like myself as authentic. I don't question their way of life, although it may be different, and I only react negatively when I think they don't accept my way."

Rabbi Butman's response to this: "We're not here to pass judgment, but rather to offer and share."

Yet at Congregation Kol Ami in White Plains, the Reformed temple's two rabbis, Tom Weiner and Shira Milgrom, refused to comment at all about Lubavitchers' contributions to Jewish life in the county. "They have nothing to say," the rabbis' secretary, Lois Stogel, told a reporter.

Rabbi Jeffrey Segelman, spiritual leader of the Westchester Jewish Center, a Conservative congregation in Mamaroneck, expressed the most positive views.

Hasidim, he said, stand apart from other Jews in a number of ways - in their strong ties to their past and in their manner of dress, for example.

"Those are the kinds of things that some people love about them but others find a complete turnoff," he said, adding, "As for me personally, I'm inspired by them."

During the Holocaust, many Hasidic centers of Eastern Europe were destroyed, and survivors moved to Israel or America, among other places. Today, the larger and better-known sects in the Hasidic movement include Breslov, Lubavitch, Satmar, Ger, and Bobov, whose names derive from their towns of origin. They differ mainly in their emphasis. For example, one meaning of Chabad is intellect, and Chabad Lubavitch followers emphasize the importance of studying and understanding.

Reflecting the public's ambivalence, Orthodox Jewish men are often portrayed in caricature, bobbing back and forth in long dark coats, with unkempt beards and strands of hair hanging down from their temples. Women are seen as house fraus overshadowed by their husbands and overburdened physically and emotionally with large broods of children.

"Unfortunately, we live in a world of stereotypes, and sometimes people judge us before they get to know us as individuals," said the red-bearded Rabbi Butman, who dresses in well-tailored suits, with a short black overcoat and black fedora. He eschews ear locks, which others adopt in response to scriptural injunction not to trim hair below the cheekbone. But he still looks the part of an old-world Orthodox rabbi.

Mrs. Butman, on the other hand, is not easily singled out in a crowd as Hasidic. Although she observes the code of modesty that forbids a married woman to display her hair in public, her sheitel, or wig, is made of human hair and she wears it in a shoulder-length, layered modern style - sometimes even pulled back in a ponytail. (The Butmans were not among those Hasidim who last year burned wigs of Indian origin, which some condemned as having emerged from idolatrous practices.)

And while Mrs. Butman's skirts always fall below her knees, they are stylishly cut. Her jackets and blouse sleeves end no higher than the elbow, and her collarbone is never displayed publicly, in accordance with Jewish law.

"But just because I dress modestly doesn't mean I have to look dowdy," she said. "Like most women, I love fashion, and my husband likes it very much when I look nice."

Does a Lubavitcher woman assume a secondary role in the family? Must she sit in the back seat of a car when her husband is driving, as some people believe? Does she walk behind her husband on the street? And is she by Jewish law tied down by a large brood of children?

"Nonsense!" Mrs. Butman said in response to such questions. "We're not subservient, and we often hold down important jobs. In fact, we were liberated long before the Women's Movement even began."

Most often, the criticism of Hasidic women comes from other Jewish women, who fear that their sisters' lives and best interests are eclipsed by those of men. In particular, some less observant Jewish women who were asked to share their impressions of Hasidic families questioned why Lubavitch women have so many children.

"Children are a blessing," Mrs. Butman asserted. But she said family planning was allowed, if for example more children would physically or emotionally harm the woman.

Nowhere can the woman's role in a Lubavitch family be seen more clearly than in the hours before sunset on a Friday.

One such evening found Mrs. Butman, who is director of the Lubavitchers' summer camp, recording another batch of registrations as she welcomed a weekend guest. She then braided the challah and set it in the oven, received bouquets that her three daughters had picked in the garden, and arranged the coming week's schedule for participants in the Friendship Circle.

Moments before sundown, she changed into in a long black dress with a white satin collar and cuffs, and applied a lipstick that would keep its color through the Sabbath, because nothing can be created and nothing destroyed during that period.

Also upstairs in the family's small wood-frame house, the three daughters - Musia, 8, Sara 3, and Chana, 2 - were choosing their favorite dresses for the occasion and shining their Mary Janes.

Downstairs, in the crowded space that serves as family room and dining room, Avrohom, the eldest, played Israeli songs on an electronic keyboard. Six-year-old Zalman swept the crumbs from the floor and occasionally pestered the others.

In addition to challah, Shabbos fare includes gefilte fish, matzo ball soup, roast chicken, potato kugel and several salads, all prepared in the hours before sundown. Another dish that will stay warm through the next day heats over a low light that will not be extinguished until the end of weekly observance.

And lest the woman's efforts as the key player in bringing the family together for the Sabbath be overlooked, a passage from Proverbs is read among the men every Friday night extolling her virtues. The woman, according to Rabbi Butman's interpretation of Jewish law, "is front and center of every aspect of our lives."

"For us, marriage is partnership," he said. "We're running a business together, and anyone who thinks that the woman in a Lubavitcher household is relegated to cleaning the house and caring for the children is wrong. I take the kids to school in the morning, diaper the baby, help clean the house and often do the shopping. Men are very involved with raising a family."

"Chauvinism in a Jewish family is a myth," he concluded.

Encouraged by the response locally over the past 10 years, Rabbi Butman, who is regional executive director for Chabad Lubavitch of Westchester, has added three more rabbis to the roster in the county. But just how does one measure the success of the Chabad Lubavitch venture in Westchester when the commodity is neither numbers or dollar signs?

"You can't measure it from a business point of view," said Eric S. Goldschmidt, chairman of the Westchester United Jewish Appeal Federation General Campaign.

He added: "Basically what they're doing is keeping alive our links to a religion that is more than 5,000 years old.

"I would say that in today's world, that is no small task."

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