Jewish sect abloom with rabbi teams

The Los Angeles Times/September 16, 2006
By William Lobdell

David Eliezrie is a rabbi – the head of a Yorba Linda, Calif., synagogue. One of his sons is a rabbi, and two of Eliezrie’s daughters married rabbis.

The three children are “schluchim,” or members of rabbi-and-wife emissary teams sent around the world under the Chabad-Lubavitch banner, a small, growing and controversial Hasidic branch of Judaism.

In an era in which some denominations – Roman Catholicism, for example – have left pulpits empty because of clergy shortages, the offspring of Chabad rabbis are following in their parents’ footsteps in such numbers that a surplus of about 200 new rabbis and their wives are now staged in Brooklyn, awaiting assignments around the world, Lubavitch officials said.

To become an emissary is “like getting into Harvard, only better,” said Naomi Blesofsky, 24, one of David Eliezrie’s daughters. “To live this life gives you purpose and is an honor in our community.”

In California, a remarkable 67 percent of the Chabad rabbis’ married children have become emissaries – rabbis or wives of clergy – according to the movement.

Nine more children are in their final stages of becoming “schluchim,” giving California 100 emissaries who have followed their parents’ calling. Those “schluchim” – pronounced sh-LOOK-um – come from 25 families.

Chabad doesn’t keep national or international statistics on the phenomenon, but officials said California’s percentage reflects what’s happened elsewhere.

It’s unclear how many second-generation rabbis are produced, on average, within other Jewish traditions, but experts agree that the percentage is far below Chabad’s.

Lubavitchers say their success in attracting new emissaries from rabbi-led families confirms the authenticity of Chabad’s belief that its highest calling is to help other Jews.

Chabad critics say the statistics are evidence that the movement is clannish, with an unhealthy devotion to its late leader, viewed by some as the Messiah, and with overly aggressive tactics.

“They have this sense of manifest destiny to promulgate, to proselytize, to spread the word everywhere, every day, throughout the world,” said Stephen Bloom, a University of Iowa journalism professor. His best-selling book, “Postville,” chronicled the clash of cultures between residents of a small Iowa town and Lubavitchers who moved to the Midwest to operate a kosher slaughterhouse.

“For them, this is a deadly serious holy war,” he added.

Gary Rosenblatt, the editor and publisher of Jewish Week, said that although he had “bones to pick with Chabad,” he saw the large percentage of children who become “schluchim” as honorable.

“The highest value in their culture is for their kids to become ‘schluchim’ and dedicate themselves to go anywhere in the world, sometimes for a lifetime,” he said.

Yehoshua Eliezrie, one of David Eliezrie’s sons, said his father’s passion for reaching Jews in unlikely places inspired his own spiritual journey.

Chabad is a form of Hasidic Judaism characterized by mystical piety, the embrace of Jews unschooled in the faith, and devotion to a leader, the rebbe.

To the public, Lubavitchers are best known for their rabbis, who wear long beards, black suits and fedoras, and their annual telethon.

Unlike other Hasidic groups, which often advise members to isolate themselves from the temptations of the world, Chabad emphasizes outreach to non-religious Jews.

About 4,000 Lubavitch rabbis and their families now serve with lifetime assignments in 70 countries, according to figures compiled by, the movement’s official Web site.

David Eliezrie says it’s gratifying that Chabad children, many of whom grew up in the suburbs amid “Western liberal values,” have decided to become “schluchim.”

“We are not educating a bunch of people in a monastery who have a kind of groupthink,” Eliezrie said. “We have young people who grow up knowing Judaism, the world around them, and make their own choices of what to do with their lives.”

Critics of the movement say it can produce large numbers of second-generation “schluchim” because the children are never seriously exposed to outside influences and are under familial pressures.

“Lubavitcher children are raised as Lubavitchers first, Americans second,” said Bloom of the University of Iowa.

Stephanie Wellen Levine, author of “Mystics, Mavericks, and Merrymakers: An Intimate Journey Among Hasidic Girls,” spent a year living in Crown Heights and witnessed the pressure placed on the children of rabbis to become emissaries.

Thinking about doing anything else is “profoundly scary” for many, she said.

Still, she said, the children become “schluchim” “with the clear head. They have a good sense of what they were getting into and had tested the waters,” at their fathers’ synagogues and in summer jobs abroad.

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