As a family we have become great followers of the Chabad movement. This is not unnatural for us. My mother was born in Williamsburg Brooklyn, a center of Chassidic Jewery, and soon thereafter her family moved to a dairy farm in upstate New York. Her family showed great interest in the Chassidic movement. Names like Rabbi Halberstam and Menachem Mendel Schneerson were well known to us.
In the last perhaps 20 years, especially in the last 10 years, what has become known as the Chabad movement has changed Judaism in America and perhaps around the world. At a time when assimilation is taking a greater toll on Jews than genocide, Chabad is stemming the tide.
What exactly is the Chabad movement? The concept of Chassidim, those who approach religion joyfully and absent ego, has its roots in those ancient precepts of Judaism. Abraham, for example, is extolled in the Talmud for being welcoming and hospitable to others. Abraham was deserving to be founder of a nation because he was welcoming to others. It is said that King David danced with unrestrained joy as the Ark of the Covenant was moved from Shiloh to Jerusalem, Israel’s eternal capital.
In the late Middle Ages, early enlightenment period, the Jewish world was taken by a Rabbi who became known as the Baal Shem Tov. The Rabbi was concerned that as a result of persecution, Judaism and Jews in general had become fearful, depressed, and uninspired. It was the Baal Shem’s mission to bring joy and enlightenment to forgotten souls. The work of the Baal Shem Tov led to the creation or revival, depending on one’s historical perspective, of the Chasidic movement. In the years that followed, many great Rabbis in Europe became heads of various Chasidic denominations. Some of those denominations were very introverted, and others reached out to their fellow Jews. There were those within the Jewish community who considered the Chasidic movement to represent a rejection of serious learning and devotion to centuries-old rules.
World War II and the Holocaust resulted in almost the complete destruction of the Chasidic community in Europe. It barely survived in Israel, the United States, and a few other locations.
Against this horrific backdrop of destruction, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who in later years simply became known as the Rebbe, arose to lead the Lubavitcher movement. He was actually the 7th Lubavitcher Rabbi. Rabbi Schneerson himself was an escapee from the German death juggernaut and made his way to the United States. Many legends and stories arose about the miraculous work of the Rebbe, none told better than Rabbi Telushkin in his important work about the Rebbe’s life.
When Rabbi Schneerson passed away, he was honored by the expansion of a movement which he started. Chabad houses were opened up around the country and around the world. These are individually self-sustaining locations run by a husband and wife team based upon their own fundraising with no officers, no board of directors, and no real formalistic bureaucratic structure. The Rabbis and their families, while strictly observant, are completely and totally open to any Jewish lifestyle and they are careful not to proselytize or to become enmeshed in secular political disputes.
In particular, the Chabads on college campuses have proven to be invaluable. While American colleges have become captive of forces sometimes very hostile to religion, Judaism and Israel, the Chabad houses serve as beacons of tolerance, openness and acceptance. The college Chabad houses are safe locations for students and others regardless of their views or levels of religious observance.
Chabad houses exist in many locations around the United States and the world and are not necessarily on college campuses. Each has a particular emphasis depending upon the community and the interests of the Rabbi and his family.
Our family has been a recipient of the tremendous value that Chabad adds to Jewish lives by virtue of the tri-college Chabad located in Haverford, Pennsylvania. Serving Haverford, Swarthmore and Bryn Mawr Colleges, the Rabbi and his wife represent humility, warmth, and a measured open-minded approach to their students (and fellow travelers like us) which is truly remarkable. Hanging around a bunch of 18 to 25-year-olds for Rosh Hashanah may not be the most exciting way for most people of our age to spend the holidays. Listening to each one of the students speak about why the holiday was meaningful to them at Eli and Blumie Gurevitz’ Chabad House in Haverford has helped to restore my faith in the next generation. People my age love to complain about the “new youth.” We say they are lazy, lost in the millennium, without direction, and essentially amoral. However true that might be, it certainly was not evident listening to the students at Eli and Blumie’s Chabad House this past Rosh Hashanah. These are principled, thoughtful and amiable young people who are thinking about the meaning of life, spirituality, and their dedication to Jewish values. Rabbi Gurevitz and his family did not invent these people. These students were raised by wonderful parents and grandparents all over the country. The point is, however, that the students came together at the Chabad House in Haverford because such a place exists and because there is a Rabbi and his family who help to provide not only a safe haven, but also a relaxed spiritual home.
The next generation of Jews in America, and around the world, will be influenced by the joyfulness and values of personal gratitude thanks to the manner in which the Chabad movement transmits Chasidic flavor to the Jewish community. I have heard non-Chasidic groups angry and jealous at how well the Chabad Houses have succeeded on campus and in communities around the world. As I recently related to a Rabbi in my hometown, instead of being angry, remember that “imitation is the highest form of flattery.” Look at what these Chabad Rabbis are doing and why both young and old flock to the Chabad Houses. Rather than being sore, imitate their approach to life, religion and human relationships. One of the favorite notions of Chasidic Judaism is that we all have a G-d given ability to succeed and improve ourselves, regardless of the odds. The philosophy of hope and appreciation, based upon a strong code of personal values informed by a religious tradition would not be a bad idea for all of us to consider.
Cliff Rieders is a Board-Certified Trial Advocate in Williamsport, is Past President of the Pennsylvania Trial Lawyers Association and a past member of the Pennsylvania Patient Safety Authority. None of the opinions expressed necessarily represent the views of these organizations.