A Booming Sect Sends Jewish Emissaries Abroad
Los Angeles Times-September 11, 2006
By William Lobdell, Times Staff Writer
September 11, 2006
David Eliezrie is a rabbi — the head of a Yorba Linda 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 where 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% 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 G. 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.
Yehoshua Eliezrie, 26, was 10 when he overheard his father arguing with a visiting Los Angeles rabbi who couldn't understand why David Eliezrie would try to establish a synagogue in Yorba Linda, best known as the birthplace of Richard M. Nixon.
"What are you doing here?" the visiting rabbi chided him as they walked home from a sparsely attended Friday evening service. "Nothing's going to happen. You're wasting life."
Young Yehoshua was devastated, but then inspired.
"My father started to argue with him right there," he said. "He had a vision of what he wanted to do, the Jewish people here he wanted to help, and he wouldn't let anyone talk him out of it."
Chabad, a Hebrew acronym for wisdom, understanding and knowledge, took root in the late 18th century in the then-Russian city of Lubavitch. It 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. This year, the show aired Sunday with appearances by James Caan, Elliott Gould, Regis Philbin, Jon Voight and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
In 1940, the movement's leaders fled Nazi Europe and moved Chabad's headquarters to the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn.
Unlike other Hasidic groups, which often advise members to isolate themselves from the temptations of the world, Chabad emphasizes outreach to nonreligious Jews.
The last rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, who died in 1994, said there was no higher calling.
"A Jew may say to you, 'Why can't you leave me alone?' " Schneerson told his followers. " 'Why can't you just go and do your thing and let me do mine? What does it bother you if I drill this little hole in my little boat?'
"You must answer him, 'There is only one boat, and we are all in it together.' "
Toward the end of his life and even after death, Schneerson was so revered that most Lubavitchers viewed him as the Jewish Messiah, a claim he denied. Those beliefs have since died down, at least publicly, with only a small but vocal segment promoting him as the Messiah.
"He was so giving and every breath that he had in his lifetime was spent on making sure that every Jewish person in the world would feel the experience of being Jewish," said Blesofsky, whose husband is a rabbi who visits the sick and dying in hospitals around Orange County. She is the educational director of her father's synagogue. "It has given my life purpose," she said.
About 4,000 Lubavitch rabbis and their families now serve with lifetime assignments in 70 countries, according to figures compiled by http://www.chabad.org , the movement's official website. Those numbers are roughly double what they were a decade ago. The emissaries were undeterred by the modest pay (about $45,000 to start in the United States), long hours and difficult assignments in places such as Guatemala, Nepal and Greer, S.C.
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 do with their lives."
His children and others say the decision to become schluchim seemed as natural as breathing.
Yehoshua Eliezrie, who opened a Chabad Center in Tustin two years ago, said he wanted to be an emissary "for as long as I remembered…. My parents infused in us that sense of idealism, and the rebbe [Schneerson] infused in us a sense of purpose."
The second-generation emissaries said they grew up witnessing the importance of their parents' work, such as conducting a funeral for a family that didn't belong to a synagogue or holding beginning Hebrew classes for adults.
"There wasn't any great epiphany where the light turned on and it was 'Wow, that's want I want to do,' " said Chana Zarchi, 29, who is David Eliezrie's eldest daughter and an emissary in San Francisco. "It was definitely something we grew into."
Rabbi Yona Matusof of Madison, Wis., tells of coming home from a night out with his wife to find his 4-year-old son teaching the baby-sitter, a nonpracticing Jew, the Hebrew alphabet.
"She's now a married woman with five or six children, leading a Jewish life," said Matusof, whose son became a rabbi on the University of Wisconsin campus.
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 tremendous 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," both at their fathers' synagogues and in summer jobs abroad.
"They are passionate about their beliefs, their lifestyle, and it's a beautiful thing for many of them," Levine said. "On the other hand, I would not say this is proof that they have the truth or the way. It works for them."
Offspring of rabbis who don't become emissaries often remain deeply religious and help fund their emissary parents and siblings.
Rabbi Yizchak and Ita Marcus, who run a Chabad center in Los Alamitos, have eight children. Of the five married sons and daughters, four are emissaries, in Poway, San Mateo, Mission Viejo and Cypress.
The fifth, Haim, runs a Marina del Rey advertising company and gives a sizable portion of his profits to his parents' and siblings' programs.
Others have also offered support to the movement.
New York investment manager George Rohr has given millions of dollars to support newly ordained Chabad rabbis and their wives each year, according to Lubavitch officials. Recently, Rohr sponsored 35 couples to open Chabad Houses at colleges across the country and 33 others to expand adult Jewish learning in the United States.
Rohr, who attends a Modern Orthodox synagogue, said Chabad's emissaries provide the most cost-effective way of strengthening the Jewish community, whether it's at a college or in Africa.
"The schluchim are the best and brightest," Rohr said. "The money goes a long way with Chabad, and there are terrific returns."
Chana Zarchi, David Eliezrie's eldest daughter, is married to a Chabad rabbi who runs a large Orthodox synagogue in San Francisco. She already sees potential in her 5-year-old son, Yaakov Meir, to become a third-generation emissary.
She says that when a visitor, unsure of Orthodox customs, enters their San Francisco home without wearing a yarmulke, Yaakov will cheerfully say, "Hey, where's your kippah?" and then fetch an extra one for the visitor to put on.
North County Chabad Center • 19045 Yorba Linda Blvd. • Yorba Linda, CA 92886 • 714-693-0770