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To Chabad, every Jew counts

Marvin Schick in "Where is Chabad heading?" (January 10) would have us think he perceives the world through an Orthodox prism: You don't meet the standard, something is missing. A Jew who is not fully observant and keeps kosher and Shabbat is a person whose glass is half empty.

Many in the Orthodox world look for reasons to distance themselves from the non-observant. Chabad, in contrast, goes out in search of the Jew regardless of background or affiliation.

Some years ago George Rohr, a major Chabad supporter, shared some good news with the Lubavitcher Rebbe shortly after Rosh Hashana. George told the Rebbe, "I've started a special beginners service on Rosh Hashana for kiruv rechokim". He used the Hebrew term prevalent in the Yeshiva community to describe outreach - literally, drawing the distant ones closer.

The Rebbe gave George a harsh look. He was confused. What was the Rebbe unhappy about? Again he started to describe his new project launched in a Manhattan synagogue, "a program for rechokim, Jews with no background."

Finally the Rebbe retorted: "Rechokim? No background in Judaism? They are the children of Avraham, Yitzhak, Ya'akov, Sara, Rivka, Rachel, and Leah."

TO CHABAD, every Jew counts; every Jew has a background. You may have to dig a bit deeper, but it is there. Central to hassidic philosophy is the principle of the divine spark embedded in each person; the spiritual core that is holy and pure. Even if the Jew is distant from observance there still is inherent goodness. The challenge is uncovering the holiness and nurturing it.

Finding common ground with a Jew distant from observance can be difficult. Living, as many of us in Chabad do outside the Orthodox world poses many unique challenges. There is no question that it's easier to live within an Orthodox community filled with institutions, friends, stores and a lifestyle that reinforce those values and ideas we cherish.

For a young couple to set up shop in a town with few or even no Orthodox Jews, to establish a Chabad House, school, mikve and yeshiva is hard, to say the least. Staying true to your own values when surrounded by those who do not keep them is not easy. But step into the home of a Chabad emissary (shaliah), be it in Bangkok or Boise, Irvine or Irkutsk, and you will think you are stepping into a home in Boro Park or Bnei Brak. You will find a standard of kashrut and observance no different than in any hassidic home.

The most daunting task for a shaliah is how to educate his children in his own values when they are surrounded by a world which dances to a different tune. With almost four generations of emissaries, the results are clear. Our children brought up on shlichus, as it called, are aware of the world around them. Not only do they remain solidly within the fold, a significant percentage continue on the path of their parents, moving to new communities and starting their own Chabad centers.

CHABAD HAS evolved. Many of us have moved from small storefronts to significant community-building facilities. In his Post op-ed Marvin Schick writes that many who participate in these centers and schools are still not fully observant.

For decades Jews left Orthodoxy for more liberal congregations. Today, many Jews are moving in the opposite direction. They are choosing Chabad as the center of their Jewish lives instead of the liberal Temple down the block.

Decades ago Jews left the Orthodox shuls of their parents in Brooklyn to build Temples in Long Island. The rabbis in those Temples gave sanction to Jews moving away from tradition. The children of those urban refugees are now switching in large numbers to Chabad. Instead of being told it is acceptable to be less observant, our message is: Move closer to Judaism.

Step into our classrooms and synagogues and you will hear, time and again, the same theme: "Nu, how about another mitzva?" "Your child needs Jewish education." "Do you want to put on tefillin?" Chabad centers are the first stop on the path toward observance.

IN CHABAD centers the rabbi has the final word. For years synagogue rabbis followed the directions of their board members, giving into pressure and moving away from tradition. In Chabad centers, the rabbi sets the tone for religious observance. That direction is based in Halacha and the congregants know it cannot be compromised.

Which is why Jews involved in Chabad centers are moving toward Judaism, and not away from it. Chabad rabbis encourage more observance, not less. People are challenged to grow in their Judaism. For an outsider such as Marvin Schick the positive change may be difficult to see. It may be slow, but it is occurring - mitzva by mitzva.

For the shaliah it's a difficult path. We need to show acceptance to a Jew who may be living a life very different from ours. We need to nudge such Jews slowly but consistently forward in their observance. We need to be firm when they try to push us to compromise on issues of Halacha.

I'll never forget when I was closing escrow on our property years ago. The key donor was a Jew who was not so observant. A few days before the closing he approached me, troubled that the new shul would have a mehitza - a room divider separating the men's and women's sections of the sanctuary. I looked him in the eye and told him simply: "Without your money I can't close escrow, but if your donation is contingent on not having a mehitza I cannot accept your gift."

I said it knowing there was no other donor in the wings. Seeing my passion, he understood. This donor continues to support us today.
The first chapter of Ethics of the Fathers states: "Aaron drew Jews closer to Torah." The Rebbe taught us that this means we need to draw Jews to the Torah, and not the lower the standards of Torah.

Around the world thousands of men and women, emissaries of the Rebbe, dedicate their lives to this goal. There is no question that some may occasionally falter. Still, the core of their commitment is to Halacha and Torah. The fruit of their efforts are the hundreds of thousands of Jews who are slowly moving closer to Torah and Jewish observance.

The writer is a Chabad emissary in Yorba Linda, California. He can be reached at [email protected]

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