By Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
7 November 2010 – Tonight I attended the international Chabad emissary conference – the Kinus Hashluchim HaOlami – for the first time in sixteen years. When I was the Rebbe’s emissary at Oxford University I came annually. But with my split from Chabad over my inclusion of non-Jewish students at Oxford, I stopped.
A lot has changed in that time. The man responsible for my firing from Chabad was himself fired. My close friend Cory Booker, whom I made president of our organization and who became the symbol of the non-Jewish outreach that cost me my position in Lubavitch, has become an American political superstar and one of the most sough-after speakers in the American Jewish community and will be the guest of honor at next month’s Colel Chabad dinner. Most significantly, the Rebbe passed away a few months after the last conference I attended.
So it was with some trepidation and more than a little lingering pain that I joined my former colleagues in Chabad’s annual celebration of its global network of Ambassadors.
How did it feel? Like being reborn. Like coming home and having a central riddle of one’s life make sense again.
What motivated a modern-orthodox boy of eight to fall in love with a Hassidic Jewish group who in the 1970’s was largely dismissed as a cult? More than anything it was this: Chabad made me feel like my life mattered. In a private audience the Rebbe told me I was born for great things. I was part of an eternal people who had vastly contributed to the dissemination of G-d’s light in an otherwise dark world. Through persecutions and holocausts, assimilation and intermarriage, materialism and ignorance, that people were now endangered. And there was a sage who lived in Brooklyn whose English was broken but whose determination was resolute. He would, before he died, breathe new life into a fading nation. He beckoned me to join him as an agent of Jewish renewal.
Chabad became the passion of my life. Defying my parents’ strong objections I left home at fourteen to be part of the Rebbe’s dream of a global Jewish renaissance and never looked back. A few years later I was his official representative at an important center of higher education, surrounded by impressionable young minds who thirsted for spiritual purpose.
I knew then in theory what I witnessed tonight in practice: Chabad would one day take over the Jewish world. Why? Because of the grandnest of their vision and the passion with which they executed their mission. Other Jewish organizations sought to educate the people about their tradition. But Chabad sought to raise the earth’s inhabitants to a higher G-d-consciousness and to make Judaism the driving force in every decision of daily life. The passion and dedication of Chabad emissaries was infectious. They did not preach the Torah. Rather it coursed their veins, seeping out of every pore. Hassidic teachings about the approachability of G-d and the accessibility of a higher spiritual reality was grafted onto the average Chabad activists’ very DNA, becoming an inseparable part of their character and personality.
Witnessing the fulfillment of that premonition tonight at the conference was an awakening. Chabad is no longer merely a Jewish movement. It is Judaism. I find it astonishing that Prime Minister Netanyahu flew in from Israel to attend the Jewish Federations Annual General Assembly but bypassed the Chabad Shluchim conference. If an Israeli Prime Minister wants to be part of the gradual unfolding of modern Jewish history then he has to address Chabad. No other organization even comes close to its global reach and grass roots impact. And it is growing exponentially.
When I last attended the Chabad Shluchim conference there were a few hundred of us from about twenty countries. We all fit into a small ballroom. A decade and a half later there are 5000 from 80 countries. No doubt, with its staggering birthrate and about half of all its members dedicating themselves to a lifelong posting, by the year 2020 Chabad will be fielding more than 15,000 emissaries in nearly all the world’s nations and will be the mainstream Jewish branch in most. In countries like France, Russia, Australia, and Britain this has largely happened. But even in countries with robust and highly developed Jewish communities like the United States and Canada the smart money will be on Chabad to emerge as leader.
Of course, it is not just Chabad which has changed so dramatically over the past 16 years. I have changed as well. My love for Chabad is just as deep, but I am past my infatuation. I see flaws that need to be corrected. The leadership must strive to be more democratic. A growing nepotism must be reversed in favor of the meritocracy which was responsible for Chabad’s astonishing cultivation of entrepreneurial talent. Most of all, if it is to impact the mainstream rather than just the Jewish world Chabad must finally overcome its Jewish insularity and embrace the Rebbe’s collective vision of a global Messianic awakening.
Indeed, what was most missing from the gathering tonight was the Rebbe’s tangible presence. Chabad was never about money. Indeed, for me it was a refuge from modernity’s corrosive materialism. But a global movement with an enormous budget must honor the heroic philanthropists who make their work possible. But it must be done in a manner that never compromises the Rebbe’s defining characteristic of treating paupers and billionaires as being of equal and infinite value.
But whatever my reservations, the electrifying spectacle tonight more than compensates. Not long ago the Jewish people were made to believe that if they were to succeed in the modern world they would have to make accommodations with strict adherence to tradition. Scraggly beards would have to be shaved off. Large families would have to give way to two kids and a dog. Names like Elazar and Tova would have change to Leo and Tiffany. Yeshiva and smicha would have to be forfeited in favor of Wharton and a Masters. Even orthodox Jews embraced this vision, if not in the name of progress than at least in the name of survival.
And yet, the movement that has superseded them all is that which continues to believe that Judaism is so potent that the world will slowly bend to accommodate it rather than the reverse.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, the international best-selling author of 24 books, heads This World: The Values Network, an organization dedicated to spreading universal Jewish values to heal America. His newest book is ‘Renewal: A Guide to the Values-Filled Life.’ Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.