Rabbi Shmuley Unleashed

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


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.






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