An outsider comes home

An outsider comes home

On Sunday I attended the international Chabad emissary conference – the Kinus Hashluchim HaOlami – for the first time in 16 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.

Truth regardless of consequences 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. One of the most sought-after speakers in the American Jewish community, he will be the guest of honor at next month’s Colel Chabad dinner. Most significantly, the rebbe died 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 8 to fall in love with a chasidic Jewish group that in the 1970s was largely dismissed as a cult? More than anything else it was this: Chabad made me feel that 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 God’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 14 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 that thirsted for spiritual purpose.

I knew then in theory what I witnessed Sunday night in practice: Chabad would one day take over the Jewish world. Why? Because of the grandness 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 God-consciousness and to make Judaism the driving force in every decision of daily life. The passion and dedication of Chabad emissaries were infectious. They did not preach the Torah. Rather it coursed through their veins, seeping out of every pore. Chasidic teachings about the approachability of God and the accessibility of a higher spiritual reality were grafted onto the average Chabad activist’s very DNA, becoming an inseparable part of the Chabad’s character and personalities.

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 Benjasmin Netanyahu flew in from Israel to attend the Jewish Federations of North America’s 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, 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 20 countries. We fit into a small ballroom. A decade and a half later, there were 5,000 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 that has changed so dramatically over the past 16 years. I have changed as well. My love for Chabad is just as deep as it was, 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 that 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 Sunday night 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. This 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 Sunday night more than compensated. 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 to change to Leo and Tiffany. Yeshiva and smicha would have to be forfeited in favor of Wharton and a master’s. Even Orthodox Jews embraced this vision, if not in the name of progress, then 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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