This summer, tens of thousands of Jews — many in black hats and long beards signifying their orthodoxy — have come from around the world to a crowded cemetery in the New York borough of Queens to mourn and celebrate Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Ukrainian-born rabbi who became leader of one of modern Judaism’s most vibrant strains, the movement known as Chabad-Lubavitch, or just Chabad (pronounced with a throaty, Hebrew-sounding “ch”). Schneerson died 20 years ago in June, but on the Hebrew calendar the date this year corresponds with July 1. Crowds have been coming to pray and study for weeks.
Schneerson was beloved and hugely influential during his lifetime, meeting with many world leaders seeking guidance and even seen by some Chabad members as perhaps the messiah. His combination of ultra-Orthodoxy and outreach made him unique among Jews, a particularly un-evangelistic sort. Schneerson embraced technology and inclusive, uplifting language as a way to bring people closer to God.
In Judaism, the ultra-Orthodox don’t really mix with the secular or liberal, which is why perhaps Schneerson’s biggest legacy has been the explosion during his life and after his death in 80 countries of Chabad centers, which do everything from run day-care centers in New Jersey to help travelers plan their journeys in India.
The Chabad emissaries, or shluchim, who staff these centers are some of Judaism’s most enthusiastic salesmen. They are typically rabbis comfortable driving around town with a loudspeaker or standing on busy street corners or organizing lively religious events such as big public dances on Jewish holidays. Among them is Rabbi Eli Backman, 45, who founded in 1995 and still runs the Chabad House at the University of Maryland at College Park. We spoke to him about Schneerson — who is usually called “the Rebbe” — and life in Chabad.
MB: Chabad is known for its outreach. Why?
EB: My own answer dates back to listening to the Rebbe’s approach. He saw the Jewish people as one whole unit. Not Reform, Conservative, unaffiliated, Orthodox — he said, “We’re all in one boat.” He didn’t love the term “outreach” because he didn’t think, “I’m inside, you’re outside.” You may be closer to God in ways I am not. I don’t know your relationship to God. So when I come over to someone and say, “Would you like a menorah or to put on tefillin (Jewish ritual boxes)?” this isn’t my religion I’m helping you experience; it’s your religion.
MB: Why aren’t Jews more evangelistic?
EB: I think that’s changed dramatically over the years. Humbly I’d say the Rebbe has changed this in Orthodoxy and other parts of Judaism. Our goal is to inspire, to engage everyone. But historically, Jewish people were always the minority in the shtetl and never wanted to upset the rulers. The little tailor starts talking, saying, “Maybe you should get involved in this or that” — it didn’t always go over too well historically. Not all Jewish leaders had that wide-lens view that the Rebbe brought to the table. People were focused on protecting their own house, like, “I can survive.” He was like, “It’s our collective house.”
MB: What about evangelizing non-Jews? And do you use the word “evangelizing”?
EB: No, that means trying to bring people outside your faith in. We’re not looking to convert people. The Rebbe spent a lot of time inspiring non-Jews to connect to God as well, but the Talmud has a whole thing about how when non-Jews say they want to convert, there’s a process to talk them out of it. Non-Jews have a share in the world to come. They don’t need to become Jewish for their own connection to God. If you're here, it’s because God wants you to be here, just as you are. . . . Jewish people have the responsibility to help keep the world in general connected to God. That’s Jews’ job.
MB: What’s the daily life of a Chabad shliach?
EB: I set up a table in the student union, or on [the Jewish autumn festival of] Sukkot we set up on a pickup truck and drive around, drive to the frats and sororities. Walk around with lulav and etrog [ritual items used during Sukkot]. Or during Simchat Torah [a holiday which celebrates the Torah], we dance in the streets through campus, stopping by dorms. We find fun, meaningful inspiring things. Judaism can be fun, it can be engaged.
MB: A lot of people predicted Chabad would fade when the Rebbe died, but it has grown significantly instead. But who will replace him as Chabad’s spiritual head?
EB: Just replacing him is not something that comes easy. What people are still finding solace from is his message.
MB: Some people think he was the messiah.
EB: Jewish tradition tells us, God willing, there will be a time when there will be a redeemer, messiach [messiah] who will bring us all back to Israel. God willing, that will happen soon. And the world will be a peaceful world. [The Rebbe] said: “Don’t focus on the who of the redeemer but on the how we reach it.”