The Offbeat Is Helping Some Jews Reconnect

By Jacqueline L. Salmon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 27, 2007

With ice cream sundaes, iPod giveaways, spa days and yoga classes, a group of Orthodox rabbis in the Washington area is employing decidedly unorthodox methods to address a growing problem: the fading involvement of Jews in local Jewish life.

Although the region has one of the largest and youngest Jewish communities in the country, recent studies have found that a shrinking proportion of Jews-- as elsewhere in the country -- is joining synagogues, community centers, Jewish schools and other centers of Jewish life.

However, Chabad-Lubavitch, a controversial 250-year-old branch of Judaism with mystic roots, has significantly increased its presence in the area in the past five years. During that time, five gathering places -- called Chabad Houses -- have opened: two in Northern Virginia, two in northern Montgomery County and one in Annapolis. Rabbi Shmuel Kaplan, regional director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Maryland, said the movement expects further expansion.

"People ask me who our target audience is," he said. "It's every single Jew in metropolitan Washington."

With their black hats, thick beards and long, black coats, male "Chabadniks" look like throwbacks to Old Europe. They are part of the movement called Hasidism, whose members -- men and women -- ordinarily live apart from mainstream society to shelter their beliefs and practice.

Not the followers of Chabad (pronounced similarly to 'kah-BAHD'). The Brooklyn-based group emphasizes outreach to practicing and non-practicing Jews.

But the group has also engendered deep resentment from many mainstream Jews, who regard them as hovering on the far fringes of the faith.

Although Chabad-Lubavitch practitioners do not seek to convert non-Jews, mainstream Jews regard their outreach as evangelizing, a practice frowned upon. Critics also dismiss Chabad's outreach as superficial and say its leaders are too quick to claim success.

"They're offering a motel Judaism, not a home Judaism," said Jacob Neusner, a professor and senior fellow at Bard College's Institute of Advanced Theology in New York. "They rely on intense experiences which last for a little bit of time and don't really have a permanent effect."

Another source of controversy, inside and outside the movement, has been the belief on the part of some followers of Chabad that a revered leader, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, who died in 1994, will return as the Messiah.

Despite the strife, Chabad is one of the fastest-growing major movements of Judaism, said Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University. In the past decade, the number of Chabad's emissaries has doubled worldwide to 4,000 rabbis and their families, said Rabbi Zalman Shmotkin, a national Chabad spokesman.

In the Washington area, where Chabad has operated since the 1970s, there are 13 Chabad Houses, offering a mix of New and Old World programs to draw in Jews who are not affiliated with synagogues. Chabad Houses -- which are funded by donations, not membership dues -- schedule worship services, religious classes for adults and children and holiday celebrations.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company