The American Friends of Lubavitch has opened a $2 million center in Washington's embassy district, solidifying the Hasidic sect's presence in the diplomatic community and increasing the visibility of its director, Levi Shemtov, already considered by many to be the unofficial rabbi of Capitol Hill.

"Some people have started calling us the Lubavitch Embassy," said Shemtov, 31, who became the office's first full-time director six years ago. He said he doesn't mind the embassy label, as it represents the office's role as liaison with the 50 countries that have Lubavitch centers and those where sites are planned.

Chabad Lubavitch, based in Brooklyn, N.Y., is a charismatic movement founded in Russia in the 18th century. Like other Orthodox groups, it teaches strict observance of Jewish law given in the Torah. Unlike other Orthodox groups, which tend to keep to themselves, Lubavitch uses outreach programs--in schools, prisons, communities--to attract new followers, especially among nonobservant Jews. The sect, a fringe movement of mainstream Judaism, has about 250,000 followers in 44 states and other countries, or about 3 percent of the world's Jewish population.

The organization's new center is at 2110 LeRoy Pl. NW, a block west of Connecticut Avenue, in a renovated five-story row house that once was part of the Italian Embassy.

The 10,000-square-foot building houses a library, soon to be open to the public, of more than 2,000 books on Chabad Lubavitch and Jewish mysticism. A large meeting room converts into an Orthodox synagogue on Friday nights. Shemtov and his family--wife Nechama, 28, and children Esti, 7, Menachem, 4, and Shoshana, 2--live on the top floor.

A host of politicians, ambassadors and financial backers gathered at the center June 16 for its official opening. D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams proclaimed the day "American Friends of Lubavitch Day" and called the center "a spiritual and physical enhancement to the renewal of this city."

Other well-wishers included Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman; Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.); Reps. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) and Peter Deutsch (D-Fla.); George Washington University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg; and local philanthropists Estelle Gelman and Gerald Sigal.

Other financial contributors were not present, but their names are posted in the entrance hall. Among them: international banker Edmundo Safdie; New York billionaire and Revlon executive Ronald O. Perelman; Boca Raton, Fla., entrepreneur Monte Friedkin, chairman of the National Jewish Democratic Committee; and Mel Sembler, finance chairman of the Republican National Committee and former envoy to Australia.

As one of his diplomatic duties, Shemtov said, he met recently with the ambassador of Uzbekistan to help clear political and social obstacles to establishing a new Chabad Lubavitch center, which has just opened there. And he helped the center's director, a U.S. citizen, obtain a long-term visa.

Most Washingtonians familiar with Shemtov know him for his work on the Hill. He meets privately with Jewish members of Congress and staffers--almost always at their invitation--and holds monthly or bimonthly Capitol Jewish Forums on such issues as ethics, holiday traditions and the relationship between religion and government.

He also hosts great parties, said Cardin, who has attended many holiday celebrations on the Hill sponsored by Shemtov's office and remembers his first Purim party several years ago as "absolutely a lot of fun on a very hectic day."

Cardin, 55, called Shemtov "a real asset for the Jewish members and Jewish staffers on the Hill." The lawmaker, a lifelong member of Beth Tfiloh in Pikesville, Md., the largest Orthodox synagogue in the Baltimore area, said Shemtov makes it easy for any Jewish politician, staffer or lobbyist to celebrate High Holy Days when they are here, away from their families and home towns. The rabbi also sends Jewish holiday calendars to all 535 congressional offices to remind Jews and non-Jews of holiday observances.

Shellie Bressler, 32, a Senate staff member who has worked on the Hill for 10 years, said Jewish members of Congress and their staffs call on Shemtov "when they have a religious issue and they don't know who else to turn to. . . . He's very accessible and not judgmental, and he doesn't make you feel stupid if you ask a question."

Bressler, who was raised in a Conservative household in Memphis, said she is like many Jewish staffers in their late twenties or early thirties who have no synagogue affiliation but like to "connect" with Judaism, especially on High Holy Days. She said the Friends of Lubavitch makes that easy by hosting free Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services in or near their offices.

Attending services at local synagogues is often not an option, she said, because most synagogues sell tickets to those events, which can be expensive for a young professional, and usually give preference to members.

Shemtov said his work on the Hill the past six years has filled a void. "I guess over time we have become the primary nonpolitical Jewish resource," he said.

One of his efforts was calling an impromptu memorial service for Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated in 1996. The day of Rabin's funeral, which most of the Jewish members of Congress attended, Shemtov received numerous calls from staffers who said, "We feel very broken. We have to do something."

So Shemtov quickly organized a service that afternoon that was attended by two dozen staffers.

On occasion, the rabbi has stepped beyond his clerical and counseling responsibilities to make a plea to Congress on behalf of all Jews. Last September, when Republican House leaders scheduled votes on the impeachment of President Clinton during High Holy Days, Shemtov visited the office of Rep. Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.) and persuaded him to change the schedule.

Despite Shemtov's popularity, some Jews are skeptical of the ultra-Orthodox movement of which he is part.

"All of my interactions with Levi Shemtov have been positive," said Jack Moline, rabbi of Agudas Achim Congregation in Alexandria. "He is well informed, very principled, very accommodating. And his work on the Hill represents good for the American Jewish community and the American community in general."

But Moline perceives Chabad Lubavitch as being uncompromising in its view of Judaism and how Jews should practice their religion. Not only do Lubavitchers proselytize, a practice not common to Judaism, but the goal of their outreach programs is to bring all Jews "to a particular form of observance" that allows no variation, Moline said. "They are welcoming but not affirming," he said of the Lubavitchers' missionary fervor. They have "almost a desperate love" in trying to bring people back to fundamental Judaism. "Shemtov is the exception."

In an interview, Shemtov said he practices a form of evangelism, but "not to bring [people] to my way of doing it. I like to think that I'm bringing them to their way. I've never pushed anybody to do anything. If anything, I'm God's agent, not His enforcer."

He said, however, that some Lubavitchers have carried their zealousness too far, claiming that the movement's late leader, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, called the "Rebbe," is the Messiah. Some have even purchased billboard space here and in Israel with a photo of Schneerson and the motto "Long live the Rebbe, King Moshiach [Messiah]. Forever and ever."

Schneerson, who died in 1994 at age 92, was a man of extraordinary intelligence, vision and people skills, Shemtov said. There's "the possibility, even the probability" that no one can replace him--that there never may be another rebbe of Chabad Lubavitch, the young rabbi said.

But Shemtov stressed that neither he nor anyone affiliated with him had anything to do with the billboards or claims that the Messiah has come.

God has not sent the message that the Rebbe was--or is--the Messiah, Shemtov said. And no one can make Schneerson or anyone else the Messiah by announcing it is so. "You can presume, you can hope, but you can't anoint," he said. "That's God's job."

CAPTION: Shemtov studies the Torah in a meeting room in the 10,000-square-foot center, which houses a library with more than 2,000 books on Chabad Lubavitch and Jewish mysticism.

CAPTION: A row house that was once part of the Italian Embassy is now home to the American Friends of Lubavitch.

CAPTION: Levi Shemtov is considered by many the unofficial rabbi of Capitol Hill. Behind him is a portrait of the late Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson.