A searching account of “a new entity: an ultra-Orthodox Jewish movement that attracts mainly non-Orthodox Jews.”
In 1993, writes Jerusalem Post correspondent Fishkoff, a young member of Mendel Schneerson’s Lubavitcher congregation approached her with a tale of the ailing rabbi’s final days and the efforts of his closest aides to combat “a dangerous messianic tendency that was fast gaining ground among the Rebbe’s followers.” She had never met a Hasid before, Fishkoff writes, and associated those ultra-orthodox Jews only with “Shabbos tables, dietary restrictions, and one-way conversations with God.” A few visits to Crown Heights, and thence to points removed (including the seemingly unlikely venue of Salt Lake City, where Lubavitchers are establishing a presence among curiously receptive Mormons, and Alaska, where the movement has found a similarly warm welcome), afforded her the more nuanced view that she brings to these pages. The Chabad-Lubavitch movement, established 250 years ago in Brooklyn, is perhaps the fastest-growing tendency in American Judaism, she writes, having dispatched more than 3,800 “emissary couples” around the world to bring Jews back to Judaism; among other things, Lubavitchers host Passover seders for backpackers in Katmandu, feeding as many as 1,500 at a time, and they maintain the “world’s first and largest Jewish web site, which gets millions of hits a year”). Favoring action over talk, the Lubavitchers also run schools, drug-recovery centers, and poverty-relief programs, enlisting the help of celebrities such as actor Jon Voight and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel to further the cause. Although she rejects many points of Chabad-Lubavitch doctrine, Fishkoff writes of their work with a sympathetic eye. Still, she worries, along with other critics, that the movement will become denatured by the incorporation of so many hitherto nonobservant men and women “who don’t know the Hebrew prayers and who don’t eat kosher,” even as it continues to grow.
A well-crafted portrait of a religious phenomenon, sure to be of wide interest.