Lately, I’ve been reading some very strange things in various Jewish media outlets about the history of kiruv (outreach) in America. I’ve had to read some of these articles several times over just to be certain my eyes weren’t deceiving me.
How can history be revised with such impunity? Anyone familiar with the development of Judaism in America knows that almost immediately after he arrived in the U.S. in March 1940, the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe proclaimed he’d come here to demonstrate that “America is not different” – that even in America one could live as a traditional Jew.
And so, as virtually his first order of business in America, the Rebbe founded the first Lubavitcher yeshiva on these shores. That very same day he also established Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, the educational arm of Chabad, thereby sowing the seeds of Torah-true education in America. The next day, he formally launched Chabad-Lubavitch outreach activities in the U.S.
I can’t even count the number of times I’ve seen an article in which this or that organization claims to be the “first and oldest outreach organization,” and in which Chabad’s pioneering activity is slighted, if it’s mentioned at all. Thus in a May 4 op-ed column in this newspaper, Rabbi Meir Goldberg stated that “Kiruv in its early stages was performed mostly by the Torah Umesorah day school movement and NCSY, with their emphasis on reaching children and teens. Eventually, they were joined by Chabad…”
Do those who make such assertions really not know that Chabad had been doing kiruv work among American Jews in general, and American Jewish youth on campus in particular, for years before the need for such outreach was acknowledged by others in the Orthodox community? Torah Umesorah did not even come into existence until 1944, NCSY a decade later.
Chabad as a movement is more than 250 years old. Its entire foundation is ahavas Yisrael – love of fellow Jews. Casting oneself aside for the sake of another is natural to every Chabadnik. Chabad’s goal has always been to reach every Jew without regard to background, affiliation, or level of observance. It was, therefore, only natural that Chabad would immediately launch outreach activities to young and old in America.
Chabad has never used the term “kiruv rechokim” (reaching out to the distant), as do all other outreach organizations, because according to Chabad philosophy there is no such thing as a “rachok” (distant) Jew. All Jews have a “chelek Eloka mima’al mamosh,” an integral part of the divine within them. That makes all Jews – scholar or simpleton, religious or secular – equals.
If one is intellectually honest, one has to acknowledge Chabad’s pioneering role in kiruv. Not only was Chabad the first, it continues to set the standard – with more than 3,500 Chabad centers around the world reaching out to any and every Jew, and with many more individual Chabadniks dedicated to outreach.
How true is the observation that “There are two things you can find all over the globe – Chabad and Coca-Cola” (and in that order). In the most remote locales, in the most out-of-the-way places, there is a Chabad Center with a Chabad shliach and shlucha and their family, giving of themselves and forgoing personal comfort and convenience to help other Jews.
As a matter of fact, many (if not most) of today’s non-Chabad kiruv rabbis (and rebbetzins) are themselves beneficiaries of the Chabad outreach network. I could list key outreach professionals, editors of major outreach publishing houses, heads of kashrus agencies, etc., who are products of Chabad-Lubavitch shlichus. Because I take seriously the precept of loving my fellow Jew, I won’t put them on the spot by naming names – though it truly is a shande (disgrace) that many of them seem to be embarrassed that it was Chabad that introduced them to Torah-true Judaism.
But whether they wish to admit it or not, it was Chabad that mikareved them. Just as it was Chabad – with its now ubiquitous Chabad Houses – that came up with the idea of offering Jewish students a home away from home on college campuses. Just as it was Chabad that established the first yeshivas for baalei teshuvah (Hadar Hatorah for men and Machon Chanah for women) in the early 1960’s. (Non-Chabad baal teshuvah yeshivas followed years later – Ohr Somayach, for example, did not come into existence until 1970, and Aish HaTorah was founded in 1974.)