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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.)
Back in the 1950’s, Chabad’s outreach efforts (the Rebbe referred to it as “Uforatztah” or “Hafatzas Hamayonos Chutzah” – spreading the wellsprings of chassidus to the farthest corners of the earth) were scorned by the rest of the haredi world.
Chabad was roundly rebuked for its alleged “bitul Torah” – for spending time reaching out to others rather than studying Torah. There are enough Responsa by enough Litvish gedolim to attest to the anti-kiruv atmosphere of the day.
Eventually, others in the Orthodox community realized that kiruv was not only acceptable and desirable but indeed an obligation for every Torah-true Jew. Responsa from gedolim like Rav Moshe Feinstein and others appeared calling for setting aside time for outreach, for kiruv.
Today, we see a variety of Jewish outreach movements in the U.S. and other countries. This is a good thing – and it can only be attributable to Chabad’s pioneering example. Unfortunately, we have also seen jealousy and rivalry exhibited toward Chabad by some other Jewish outreach groups, and this is not a good thing.
Why do we not look back and learn a lesson from the ahavas Yisrael that Chabad always displayed? Rabbi Yisrael Jacobson, a prominent Chabad leader, assisted in the establishment of many non-Chabad educational institutions. When Yeshiva Torah Vodaath was in dire need – on the verge of bankruptcy – and the banks were going to repossess the school’s building, an urgent appeal for help was made in the press. The Rebbe called Reb Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz and donated hundreds of thousands of dollars – equivalent to millions today – to resolve the problem.
My sister was executive secretary to Dr. Joseph Kaminetzky at Torah Umesorah in the 1960’s when Olomeinu, the children’s monthly magazine (founded to compete with the Talks and Tales children’s magazine published by Chabad since 1942) was in danger of shutting down due to financial problems. The Rebbe called Dr. Kaminetzky and donated the amount of money needed to save Olomeinu.
When Torah-observant Jews fight and denigrate each other, especially while engaged in such a sacred task as kiruv, does it not set the worst example for those very Jews in need of being brought closer to their faith?
How prescient was the previous Rebbe, who forecast in the 1940’s: “First the Orthodox, haredi, and yeshivish Jews will mock us [Chabad] for our outreach activities, and then they will fight us. Eventually they will join us [in outreach work]. At the end, they will claim that they were the pioneers who established the concept of Kiruv-Outreach.”
It’s time to stop trying to revise history. If someone has a problem with anything about Chabad, why not discuss it with a Chabadnik? Why not talk it out intelligently? This author, for one, is happy to discuss any matter with any serious individual seeking to learn about Chabad.
May we merit to see achdus (unity) in the entire Jewish community, and may this lead to the final Redemption through the righteous Moshiach.
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