Ten years ago, the American Jewish Congress (AJCongress) sued the city of Beverly Hills to block the local Chabad house from erecting a 27-foot menorah in a public park near City Hall. Displaying the menorah — a Jewish religious symbol — on public property, the AJCongress argued, was unconstitutional.
The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the city, allowing Chabad to put up the large candelabra. A three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals later reversed the decision.
When it comes to displaying menorahs in public places, what a difference a decade makes.
This Chanukah, Chabad-Lubavitch plans to light more than 11,000 large public menorahs, from Bangkok to Miami Beach. Those lighting the Chanukah candles won’t come strictly from the ranks of America’s Chabad Chasidim; leaders of Jewish organizations across the spectrum, eager to take part in the public celebration of the Festival of Lights, will also be lighting Chabad’s candles.
The growing acceptance of the Chabad menorahs is just one example of a broader trend: As Chabad spreads throughout the United States and the world, America’s mainstream Jewish community is increasingly willing to embrace the movement, whereas in the past many Jewish organizations preferred to keep it at arm’s length.
“I think there’s less fear and more openness on the parts of both Chabad and the broader community to support all who can reach and touch Jews,” said John Ruskay, executive vice president and CEO of the UJA-Federation of New York.
Chabad, though, said the recent past offers some indication of how far things have come — and where they may be headed.
“Chabad has not changed that much in a generation,” said Rabbi Levi Shemtov, director of the Washington office of the American Friends of Lubavitch. “The organized Jewish community has gone from being indifferent or harsh to being much more welcoming.”
Chabad insiders and observers cite several developments that highlight the change:
• Jewish federations around the country are funding Chabad projects, inviting Chabad rabbis to sit on their boards and committees and including Chabad synagogues in their listings of local places to pray.
• With each passing year, more U.S. Chabad houses become dues-based congregations — like most mainstream Jewish congregations — running on membership payments rather than simply on donations.
• Most Jewish groups no longer sue to prevent Chabad from erecting public menorahs.
• Chabad continues to secure support from Jews outside the movement, even non-Orthodox Jews like Harvard law school professor Alan Dershowitz.
The movement says its annual budget comes in at more than $1 billion, much of it raised by emissaries in the field for their own programming.
Chabad has made extraordinary efforts to reach out to Jews of every stripe, some of whom have grown to embrace the movement.
“In the market of outreach, Chabad looms large,” said Samuel Heilman, a sociology professor at Queens College.
Dancing rabbis on Chabad fundraising telethons have given the movement a public face, as have the movement’s mitzvah mobiles and the army of young Chabadniks who spend days out on city sidewalks asking passers-by if they’d like to put on tefillin or sit in a mobile sukkah and shake a lulav.
“I think that Chabad and much of Orthodoxy have come of age,” Heilman said. “Orthodoxy in general is much more a part of the discussion. Within that, there’s been a recognition that Orthodoxy is not just one thing.”
Part of the reason Jewish groups were wary of Chabad was the impression that the movement was not out simply to offer Jews positive Jewish experiences, but wanted to make unobservant Jews Chabad adherents. Chabad rejects this notion, although its officials do acknowledge that they wouldn’t mind if those who come in contact with them take on more Jewish rituals.