Opinion: Put Russian-speaking Jews on community’s radar

With the contemporary music world buzzing about Regina Spektor’s upcoming album nearly a month before its release, I cannot help but think about the young musician’s rise in the context of Russian-speaking Jewry. Spektor, who came to the United States with her parents when she was a young girl, still identifies deeply with the Russian-speaking Jewish community and has been an outspoken defender of Israel. And she is not an exception.

Even though — perhaps because — many Russian-speaking Jews were deprived for years of a Jewish education or the ability to affiliate with other Jews, the strong emotional connection that many Russian-speaking Jews have with their Jewishness and to Israel and the Jewish world at large is tribal. This stands in contrast to the majority of North American Jews who define their Jewishness as a religious identity.

While the Russian-speaking Jewish community, particularly the second generation, has gained much success in commerce, the arts, technology and medicine, I am concerned about its third generation. Without even a faint memory of life behind the Iron Curtain, my children’s children will need more than an ethnic sense of connectedness if they are to choose being Jewish. And unless the organized Jewish community can figure out how to tap into the potential of what is undeniably a vast infusion of energy, passion and creativity, we are looking at an epic failure of recognizing and addressing a game-changing opportunity.

Twenty percent of the Jewish world is Russian-speaking, but it occupies only a small percentage of our thinking as an organized Jewish community. While the members of an emerging generation of Russian-speaking Jews worldwide are connected to one another and feel a strong kinship with Israel, their strong identity is decidedly not reflected in affiliation with organized Jewish life.

Perhaps a million Jews remain in the former Soviet Union, but most are highly assimilated, and it is estimated that our outreach efforts are only reaching 8 to 15 percent of them. The majority of the 1 million Russian-speaking Jews who are now making a tremendous impact in Israel remain disconnected from the Jewish communal milieu. More than 200,000 Russian-speaking Jews now live dispersed across 180 communities in Germany, where a generation without great knowledge or practice of Judaism has no Jewish community to seek.

And in North America, where Google, PayPal and Voice-over-Internet-Protocol (VoIP) would not exist if not for Russian-speaking Jews, synagogues and federations — the core institutions of Jewish communal life — barely register on the Russian-speaking Jew’s radar.

To be fair, some of the more visionary leaders do get it. In 2011, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles launched an initiative for young Russian adults that includes a community leadership development program as well as additional programing; L.A.’s Federation also funds programs overseas that involve Jewish renewal as well as caring for Jews in need. In New York, in partnership with UJA-Federation of New York, the Wexner Foundation, which identifies young, talented and committed Jewish leaders from across the professional spectrum and trains them in contemporary Jewish leadership, has launched a cohort exclusively for Russian-speaking Jews. Unless such models are scaled and replicated by federations across North America, the impact will be negligible. We need a cadre of Russian-speaking Jewish lay-leaders in every major city.

The second issue is directly related to the first. Once these talented and motivated people are ready to lead, they will need to be continually engaged. There is a severe lack of first- and second-generation Russian-speaking professionals in the Jewish communal arena who, through shared history and personal experiences, can harness the energy of potential leaders and keep them involved. In North America, there are less than a few dozen trained Russian-speaking Jewish communal professionals to work with a population of 500,000. Building a platform to sustain the engagement of networked lay and professional leaders should be a top priority.

The third challenge is more deeply rooted in the psyches of many Russian-speaking Jews: the notion of “collective” response. Not surprisingly, the idea of centralized giving and planning does not sit well with a population that associates collectivism with identity suppression, corruption and inefficiency. To many it is what they were all too happy to leave behind.

We need to explore models by which Russian-speaking Jews do not feel threatened but rather empowered to innovate, and where there is flexibility for them to direct their philanthropy in accordance with their own ideas as Jews.

At The Jewish Agency for Israel, we’ve found that the high-profile visibility of Israel’s struggle can be a powerful window of opportunity for mobilizing their support. A recent Brandeis University study of Birthright Israel applicants and alumni, focusing on those with at least one Russian-born parent, showed their emotional attachment to Israel and global Jewry to be much higher than that of their American peers, despite a weaker knowledge of Judaism. Given the positive backdrop with which to work, but cognizant of the dangers looming if these Jews are not brought into the broader communal framework, this is indeed the time to act.

But this is not just the work of The Jewish Agency. There is too much to do; the entire Jewish community must make up for lost time. Today, with assimilation rates in the general Jewish community reaching alarming levels, and given the high percentage of Russian-speaking Jews in the overall Jewish population, we must recognize that a strong Jewish future requires that they be a significant part of it.

Misha Galperin is the president and CEO of international development at the Jewish Agency for Israel.

Abolish Jackson-Vanik, Russian Jews urge Congress

Representatives of the Russian Jewish Congress asked the U.S. Congress to repeal the Jackson-Vanik amendment.

The appeal was addressed to the U.S. ambassador to Russia, John Beyrly, during a meeting Monday in Moscow that took place on the 36th anniversary of the amendment’s adoption. The amendment restricts Russian trade with the United States.

“The viewpoint of the Jewish community on the problem is that the amendment affects the community negatively now, being a stumbling block in the development of U.S.- Russia relations,” Russian Jewish Congress President Yuri Kanner said in a statement.

“We believe that repeal of the amendment will mark positive changes in the life of the Jewish community in Russia since the end of the policy of state anti-Semitism, and will also contribute to the ‘reset’ of relations between Russia and the U.S.”

Beyrly said at the meeting that the amendment’s repeal is a priority for the Obama administration in 2011, according to Kanner.

The Jackson-Vanik amendment is a provision in United States federal law, adopted in 1974, that was intended to pressure the Soviet Union to allow emigration of Jews to Israel. It remains in force but has been waived regularly in recent years.

Zoning Snafus Keep New JCC Empty

Flashback to last fall, the opening ceremony of YESOD, a first-of-its-kind Jewish community center in the heart of St. Petersburg. This three-story modern stone-and-glass building — built by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) with funds raised primarily from North American federations and private donors — was pitched by the JDC as the new heart of the St. Petersburg community.

Now, four months after the impressive opening ceremony that brought together JDC leadership from New York and Israel, North American donors and local community leaders, the center is fully built — but stands empty.

The center is also the focus of criticism from some of its would-be occupants, who say that they haven’t been kept in the loop about planning the center from the beginning, that its opening has been delayed and that they are unsure about when they will be able to move in.

For its part, the JDC says that the delays are a result of bureaucratic snafus in obtaining zoning approval, and that it plans to move local Jewish organizations into the building later this month. JDC also wants to make the building economically self-sufficient; sources suggest that the project has stalled because JDC is also looking for commercial tenants to help achieve this goal.

YESOD, a bright and open space, is similar to state-of-the-art JCCs in cities across North America. It has space to house half a dozen Jewish organizations, a gym, a concert hall and a kosher cafe.

Although hailed as a landmark space uniting under one roof many Jewish organizations that have been scattered around the city, the center was received with mixed feelings by community leaders.

At the time, some criticized the JDC for organizing the center from afar and of not bringing the local bodies into the organizational process.

When the center held its ceremony, with Jewish federation guests from North America in attendance, its administration hoped that it would be ready for operation by the end of the year at the latest.

But the center is still not open.

“Everything has stalled and it is not certain when and how we are going to move,” said Leonid Kolton, director of St. Petersburg’s Hesed Avraham welfare center, which provides food and other services to Jewish elderly.

The JDC-run Hesed Avraham gave up some of its space in anticipation of the September move — space that it will need in its more active winter months. Hillel’s predicament is more serious: the student group’s lease is ending at the end of the month.

In an e-mail message, Jonathan Porath, JDC’s country director for Russia, said Hillel will move into the JCC before the end of the month.

But according to Leonid Smirnov, director of JDC in St. Petersburg, the finished building is still going through the lengthy process of receiving final approval from the zoning commission.

Local Jewish organizations should be able to move in at the end of January and “general activity” in the building should begin in the late winter or early spring, Porath said. Meanwhile, the amount that local groups will be expected to pay in rent is still unclear.

There are indications that the nonprofit tenants, St. Petersburg Jewish organizations, will need to pay rent for space in YESOD to cover its costly maintenance. Local Jewish leaders worry that the groups will be expected to pay commercial rates that some organizations cannot afford.

Smirnov says such criticisms and fears are unwarranted because most of the organizations relocating to YESOD are funded by the JDC and thus the JDC would just be paying itself.

“We are not interested in transferring money from one of our pockets to another,” he said.

Financial details are still being worked, out, JDC’s Porath said. According to Leonid Kolton, the overall situation puts a stain on JDC’s image and could even damage the structure of the Jewish community.

The JDC’s Smirnov says any large-scale operation spanning almost four years and involving the transfer of many organizations to a newly constructed building will inevitably run into difficulties and complications.

Added Joshua Berkman, a JDC spokesman: “JDC and its partners built YESOD to serve as a first-class facility where Jewish life in St. Petersburg can continue to flourish. Rest assured, we will do everything we can to make sure the organizations that are driving this historic Jewish rebirth can make YESOD their home.”

A Perestroika for Russian Women

It’s not every day the words “brit milah” work their way into conversation, let alone in discussing a 12-year-old boy. But here in the Russian air they hang for a moment.

“Yes,” Olga Finogenova says through a translator; her son, after returning from a summer spent at a religious school for boys, wanted to undergo a brit milah, also known as a bris, or Jewish ritual circumcision.

It’s a sunny day on the Volga River when Finogenova imparts this story. We’re partaking in a conference to bring together Jewish women from the United States, Israel and the former Soviet Union (FSU). Our trip, Women Turning the Tide, A Voyage on the Volga, is being sponsored by Project Kesher, a Chicago-based organization that’s been working with Jewish FSU women for the past 10 years in the areas of Jewish renewal and women’s empowerment.

It’s a few days into our trip already (they sponsored me), but I still manage to be continually awed by the stories these women have to tell. To visit Russia is to see a country where history is just a few years old, where Moscow street signs are newly replaced to indicate a return to pre-communist street names. To speak to these women is to hear the stories of those who have lived it — have lived communist anti-Semitism and perestroika. How can I convey to them that their passion is so inspiring to someone who comes from a place where we take our Judaism — and even our food on the table — for granted? It’s embarrassing to admit, and so I don’t. I just listen.

Despite having known all her life that she was a Jew, when Finogenova first got involved with the group in 1999, it was her first real introduction to Judaism.

“Since childhood, Judaism had always been a thing that was upsetting to us. There have been many problems with being a Jew and studying Judaism,” she told me, noting that her first positive Jewish experience was with Project Kesher. Now Finogenova is the Project Kesher women’s group leader in Smolensk.

Today, Judaism is clearly an important part of her and her family’s life. Her son’s choice to have a bris at age 12 is just the most startling example. She and her son celebrate all the Jewish holidays, and also welcome Shabbat every week by lighting candles and saying Kiddush. Finogenova leads the Torah study for her Project Kesher women’s group. Her son will have his bar mitzvah next year.

Finogenova’s group in Smolensk is one of 165 Project Kesher women’s groups operating throughout Russia, Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus. While it is only one of numerous organizations working for Jewish renewal in the FSU since the fall of the Iron Curtain, it is the only organization that focuses on women.

It didn’t start out that way, according to founder Sallie Gratch. In the beginning, Gratch was interested in trying to help FSU Jews, as a whole, to organize. But in visiting small-town community leaders, she found herself surrounded entirely by men. Women were not included in official meetings, and in Briansk, for example, “the head of the community didn’t understand why we’d even want to meet with the Jewish women,” Gratch said.

Thus, it didn’t take long for Gratch to realize that the kind of organization she was trying to build — self-led, pluralistic and egalitarian — would only be possible if she started with the women. In 1994, with the help of her Russian friend and translator Svetlana Yakimenko (now Project Kesher’s FSU director), she convened the International Conference of Jewish Women, clearly defining Project Kesher as a women’s organization for the first time. Ten years later, what has emerged is an organization that focuses on the spiritual and practical concerns of Jewish women in the FSU: Jewish learning; computer vocational and leadership training; and activism in the issues the women’s groups feel most impact their lives, namely women’s health education, trafficking in women and domestic violence.

On the second day of our trip, there’s a low but energetic hum as we take our seats in the dimly lit auditorium of Moscow’s Hermitage Theater. Off to one side of the stage, six Torahs lay covered on a large podium. They have been carried the long distance from communities in the United States to be donated to six budding FSU Jewish communities and officially handed over today in what is sure to be a highlight of the week: the Torah Return ceremony.

As we settle in, folksinger Debbie Friedman and Project Kesher’s musical coordinator Azariya Medvedova play an opening song in English, Hebrew and Russian on their guitars. Various women speak, including Jewish feminist educator and spiritual leader Tamara Cohen, who offers a blessing on the women handing over the Torahs, and then on the women receiving them for their communities.

Friedman is one of a number of prominent American women leaders who have made the trip. The long list also includes Orthodox feminist movement leader Blu Greenberg and Angeleno Marcia Cohn Spiegel, Creative Jewish Women’s Alliance organizer who, like a number of women, has brought her daughters with her.

It’s a tearful ceremony, with women trying to express the emotional weight of the moment — and failing.

“All of these overwhelming feelings cannot be put into words,” says Olga Shevchuk of Vinnitsa, Ukraine, whose Torah originates from a dwindling classical Reform Jewish synagogue in Helena, Ark.

“Gratitude,” she says, is the closest she can get to putting a name to what she is feeling.

We move so organically from a state of tears to song, dance and cheers that I can’t say how it happens. Only suddenly, Friedman and Medvedova are playing again, and women have linked hands and started impromptu horas, circling around the bolted-down chairs and making their way into the area behind the seats to dance more freely. Other women embrace, caught up in the moment.

At breakfast the next morning, I sit with Carol Avins and her daughter, Claire Solomon, at a table finely set with black bread, smoked fish, blini and other Russian breakfast delicacies. They, along with Avins’ sister-in-law Nancy Solomon, carried the Torah from the Helena synagogue where the Solomon family once belonged. At its peak in the 1950s, Temple Beth-El’s membership included some 125 families, but today, only about 10 elderly members remain. I ask Avins how she felt standing up on that stage.

“I found myself unexpectedly emotional about it, especially because the community that’s giving the Torah is becoming a thing of the past,” she says. “But then I got amused…. Women were dancing around with the Torah and I thought it was the kind of celebration with the Torah that [Temple Beth-El] would never do. Their tradition is dignified and simple. This Torah kind of goes on to a new phase of its existence.”

In the weeks to come, Avins will be proven right. We will all get updates about the great celebrations taking place in the cities that receive these Torahs, their women’s groups now continuing their Jewish learning armed with real Torahs, and using the lessons of repairing the world and charity as the inspiration for their activism.

With the current state of economics in the region, many FSU women dream of marrying foreigners or of finding lucrative jobs abroad. They are promised these things, but the dream quickly turns to a nightmare as they find themselves the victims of unscrupulous businesspeople trafficking in human beings. They are sold into sexual slavery in countries where they have come illegally, and with no support system and little knowledge of their new country, they often have no way out.

“Until recently, the problem of trafficking wasn’t spoken of. It only recently became a subject of the mass media,” Elena Zyablikova tells us in one of our lectures. As the leader of Belarus’ Borisov women’s group, she has helped coordinate their campaigns to combat trafficking in women and domestic violence.

There are no laws against trafficking in women in Russia or Moldova, and while Ukraine and Belarus do have laws against it, they are rarely enforced, she says.

No statistics exist in the region on the numbers of women being trafficked (nothing showing the general state of apathy more clearly). But in Israel, for example, it is estimated that about 80 percent of people involved in trafficking are Russian-speaking, and the 432 reports of trafficking to police stations in Belarus in 2003 are considered to be just the tip of the iceberg in a region where there is a great sense of shame in coming forward.

Educating women and working for legislative gains are primarily where Project Kesher has put its efforts, including being a signatory to the advocacy group working to get the International Marriage Brokers Act passed in the United States. In addition to other measures, it would force men seeking marriage brokers to submit to criminal background checks.

More than 90 Kesher groups are also involved in programs to fight domestic violence. A recent poll indicated that 60 percent of female university students believe that it is women who make men violent. By educating the public through pamphlet distribution and lectures in schools, Kesher groups work to put an end to this tragic misconception.

They also participate in the annual 16 Days Against Domestic Violence campaign and have united with 18 governmental and nongovernmental institutions to provide free legal, medical and psychological assistance to victims of domestic violence.

With about one-fifth of all calls to police relating to domestic violence, Project Kesher’s next step will be creating coalitions with local police departments, said Evelina Shoubinskaya, a social worker at the forefront of Kesher’s anti-domestic violence programming.

Recognizing that these problems have everything to do with economic concerns, Project Kesher works to empower women through its various programs, as well. Its new micro-enterprise loan program has granted more than 90 small low-interest loans to women to build their businesses; its vocational computer training centers, co-sponsored by World ORT, assist women in finding better jobs in a region where unemployment and underemployment are significant problems; and its leadership training program teaches women to lead in their Kesher groups and the world.

The sun continues to shine for us in Rybinsk, and actually well into the night. As we travel farther and farther north, experiencing Russia’s famous white nights until almost midnight, I remember that I’d thought this place would be gray and dreary, cold and sad. Instead, I’ve witnessed rebuilding, and the warmth and joy and optimism of a people who see much work ahead, but a bright future at least, perhaps for the first time. The near-eternal sunshine suddenly feels symbolic and very fitting.

“I connected with yesterday’s prayer where Miriam stood at the edge of the river and everything was new,” Elena Knyazhitskaya says at Saturday’s Shabbat service, which included a Hebrew naming ceremony for some 22 of the women. Elena picked the name Ruth, because she, like Ruth, is not halachically Jewish. There was also a Leora (“for her there is divine light”), Chana, Leah and Eliana (“it was she who got answers”).

“I feel in my life that a lot of changes are about to happen,” Knyazhitskaya says to me.

Big changes seem imminent for Project Kesher, too. While its slow growth has been intentional — it was important to Kesher leaders that group members and potential members feel “ignited, not pushed,” according to Yakimenko — with more than 3,000 members, they’ve now built solid foundations and are ready for people to know who they are, Executive Director Karyn Gershon said.

The two largest impediments against future goals of expansion into Moscow, Germany and Israel seem to be lack of recognition and consequent lack of funding. Next year’s budget weighs in at just $650,000, as opposed to Chabad’s FSU arm, whose annual operating budget is $15 million, with $80 million set aside for new projects.

“If you can get a person to underwrite the concert, I will come to your city!” singer Friedman announces at our end-of-the-trip brainstorming meeting. Other women have also caught the fever, raising their hands to speak, promising to tell their synagogues back home about Project Kesher and to organize various fundraising events to get the word out about the work we’ve now witnessed firsthand.

“My daughter told me that you have to go to Israel to practice Judaism,” Finogenova said, “but through Project Kesher, we understood that we may lead Jewish lives here.”

For more information on Project Kesher visit,

The Days and Nights of Berkowitz

On a recent bus ride through the outskirts of St. Petersburg, Russia, Rabbi Avraham Berkowitz ignores the rustic scenery surrounding him. Instead, the 28-year-old executive director of the Chabad-Lubavitch-dominated Federation of Jewish Communities of the Former Soviet Union (FSU) clutches a cellphone and speaks in hushed tones to an American businessman and potential benefactor for nearly half an hour. Berkowitz never once asks for money; that’s not his style. Instead, he talks about how a donation — any donation — could change a Jewish child’s life.

"It costs only $250 to send one kid to camp. It would cost five to 10 times more than that in the States," Berkowitz said. "I’m saying that just for $250 a poor kid in Russia can get boat rides, nutritious food and learn about the beauty of Judaism and Jewish life. Any contribution can make a big difference." The man gives $5,000, a small fraction of the more than $10 million Berkowitz says he has personally raised over the years.

Master fundraiser, tireless advocate and Chabad’s public face in the Former Soviet Union to the outside world, the energetic Berkowitz sees his mission as nothing less than helping to revive Judaism among the estimated 1 million-2 million Jews in the region, a Herculean task after seven decades of atheistic communism and government repression. In the five years he has worked in the region, he has raised untold millions to fund Jewish summer camps, orphanages and community centers. He also helped establish Birthright Israel in the former Soviet Union, a program that has sent 3,000 young people on free trips to Israel.

Along the way, Berkowitz has encountered obstacles that might have sent less committed souls home.

Firstly, he has had to grapple with Western ignorance about the plight of Jews in the FSU, which has made it difficult to raise money for their many needs. Educating American and European philanthropists’ about the needs of FSU Jews has turned Berkowitz into a reluctant frequent flier who spends nearly four months a year on the road away from his wife, Leah, and three young children.

Secondly, he found himself the victim of a vicious power struggle between Chabad and a competing Jewish organization, which left him hospitalized for 22 days. That experience left him shaken. However, it also made him more determined than ever to spread his love of Judaism as far as possible in the FSU, where Chabad now has 220 rabbis stationed and an annual budget of $60 million — far more than any other Jewish organization. Chabad also is funding building projects valued at $80 million in the FSU, heavily bankrolled by Jewish philanthropists George Rohr, a Wall Street investor, and Israeli diamond magnate Lev Leviev.

"Being here is the fulfillment of a dream," Berkowitz said. "Here in Russia, I can make a real lasting impression."

With so much to do, Berkowitz wastes little time. Waking up at 6 a.m. one recent day to tend to his crying 5-month-old son, Menachem Mendel, he ends his work day 20 hours later at 2 a.m. In between, Berkowitz meets with a group of visiting American and European art dealers to discuss how they could become involved with a planned state-of-the-art $50 million Jewish history museum in Moscow; he talks on the phone with oil company executives in Kazakhstan to garner their support for Jewish orphanages there; he tries to settle a dispute between two rabbis in Lithuania; and he meets with Rabbi Berel Lazar, chief rabbi of the Federation of Jewish Communities, which runs most of the congregations in the FSU, to discuss fundraising efforts for Jewish summer camps.

His youthful energy has served him well, said Marlene Post, past president of Hadassah and chair of Birthright Israel.

"At 28 years of age, most young people are deciding what to do with their lives," she said. "But [Avraham’s] a man who’s focused, passionate and dedicated, who is helping to start Jewish days schools and centers. He’s doing amazing work."

Berkowitz knew at an early age that he wanted to help his fellow Jews wherever they resided. Growing up with eight siblings in Southfield, Mich., he moved to Seattle to attend yeshiva in 1990. There, he and a friend visited the homes of recent Jewish Russian immigrants. On their own initiative, the 13-year-olds began making weekly deliveries of free "Shabbat packages" of wine, challah and candles. Berkowitz says he raised $5,000 for the program from local businesses and philanthropists .

Berkowitz, who speaks English, Hebrew, Russian, Yiddish and Spanish, then studied at a Yeshiva in Manchester, England. He later moved to Morristown, N.J., where he attended the Rabbinical College of America. He spent the summers crisscrossing Alaska searching for Jews and non-Jews to whom he could minister.

Post Alaska, Berkowitz went to Uruguay, where he and 10 other rabbinical students founded a yeshiva. The following year, he moved to Argentina, where he spent two years raising money for a Jewish community center and teaching.

Converting non-Jews to Judaism is not part of his or Chabad’s raison d’être, he says. His mission is simply to make the world a better place for everyone, he says, which is a philosophy embodied by his hero Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the late, charismatic leader of the Chabad movement.

Berkowitz, who married in 1999, went to Russia partly at the prodding of his new wife, who thought they could make a more meaningful contribution there. Initially, he admitted he thought of the FSU as some "third-world place." He has since come to love it.

One of the reasons Jewish life has flourished so much in the FSU, the rabbi says, is because of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s public embrace of Judaism. In 2000, Putin attended the opening ceremony of Chabad’s $12 million Jewish community center in Moscow, a seven-story structure that includes a synagogue, a theater, a gym, a computer lab and two mikvahs. The Russian leader’s presence signaled new tolerance toward Jews, experts said.

But just how long the FSU and its leaders remain enamored of Chabad and the Jews is anyone’s guest. Berkowitz’s sunny optimism notwithstanding, anti-Semitism "is there. It’s always there," Amnesty International spokesman Alistair Hodgett said. "That’s absolutely and unfortunately true."

Lubavitcher Rebbe’s Legacy Expanding

Ten years after the death of the last Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, his influence on the Jewish world continues to grow.

Tens of thousands of mourners visited Schneerson’s grave in Queens, on Tuesday for his 10th yarhzeit. Israel’s two chief rabbis had called for a worldwide day of communal prayer, saying, “The flourishing success of other groups, not only among Chasidic circles [but among] the Jewish community at large, is in large measure due to the rebbe.”

It is a big claim, but one that Jewish figures of nearly all movements echo.

“The rebbe has left an indelible impression on Judaism in the 20th century,” said Rabbi Norman Lamm, chancellor of Yeshiva University and one of the leading figures of the Modern Orthodox movement. Though he criticized Chabad for building a “personality cult” around its rebbe, whom many Lubavitchers believe to be the Messiah, Lamm said Schneerson “was an indomitable leader, a preeminent scholar and a truly creative visionary of organization. He consolidated the Chabad movement so that it was able to outlast his own life.”

Lawrence Schiffman, chair of New York University’s Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies, will hold an academic conference next year on Schneerson’s legacy, the first such conference outside the Lubavitch world.

“He showed the Jewish community that it was possible to revive and rebuild — after assimilation, persecution or both — and that this could be done on a tremendous scale,” Schiffman said.

Schneerson’s background was unusual for a Chasidic rabbi. Born in 1902 in Russia into a Lubavitch family of prestigious lineage, he learned in yeshivas as a youth but went on to study math and science at the University of Berlin and the Sorbonne in Paris. In 1941, Schneerson fled Nazi-occupied Europe for New York. In 1951, a year after the death of his father-in-law, the sixth Lubavitcher rebbe, Schneerson was proclaimed the seventh rebbe by Chabad elders.

Schneerson died childless and without appointing an heir after two years of illness, during which he was unable to speak. The lack of an heir, and some ambiguous statements Schneerson made in the years before his illness, fueled speculation among many of his followers that the messianic age might be approaching and that Schneerson was the Messiah.

While many Lubavitchers still believe the deceased rebbe to be the Messiah, the power of the movement’s messianists decline with each passing year, although the issue remains a point of contention both inside and outside Chabad. The movement today is led by a 22-member board of rabbis that allocates funding from its headquarters in Crown Heights, adjudicates disputes and serves other administrative functions.

Chabad outreach activities are growing, with more than 4,000 shluchim (emissaries) spreading Schneerson’s message in more than 70 different countries, more than double the number a decade ago. There’s hardly a Jewish community anywhere in the world that doesn’t have a Chabad center, and hardly a Jew that does not know of “the rebbe” and his shluchim.

By sending his yeshiva students into the streets of middle America with beards and hats at a time when even observant Jews tried to hide their ethnic identity, Schneerson exerted the single greatest influence on the revival of Jewish pride in the United States, perhaps even more than the creation of the State of Israel, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz said.

Many Jews say they’re inspired by Schneerson’s teachings, especially his sichos (weekly talks), which still are being compiled and published at Lubavitch headquarters.

Schneerson most often is credited for his outreach work — not just the practical accomplishments, such as the creation of schools, holiday services and adult education classes, but the underlying philosophy that focused on each individual Jew with caring, warmth and love.

“The rebbe was the first person on American soil to put priority on what today is called ‘kiruv [drawing Jews closer to their religion],” said Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, executive director of the Orthodox Union. “Today everyone is doing it, but there’s no question that Chabad was doing it decades before anyone else.”

Over the past 10 years Chabad Lubavitch on the West Coast’s growth has included:

  • 112 shluchim couples moving to the West Coast.

  • 84 new Chabad regional centers and outreach programs; 22 such centers have opened their doors in the last year alone.

  • 12 new Chabad Houses established at universities throughout California.

  • 42 new building projects launched and completed.

  • More than $125 million raised toward capital projects.

  • 10 new mikvahs.

  • More than 200 Jewish Web sites offering Jewish content, outreach and social services.

— Staff Report