In a far-away place in the mythical country of America in a borough called Brooklyn in a place called New York City is a street named Eastern Parkway. There stands a building, an ordinary looking building you might not look at twice except for the crowds constantly streaming in and out of it. In this ordinary looking building there's a lot of a lot of extraordinary activity taking place. It is 770 Eastern Parkway, or as it is known universally to Lubavitch Jews, simply 770. I call it their Vatican.
770 is the world headquarters of Chabad Lubavitch, a sect of Judaism that runs a worldwide missionary operation with around 3,500 outposts in 70 countries. And it all stems from 770, the home address of the late Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the last of seven (so far) Rebbes to head the Lubavitch movement. 770 houses the largest of scores of temples (Shuls) in the neighborhood as well as a suite of offices from which the Lubavitch world-wide operation is run,
Why a movement and not a sect? These people are activists in the staid world of Judaism and have been stirring up the pot so to speak with their highly visible campaign to reach out to Jews everywhere to reunite them with their ancient faith and reconcile and integrate Judaism with the modern world. Seems like a tall task for people whose dress and appearance seem completely out of step with the modern world but they must be doing something right since their numbers have swelled five-fold in the past twenty years from around 200,000 to over a million.
There are a number of reasons put forth as to why that is: their aggressive presence with their many mobile home "Mitzvah Tanks" venturing all over the city as kind of rolling shuls, the dynamic leadership, genius and spiritual authority of Rebbe Schneerson, the theory that they are not so much converting new Lubavitch as creating their own by having huge families, and their political activism and shrewd politicking. Theories abound so I'll add mine: The Lubavitch attract members because they are interesting people, full of life and joy and humanity. Simply put, very likable folks.
How would I know? I'm not even Jewish. Well, for about the last 15 years I've been working with the "Eastern Parkway Jews" or "Crown Heights Yids" as so many New Yorkers call them. I started out as a bartender at their weddings and Bar Mitzvahs and gradually became part of the community, working as a waiter in Lubavitch homes and small shuls for their many simchas, a simcha being a party. I've gotten to know a great many Lubavitch as customers, coworkers and friends.
What I found out about them right away is that they do what say they will do, more commonly known as practicing what you preach. And they don't make a big deal of themselves because they follow the strict rules of their calling. I call them my industrial-strength Jewish friends because they practice a very demanding, law-driven brand of Judaism, but unlike a lot of other fundamentalists I've met of various faiths, they don't act like martyrs or saints for following a strict regimen. Nor do they
shun or condemn their coreligionists who practice a different version of Judaism than the one they have chosen.
And they do choose it. All the schooling and indoctrination in the world can't make a reasoning being follow a difficult path if they don't truly believe. And theirs is not a blind faith, demanding adherence to rules just because it's the way things are done. Just because what? Why? Those are valid questions. Well, the Lubavitch are reasoning beings who are forever discussing the hows and whys of their faith, the logical reasons for various observances and practices, never shying away from the tough questions. It's not like Rebbe Schneerson invented Judaism or all the attendant rules and observations of Chasidism. What he did do, though, is to encourage an ongoing dialogue of what it means to be a Jew in the 21st century and why it is important.
When every member of a faith is so engaged in defining itself it is truly a religion of the people, not of any ruling hierachy. The Lubavitch hierarchy, such as it is, doesn't spend a lot of time making regal pronouncements of what it means to be a good Jew this week, trusting each individual to study and learn and to know what it means to be a Jew and to act accordingly. Being a rabbi doesn't give a Lubavitch unquestioned moral authority over anybody. Heck, I've been around Lubavitch long enough to be surprised when they don't question something. And they're doing just fine without any nominal leader at all since no one has replaced Menachem Schneerson as Rebbe. His mandates of performing acts of charity and kindness and making efforts to reach out to fellow Jews are still the unspoken marching orders of Lubavitch, the administrative work of his ministry carried out by the rabbis who were his closest aides while he lived.
And life goes on in 2007, or 5768 by the Jewish calendar. Lubavitch Jews are still calling me up to run their parties, trusting me in their homes and houses of worship to know and obey their strict dietary laws. That I do, and anyone I train to work these jobs with me learns the proper rules of strict Kosher catering. If they don't take that responsibility seriously they are welcome to go work elsewhere. The only contract I have with the Lubavitch is my word, my only advertisement has been my reputation and so far, so good. I am known by many as The Simcha Man, some even pay me the compliment of calling me a "Righteous Goy." I still get a lot of my jobs from Alice of Specializing In Simcha, a Kosher wait staff service run by a shiksa, but just as many come from word-of-mouth recommendation.
If you had told me fifteen years ago I'd have a bunch of friends named Yossi, Shlomo, Eliazir, Yehuda, Zalmon and Bentzion I'd have laughed. If you told me that Orthodox women would be asking my advice about which room in which Shul could best accommodate the crowd they were expecting for their parties I'd have asked "What's a Shul?" If you asked me what "Simchas Torah" was or "Yontif" or what was a Sukah hut you'd have gotten a blank stare. But now I know and I'm glad I do. My relationship with Lubavitch has been a positive one.
I see a people embracing genuine joy, too rare an attribute in what I consider to be a joyful world. I see a people who not only talk the talk but walk the walk, and I need not explain to anyone in this modern day of chameleon-like leaders and religious figures how rare is that character trait. And I see a people as down to earth as they come, integrating an ancient faith into this high-tech modern world as easily as slipping an old hand into a new glove. No big deal.
Lubavitch Jews seem to know what's important and what's not and live their lives the way they wish to, whether or not society as a whole understands or approves. They figure they're not in this world to please anyone but their Creator, so take me or leave me, what you see is what you get. Too many people don't see them at all except as quaint caricatures of Old World Jewry. That's their loss. I see a lot of giving, a lot of sharing, not only with money and material goods but also a lot of people simply being there for the other person in their time of need, a quiet word in private or a dinner invitation on the Sabbath. I see naked humanity in Crown Heights, a depth and breadth of passion worn unapologetically on their sleeves.
Are the Lubavitch perfect? Hardly. They'd get a good laugh out of that one. That's another thing you don't see all that much among strict fundamentalists, a good belly laugh, but you'll hear plenty of laughter in Crown Heights. Am I tempted to convert to Judaism? No, not really. I say all roads lead to Rome, so to speak, and I should dance with the one who brung me. Live right and do right and hurt no one else in the process seems to be the core teaching of every faith, and also a task far easier said than done. But I've sure learned a lot from these people, not to shy away from my spiritual side in the face of this impersonal modern world, and that my lifelong inclination to see the miraculous amid the mundane is not so crazy after all. I've got lots of company.
Living right and doing the right thing always is a challenge to all of us, not just Lubavitch. Is it attainable? Probably not, but like the Lubavitch I am bent on not giving up the quest. And to a man like me with so many flaws the challenge is pretty daunting, but I've got some good examples to show me that giving up on goodness in this world is just not an option. No one ever said life was easy, but then again, no one said it can't be fun either. Mazel Tov, brothers and sisters. Only Simchas.