Rebbe's army still marches on

Sue Fishkoff signs copy of her book for Suzanne and Alan Kominsky at Chabad of Solon event.

High rollers at the Aladdin casino in Las Vegas were astounded a few years ago when a Chasidic rabbi paraded his way through the blackjack tables and slot machines carrying a Torah scroll aloft, followed by an entourage of exuberant yeshiva students.

It was erev (the eve of) Yom Kippur, and the rabbi had just arrived in town. Garbed in yontif (holiday) white, he was preparing to conduct High Holiday services in a temporary shul adjoining the casino.

Many of the gamblers called out, "Pray for me, rabbi!" before turning back to the gaming tables.

Writer Sue Fishkoff loves to tell that story, one that epitomizes the remarkable success of the Chabad movement during the past decade, she says. Author of The Rebbe's Army: Inside the World of Chabad-Lubavitch, Fishkoff related the anecdote during a March 13 talk at the Solon of Chabad synagogue.

When Rabbi Menachem Schneerson (the beloved Lubavitcher Rebbe) died 11 years ago at age 92, many observers believed that "Chabad would lose its momentum," Fishkoff told her audience. Instead, it has blossomed into a $1 billion empire operating in 80 countries with 4,000 emissaries (shlichim) dedicated to keeping the rebbe's teachings alive. One way or another, Chabad has touched the lives of one in every 10 Jews worldwide, she estimates.

"Five years ago, I would have been astonished to learn I would be writing about Chabad," the author observed. But Fishkoff became intrigued by the movement's success, and she spent a year-and-a-half crisscrossing North America, interviewing Lubavitch emissaries from Anchorage to Miami. Each was determined to perpetuate Schneerson's legacy by encouraging Jews to connect with their religion and by using creative, sometimes controversial, ways to attract them.

Among her travels, Fishkoff observed Torah classes on Capitol Hill led by a Chabad rabbi versed in law as well as religion. The rabbi did not offer political advice; rather, he encouraged the lawmakers to find their own moral compass and stick to it, especially when faced with agonizing decisions.

One time, Fishkoff accompanied a Chabad rabbi to a prison in the Mojave Desert, where he helped Jewish inmates resolve their differences about their religion. "When they finally joined hands, the rabbi said to them, ‘Maybe one day you'll have a minyan (quorum of 10) here.'" Suddenly he stopped in mid-sentence, aghast at his own words, Fishkoff related humorously.

In attracting new Chabad members, "overwhelmingly, college-educated men ages 40-65 who are former members of Reform and Conservative congregations (represent) the strongest demographic," she pointed out. "Many are embarrassed to admit they don't know Hebrew or have a strong Jewish background."

Adult-education programs attract many of these men, as well as large numbers of women. The fact that these programs are free adds greatly to their appeal, Fishkoff noted.

In addition, young parents appreciate the welcoming, non-judgmental atmosphere of the Chabad congregation. Although they are seldom observant themselves, they know that the rabbi and his wife adhere to strict halacha (Jewish law). Thus, young couples perceive these two as "role models" who can teach children about Jewish traditions.

Despite her obvious respect for the Lubavitcher movement, Fishkoff still worships at her Conservative temple in California and has not joined a Chabad congregation. However, her research into the movement has encouraged the author to delve more deeply into her spirituality, and many of Chabad's teachings have rubbed off on her, she acknowledges. Fishkoff now "watches her words more carefully" and has become more sensitive to the feelings of others around her. Above all, she said, "I feel more comfortable in my Jewish skin."