Thursday, December 04, 2008

Lucette Lagnado on Chabad in Mumbai

From today's Wall Street Journal:.
I still remember the rabbi's first sermon, about the Valley of Dry Bones -- that amazing biblical passage where the dead come to life again. I thought of the hopelessness I had felt on 9/11, the collective hopelessness, but then, listening to the story of how even a bunch of bones had been brought back to life, I too felt a sense of possibility again. And safety.

I thought of that sense of safety and comfort as I watched the horrific events unfold in Mumbai, and specifically at the Chabad House.

I am absolutely certain that Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg and his pregnant wife Rivka, massacred by the terrorists, had also set up a safe-haven. Theirs was a retreat for Jews living in and around Mumbai or even those who were merely passing through.

I would venture that's one of the secrets behind the Chabad movement's extraordinary growth -- that they build little sanctuaries for lost Jews, alienated Jews, secular Jews, Jews who have no interest in traditional religion.

Chabad has redefined religion in part by getting away from the notion of large, formal temples to establishing places of worship that are small, intimate and, above all, deeply comforting; they have made religion personal.

And so, even as some other branches of Judaism and other religions have withered, they have ventured to the far corners of the earth: Siberia, Alaska, Kiev, Odessa, Ho Chi Minh City. But no matter where the Chabad house the philosophy is always the same -- to bring even the most alienated Jews back into the fold.

You go to a Chabad house and you can count on being invited to Friday night dinner by the rabbi and his wife. The model emphasizes old-fashioned notions of community and home -- the sense that religion is not a once-a-year affair but a way of life.