Wednesday, 3 December 2008

What Were the Chabadniks Doing in Mumbai?

We light the Candle in memory of those murdered....

What Were the Chabadniks Doing in Mumbai?

(Guest Post By Michael Kress)
Saturday November 29, 2008
To invoke a much-overused cliche that seems to keep popping into my head today, we are all Chabadniks now. The Brooklyn-based Hasidic group comes in for its share of criticism, but today all Jews--all people--can do little but mourn those who fell in the Mumbai massacre.

For those not familiar with Chabad, the first question in your head might be, What were a bunch of Jewish Brooklynites doing living in Mumbai? The answer is serving. Some would--and do--call it missionizing, and it is, of a sort, though Chabadniks themselves hate the term. Their mission is to bring Jews to Judaism; that is, to turn unaffiliated and non-Orthodox Jews into Orthodox Jews, or at least introduce to their lives some elements of Orthodox practice.

Most often, however, that mission is lived through keeping small Jewish communities alive and providing for Jews--residents and travelers--in far-flung places around the globe. Thousands of young Jewish families from Chabad spread out throughout the globe, live uncompromisingly traditional lives where there is little or no Jewish community, and provide food, education, sometimes lodging, and other assistance to the Jews around them--and hope to touch some souls in the process.

There's plenty to criticize in Chabad, theologically and stylistically, especially when it comes to the fervent messianism that characterizes the movement. It's a focus that has led a substantial number of Chabadniks to believe that their Rebbe (rabbinic leader, sage) was himself the Messiah who will reveal himself to be the redeemer of humankind--despite the fact that he's been dead for more than 10 years.

But still, more than one critic of the movement has found himself or herself on vacation or away on business in some remote corner of the world--or even some remote corner of America--attending services at a Chabad house, having a Shabbat meal with the local Chabad family, or at least calling up Chabad to ask for advice on being Jewish where there are few Jews to be found.

It is a great irony, and a testament to their commitment and values, that this most sheltered of people choose to go out of their comfort zone to the farthest reaches of the globe. Hasidic men dress all in black, just as their ancestors did centuries ago in Europe, and women wear long dresses and wigs after they are married. Most live in tight-knit Jewish communities where most, if not all, of their social contact is with other Hasidim. Yet here they are, still in their traditional garb, setting up shop in places like Congo, Tunisia, Nepal, and Mumbai.

So what were these Brooklyn Jews doing in Mumbai? Providing kosher food, Jewish prayer services, and other ritual and educational needs to Western and Israeli Jews living there, and to travelers passing through. They were far from the only victims of the brutal terrorist attacks last week, but alongside the giant 5-star hotels, this family--who chose to leave the comforts simply to serve others, strangers, all of us--was no doubt singled out for simply being conspicuously Jewish where few are. Yes, we are all Chabadniks today.

Michael Kress is Managing Editor of Beliefnet.
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