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Video: Meet the Lubavitch

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Lubavitch @ National Geographic Magazine
Text and photographs by Carolyn Drake

A movement embracing old-world Orthodox Judaism is alive and thriving in New York City.

To outsiders, Chabad-Lubavitch Jews with their black fedoras and symbolic trappings can look very strange. But for onetime outsider Sheila Bar-Levav, they changed her life.

Raised Catholic, Bar-Levav converted to Judaism, her husband's religion. She enrolled their children in a preschool in New York run by Lubavitch Rabbi Aaron Raskin and his wife, Shternie. Because of their influence, Bar-Levav and her husband are now observant Jews—a transformation that embodies the Raskins' life's work. Believing that a holier world will hasten the Messiah's coming, Rabbi Raskin speaks passionately about bringing Jews back to their faith: "We have to renew that spark."

The late Lubavitch rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson lit that fuse for thousands. A small, vocal faction of Lubavitchers believe that Schneerson is the Messiah and revere him as such. But most simply honor the memory of the man who helped energize a religion devastated by Hitler and Stalin.

Born in Ukraine in 1902, Schneerson arrived in the United States in 1941, devout and driven. He belonged to the Orthodox Chabad-Lubavitch group—Chabad from the Hebrew words for wisdom, comprehension, and knowledge; Lubavitch for the Russian town where the movement was based in the late 1700s.

Now headquartered in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, the group was relatively small and little known when Schneerson became rebbe in 1951. During his 43-year tenure he pioneered a system of shluchim, or emissaries, charged with going out into the world to open Chabad centers, spreading knowledge of the Torah and Judaism. Some feared that the Lubavitch movement would dwindle after the rebbe's death in 1994. But today there are more than 3,000 centers in 70 countries—nearly half of them founded after Schneerson's death.

Like all religious groups, this one has its detractors, its dropouts, its dark episodes. Schneerson sparked enormous controversy in his day. He supported a strict interpretation of the Torah, preaching that only those born to a Jewish mother or converted by Orthodox rabbis could earn Israeli citizenship—a message that outraged many Jews. In 1991 when a car in the rebbe's entourage hit and killed a black child, some members of the black community in Crown Heights became enraged, and violence erupted. Critics of the movement today deride perceived restrictions on women and the cultlike devotion of the messianic faction.

The faithful feel Schneerson's presence most acutely at his grave in Queens. "It has become a beacon that people flock to," says Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, a top Lubavitch leader. The group's rapid growth attests to the power of the rebbe, who named no successor, and suggests that the Lubavitch movement is meeting the spiritual needs of many Jews eager to reconnect with their faith.

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