“You want trade secrets?” Rabbi Sholom Ber Levitin squints at me over a dish of macaroni and cheese at Island Crust Café on an unseasonably warm afternoon this fall. He is used to people asking for the recipe to Chabad’s “secret sauce.” While Jewish organizations and synagogues across the country fret about filling empty seats and securing “The Jewish Future” — often with the help of enormous donations — how is it that Chabad is going gangbusters without even a central funding source?
“In order to be successful, you have to have a certain passion, a goal, and a belief system,” Levitin says. “The fundamental belief [is] that every Jew is part of klal Yisrael” — the collective Jewish people.
Forty-six years ago, Levitin, his wife Chanie, and their two young children arrived in Seattle to grow the presence of Chabad in the Pacific Northwest. They were a long way from Crown Heights, Brooklyn, the epicenter of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement and the home of their charismatic rabbi, Menachem Mendel Schneerson.
The Levitins had 10 more children, and now eight of them are back in the Seattle area with growing families of their own. Four of their sons and daughters-in-law recently returned to run new Chabad centers in downtown Seattle, Capitol Hill, Queen Anne, and Phinney Ridge/northwest Seattle. At the same time, Levitin’s nephew Nissan Kornfeld and his family settled on Mercer Island, and just this year two new families took up residence in Shoreline and Renton. This is in addition to 19 other couples who have been running Chabad centers and programs, like the Friendship Circle and Camp Gan Israel, around Washington state for years.
Chabad emissaries — there are around 6,000 worldwide — practice a form of radical acceptance inspired by Schneerson, better known as the Rebbe. When he passed away in 1994, with no biological heir and a feverish hope among his devotees that he was Moshiach (the messiah), the Chabad movement could have collapsed or sputtered out. However, it only got stronger, thanks to the emissary infrastructure and vision put forth by the Rebbe. The majority of emissaries today went out after the Rebbe’s passing — and many never even met their spiritual leader.
The Levitins’ “middle” child (their seventh), Shmuly, and his wife Chaya run Chabad of Downtown Seattle and Chabad Young Professionals out of a high-rise in Belltown. They have found a significant need for Jewish programming, particularly among young transplants in the tech sector. Between 75 and 150 “regulars” show up at events — as well as special guests, like 6-foot-5, 333-pound Oakland Raiders guard Kalechi Osemele, who spent a Friday night dancing with the dinner guests. “He loved it,” Levitin says. “We’re still in touch.”
But seriously. “People don’t realize that in this day and age people are looking for authenticity,” Levitin goes on. “The Jewish soul wants nurturing. On a human level, they want community.” By seeking out Jews on the ground and inviting them to Shabbat dinners and events with no strings attached and no fees, Chabad has mastered grassroots organizing.
“The idea is simply to be super friendly and give a sense of belonging,” says Rabbi Sadya Davidoff, who recently moved to Shoreline with his wife Shimona and their baby. (Shimona’s parents run the Chabad Jewish Russian Center in Shoreline.) Davidoff compares Chabad to Starbucks: There should be one within a mile of where you are. “Any time a Jewish person needs to feel a sense of belonging, we’re there for them.”
Shmuly Levitin turns to Amazon for his analogies. The shopping monolith has an obsession with the customer, and similarly, Chabad’s mission is to embrace every Jewish person without judgment.
Does Chabad’s growth indicate that Jews are actually becoming more committed? The senior Levitin sees it in a metaphysical light. “One deed can bring the redemption,” he says. “You never know the power of an act.”