Image: Amy Vaughn

Early in the morning of June 12, 1994, a drizzly day in New York City, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson passed away. Although he was 92 years old and unable to speak after a stroke three months prior, his loss shocked the tens of thousands of Jews who had come to view him as a father figure, if not the messiah himself.

While the messianic claim seems outlandish to most American Jews, it’s undeniable that the Rebbe, as he is known, accomplished prophet-level work. He attracted multitudes of Jews to Jewish life from every corner of the earth, imbued them with passion and enthusiasm for Judaism, and contributed significantly to the rebuilding of global Jewish life on the ashes of the Holocaust. His vision of a unified Jewish people continues to expand thanks to a growing army of emissaries who espouse an ethos of accepting every Jew wherever they are in their journey.

Rabbi Shmuly Levitin was exemplifying that spirit of unity when he set out to plan an enormous gathering in Seattle in commemoration of the Rebbe’s 25th yahrzeit on June 23 at the Sheraton in downtown Seattle. The evening brought in around 700 people from diverse backgrounds and featured Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, a child survivor of Buchenwald and former chief rabbi of Israel, who shared anecdotes laced with inspiring messages of Jewish pride.

It was, in fact, the second large gathering for Levitin, a son of Chabad of the Pacific Northwest pioneers Rabbi Sholom Ber and Chanie Levitin, and the director of Chabad of Downtown Seattle and Chabad Young Professionals. (See our story on the growth of Chabad locally in the December–January 2018-19 edition.) Last June, in honor of the Rebbe’s 24th yahrzeit, Rabbi Shmuly brought Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, a renowned thinker and author of Rebbe, to a full banquet hall at the Westin.

These programs intend to inspire cohesion around the philosophy of the Rebbe, but perhaps more than anything, the “mega events,” as Levitin calls them, are indicative of the way Chabad is taking a leadership role in Seattle, a city that has struggled with disconnected Jewish communities and competition for resources. The Seattle region already has 19 Chabad-affiliated organizations, most of which are concentrated in the city but include locations in Renton, Bellevue, Shoreline, and Bainbridge Island — not to mention centers around the state.

According to Levitin, attendees ranged in age from teenage to elderly and spanned the denominations, including the unaffiliated. Elizabeth Richmond, who has worked for several communal organizations, was impressed by the program and, although a member of a Conservative synagogue, is supportive of Chabad’s work and made a financial contribution to the event.

“The environment in our city is very polarized,” she says. “I think as Jews we pick our camps. We give ourselves labels. It does kind of separate us. The message of Chabad is one of unity. They’re pushing for this sense of joy, and I really like that. It’s really positive.”

Others are skeptical of unity efforts put forth by an Orthodox movement.

“The Rebbe is awesome. I love the Rebbe. My issue is not with the Rebbe at all,” says Rabbi Yohanna Kinberg of Congregation Kol Ami of Kirkland. “But I have taken an issue with some of the approaches of Chabad in my time working in the community.”

Kinberg, who was ordained by the Reconstructionist movement, is openly critical of Chabad’s unity efforts. “How do we build community when one group is post-halachic and one is rooted in halacha?” she asks. Kinberg frequently deals with situations that fall outside the bounds of Jewish law, like interfaith marriages, LGBTQ individuals, and cases of suicide. And traditional rabbis won’t acknowledge her status as a woman rabbi in a liberal tradition. She laments the lack of interaction between liberal and Orthodox communities; the door should swing both ways. “It doesn’t make sense that we have to go to the ‘frummest’ common denominator.”

The Chabad movement is not going to soften its stance on Jewish law, and this proves challenging for people at odds with Orthodoxy. For many others, though, the open-door policy mitigates any ideological conflicts. “We’re hungry for something,” Richmond says. “It may look a little different from what we think religion is. It’s accessible on a very gut level.”

Levitin is aware of the critique but gravitates to fresher challenges, like Seattle’s rapid population growth. “We have awesome, brilliant, transformative people coming here, but it also leads a little to fragmentation,” he says.

Getting the Holocaust Center for Humanity to cosponsor and the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle, Jewish Family Service, and the Stroum Jewish Community Center on board as partners proved that organizational unity, at least, is possible.

“We are showing we can work together,” Levitin says. “The more we do that stuff, the more cohesive it will be in the community…. Slowly we can heal this divide. It’s working as we speak.”

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