While it has been easy to make light of the peculiarities of Chabad, we can often miss the positives of Judaism's most colorful movement. In the soil of its Messianism, narcisistic fervor and fundamentalism grows some of the grass roots kindness and caring that changed the Jewish map over the past 55 years. Here are some of the things I like and respect about Chabad.
One of the most remarkable things about the Chabad derech is its emphasis on bringing Judaism to the uninitiated. It is rather refreshing to go to a shul that does not have "tickets" for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Can you imagine what our forebears would have thought if they were required to buy expensive seats in shul? Many times, a person who gets an aliya in a Chabad House will stumble through the brachas, with several people guiding him word for word. He is tattered and bruised after the harrowing event, but beaming with acccomplishment. The Rebbe once famously said that the most beautiful books are those that have battered and worn covers and bindings, because it shows that they have been used for their purpose. Often, people come to Chabad shuls not knowing the rudimentary elements, and they find people ready to guide them in the mechanics and significance of what they are doing.
Wherever I go, there I am
Go to Thailand or Hong Kong on vacation, and you will find a Chabad House there. Wyoming, Vermont, South Dakota? If there is half a minyan, a Chabad House is sure to be their home. The Chabad derech is to bring the Torah to the Jews, wherever they are found. Why would a kid who grew up in Brooklyn want to spend his life teaching college students in Phoenix or Omaha to say brachas? The Rebbe's derech was full of military symbolism. There were "campaigns", "Neshek", "tanks, and "tzivos Hashem". And there were soldiers who were willing to go where no one wanted to be, to do a job that no one wanted to do.
The Chabad Rebbe
While I have discussed his derech in the past, I have never discussed what I think made the man a gadol. The burning dedication of the Chabad Rebbe could be seen in his conduct as well as his learning. He would speak every week, producing volumes upon volumes of new work on deriving an operative philosophy from the parsha, from the Pirkei Avos, from Rashi and from Chasidus. As well, a cursory examination of his work reveals that he was an expert in Rashi, in Mishna Torah, in Gemora, and in Chabad Chasidus. For hours on end, as an elderly man, he would stand without so much as a bathroom break, while thousands of people passed by. He would give dollars, Tanyas or some other keepsake, always with a purpose of making them aware of an idea (tzedaka or learning) and with making some personal contact with each one. It was rare that the Rebbe stopped before the line ended.
Nothing more illustrates what I admired about the Rebbe more than these exchanges. Once, after a project was completed, the gevir told the Rebbe that the work was complete and that he hoped that the Rebbe would be satisfied with it. The Rebbe told him that such a goal was useless, since he would never be satisfied with a past accomplishment. Once, a shliach reported with beaming pride that 60% of the Jewish students in his community attended his school, the only Jewish school in the area. The Rebbe made clear that he was not to be satisfied with anything less than each and every Jewish child in a Jewish school.
In fact, it is useless to deny that the modern stress on outreach to the nonobservant was initiated at 770 Eastern Parkway, even to the extent that they built yeshivas that strictly cater to the adult who did not learn as a child. A "beginner's yeshiva" like those in Chabad were not even necessarily considered a good thing before Chabad showed that it could work.
Foundation of Kindness
It is also undeniable that there are those within Chabad (few though they may be, we would all do well to learn from their example) who excel in kindness. Moreover, the chabadniks who excel in kindness do so out of a genuine personal caring for every Jew, regardless of belief level, background, affiliation or yichus. They are a lesson not just in how to be kind, but in why to be kind. The Chabad Rebbe also stressed that a person should be kind, not just to attract another person to Judaism, but simply because the person is created in the image of G-d. You know who you are.
So, as we approach Yom Tov, and we see Jews that are unaffiliated, Jews that are in remote places, Jews that do not a teru'a from a terabyte, know that there is a steady stream of Chabad stalwarts ready to blow the shofar for them, shake the lulav with them, sit and teach them, for no reason other than that the Chabad Rebbe's vision included everyone. There are those among them who are interested in the people, not in monetary gain or their own interests. They will spend this Yom Tov finding Jews and trying to connect with them on some level. A good and successful Yom tov to all of them.