“Hi, does anyone Jewish work in this office?”
Every Friday, that question is asked by 50 pairs of young men from an Orthodox Jewish group who fan out across metro Detroit to various buildings in a weekly mission to help nonobservant Jews get in touch with their faith. Marking 50 years in Michigan this month, the group — known as Chabad Lubavitch — has grown from just one center in Detroit to 18 institutions across Michigan, several schools and a network of emissaries who have brought alive Judaism in areas without any other Jewish centers such as Novi and Commerce Township.
And they do it in an affable manner that has endeared them to other members of the Jewish community.
Up to 40% of metro Detroit’s roughly 72,000 Jews have taken part in some way in Chabad programs, say local leaders. The group is now in the process of building a new center for the Michigan Jewish Institute — the latest addition to a $15-million plus complex in West Bloomfield that also features centers for disabled children and addicts of all backgrounds.
Chabad’s efforts come at a time of concern among some American Jews that assimilation and intermarriage are decreasing their numbers and vitality. The group hopes to stem that trend with programs that reach out to Jewish people, no matter how out of touch they may be with their heritage.
“Chabad is nonjudgmental,” said Jerry Beale, 65, of West Bloomfield, explaining the group’s popularity. “They don’t look at who’s more religious, who’s less religious; they look at everyone with dignity and respect … there’s a warmth there.”
Chabad — an acronym that contains the Hebrew words for wisdom, knowledge and understanding — was a Hasidic sect started in Russia in the 18th Century that emphasized the importance of using the rational mind to control emotional instincts. Its 20th-Century leader, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, known as the Rebbe, expanded the group into a global movement. Based in Brooklyn, Chabad sends emissaries — usually young married couples — to communities around the world in up to 70 countries. The first couple sent to Detroit arrived in 1958.