25 YEARS, 50 CENTERS: A quarter century after the death of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Chabad of Illinois is stronger than ever

By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News

A one-man Civil-Rights Act long before Congress passed its legislative landmark in 1964, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, more lovingly known as the Lubavitcher Rebbe, put ultimate value on each Jew. And each human being, for that matter.

The motto of Lubavitch Chabad of Illinois is ‘Illuminating Illinois – One Soul at a Time.’

A million stories still circulate about the Rebbe’s humanism and wisdom 25 years after his death. One is about how he would stand for hour after hour every Sunday passing out dollar bills to encourage people to give tzedakah. He did that well into his 80s. Once, an elderly Jewish woman asked him where he developed the stamina to stand all day greeting the masses.

Rabbi Meir Moscowitz, regional director of Lubavitch Chabad of Illinois.

“When a person counts diamonds they never tire. To me, every individual is a precious diamond,” the Rebbe said.

Explaining his motivation in detail, the Rebbe also meant diamonds in the rough. If they were Jewish, no matter where they were, no matter what condition they were in, the Rebbe wanted to reach them.  If they were Jews in prison, he made sure Chabad representatives visited them.  If they were college students, he made sure Chabadniks invited them for some home cooking, both for the stomach and soul.

The Talmud says that, “A Jew, although he has transgressed, is still a Jew.”  The Rebbe went deeper and broader. The Talmud, he said, also meant a Jew’s transgressions are themselves a feature of his or her Jewishness.

“He had a mission statement his first day on the job (in 1951),” said Rabbi Yosef Moscowitz, a Chabad rabbi in Chicago. “There are three loves – love G-d, love the Torah and love your fellow Jew. He said you can’t have one without the other. You can’t love G-d unless you love every Jew. That mission statement is what he infused in us and what we try to teach everyone else.”

No matter how religious – or not – a Jew, the Rebbe wanted to connect with that person. Wherever they existed in the world, he beseeched his Chabad organization to reach out to them. And what he built throughout the 20th century was designed to not be dependent on one man.

Rabbi Daniel Moscowitz

“The Rebbe said if you’re in a neighborhood of 500 Jews and you reach 499, then you’re a failure,” said Yosef Moscowitz.  “That’s our mindset.”

Sacks of mail were delivered regularly to the Rebbe’s office. While his staff proposed acquiring a machine to open the letters to save time, the Rebbe refused, stating that if someone wrote to him personally, he had to open the envelope himself. Thus he set an example of the value of all Jews, no matter their status.

Already worldwide in its reach by the 1990s, Chabad’s network of community, learning and college centers has continued to grow even though the Rebbe is no longer around in corporeal form. Indeed, his philosophy penetrated so deeply among his students, and in turn their students, that Chabad continues to expand robustly on all continents.

Illinois is a prime example of the number of Jewish residents served by Chabad outlets. Thanks to the Rebbe’s chief emissary here, Rabbi Daniel Moscowitz.

West Rogers Park native Moscowitz studied in yeshivas in Montreal, France and New York. Then he studied the Rebbe.

“That’s what shaped who he was,” said Rabbi Meir Moscowitz, another son. “He constantly studied the Rebbe’s teachings and writings.“

Added Yosef Moscowitz: “The Rebbe brought out the potential in everybody. My father was able to do that. Anyone who walked out of a meeting with my father felt empowered, that they could do more.”

Until his premature death at age 59 in 2014, Daniel Moscowitz presided over an explosive growth of Chabad facilities throughout the state. “The Rebbe said, here’s your mission, figure it out and do it,” said Meir Moscowitz. His father proved to be a doer. From 16 Illinois centers and outposts in 1994 upon the Rebbe’s passing, Daniel Moscowitz increased that to 40 two decades later. Forty-nine are now operating with the announcement of No. 50’s opening coming shortly.

A rabbi and his wife usually head a Chabad operation. A total of 142 Chabad rabbis and rebbetzins work in Illinois with another two couples soon joining.

Fittingly, Daniel Moscowitz’s first new Chabad center was at Northwestern University in 1976 – only a generation after the private Methodist-founded institution had quotas for admitting Jewish students.

The momentum did not stop when Yosef and Meir Moscowitz picked up the mantle of state Chabad leadership after their father died. Meir, 40, became the regional director (head shliach, or emissary) of Lubavitch Chabad of Illinois and senior rabbi of Chabad of Northbrook. Yosef, 39, is executive director of Lubavitch Chabad of Illinois and rabbi of Chabad of Bucktown/Wicker Park. The brothers have key areas of the city and northern suburbs covered with their personal oversight, but also have a long reach north to south in the state.

“Our motto is ‘Illuminating Illinois – One Soul at a Time,’” said Meir Moscowitz.  “It’s not just about the big (Chabad) centers or the big population. We want to reach Jews wherever they are.

“There is a simple goal, connect with Jews, connect Jews with Judaism. Wherever there is an individual Jew, we want to go.”

Soon to be under construction, the refurbished and expanded headquarters of Lubavitch Chabad of Illinois will resemble Chabad world headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway in New York.

Dispatched back to his hometown as the Rebbe’s shliach, in tandem with Toronto-born wife Esther, Daniel Moscowitz chose Northwestern as his first Chabad center for two reasons. Chabad already had established beachheads on college campuses nationwide. In addition, the Evanston location was centrally located for the majority of Chicago-area Jewish population of the era – the city’s far North Side and near northern suburbs.

“It was a perfect location from which to branch out,” Yosef Moscowitz said of Northwestern.  Daniel Moscowitz went into surrounding Jewish communities while hosting Jewish events for students at the campus. He started a synagogue in Northbrook, to be “a place of connection, a place of study.”

Some of the thousand women who took part in Chabad’s Mega Challah Bake.

Eventually, Chabad operations would sprout up in a large number of suburbs. throughout the state. Meanwhile, the Illinois college on-campus Chabad network blossomed to the University of Chicago, University of Illinois-Champaign, University of Illinois-Chicago, DePaul, Illinois State, Bradley, Illinois State and Southern Illinois-Carbondale. Meanwhile, the likes of Loyola, Illinois Tech, SIU-Edwardsville, Kent College of Law and Parkland College are served by nearby Chabad Houses.

“Students are searching, they want some meaning, they want some purpose and we need to provide it for them,” Meir Moscowitz said of the on-campus Chabads.

Soon after Northwestern, a Chabad in Highland Park was established.  One activity was a day camp for Jewish children of all backgrounds, city and suburbs.

Students say the shma prayer at the Chabad Center for Jewish Life at the University of Illinois & Champaign-Urbana.

The Rebbe trained Daniel Moscowitz well, to not rest on accumulated laurels.

“The plan was to do and never be satisfied,” said Meir Moscowitz. “Even if it wasn’t logical, just do more. Don’t waste time with meetings. Just get things done. We have to reach people where they are.”

Added his brother: “If there was a Jew, there was automatically a need. The question was to figure out how to make it work.”

If the Jews were young professionals and lived in Bucktown and Wicker Park, the gentrifying neighborhoods a couple miles northwest of downtown, then establish a Chabad House smack dab in the area.

“They have to be reached in their language, in their way and in their lifestyle,” Meir Moscowitz said of young adult Jews.

“We have the Jewish Learning Institute to provide in-depth, high-end educational programs for attorneys, judges, doctors. It has to be at their level. But we also provide for young children.  (Traditional) Hebrew schools are in decline, but Chabad schools are moving up.”

None of the Moscowitzes over two generations has ever gone off-duty in spreading Chabad’s word. While they are in synagogue, at kiddushes or kibitzing around the house on Shabbat, they’re hardly in resting roles.

“That’s our busiest day,” said Yosef Moscowitz. “It says a lot about us that our day of rest is our busiest day. While others are resting, we’re ‘working’ (double-time).”

Chabad of Illinois is not a top-down operation. Each Chabad House is responsible for fund-raising and gathering community support.

“The Rebbe wanted each center to be hyper-local,” said Meir Moscowitz. At the same time, the concept of “working smart” also applies in finding creative ways for multiple Chabad centers to share resources.

In a few months, work will begin to refurbish and expand Chabad headquarters at 2833 W. Howard Street. Lead donors are Beatrice Crain and Dr. Michael Maling, through the Crain-Maling Foundation, along with the Walder Foundation. The building, named the Dr. Michael S. Maling Chabad of Illinois Headquarters,will resemble Chabad world headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway in New York.

“Lubavitch Chabad does incredible work,” said Crain, the nearly 100-year-old matriarch of a multi-generational family of Chicago Jewish philanthropists. “They reach out to people in need, helping them directly. That’s why we’ve decided to support this undertaking.”

Besides the Chabad Houses, Chabad of Illinois offers a wide range of programs and services with the goal of reaching as many Jews as possible in as many ways as possible.

The TorahCafé, Jewish Learning Institute’s on-line learning division, offers more than 5,000 video lectures from some of the world’s leading Jewish personalities, including scholars, academics, political figures, and authors.

The Friendship Circle is dedicated to creating a supportive Jewish community for children with special needs and their families, giving them the opportunity to unearth their potential, make positive life choices and realize their dreams. A key feature is creating matches between teen-age volunteers and children with special needs and their families.

Youths also are served by Camp Gan Israel, based in Northbrook. Several levels of summer camps serving ages 2 ½ to 15 feature soccer, drama, swimming, crafts, ceramics, outdoor living skills, and stories, games and spirited songs.

A unique Chabad program is Hinda Helps, formerly the Jewish Prisoners Assistance Foundation, in existence in Illinois since the 1980s. Chaplains visiting incarcerated Jews help to counsel, teach and inspire in a tikkun olam manner. No convict was ever considered irredeemable by the Rebbe. Also getting assistance are spouses, children and parents of inmates along with ex-offenders.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe

 “When a person finds himself in a situation of ‘after the sunset,’” the Rebbe wrote in a November 1977 Chanukah address to prisoners, “when the light of day has given way to gloom and darkness — as was the case in those ancient days under the oppressive Greek rule — one must not despair, G‑d forbid, but on the contrary, it is necessary to fortify oneself with complete trust in G‑d, the Essence of Goodness, and take heart in the firm belief that the darkness is only temporary, and it will soon be superseded by a bright light, which will be seen and felt all the more strongly through the supremacy of light over darkness, and by the intensity of the contrast.”

Where do the Moscowitz brothers hope to take Chabad of Illinois five or 10 years from now? Although the 50th Chabad center is on the docket for the short-term, there is a concept of “quality over quantity” that applies, they say.

“There’s room for more centers, but there’s also room for more activities at the existing centers,” said Meir Moscowitz.  “In the last few years, we’ve done more and broader events. We did a mega-challah bake, where 1,000 women came together. That was a group effort of the various Chabad centers. Every year for Lag B’Omer, we do a big Jewish family festival at Old Orchard with 5,000 children coming.”

A minimum of office meetings and a maximum of production are the Moscowitz’s marching orders. All they need to do is gaze at the portrait of the Rebbe hanging in all Chabad centers for motivation and inspiration.

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