In the Wake of Mumbai: An Agnostic Jew Considers Chabad
Like many agnostic Jews, I have my own experience of Chabad.
I first encountered them years ago on Los Angeles’ LaBrea Avenue, when a rabbi from one of their “Mitzvah tanks” (mobile vans) stopped me on the sidewalk. He asked if I was Jewish and, if so, when was the last time I had “laid tefillin” (put on ritual phylacteries). Frankly, I couldn’t remember if I ever had and recoiled from the invitation. I was again accosted by one of their number – with the same invitation - in front of the Western Wall in Jerusalem. This time I let him do it. Hey, when in Rome….
But this all meant little to me beyond minor cultural/anthropological interest until I again met some Chabadniks in LA who were helping substance abusers. For scraggily bearded “whackos” dressed in weird hats and ill-fitting Eighteenth Century Polish business suits they seemed to be going about it in a surprisingly sympathetic and even modern way. Later – I was then researching my novel about Jewish fundamentalism Raising the Dead– I joined a study group led by a Chabad/Lubavitcher rebbe in Westwood. Most of the members were from the music business, cool characters in trendy haircuts out to find God (or G-d, as they would have it). These dudes and dudettes – guilty perhaps about living lives of sex, drugs and rock & roll - were on the edge of self-parody, but the rabbi was able to engage with them on their "groovy" level and his own spiritual one simultaneously. I was impressed. (It is important to remember about Lubavitchers that they are rather different from other Hasidic sects that tend to be insular. The Chabadniks emphasize outreach, not just to Jews but to all in need.)
Still later, my wife and I, though both agnostics, thought we should do something for the Jewish education of our five-year old daughter, for cultural reasons at least. Most of the Sunday schools we investigated, however, were pretty pathetic and scarcely educational enterprises until we discovered “Chabad of Mt. Olympus.” We giggled at the humorous name, which derived from the location of the rabbi’s house in an aging Los Angeles tract development, but we enrolled our daughter in the school. It was a good experience, even if we had to put up with a lot of atrocious food at various Passover events, etc. (Cuisine is not Chabad’s long suit.) But the school was educational. Trailing behind my daughter, I learned a few things about my tradition myself, and yet nothing was ever imposed on me. I wasn’t even really proselytized.