With an eye on the growing financial crisis, Jewish centers operated by Chabad-Lubavitch are refusing to cut programming, all while doing everything possible to trim budgets and rely on an expanded team of local volunteers and donors. But even with the economy in a tailspin, new centers continue to sprout around the globe.

“The first question my colleagues ask me is about my financial situation,” says Rabbi Menachem Hartman, co-director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Vietnam, who is in New York with thousands of his colleagues for the annual International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Emissaries. “They want to know if there is any way they can assist me.”

Although Vietnam was not hit as hard as other countries at the beginning of the latest economic downturn, times are quickly getting tight, says Hartman. Since moving to Southeast Asia two years ago, he’s rarely asked for donations, but he feels that he may need to start.

Hartman emphasizes, however, that in no way will he cut programming.

“Donations that we receive from foreign visitors have dwindled over the past few months,” he says. “We cut our spending on a personal level, and in ways that the community will not notice.”

“We will all need to work harder now,” echoes Rabbi Levi Kamenitzky, chief rabbi of Tomsk, Russia, who is also in New York for the conference.

The economy forced some cuts to the administrative staff, but “none of the Jewish activities have been compromised,” he says. “The staff understands the financial situation and they are very optimistic. They are willing to invest the additional hours to get us through this difficult period.

“The local community has also stepped forward to assist us,” adds Kamenitzky. “They were already supporting a good portion of the budget, but because of the crisis, they now see that with the growth of the Jewish community, they need to assist even more.”

Even in those places where incoming funds have atrophied, programs continue apace.

“Many donors have ceased their monthly donations,” says Rabbi Chaim Hillel Azimov, co-director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Northern Cyprus. “But we did not un-invite any of the 80 guests who joined us for High Holiday meals, even when we couldn’t find funding for them.”

Azimov, who recently arrived to his community, doesn’t know where he will receive funding for upcoming activities, such as Chanukah. He presses on, though, strengthened by a Chasidic teaching to “think good, and it will be good.”

At sessions dedicated to the state of the economy, which were some of the most heavily-attended at the New York conference, emissaries discussed strategies for minimizing costs and maximizing funds. One Sunday workshop examined ways to look at budgets line by line in an effort to squeeze every extra dollar.

“I spend extra time to look for the best deals,” says Rabbi Shmuel Fuss, co-director of the Chabad Jewish Community Center in Riverside, Calif. “But we are not planning on cutting any of our upcoming programming for Chanukah. We will find the funding somehow.”

A common refrain among conference attendees is gratitude for the continued commitment of top donors, even though they might be giving less in the wake of their own portfolios taking a massive hit. They also point out that in the midst of the crisis, local donors with means have stepped up to help, especially in the United States.

Says Hartman: “I have no words to express my gratitude to the Rohr Family Foundation,” which provides roughly a third of his budget. The foundation got involved thanks to Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, vice chairman of Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, the educational arm of Chabad-Lubavitch, and supports many Chabad Houses throughout the world.

Others look at international businessman and philanthropist Lev Leviev, whose Africa Israel corporation lost some 85 percent of its value, with awe, considering his long history of support for the Federation of Jewish Communities of the Former Soviet Union and other Jewish communities across the globe.

Like their colleagues across the globe, Rabbi Levi and Chana Kamenitsky, Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries in Tomsk, Russia, have cut their operating budget.
Like their colleagues across the globe, Rabbi Levi and Chana Kamenitsky, Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries in Tomsk, Russia, have cut their operating budget.

Steady Growth

Despite the financial crisis, the list of communities served by Chabad-Lubavitch has grown over the past year, and continues to grow. According to statistics compiled by Chabad.org, more than 90 new centers opened since last year’s International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Emissaries. In addition, more than 150 emissaries joined existing centers to help boost activities in the fields of adult education and youth outreach.

New centers opened in India, Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Israel and places in between. And while times are tough, the centers refuse to shut their doors.

“To the shluchim,” says Brandeis University professor Jonathan D. Sarna, an expert in American Jewish History, using the Hebrew word for emissaries, “it is not just a job, it is a mission. That is what has distinguished the role of the shluchim from other movements.”

“When you think about it, it doesn’t make sense that we’re still here,” says Rabbi Zalman Charytan, who with his wife Nechami established the Chabad-Lubavitch Jewish Center of Acworth, Ga., this year.

(Other U.S. locations that saw new centers this year include Moorpark, Calif.; Rockville, Md.; Pittsford, N.Y.; Holmdel, N.J.; and Arlington, Texas. Internationally, some of the largest growth occurred in France with the establishment of centers in Charenton-le-Pont, Ezanville, Marseille and Montmorency, while campus-based Chabad Houses took root at Imperial College in London; Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa.; George Washington University in Washington, D.C.; Loyola College in Montreal; and the Technion – the Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa.)

“I think that nobody really knows what the impact will be,” says Sarna. “All Jewish organizations are suffering. These are tough times; the impact on Chabad will be no different.”

“My entire life, I was educated to give to others,” says Charytan. “When we’re here for just a short time and 80 Jews come to High Holiday services, we know that we’re here to fill a need in the Jewish community.”

In the coming months, new centers will be established in such places as Yassi, Romania; Valencia, Spain; Frederick, Md.; Waterloo, Canada; and Gambetta, France.

“Nobody really understands where Chabad gets its funding,” says Sarna. “I certainly feel that many Chabad Houses are extremely efficient. One can see that they can do a great deal with a small amount of money.”