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Jewish Journal

Life of a Footsoldier

by Andrea Adelson

April 3, 2003 | 7:00 pm

Shmuel Marcus is a bit like the lucky son of an ambitious frontier storekeeper, who relies on family to staff a second storefront.

Since January, Marcus, 27, has operated Orange County's newest Chabad from a living room alcove of the second-floor Cypress apartment he shares with his 25-year-old wife, Bluma, and two young children.

Scion of an unusual family, Marcus has joined the equally unusual society of shluchim (emissaries). They are foot soldiers for a powerful ideology of outreach by the Chabad-Lubavitch branch of Orthodox Judaism. Trailblazers like Marcus must solicit their own financial support and, with their wives, make a lifetime commitment to remain in often-remote areas, ranging from Armenia to Zaire. In not-so-remote California, 20 new sites are planned this year alone in places such as Calabasas and Monterey. The Golden State already has the largest concentration of Chabad centers outside of Israel.

Orange County is already home to 18 synagogues of various denominations and now 10 Chabad centers, including Cypress. No. 11 is to open in Santa Ana this month, manned by Rabbi Yehoshua Eliezrie, son of David Eliezrie, Yorba Linda's Chabad rabbi.

"California is the new frontier," Cunin said. Innovations from its centers, such as demonstration "factories" for shofars and matzah, become models used at Chabad sites in 56 countries.

"By giving so many young couples the honor of being shluchim, they are responsible for bringing the love of the Rebbe to anybody we come in contact with," said Cunin, referring to the Lubavitch spiritual leader, the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

For Chabadniks, being an emissary is a central life goal, so they open centers to satisfy this personal as well as ideological need, said David Berger, history professor of New York's Brooklyn College and author of "The Rebbe, the Messiah and the Scandal of Orthodox Indifference" (Littman Library, 2001).

Stagnating Jewish population figures suggest Chabad's explosive growth is not reflected in a revival of Judaism. Instead, its popularity reflects heightened interest in religious beliefs and practices, said Sue L. Fishkoff, whose book, "The Rebbe's Army: Inside the World of Chabad-Lubavitch," will be published by Schocken Books in April.

The proliferation of Chabad sites, which generally do not charge membership dues, can siphon members from existing institutions and cause friction, but also attract the unaffiliated, said Fishkoff, who cited anecdotal evidence. The rivalry, cordial in some communities and contentious in others, often prods greater adherence to Jewish practices by non-Chabad groups. "Hillel consciously adapted Chabad programs on campus because they are so vital," she said.

Chabad's brand of low-cost Judaism may be its initial draw, she said. "But nobody stays for that reason. Those who stay are finding something they like."

Shmuel is the third Marcus son to become a Chabad rabbi and take the career path of the family patriarch, Yitzchok. He is the 17-year rabbi of Congregation Ahavat Yisroel in Los Alamitos. Together, he and his wife, Ita, have seven children. Another son, Zalman, is the spiritual leader of Mission Viejo's Chabad.

"It's a very unusual family," said Rabbi Yitzchok Newman, dean of Huntington Beach's Hebrew Academy, where Ita Marcus teaches. "It's a sign of dedication. It's not there was a flourishing community; it's dedicating themselves to the Jewish cause."

The youngest Marcus rabbi was deployed to a "red zone," mapped at Lubavitch headquarters in Brooklyn's Crown Heights. Cypress is considered a battlefield because of its extremely high intermarriage rate. Seeing a need to cultivate relationships with a more youthful audience, his father suggested the daunting assignment.

Without a building, Marcus organizes events in people's homes or at his father's center. So far, he has taught five Hebrew classes for three students. His wife taught a women's group to make kreplach, meat-filled dumplings. Fifteen children registered for holiday-crafts classes.

"Many Chabads started with one kid," said Marcus, seemingly unfazed by the meager start.

"You can't educate a 25-year-old," his wife said.

"Unfortunately, you have to start when they are 4," he added.

Marcus, who holds a second job as director of outreach and marketing at Chabad's West Coast headquarters, wrote about his 1996 stay in the former Soviet Union as an assistant rabbi. Safire of San Francisco published "Chicken Kiev" in February. It's based on epistolary e-mail snapshots of modern Jewish life in a spare, verse-like text. Posted at Chabad.org, it generated enough interest he figured it had book potential.

He's not anticipating a best seller, though.

It ends on a conversation with a poet, who notes Shakespeare has been translated into Ukranian. "It would only be fair, wouldn't it, for them to publish my work in English?"

Marcus writes: "He would be astounded to hear that in America verse writing is not a particularly lucrative profession, unlike the Ukraine where poets are respected as heroes and pillars of society."

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