A joke from the early 1990s went like this:
Q: Which religion is closest to Judaism?
A: Chabad (Lubavitch).
That was then, when in his final years the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, allowed his more excitable followers to play with the idea that he was the Messiah, and the rest of us grew ever less patient with their antics. Then in 1994 he died, as old men often do; there was a period of confusion; and eventually the Chabad movement moved forward. After 200 years of always having a charismatic Rebbe as their leader, they decided not to choose a successor to Menachem Mendel, who is still the Rebbe, but they figured out how to do without.
This was not obvious. At the time many knowledgeable observers were convinced the crises would bring Chabad down. Nor is the story over yet - it never is, so long as life goes on - and there still are fringe groups in Chabad who are convinced the Rebbe isn't dead, and much of the mainstream of Chabad still reveres him to an extent and with an intensity that makes the rest of us uncomfortable. Though their outward appearance is of Haredi Jews, the Haredi world by and large doesn't hold Chabad in high esteem, partly because of the messianism, but also because Chabad engages intensely with the non-Haredi world, which is the biggest no-no around.
In spite of all this, Chabad is one of the most interesting parts of the never-boring Jewish world. I would go so far as to speculate that it's one of the most important trends in the Jewish world, at least outside of Israel; even in Israel, where it must compete with an entire and very vital Jewish universe, it manages to hold its own ground.
The Forward has a mostly positive story about how Chabad is engaging Jewish students on American campuses; when you think of the many trends on campus, it's hard to find any fault with these folks whatsoever. The more the better, period: and apparently, indeed there are ever more of them.
The story of Chabad on campus, however, is merely a section of the larger story, of Chabad everywhere: the movement is setting up stations literally all over the world, where they offer a kosher Jewish environment and logistical support to whomever might need it. Israeli tourists (there are always Israeli tourists everywhere at any given moment, probably about 20 million of them) often plan their travel itineraries with an eye to these bases, and I don't mean only orthodox tourists; on the contrary, often it's the totally secular young backpackers. American Jews. Italian Jews. I recently encountered two young Bosnian Jews at a Chabad house to which they repair regularly to imbibe a bit of Jewish atmosphere. There's a flowering Chabad presence in Melbourne (two synagogues, inevitably) that once offered me a week's worth of Daf Yomi sessions away from home.
There's a theological depth to this which I won't go into, but there's also an earthy pragmatism: if you reach out to unengaged Jews often enough, some will reach back. Once they're in the fold, their ability to reach out will multiply the potency of the movement.
As I said: an interesting evolving story.