Stop Trashing Chabad!

In recent months, I’ve been involved in numerous meetings of synagogue leaders or synagogue educators at which the subject of Chabad has come up in conversation. Interestingly enough, if you take a mild-mannered group of Jews involved in modern American synagogue leadership, and drop Chabad into the conversation, they somehow become almost vitriolic in their disdain for the boys from Crown Heights. So, some soul searching was in order to try to figure out what this movement can be doing that is just so powerful that it provokes such passionate opposition.

Some thoughts:
  • Chabad threatens the economic engine that drives contemporary American synagogues. Synagogues are funded through dues, with only “members” entitled to “services”. For Chabad, the only membership that
    is important is membership in the Jewish people.
  • In Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, and some Orthodox congregations, it is Bar/Bat Mitzva — and the synagogue’s prerequisite of religious school / Hebrew school –that draws many people to become and remain dues-paying members. For many, synagogue membership begins with the oldest child’s entry into synagogue schooling and concludes with the youngest child’s Bar/Bat Mitzva. Chabad has built a different model, in which these elements — membership, Bar/Bat Mitzvah, education — are all independent of one another and are certainly not central to the organization’s viability.
  • Chabad is innovative and willing to take risks. In my neighborhood, many chose not to hear the Purim megillah reading in synagogues, but instead went to Chabad, at which they were entertained before and after the megillah by jugglers and dance performances that added to the carnival-like spirit of the holiday. Our regional Chabad rabbi appears on TV for a telethon on a Harley, dressed in full biker gear and hawking Harley kippot; would your rabbi do that if it made Judaism more accessible to young people? Similar examples abound.
  • Chabad is market-driven and understands things about American Jews and their needs that mainstream synagogues often don’t. They have successfully tapped into Jews’ search for spirituality and community, without setting up obstacles (or “standards”, if you will).
  • Chabad has subtly communicated that its message and its leadership is authentic. You’ll never hear them say that anyone else isn’t authentic, but if their claim to authenticity is heard louder than the claim of synagogue professionals, people hear the message clearly.
  • People will tell you that they are “shopping” for a synagogue. You’ll never have to “shop” for Chabad. They show up all over: Outside the NY Public Library, Iowa City, Bangkok, Anchorage, Beverly Hills, and at a college campus near you. In Chabad, the rabbi’s study will one day be the board room of a friendly law office, another day at a restaurant. The pulpit can be a college dining hall, a shopping center or a city street.
  • Long before researchers found that Jews “want to do Jewish in non-Jewish spaces” Chabad was bringing Jewish values to work outside the Jewish community: involvement in drug rehabilitation work, honoring teens who do “good deeds”, etc.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t idealize Chabad. There are some issues that are profoundly disturbing: messianic emphasis – sometimes directed towards a deceased rebbe, heavy focus on the affective side of Judaism, ambivalence about Zionism (although not about the land or people of Israel).

What I’m suggesting is that, before demonizing Chabad, our modern synagogues would do well to study Chabad, perhaps even invite its leaders into a dialogue, and see what we could all learn from one another about building Jewish communities for the future.

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