Saturday, January 07, 2006

The Impact of Chabad

This editorial appeared in the New York, Jewish Week, one of the most respected Jewish publications in the country. I thought Rosenblatt's take on Chabad is very insightful. I am the first to acknowledge the influence on Chabad on the approach of Panim Hadashot. As a college student at Berkeley, Chabad played an important role in the deepening of my Jewish identity. Chabad exposed me to an observant life and to a joyful approach to the observance of Mitzvot. I have seen their profound influence on Jews in the Seattle community through their good works and their 'ahavat am yisrael'-love of the Jewish people.

Rosenblatt is correct to criticize the Jewish community for not adopting some of the approaches of Chabad. Panim Hadashot attempts to do outreach modeled on Chabad approaches with a pluralistic approach to Judaism. I will write additional commentary in my next piece about practices borrowed from Chabad and new practices that go beyond what Chabad has done.

Please send me your comments.

Learning From Chabad
Gary Rosenblatt - Editor and Publisher

I took part recently in a program aimed at developing Jewish communal leadership on the local level. The topic for the evening was “rethinking community,” and the 20 participants were men and women in their 30s and 40s who were active in various aspects of Jewish life and represented a cross-section of denominational and educational backgrounds.

They had a number of thoughtful observations to make during the give-and-take, as the conversation ranged from the history of Jewish communities in centuries past to current, alternative efforts to connect Jews to their heritage and people in meaningful ways.

But the most animated discussion by far began when a woman mentioned the success of a local Chabad Lubavitch rabbi in reaching out to people in her affluent, suburban community. She said she was amazed that so many of her friends who were not observant had become regular shul-goers, in part because the rabbi was warm, inviting and charismatic, and because he took a personal interest in each person he had met.

“My friend told me her husband is now wrapping tefillin,” she said, “and when I asked why, she said because the rabbi told him he wanted him to perform that mitzvah.”

From there the talk grew increasingly lively, as virtually everyone in the room had an anecdote to share about a Chabad experience on a college campus, in their community or in some remote part of the world. There was a sense of begrudging respect for these chasidim, and recognition that whether or not one agrees with their ideology and lifestyle, they are incredibly successful in their kiruv, or outreach, work here and around the world.

That same sentiment was expressed to me by the president of the board of UJA-Federation of New York, Morris Offit, during an interview last month. A prominent businessman and longtime communal leader, Offit told me he was reading Sue Fishkoff’s fine book about Chabad, “The Rebbe’s Army,” and noted that what the organized Jewish community needs is its own shluchim, or emissaries, as Chabad has — in more than 70 countries, with about 4,000 rabbis and their wives in all.

For all the professionalism and commitment of officials of The Jewish Agency and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the American Jewish World Service and dozens of other worthy organizations around the globe, none have the level of zeal and sense of obligation of the Chabad representatives. They are instructed upon their arrival in a newly assigned community in Ukraine or Poland or Laos to buy two plots in the local cemetery (for husband and wife) and prepare to spend their lives in that city or town — and raise whatever funds are necessary on their own.

These emissaries believe they are on a sacred mission, fulfilling the work of the late Lubavitcher rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, and that sets them apart from others who serve Jewish communities around the world.

At a time when a healthy discussion is taking place about how best to reach and inspire young Jews in an age of great personal freedom and increasing assimilation, Chabad has some powerful lessons to offer.

While so many unaffiliated Jews complain about the pay-to-pray synagogues they perceive of as unwelcoming, boring and irrelevant to their lives, Chabad has removed the barriers of entry, done away with synagogue membership and personalized the message of performing mitzvot. Emissaries are not afraid to ask men to put on tefillin and women to light Shabbat candles as a way of connecting them to their age-old traditions and rituals. Every mitzvah performed makes the world a better place, brings us all closer to the messianic age, the emissaries say.

In other words, each of us counts, as does each commandment we take on and perform. There is meaning to our lives, a purpose to our existence.

I am not dealing here with the controversial aspects of Chabad, such as its views on messianism or its sometimes abrasive style in staking out its turf, but rather on the method and approach that have made it the most successful Jewish group in the world in terms of growth, outreach and fundraising.

Talk to people with negative feelings about joining synagogues or Jewish organizations and you will find the same complaints again and again — the ones Chabad is responding to with warmth and on a personal level, one soul at a time.

We can either react defensively, explaining why synagogues must charge for High Holy Days seats to pay the bills and why the rabbi has little time to meet one-on-one with congregants unless they are in crisis and why we are suspicious of Chabad representatives who may or may not believe their rebbe is the messiah. Or we can learn from Chabad’s remarkable success and seek to partner with or emulate them — particularly their passion and personal involvement — in creative ways.

The choice is ours, but to ignore or downplay the achievements of the world’s leader in Jewish outreach and not learn from its work would be a tragedy of self-deception we cannot afford. n

Gary Rosenblatt can be reached by e-mail at

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