Thursday, March 08, 2007

Rabbi Levi Shemtov

Rabbi Levi Shemtov is Washington office Director of American Friends of Lubavitch. Shemtov is a well known figure in political and Jewish circles in Washington, and his activism symbolizes the change Chabad's culture has gone through in recent decades from a limited Chasidic faction to a powerhouse working across the Jewish and non-Jewish world. Shemtov's highest profile event is the Hanukah Menorah lighting on the White House lawn. We will discuss with him the state of American Jewry, Chabad and other topics. Readers, as usual, can send their questions to

Rabbi Shemtov,

Can you explain what is the Jewish education you refer to? is it educating people in the mode of Chabad or in the mode of Reform Judaism? These are two very different things.

Thank you for your reply,

Tzvi Noah

I think the focus must be the education of many more Jewish people - particularly children - in the ways of Torah and yiddishkeit. The differences you mention, while indeed real, have sadly served all too often as a reason to end these types of discussions before they begin.

The need to reinforce and expand Jewish education is a vital one, regardless of a Jewish person's particular station in life, communally or otherwise. We need progress, not just process.

Obviously, I am most familiar with the Chabad-Lubavitch method, which seems to work to a large measure with open-minded Jewish people of a variety of affiliations. Too often I hear from participants - as do many of my colleagues - that specifically because they felt welcome, as they were, the possibility for their Jewish growth and that of their family became possible in a meaningful way for the first time. While this indeed is gratifying, it also pains the heart to know that others who seemed a "better fit" lost so much opportunity with these people for so long.

So, if someone is indeed serious about the issue, they need to address it for all the Jewish people. Distinctions instead of solutions is what we have way too much of already. They will only distract from the intended focus. We can and must do better than that.


Dear Rabbi,

I'll start with the topic of last week's dialogue, and with a general question of the state of American Jewry. Is it declining or thriving - is it in crisis or going through a period of renaissance? Give us, for starters, your list of "must do" for American Jewish leaders.


The Jewish people today live in a time of great triumph, but also great challenge. We are taught that G-d tests us either with the pain of poverty or the power of prosperity. We seem to be enduring both right now - the prosperity is material, the poverty is spiritual. But there is a bright spot as well, and reason for hope, if people are willing to act.

There is no way you can ignore the fact that there is presently a serious decline in the American Jewish community, with over half believed to be totally unaffiliated. And the organized community decries the apathy and ignorance of those who do consider themselves affiliated, and are anxious about how to reengage them in Jewish identity.

On the other hand, there is not only a simultaneous resurgence - or resuscitation - of Jewish life, with so many finding their way back or more deeply into their Jewish heritage, but those who for a very long time advocated a lesser degree of tradition in their life as Jews, perhaps thinking that the age-old Torah teachings and directives were no longer "as relevant" now realize and publicly state, emphatically, that ONLY through a return to Torah and mitzvos is there any real hope of Jewish survival. It seems as if all the alternatives ultimately give way to a return to Torah - sooner or later. It's been that way since Sinai

And this leads to the key point I believe the Jewish community must focus on as a most urgent priority: Jewish Education.

From our beginning and up until the latest National Jewish Population Survey, Jewish education appears and reappears as the core factor in Jewish continuity. I am loath to judge the previous generation or two for their failure to provide adequate Jewish education. Perhaps they thought their own Jewish identity would automatically transfer without the requisite strenuous effort to educate children properly. Or they didn't think they had the financial ability to do so. But that can't help us today, as we live with the painful results of the last few decades. Not enough energy was dedicated to afternoon Hebrew school and other similar programs once thought a panacea. They became an afterthought, even a joke, and then a disaster; barely better than nothing. And almost any Jewish adult I speak to indeed remembers that part of their lives with dissatisfaction, if not disdain.

If there is one thing above all others which Jewish communal leaders need to address urgently, this would be it. Reinforce and expand opportunities for affordable, quality Jewish education. After way too long, many Jewish philanthropists, who have collectively donated billions to causes that others beyond our community could easily fund, have now finally begun to realize the emergency and have started to (re)direct serious sums to Jewish causes. Those directing these initiatives need to further redirect these new funding sources toward ensuring Jewish education for all those in our community who can then avail themselves of it.

King Solomon taught us that a properly educated Jewish child will much more likely become a strongly Jewishly identified adult and then a committed member of the Jewish community, even into their later years.

And, for those who are already passed their childhood, innovative and quality programs and initiatives can help rectify a gap in this regard and refocus parents on the Jewish educational needs of themselves and their children. And the educational effortss and mitzvah campaigns for Jews of all or no (perceived) affiliation, which the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of blessed memory, initiated and which thousands of my colleagues throughout the world have developed (to the curiosity, sometimes disdain, then appreciation or even replication by so many others), have had a serious impact in this area. And much more remains to be done.

There are no doubt enough resources in our vast community membership to address this issue. That is what we have. What we don't have is a choice. The answer to this question when it is asked the next time lies absolutely in our hands today.

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