Three Cheers for Chabad

If Chabad becomes more dominant, American Judaism will change

By Shmuel Rosner, Jewish Journal

I was planning to write a post about Chabad way before the stabbing in NY last week, and without even remembering that last week was the “new year” of Chasidism according to Chabad calendar. I was planning to write about Chabad following my article on why the Jews of Miami are doing so great. The article was based on a study by Prof. Ira Sheskin in which one finding stood out as remarkable: 26% of Miami Jews have “participated in Chabad activity”. That’s a lot. And it becomes even more impressive as one examines in more detail how Chabad got to this impressive percentage. Sheskin kindly shared with me some of the numbers.

For example, the following nugget: Chabad participants in Miami are not “Israeli” or “Orthodox”. In other words: do not fall for the common prejudice about Chabad’s constituency. According to Sheskin’s study, 25% of them are indeed Orthodox, but 32% are Conservative, and 19% are Reform (23% are “Just Jewish” – more in line with common thinking). This means that more than half of the participants in Chabad activities come from a progressive Jewish background (you can add to that the 1% Reconstructionist).

Think about it this way: a movement that is in many ways a part of the ultra-Orthodox world is able to attract Jews that are supposedly the arch-rivals of ultra-Orthodoxy. Of course, that is the genius of Chabad – without giving up on being ultra-Orthodox, it is able to convince other Jews that it is not really ultra-Orthodox. There is “haredi” – a term many Jews associate with groups that they find quite difficult to understand and work with – and there is “Chabad” – a brand with a positive image.

Sheskin told me that in Miami Chabad participation under age 35 is 47%. Young Jews are not afraid of Chabad. After the article on Miami was published, I had an interesting conversation about Chabad with Chabad rabbi David Eliezrie of Orange County. Eliezrie often complains about the lack of proper coverage of Chabad’s success in North America, and he has a point. About the tendency of the young to seek out Chabad he said two things: One – the work Chabad does on campuses has an impact on the way Jewish youngsters think about the movement for the rest of their Jewish lives. Two – the younger generation of post denominational tendencies doesn’t have the instinctive organizational objection to Chabad (ultra-Orthodox, black hat, etc.), and hence is much more willing to participate in Chabad activities without thinking too much about ideological differences.

Eliezrie was one of several Chabad rabbis and activists that following the release of the Pew study of American Jews claimed that the lack of questions about Chabad in this study was a grave mistake. “The study”, he wrote, “ignores the fastest growing segment of the Jewish community, Chabad. There are 959 Chabad centers in the United States and Canada. The vast majority of Jews who attend these centers are not Orthodox observant. Few will self-identify as Orthodox”. Miami proves him right. And by the way – “900 Chabad Centers” is a good number to compare to the “just 595 Conservative and 860 Reform Temples”. In other words: there are more Chabad centers in North America than Reform temples, even if by the standards of Pew the Reform movement is the largest among all Jewish movements.

Lawrence Grossman point out in the 2014 Jewish Year Book that “flying under Pew’s radar, Chabad took a sanguine approach to its findings and even saw them as justification for its own approach”. Here is another case of a clear difference between everything-Orthodox and Chabad. Most Orthodox readers of Pew treated it as gloomy news, as a repudiation of current trends, and as proof that only Orthodoxy could save American Judaism from decline. Chabad accepted it with a cheer. The Pew study, Chabad’s Samuel Kaplan said, is “great news”.

Maybe For Chabad. Others are still debating the exact meaning of the numbers (Wertheimer-Cohen vs. Saxe – business as usual). They should be debating the impact that a Chabad insurgency is going to have on the American Jewish world. If Chabad keeps growing, how does it change American Judaism?

Think about affiliation: Chabad turns the system of affiliation upside-down. If the old model was ‘become a member, pay your dues, get a ticket’, the Chabad model is ‘get a ticket, pay whatever you want, no need for membership’.

Think about prayer: Chabad lets everyone in, but prayer is Orthodox, the more Jews go to Chabad shuls, the more of them identify “Tefillah” with “Orthodox Tefillah” (that is what most Israelis have in mind when they think about the shul that they rarely attend).

Think about Israel: Chabad’s approach to Israel is an interesting mix of non-Zionism and great attachment.

Think about America: The Jewish Year Book has a short essay by Samuel Heilman in which he highlights the fact that “as long as Jews are integrated with Americans like themselves, they will reflect the religious trends and affiliations of America”. True for most Jews, but not for Chabad. Chabad is a group that manifestly highlights Jewish otherness.

If Chabad becomes much more dominant in American Jewish life, American Judaism will change. If it will change, understanding how it will change and what are the possible consequences of this change would be advisable.

December 20, 2014 | 3 Comments »

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  1. @ Topaz:

    Your view of orthodoxy is of a limited nature, based upon many misconceptions. In most cases, Orthodoxy is rather orthopraxy. No Jew has met God, no current Jew has met Moses, Ezra, Hillel, Rashi or the Besht. Rather, we appreciate the efforts made on our behalves to bring us to this point in understanding how things are in this world of ours. Our appreciation is shown by practicing what our fathers practiced and studying what our fathers have written. Jews are what is left after everyone else has become satisfied with their own idolatry. Orthodoxy is what remains after everyone else has left Judaism.

    Phyllis Chesler recently quoted a Leftist feminist of Jewish origins who refused to show empathy for Israel’s position in the Middle East. “They may have a problem, but it is not my problem.” Everything else is Orthodoxy.

  2. This is how it is done. Making nice, being welcoming. Ask no questions. THEN, slowly, slowly the medicine is taken in with the sugar. And the doctrine of Ultra-orthodoxy takes hold. There is no repudiation within Chabad of the tenants of ultra-orthodoxy, in fact, the concepts are entrenched.

    If the youth are raised without a Judaic identity, then they will search for a spiritual base and community. It had been that the Jewish youth sought out other groups, so this at least keeps them within the Jewish soul. But, to me, it takes us all back into the era of self-victimisation and demonising of women. An abrogation of our responsibility to teach our children their heritage and their history.

    The claim I have heard is that without ultra-orthodoxy that arose in Eastern Europe, Judaism and the Jew would not have survived. I posit that the opposite is true, and I post the question, how did Judaism and the Jewish people survive the thousands of years before ultra-otrthodoxy. Hmmm

  3. The Orthodoxization of American Jewry is inevitable, given the Orthodox and Hasidic higher birth rates and lack of intermarriage. This will also reverse the decline in Jewish population, as is already occurring in the UK, and would have occurred in France if it had not turned into an Islamonazi state bent on getting rid of its Jews.