CHABAD EMISSARIES gather in front of the Chabad-Lubavitch world headquarters in Brooklyn in 2015.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Last Sunday night I checked the annual Chabad Kinus Sheluchim off of my bucket list – the annual gathering of Chabad emissaries from around the world. Over 4,500 rabbis from 90 countries convening for what is considered to be the largest such annual gathering of Jews in North America. Seventy-five years since the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Schneerson of blessed memory, arrived in America from war-torn Europe, Chabad is the fastest growing Jewish religious movement of our time. From Bangkok to Kenya, UCLA to Middlebury, Chabad houses, schools and mitzva tanks abound in numbers and vitality. The big announcement of the dinner was the appointment of Mendel and Mussie Alperowitz to Sioux Falls, South Dakota – a placement that secures a full-time Chabad presence in every single state.
As a Conservative rabbi I sat there marveling at the wonder that is Chabad. Not just its meteoric growth and ubiquitous presence, or its impassioned focus on the Rebbe.
Chabad’s secret sauce is personal relationships – on a street corner, a heimischy Friday night campus meal, or a one-on-one study session in a downtown office. The mission of a Chabad rabbi or rebbetzin is to draw out the pintele yid – the divine spark embedded in each and every Jew. What became clear to me last Sunday night is that the institution Chabad cares most about is not 770 Eastern Parkway or any campus Chabad; rather it is the institution of each and every unique Jewish soul yearning for expression.
The target audience of Chabad and the Conservative Movement is one and the same, our tactics are just different. The recently published Hertog study on Chabad on Campus makes clear that Chabad’s impact is greatest for those raised in Conservative and Reform households.
On a certain level, it makes no sense. Why would a movement that overlooks the Enlightenment, promotes a non-egalitarian expression of Jewish practice, is positively parochial in its posture and small “c” conservative in its politics captivate a liberally minded and often disengaged American Jewry? And yet, as the Hertog study explains, it is precisely these elements that help explain Chabad’s appeal.
In a frenetically paced world of online and superficial connection, where all of us stand to be alienated from each other and ourselves, Chabad provides an intimacy that is a deeply valued commodity. The free food and drink on campus undoubtedly doesn’t hurt, but it is the prospect of a finding a personal connection, the belief that you matter to someone that speaks to the soul of American Jewry. One does not need to be a chabadnik or social scientist to understand the importance of cultivating individual relationships; that community building is a retail business, one person, one Shabbat table at a time.
And yet for all its successes, it is also by understanding Chabad’s limitations that one sheds light on the distinctive role of the Conservative Movement. The Hertog study documents that virtually no students affected positively by Chabad choose a Chabad lifestyle after college. Why? Because sensitive as Chabad may be to the soul of American Jewry, neither its theology nor its lifestyle reflect the hyphenated lives that American Jews actually lead. Chabad does not embrace the non-Jewish members of our Jewish families. Chabad does not seek to draw in Jews of patrilineal descent.
Chabad does not engage with all the counterclaims, intellectual and otherwise, that modernity brings.
Embracing as Chabad may be, it is not pluralistic.
These observations are not meant to be criticisms. They merely signal the need for a religious movement that can walk side-by-side with American Jewry throughout their Jewish journey; a religious movement both single-minded and open-minded in its efforts to draw out the pintele yid hidden within.
Conservative rabbis complain when their lay leaders provide financial support for Chabad when neither they, nor their children have any intention or desire to live a Chabad lifestyle. What we fail to see in our kvetching is that we ourselves have failed to provide a compelling alternative worthy of our leaders’ investment.
What if the Conservative Movement were able to adopt some of Chabad’s insights? What if we were able to corral an army of Jewish educators and set in motion home study sessions; for singles, young couples, empty nesters, mothers and daughters, fathers and sons or home-bound seniors? What if the Conservative Movement redoubled its outreach to interfaith couples, individuals exploring Judaism, considering conversion or maybe just trying to figure out how to get a foothold in the Jewish community? What if our community were able to rethink congregational education to include opportunities for families to learn with each other – building both Jewish literacy and community at the same time, one living room at a time? What if there were hours enough in a day that Conservative congregational rabbis could enter the offices, homes and lives of our congregants campaigning for nothing other than their Jewish souls? It would require a dramatic rethinking of how we conducted business and allocated resources.
But given the stakes – the infinite value of a Jewish soul – why wouldn’t we be filled with a mesirus nefesh, a missionary zeal for the Jewish future? The Jewish world would be strengthened by way of having parallel efforts working in concert with each other. As my Chabad friend said to me at the dinner the other night: “Elliot, you and I are traveling down the same highway, but our windows are rolled up.” Lets roll down the windows and work together, learn from each other, respect each other, celebrating each other’s achievements even as we recognize our differences. There is room enough for us all, more than enough lost sparks looking to light up the dark. Most of all, let’s recognize that we are all on the same team looking to build up the individual and collective soul of American Jewry.
The author is the senior rabbi of Park Avenue Synagogue, Manhattan.