The annual gathering of Chabad’s global emissaries, the “Kinus Hashluchim,”
which will take place later this week, elicits a paradox. Here is an
organization that is truly international, operating even more outposts than the
United States government.
Perhaps only the Catholic Church has a more
extensive grid of schools and educational outposts. Yet, for all its
internationalism Chabad continues to evince a largely parochial mentality. It is
global in scope but not in outlook.
Indeed, Chabad’s continued insularity
– wholly insistent on spreading Jewish observance exclusively to Jews as opposed
to having Jewish ideas and values permeate and influence the wider culture – is
surprising and contradictory given the Rebbe’s universalist vision of a
No Jewish religious leader in modern times has thought
so broadly or so grandly. The mind labors to wrap itself around the breadth and
scope of a personality who envisioned reshaping human history and nature as we
Yet Chabad often ignores the broader implications of the Rebbe’s
vision in favor of bricks and mortar activism that is geared almost entirely to
local provinces and communities.
Many in Chabad would take issue with
this assertion. They maintain that Chabad’s global reach is proof that the
movement has embraced the Rebbe’s internationalist vision.
reality, Chabad’s expansion has been almost entirely horizontal rather than
Chabad has opened countless centers in innumerable places. But
it has not gone higher or deeper. Its activities, rather than its ideas, are
what have permeated the culture.
People come to Chabad for its schools,
its megillah readings, its communal seders, and inspired social programs like
They rely on Chabad for summer camps for kids and
Torah classes for adults.
But what they do not do is come to Chabad for
answers about to how to curb the monumental divorce rate, how to heal Europe and
America of their crushing debt crises, wean materially indulged Westerners off a
suffocating selfishness, or inspire politicians to rise above a toxically
partisan culture. Chabad has morphed from a community of scholars offering a
mystical yet practical vision of world change into a community of activists
catering to personal ritual needs.
No doubt this grass roots education
and activism was necessary as a foundational first step and has proven wildly
successful. There is no question that Chabad has brought millions closer to
Jewish tradition and established a global footprint.
But the exclusive
emphasis on building institutions rather than disseminating ideas has begun to
stifle the movement’s progress.
Yes, the Rebbe was an activist and wanted
all Jews to live lives committed to Torah and mitzvot. But above all else he was
a scholar who sought to shape society with a transcendent, mystical philosophy
of societal evolution and change.
What is needed is a new and
sophisticated Chabad push to enhance the wider culture with Jewish spirituality
and shape civilization with the power of Hassidic ideas. Why is it that The
Kabbalah Center can influence Hollywood with Jewish mystical thought while
Chabad uses Hollywood merely to raise money on telethons? Why does Chabad
suffice with useless proclamations from world leaders at fundraising dinners –
something that salves the ego of the Chabad community alone – while other Jewish
movements, from Reform to the Orthodox Union, seek to influence world leaders
with Jewish wisdom? We need Chabad 2.0, and it begins with a highly developed
Chabad world capitol.
Every global movement has an international hub
where the spokes of the wheel meet.
Catholics have the Vatican, the
Muslims Mecca, and even the Mormons, who have experienced the kind of
spectacular growth reminiscent of Chabad, have endeavored to transform Salt Lake
City – once a sleepy desert colony – into a global pivot with the world’s
largest conference center, seating 21,000 people.
But Crown Heights, for
all its undeniable energy and excitement, remains but a section of Brooklyn with
a large, unadorned – some would say worn – central synagogue that appeals almost
exclusively to Lubavitchers.
This glaring omission denies Chabad a locus
of spiritual pilgrimage around which its ideas can coalesce and from which its
brilliance can shine through to the wider culture.
To be sure, Chabad’s
success is largely predicated on the Rebbe’s genius at decentralizing the
movement and thus empowering each individual emissary to realize their unique
potential. But without a thriving focal point and philosophical showcase, Chabad
cannot hope to centralize its influence, create a force multiplier, or leverage
its global influence to affect world culture.
It should be the priority
of Chabad internationally to transform Crown Heights into a global center of
Jewish spirituality, culture and education, befitting a world
Crown Heights should be a hub attracting world leaders, leading
thinkers and academics, Pulitzer Prize-winning writers and cutting- edge
entrepreneurs and youth who thirst for God.
The quickest way to achieve
this is to create a world Jewish cultural center as part of the 770 complex,
seating at least 5,000 people, that would feature weekly discussions and debates
on the world’s most pressing issues with the values of Judaism and Chabad as the
cornerstone. A media network should be attached to the center that broadcasts
these discussions and conversations throughout the world. This would be a 92nd
St. Y on steroids.
Just imagine what Chabad could achieve if its
ambassadors throughout the world collaborated with a central institution in
bringing the world’s foremost thinkers and leaders to an international
educational forum, creating a Jewish values-based think tank that could
influence the world.
When I was at Oxford I was amazed at the power and
reach of the Oxford Union.
Founded by students in 1823, it leveraged the
fame of the university to attract, as well as cultivate, world leaders whose
participation transformed the union into the world’s most famous debating
chamber. I used the union as my own model for creating the Oxford L’Chaim
Society which similarly focused on world personalities, but this time lecturing
on Jewish universalism and values-based leadership.
Chabad is eminently
capable of doing the same in Crown Heights. With a little vision and a lot of
investment, Crown Heights can be transformed into a Western place of spiritual,
intellectual and cultural pilgrimage, allowing Judaism in general and Chabad in
particular to gain a seat at the table of world ideas and events.
global movement deserves a global capitol to showcase the philosophy and ideas
that have made it preeminent.The writer served as the Lubavitcher
Rebbe’s emissary at Oxford University from 1988 to 1999 and was named the 2000
Preacher of the Year by The London Times. He is regularly listed by as one of
the ten most influential rabbis in America and has just published Ten
Conversations You Need to Have with Yourself. (Wiley) Follow him on his website
www.shmuley.com and on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.
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