Will Chabad enter the metaverse?

Now that Chabad has covered most of the world's Jewish-accessible geographical locations, its aim is to tackle the realm of virtual reality as its latest frontier. 

 Image of the virtual Chabad house. (photo credit: CHABAD.ORG)
Image of the virtual Chabad house.
(photo credit: CHABAD.ORG)

Chabad is expanding out of this world and into the virtual one, they announced earlier this week.

If you ever needed to find kosher food or a Shabbat meal in a place like Nepal, Peru, or Congo, your first port of call was likely to be the local Chabad outpost. However, you will soon be able to find Chabad in virtual reality, too.

Chabad.org announced that they are working on the creation of a virtual Chabad space on Tuesday, thereby making it the first religious Jewish organization to lay claim to the metaverse. It will be called the MANA Chabad Jewish Center, named for the Ethereum token that powers the Decentraland virtual reality platform.
There have been Chabad outreach centers, commonly referred to as Chabad houses, in some of the most far-flung places on Earth for the past decades per the wishes of Chabad's last rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson. With the advent of the metaverse, Chabad's newest aim is to tackle the realm of virtual reality as its latest frontier. 
Unlike other Hasidic groups, Chabad is known for being enthusiastic about technological developments, if primarily for the purpose of engaging Jews with their tradition. They started with radio programming in the US in the 1940s and, over time, subsequently moved on to television, the internet, and social media.
Chabad's decision to build a virtual reality presence follows the new developments towards the metaverse trend.Mark Zuckerberg made his own metaverse ambitions clear in what would immediately become world news when he announced the name change of Facebook to Meta on October 28th, 2021, generating much discussion regarding its necessity and viability.

The metaverse, a term originally coined by dystopian sci-fi author Neal Stephenson in 1992, refers to a virtual environment that can be accessed via the internet. Unlike your regular browsing or social media activity, the metaverse can involve the use of video game-style avatars to travel within said environment. Moreover, it often draws on the use of virtual reality (VR) or augmented reality (AR) to make digital spaces more lifelike. 

 A VR representation of Chabad's headquarters on Eastern Parkway 770, New York City. (credit: CHABAD.ORG) A VR representation of Chabad's headquarters on Eastern Parkway 770, New York City. (credit: CHABAD.ORG)

Rabbi Shmuli Nachlas, who also co-heads the Jewish Youth Network in Ontario, Canada together with his wife, Chani, is heading the Chabad metaverse effort. According to Nachlas and his partners, rabbi Yisroel Wilhelm and tech expert, the metaverse is it is the next place to connect with their fellow Jews.

“If people are there, then we should be, too,” says Nachlas. The goal is “to meet and inspire Jews, wherever they are,” whether in-person or virtually. According to Chabad.org, the virtual Chabad house activities would consist of Torah study, community events, connecting with other Jews, and shopping for Judaica.

Of course, virtual Chabad services have many limitations, too. Due to Orthodox restrictions on electricity use on Shabbat and high holidays, Chabad would be unable to host virtual synagogue services, as has been done by other denominations since the beginning of the pandemic. Moreover, the mitzvot, Jewish ritual commandments, oft promoted by Chabad (i.e. putting on tefillin for men, shaking the lulav on Sukkot) are inherently physical, object-oriented actions. Unless the avatars visiting the Chabad house own the necessary tools at home, they would be unable to perform such mitzvot
Moreover, as optimistic as Chabad's vision of virtual reality may sound, they do not shy away from raising their concerns with the metaverse. Decentraland's website implores its readers to "lose [themselves] in an amazing, evolving world". This can be interpreted as an exciting as well as an ominous message – ominous because it reeks of even greater neglect of in-person relationships in what is still a pandemic-fraught era and, likely of similar importance to Chabad, neglect of Jewish tradition. The fact that MANA, the platform's name, is a homonym of manna, the sole food eaten by the Jews during their forty years of desert wandering according to Tanach, is unlikely to be coincidental. Much like manna was a spiritual food that came down from the heavens, Chabad seems to suggest that their virtual presence will be a similar source of nourishment in the new metaverse that, for the general population, is still an unused wasteland. 
“We can either turn our backs on [technological advancement] in fear and disbelief, or we can learn how to work with this new reality to ensure the spread of as much Torah as we can,” said Nachlias.