Chabad 2.0

Yet, for all its internationalism Chabad continues to evince a largely parochial mentality. It is global in scope but not in outlook.

Chabad House 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Chabad House 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
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 Messianic future.
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 know it.
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.
But in reality, Chabad’s expansion has been almost entirely horizontal rather than vertical.
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 friendship circle.
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 movement.
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.
A 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 and on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.