Staying on mission

As the old joke goes, while some organizations are looking for a mission, Chabad is a mission looking for an organization.

Chabad rabbis sing ‘Ani Ma’amin’ in front of the movement’s world headquarters in Brooklyn (photo credit: MARK KAUZLARICH/REUTERS)
Chabad rabbis sing ‘Ani Ma’amin’ in front of the movement’s world headquarters in Brooklyn
Chabad rabbis are always wondering why there is limited media coverage for the largest rabbinical convention in the world, held every year by Chabad a few weeks before Hanukkah. Year after year, the conference fails to garner much interest in the Jewish or secular media.
Of course, the annual “class photo” of the ever-growing number of rabbis standing in front of 770, the iconic brick building that serves as the headquarters of Chabad, gets printed. Sometimes there is a mention of the newest Chabad House opened in an exotic locale. Unlike other major conventions like the General Assembly or the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee lobby – the only conclave that dwarfs the Chabad conference in size – you don’t find a trove of reporters looking for a story.
As the old joke goes, while some organizations are looking for a mission, Chabad is a mission looking for an organization. Behind the joke is a deep message, even more relevant today as major Jewish groups transition in leadership and focus.
This became clear to me a few weeks ago after a conversation with a longtime friend, a local conservative rabbi. He had dedicated one of his High Holiday sermons to climate change and I had felt that it was a major error. “Once a year you have such a large crowd,” I said, “Why would you talk politics?!” He felt that protecting the environment is a reflection of the Jewish prohibition against wastefulness, “ba’al tashchit,” and that potential damage to the earth was a vital Jewish issue.
Should climate change really be our priority? Should that be the topic of the sermon on Judaism’s holiest day of the year? Should it be the agenda for Jewish groups, when there are so many others championing this cause?
I don’t believe so. Our mission as Jews must be teaching Torah and connecting others Jews to the Divine through mitzvot. The core of Judaism is the propagation of monotheism, as Abraham the founder of Judaism advocated, and striving to live up to its ideals. However important political issues are, a synagogue should be the center of spirituality, not political activism. For that, we can go down the block to the local NGO or political campaign headquarters.
Some justify their synagogue’s focus on humanitarian and environmental concerns by saying it keeps Judaism relevant to the next generation. But the polls say otherwise. Studies show that millennials seeking a Jewish connection today are flocking to Chabad more than any other segment of the Jewish world. A series of Jewish community demographic studies report that 30% of young people say they are active in Chabad. In a recent survey of 4,000 millennials by JSwipe (October, 2019), over 50% reported involvement with Chabad, and an astonishing 15% said they donated to their local Chabad center, double that of any other Jewish group. Only 2% are involved with the left-wing J Street. Why are 25 times more millennials active in Chabad than in J Street ?
While many others are replacing Judaism with politics in their quest for relevance, Chabad is focusing on the inner spiritual life, the study of Torah and its application to contemporary moral dilemmas. It is specifically traditional Judaism that is resonating with the young.
THIS BRINGS us back to Chabad’s annual global conclave, the International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Emissaries, the “Kinus Hashluchim.” Deeply embedded in the consciousness of every Chabad rabbi and rabbi’s wife (who have their own convention in February) is the idea that he or she is not acting alone, rather they are shluchim – emissaries of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson.
This state of mind creates the central question that every hassid asks him or herself. “Am I living up to the teachings, the values and the mission of the Rebbe?” This may be easier to do in the Jewish communities of Brooklyn or Jerusalem, but it’s much more complex for those living in places like Novosibirsk, Siberia; Irvine, California; or Abuja, Nigeria where they are surrounded by Jews who live very differently than they do.
It takes effort to constantly navigate the secular world and the local Jewish communities who are not as observant, while keeping the values of Torah center stage. You may be challenged: “Rabbi, why can’t you just change things a bit?” There is the constant grind of fundraising. Then there’s the daunting task of instilling those ideals in our children in a society that dances to a different beat.
This struggle is the central discussion of the shluchim conference. Aside from the sessions about innovative youth programs, discussions on adult education and tips on fundraising, the main part of the conference is the hassidic farbrengens, small gatherings that happen between workshops or stretch late into the night, where the struggles and triumphs of spiritual courage and living up to the ideals of Torah are shared and discussed.
With a drop of L’chaim and an inspiring melody, the shluchim open their hearts and discuss their existential dilemmas. They ask how to remain true to the principles the Rebbe instilled, even though it’s been twenty-five years since he passed.
One story touched me personally. At the Shabbat dinner with thousands of fellow shluchim, Rabbi Yossel Minkowitz of Montreal told the group sitting at our table the remarkable story of his uncle, Rabbi Berke Chein, who then lived in the former Soviet Union (now Russia) in 1962. He had been on the run, eluding the secret police for his role in helping Jews escape Russia on false passports. His son, who had left Russia years earlier, asked the Rebbe in New York for a blessing that his father be able to emigrate to Israel.
Though few exit visas were being granted in the early 60s, the Rebbe surprisingly advised that the elder Chein apply to OVIR, the Russian emigration authority, using his real name and personal details. The message was passed on to Russia and Chein completed the necessary paperwork in trepidation, but with a hassid’s faith in the words of his Rebbe.
He was wanted throughout Russia and he knew that if OVIR checked his application with the KGB, he’d be shipped off for a long and probably fatal sentence in the Siberian gulags. Miraculously, shortly after submitting the application, he got a call from the authorities telling him that he had twenty-four hours to leave Russia for Israel.
We shluchim, too, are engaged in a mission of faith. No, our lives are not in danger, but there are daunting spiritual risks we take when we leave our friends, family and community to spend our lives on the Rebbe’s mission to inspire, teach, and uplift. We struggle to educate our children to live in the ways of traditional Judaism in a community that isn’t. We must find the financial resources in these communities to pursue our agenda, without giving up on any minor principles and remaining true to the mission.
That inner struggle of staying on mission doesn’t seize the attention of reporters who want a quick story on the latest politics of the organization, or the effort to, yet again, update the mission and statement and “create new paradigms,” as so many other Jewish organizations seem to always be doing.
Chabad is different. We know where we are going, and the original mission remains crystal clear. Our angst is in keeping our idealism alive, and inspiring each other to continue to march forward. That inner spiritual struggle does not make for headlines.
The writer is author of The Secret of Chabad,