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Saturday, November 10, 2007

Habad is the religion closest to Judaism

The Chabad challenge
A few months back I attended the inauguration ceremonies for Arnold Eisen, the new chancellor of the Conservative movement's Jewish Theological Seminary. In a symposium preceding the main event, a distinguished panel of scholars discussed the future of the movement and American Judaism. Someone mentioned Chabad, and the roomful of rabbis and professors broke out into knowing titters.
Dr. Alan Cooper, the JTS provost, rode the titters into a wave of laughter when he repeated the old line: "Chabad is the religion closest to Judaism." There's nothing new about Chabad-bashing - the Chabad-Lubavitch Hassidic movement is mocked by fellow Orthodox for their messianism, by non-Orthodox groups for their aggressive proselytizing, by late-night comedians for the wacky mitzva tanks that roll through Manhattan streets. And there's nothing funny about Chabad's cozy relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and their cynical use of religion and politics to dominate the Jewish revival in Eastern Europe.
But considering the ubiquity of Chabad, and the warm reception they get among many marginally affiliated Jews, the movement becomes a living Yogi Berra line: No one takes them seriously - they're too popular.
Husband-and-wife pairs of shlichim, or emissaries, are dispatched from the Rabbinical College of America in Morristown to establish Chabad centers wherever there is a rumor of Jewish life. As far as their late rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, was concerned, Bangkok is Boston is Basking Ridge, if it means bringing even a touch of yiddishkeit to the Jewish margins.
Shlichim have begun operating Hebrew schools that are increasingly popular among Jewish families who might have no other Jewish affiliations. Chabad's successful outreach activities include well-run summer camps, unintimidating bar and bat mitzva ceremonies, and dozens of informal community events around the holidays. Still laughing?
A few weeks after the Eisen inaugural I was invited by some Conservative rabbinical leaders to discuss challenges facing their movement and synagogues in general. I focused on Chabad. And I described the movement as a challenge in the positive sense: a challenge to others to explore what Chabad does well and how their model can be replicated in non-Chabad synagogues and institutions.
SO WHAT'S Chabad's secret? They offer ease of entry. People taking baby steps into Jewish life are intimidated by institutions that seem to demand a deep commitment at the outset. Although individual Chabadniks are committed to "Torah-true" Judaism, the shlichim celebrate individual mitzvot, individual acts of belonging. One is fine, two is great, three's a mechaieh. No one joins Chabad on the installment plan. In fact, people tend not to "join" Chabad at all. Chabad houses tend not to have memberships. Chabadniks will say that the message is that individuals are valued for their participation, not their contribution to the building fund.
Chabad is pluralist. I know, I know - theologically Chabad has about as much respect for non-Orthodox, indeed, non-Chabad streams as Ann Coulter has for liberals. But shlichim operate their centers on a come-one, come-all basis, putting up fewer barriers of behavior and biology than even some Reform synagogues.
Chabad is friendly. Oy, is it friendly. I always compare the Morristown college to the old IBM in the way it is able to churn out ambassadors who so fully and consistently reflect the mission and values of the institution. I often can't tell various shlichim apart - not because I am a dolt or a bigot, but because so many are so similarly warm and good-natured.
Finally, Chabadniks are p.r. whizzes. They were early adopters of all the latest technologies, have an enviable dominance of the Jewish web, and manage to keep their branding cutting-edge.
When I presented these ideas to the Conservative rabbis, they bristled. Not because they don't see value in an open, pluralist, easy-entry, cleverly marketed Judaism. Rather, they recognized the structural differences that separate them from Chabad. One of these is accountability to a kehilla, a community. The American synagogue is a self-governed partnership among stakeholders and rabbis - employers and employees. It's a delicate dance, but in the tension between a rabbi's authority and the congregation's diverse needs, most synagogues reach an accommodation that reflects the values of their membership and movement.
You can't fire your Chabad rabbi. As a result, their flexibility and creativity often comes with a whiff of condescension.
And one rabbi's flexibility is another's lack of standards. Rabbi Eric Yoffie, head of the Union for Reform Judaism, recently wrote a column criticizing Chabad for offering to perform bar and bat mitzvot with few if any requirements. At typical synagogues, such requirements include religious school attendance, a commitment to study and worship, and a level of synagogue skills. Chabad "is the place that you go when you do not want to join a synagogue or subject your child to a meaningful course of study," wrote Yoffie.
The challenge for non-Chabad rabbis, then, is to bring some of the Chabad spirit into their programming without sacrificing their own and their movements' standards or identity or the expectations of their longtime and most committed members.
Which will lead to another debate, one that may well define Judaism in the coming decades: Are denominations necessary - are synagogues necessary - or has Chabad pioneered a model of American Judaism that transcends them?
The writer is editor in chief of the New Jersey Jewish News.

Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors. Originally posted at Please do link to these articles, quote from them and forward them by email to friends with this notice. Other uses require written permission of the author.


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