From preschools to colleges, Chabad penetrates mainstream Jewish life

Click photo to download. Caption: Rabbi Moshe Hecht leads more than 1,000 Jewish college students from schools across North America and Europe in a havdalah ceremony at the Chabad on Campus International Shabbaton on Nov. 8, 2014, in Brooklyn. Credit: Chabad.edu/Bentzi Sasson.

By Maayan Jaffe/JNS.org

The numbers are staggering: 4,202 shluchim (emissary) couples working around the world; 94,650 students interacting with Chabad-Lubavitch on campus annually; 37 million unique visitors per year to Chabad.org.

Chabad is not just a sect of Judaism anymore, but rather “a force throughout the entire world,” said Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, author of “Rebbe: The Life and Teachings of Menachem M. Schneerson, the Most Influential Rabbi in Modern History,” a recently published biography of Chabad’s seventh leader.

On Nov. 23, upwards of 5,000 people attended the International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Emissaries. Since Schneerson’s passing 20 years ago, there has been a 236-percent growth in the number of shluchim. Chabad emissaries are in 80 countries and 49 out of 50 U.S. states (only South Dakota does not have an emissary). In the last year, new emissaries moved to Jamaica, Aruba, and the Caiman Islands.

“The Rebbe’s goal was to reach every Jewish community and I think he has succeeded to an astonishing effect,” Telushkin told JNS.org.

Specifically in America, a unique aspect of Chabad’s growth has been the significant participation of Jews across denominations and levels of affiliation in Chabad institutions—particularly in its schools. 

Click photo to download. Caption: Prayers at the gravesite of the seventh Chabad movement leader, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, on the 20th anniversary of his passing on July 1, 2014 at Old Montefiore Cemetery in the Queens borough of New York City. Credit: Adam Ben Cohen/Chabad.org.

When Stacey Aviva Solomon’s son, Eli, was only a few months old, she enrolled him in a local Conservative Jewish preschool for three days per week and then, for convenience, into a Chabad preschool for one day per week. She never thought she would switch him to the Chabad House Center of Kansas City’s preschool full-time.

“It was all about proximity to start with,” she said. “But we continued with the program because of the amazing teachers and the high quality of what we got.”

Today, Eli and his younger brother Jonah are full-time students in the Chabad preschool. Solomon said she loves that the children come home singing Jewish songs, and that she has been able to learn more about her own Judaism through the kids. Recently, she enrolled in a Jewish spirituality class taught by the Chabad rabbi, Rabbi Mendy Wineberg. She found out about it through a flyer she saw while picking up her youngest from school.

“At first I was worried I wouldn’t fit in or that I was going to have to dress how they dress or something to bring my kid [to the Chabad school],” said Solomon. “No one has ever asked me why I don’t keep kosher, or ever pushed anything down my throat. It is nice to know they are available, though, if we want to take further steps to align ourselves more with keeping the commandments.”

Solomon said that because Chabad staff are not judgmental, she has become more willing to engage in Jewish life and “hear their awesome knowledge.”

Click photo to download. Caption: Thousands of rabbis pose for a group photo in front of Chabad-Lubavitch headquarters in the Brooklyn borough of New York on Sunday, Nov. 23, 2014. The pictured rabbis were among the 4,200 rabbis from around the world who were in New York for the International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Emissaries. Credit: Adam Ben Cohen/Chabad.org.

Irwin Freed of Columbia, Md., enrolled his then 3-month-old daughter in Chabad preschool two years ago. He said that now he picks her up on Fridays and she is asking about challah for Shabbat—something she wouldn’t have learned about at home, though he is working on integrating more Jewish values into his household. 

“The fact that the kids are going to Chabad is making us a little more observant. … I like being able to ask Jewish questions, get answers,” Freed said, noting that no one at Chabad has ever approached him or pressured him to be more observant.

Members of the Freed family have started attending monthly Shabbat dinners at the Chabad in Clarksville, Md., and have become close friends with the Chabad emissary couple there. He has also encouraged three other Jewish couples to send their children to the Columbia preschool.

Freed dismisses the myth that members of Chabad “are pushy.” Rather, he said they just want Jews to celebrate their Judaism. He said the Clarksville Chabad gets 50 families at its monthly Friday night dinners, and the couples drive to get there.

“There are no questions asked,” he said.

Edie Rogoway has had a similar experience in Portland, Ore., for her daughter Georgia Van Ness, who Rogoway said describes Chabad as “my happy place.” Rogoway, who is intermarried, said her husband feels “more comfortable at Chabad than any other Jewish organization” in the area. 

Rogoway explained many of her peers consider themselves post-denominational and are not willing to pay $3,000 per year to join a synagogue just so their kids can have a bar or bat mitzvah. They prefer to get their Judaism à la carte.

“With Chabad, you sign up for what you want,” said Rogoway.

Where does Chabad’s current inclusive approach come from? Telushkin explained that Schneerson (commonly referred to as “the Rebbe”) was influenced by his experience in the Holocaust, which ended only six years before he took up his post as the movement’s leader. While the Nazis sought to hate and hunt down every Jew, the Rebbe sought to love and seek out every Jew, said Telushkin.

Mark Rosen, an associate professor in the Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program at Brandeis University, takes his students annually to New York to visit the most influential Jewish organizations. The trip includes a visit to 770 Eastern Parkway, Chabad’s headquarters in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. Most recently, Rosen became involved in a study of the impact of Jewish organizations’ college campus work on the Jewish future of young adults. The study, sponsored by Roger Hertog, has taken him around the country to visit with Chabad emissaries and the students benefiting from their work.

“This is what I would say: [Chabad members] might look different in terms of beards and hats and so forth, but they are extremely skilled at relationship building,” Rosen told JNS.org. “They befriend students, and it goes far beyond inviting them for Shabbat dinner. They show sincere interest in their personal lives.”

Rosen said he has met shluchim who attend sporting events in which their students are participating, and emissary couples who have gone so far as to post bail for students arrested for driving under the influence.

In an era when Jewish organizations are searching for ways to address dwindling membership, Rosen said Jewish leaders can look to Chabad.

“Judaism is about the relationship between teacher and student, between rabbi and congregant. Chabad is masterful at building those relationships,” he said, noting that he has learned of many students who continue to have relationships with their campus Chabad rabbis after graduation.

“They love every Jew—that is how they operate,” said Rosen.

Few Jewish federations or philanthropists fund the Chabad movement, likely because Chabad is seen as an Orthodox group trying to make others observe Judaism similarly, Rosen explained. Yet his research shows how that presumption is far from the truth and that funders should take a closer look at Chabad.

“I think Chabad is enormously dedicated and under-appreciated,” he said.

Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, chairman of Merkos L’lnyonei Chinuch, the Chabad movement’s educational arm, said Schneerson taught that “we must be attentive to the needs of our fellow Jew and our fellow human being.”

“That is what [Schneerson] empowered his shluchim to do—to address all the concerns of the individual and the community, spiritual, educational, social, and even material,” Krinsky told JNS.org.

“Today, an average of two and a half young couples a week take up the lifetime position of [emissary work] in locations around the world, perpetuating the Rebbe’s call to seek out Jewish souls waiting to be reached,” added Krinsky. “We can’t relax until every Jew is reached, even in the most far-flung places of the world.”

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Posted on November 25, 2014 and filed under Features, Jewish Life, U.S..