20 years after Rebbe’s death, Jewish movements increasingly emulate Chabad

Click photo to download. Caption: Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson in Brooklyn in May 1987. Credit: Mordecai Baron via Wikimedia Commons.

By Maayan Jaffe/JNS.org

Many questions surrounded the future of the Chabad-Lubavitch branch of Hasidism after the death of its seventh and final leader—“the Rebbe,” Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson—on June 12, 1994. Schneerson had no children, and no successor was named. But 20 years later, Chabad is not only alive and well, but increasingly receiving the so-called highest form of flattery: imitation. 

Against the backdrop of last fall’s much-discussed Pew Research Center survey of American Jews, many Jewish leaders across the denominational spectrum are turning to Chabad for ideas to strengthen their own movements. Those who spoke to JNS.org to reflect on the Rebbe’s 20th yahrzeit may not agree with Chabad’s religious outlook or practices, and a number of them cited internal challenges within the movement, but all said that when it comes to outreach, engagement, and Jewish leadership, Chabad is to be emulated.

Ron Wolfson, the Fingerhut Professor of Education at American Jewish University in Los Angeles, recently coined the term “relational Judaism”—using the power of relationships to transform the Jewish community. But such an idea is not new, said Rabbi Steven C. Wernick, executive vice president and CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

“The Rebbe understood much earlier than most the importance of building relationships,” Wernick said.

Click photo to download. Caption: Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, then chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, delivers the keynote address at a 2011 banquet in Brooklyn that capped Chabad's five-day international conference for emissaries. Sacks told JNS.org on the occasion of the Lubavitcher Rebbe's 20th yahrzeit, “We have to reach out to our fellow Jews with unconditional love. We don’t do enough of that and Chabad has taught us how.” Credit: Baruch Ezagui.

Schneerson also understood the importance of sending his shluchim, emissaries, to where the people were—even the most remote of locations—and of teaching those people Torah. Today, according to most reports, there are more than 4,000 Chabad emissaries around the world.

“We all have what to learn from their… going out into the trenches to bring people in,” said Rabbi Pesach Lerner, executive vice president emeritus of the National Council of Young Israel. “If you want to accomplish stuff, you’ve got to leave the building. … That is something [about Chabad] that has to be respected and emulated.”

This concept of outreach is now also being exercised by the Conservative movement, said Wernick, who explained that there is a push to engage, train, and deploy rabbis, cantors, and master educators to population centers where there are young Jewish adults as a first step in re-defining a sense of kehila (community) for the movement. While outreach may not seem like a unique concept today, “at the time in which Chabad did it, this was a great chidush (new idea),” Wernick said.

Creating communities without walls has been a secret to Chabad’s success. The Chabad emissary “does not view himself as a rabbi of a congregation, as serving members of a synagogue,” but rather as a community rabbi, said Rabbi Steven Weil, former executive vice president of the Orthodox Union. “As the rabbi of a city he can have much greater impact than just being the rabbi for those who pay dues,” Weil said.

Weil noted that an additional upside presented by Chabad emissaries is that when a Chabad couple is sent to a community, the couple is “there for life.”

“When you look at a lot of communities—Reform, Conservative, Orthodox—the rabbis come for a period of time and their goal is to get a good job and then get a bigger pulpit in a bigger city,” said Weil, explaining if over a 30 or 40-year period, there are six or seven community rabbis, one never really becomes a part of the people’s extended lives.

Chabad emissaries “become a part of the family, there at every stage,” Weil explained.

“There much longer, they have a more significant and deeper relationship,” he said. “If we (the Orthodox community) could set a structure where one can be a rabbi in a smaller Jewish community and we can facilitate that he doesn’t have to feel isolated, that he can feel respected and that he has impact nationally by staying there 30, 40 or 50 years, then we could have a much bigger impact.”

As Weil put it, in the modern Orthodox community, the best and brightest individuals become hedge fund managers. In the haredi community, those same men become heads of major yeshivas. In the Chabad movement, the best men become emissaries. 

And those emissaries make life easier for all Jews. Since Chabad shluchim are positioned across the world, Jews know they can travel anywhere and still get a kosher meal or a place to pray, said Lerner. Chabad also feeds the Jewish future, according to Lerner, who said most Jews that become Orthodox later in life “somewhere along the line had involvement with Chabad.”

Those Jews likely stayed the course because of a combination of persistence, said Lerner, and the lack of judgment or pressure placed on them, said Wernick. They may have been brought in to the fold of religious life because the barrier was low and accessible, perhaps even through the Internet or social media, both tools which many believe Chabad used earlier—and better—than other Jewish movements. 

“We have to reach out to our fellow Jews with unconditional love,” said Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom. “We don’t do enough of that and Chabad has taught us how.”

Yet even with Chabad’s open arms, the emissaries never compromise their Jewish values. 

“You’ll never see a Chabad guy doing something wrong to accommodate someone else,” said Lerner, noting that the movement proudly promotes traditional Jewish culture in the public square. 

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, knew Schneerson personally and recalled that while he and the Rebbe did not always agree, the Rebbe always treated him with respect and love.

“He took bold positions, he inspired,” said Hoenlein.

“The Rebbe clearly had a vision and he implemented it,” he added. “This is what Jewish leaders today need—they need to have a clearer sense of ultimately what they want to achieve.”

A leader is known by his followers, according to Rabbi Mark S. Miller, rabbi emeritus of the Reform-affiliated Temple Bat Yam in Newport Beach, Calif.

“The fact that the Rebbe has galvanized and inspired countless followers to bring to millions a greater level of observance and a passion for Judaism… speaks volumes about his leadership,” Miller said.

Members of the Chabad movement “see that even if it is just a little spark, there is something that unites us all,” explained Miller.

“We have seen what divisions have done,” he said. “Unity—I think that is what the Rebbe taught us.”

Maayan Jaffe is a freelance writer in Overland Park, Kan. Reach her maayanjaffe@icloud.com or follow her on Twitter at @MaayanJaffe.

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Posted on June 8, 2014 and filed under Features, U.S., Jewish Life.