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The more I thought about it, the more convinced I became that Chabad not only represents the ethic of our patriarch Isaac, but also truly understands the beating heart of American Jewry. As a colleague of mine once explained to me, Chabad and the Conservative Movement are playing for the same market share: our target audience is one and the same, our tactics are just different. The Hertog study makes clear that Chabad’s impact is greatest for those raised in Conservative and Reform households. On a certain level, it makes no sense. Why would a movement that overlooks the Enlightenment, promotes a non-egalitarian expression of Jewish practice, is positively parochial in its posture and small “c” conservative in its politics hold such appeal to a liberally minded and often disengaged American Jewry? And yet, as Hertog’s study makes clear, it is precisely and counterintuitively these very elements that seem to explain Chabad’s appeal. In a frenetically paced world of online and superficial connection, where all of us are at risk of being alienated from each other and our own selves, Chabad provides an authenticity and intimacy that is a valued commodity. I suspect the free food and drink on campus doesn’t hurt, but it is the prospect of a finding a personal connection, the belief that you matter to someone and that someone is counting on you, that is it the critical draw. It is why, I would bet, one of my kids, despite having every Jewish opportunity open to them, in this shul, at their school, in their summer camp – loves going to The Friendship Circle at Chabad every week. To know that a child with special needs is depending on you to show up every week, well, it doesn’t take a social scientist to understand why it works.
I am not, you will not be surprised to hear, a Chabad rabbi, nor for that matter do I have any intent on becoming one. If for no other reason, the very thought of asking Debbie to move to South Dakota is a risk that I am not willing to take. That said, we all have much to learn from their earnest efforts to open up individual souls, the covered-over springs of Jewish life. One does not need to be a Chabadnik to understand the importance of cultivating individual relationships and to recognize that community building is a retail business, one person, one Shabbat table at a time. These are insights that can be applied in any community, our own included.
What if, I wonder, this building, or our new one on 89th Street, had a little bit of 770 Eastern Parkway? What if Rabbi Witkovsky were to corral an army of rabbinical students looking to put a few shekels in their pockets and we set in motion a series of home study sessions: for singles, for young couples, for empty nesters, for mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, or homebound seniors? What if Rabbi Zuckerman were to do outreach to interfaith couples, to individuals exploring Judaism, considering conversion, or maybe just trying to figure out how to get a foothold in the Jewish community? What if our community were able to rethink congregational school to include opportunities for families to learn with each other – building Jewish literacy and community at one and the same time, one living room at a time? What if there were enough hours in a day that I could enter your offices, homes, and lives and you into mine, campaigning for nothing other than the well-being of your Jewish soul? It would require a dramatic rethinking of how we conduct business and allocate staff, an act of disintermediation whereby we learn to become not just the Fairway but also the Fresh Direct of Jewish content. And no, I have no idea how it would be paid for. But given the stakes, given the infinite value of a soul, why wouldn’t we be be filled with a mesirus nefesh, a missionary zeal for the Jewish future. As the Rebbe taught, no Jew (and I would add “would-be Jew”) should be left behind, not in Israel, not in the FSU and certainly not in our own backyard.
You see, for all its successes – and there are too many to count – Chabad has one limitation to which we have the competitive advantage. We are willing to walk side-by-side with the American Jew throughout their Jewish journey. Hertog’s study makes clear that virtually no students affected positively by Chabad choose to identify with Chabad. Why? I imagine it is because sensitive as Chabad may be to the soul of American Jewry, neither its theology nor its lifestyle represents the hyphenated lives that American Jews actually lead. Chabad does not embrace the non-Jewish members of our Jewish families. Chabad does not look to draw in Jews of patrilineal descent. Chabad does not engage with all the counterclaims, intellectual and otherwise, that modernity brings. Embracing as Chabad may be, it is not pluralistic. I share these observations not, God forbid, as criticisms, merely to point out the limitations that provide an opening for the establishment of a non-fundamentalist Chabad, a single-minded and open-minded effort to draw out the pintele yid longing for expression. Conservative rabbis complain when their lay leadership provides financial support for Chabad, when neither they nor their children have any intention or desire to live a Chabad lifestyle. What we fail to see in our kvetching is that we ourselves have failed to provide a compelling missionary alternative worthy of our leaders’ investment. I would go so far as to say that the Jewish world would be strengthened by having parallel efforts working in concert with each other. As my Chabad friend said to me at the dinner the other night: “Elliot, you and I, we are traveling down the same highway, but our windows are rolled up.” Let’s roll down the windows, let’s work together, speak to each other, learn from each other, respect each other, celebrate each other’s achievements even as we recognize our differences. There is room enough for us all, more than enough lost sparks looking to light up the dark. Most of all, let’s recognize that we are all on the same team looking to build up the individual and collective souls of American Jewry.
As I reflect on my own Jewish journey, and perhaps you on yours, there is a single individual – perhaps a parent, a teacher, a Hillel director or maybe even a rabbi –who took the time to recognize your inimitable humanity, who believed in you and believed that you have something unique to contribute to this world – that made all the difference. Each of us is who we are because we were fortunate enough to stumble upon someone willing to reach out and take the time to tap into that divine spark buried within. The future strength of the Jewish community, of our synagogue, lies in our willingness to do the same for others – in this building and beyond. Let us dare to dream, let us find the wherewithal to make that dream a reality. The path to a vital Jewish future is as long and as short as the distance from one Jewish soul to another. May we all have the courage to make that journey together.