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I have witnessed a revolution. On a recent lecture tour that took me to Australia and South Africa, I hardly found a major mainstream synagogue without a Chabad rabbi. Shuls that once swore they would not invite in Chabad are now attracting large numbers of new members under the helm of young and charismatic Chabad rabbis. Many of them are the biggest shuls in their respective countries.
In Sydney, Australia I spoke at Central Synagogue, where Rabbi Levi Wolf has transformed a shul on the decline into a powerhouse; for Rabbi Benzion Milecki, whose years at Southhead Synagogue have made it one of the most vibrant in the Southern Hemisphere; and for Rabbi Motti Feldman, creator of the vibrant Dover Heights community.
In Cape Town, I spoke Friday night and Saturday at Sea Point Synagogue, with South Africa’s largest membership. It’s now on fire thanks to the charismatic leadership of Rabbi Dovid Weinberg. I also had the pleasure of speaking at Chabad of Cape Town, which for 35 years has molded Judaism in that city under the dedicated leadership of Rabbi Mendel Popack.
In those countries, as in the United Kingdom and even the United States, Chabad rabbis are beginning to take over centrist, Modern Orthodox communities that once viewed Chabad as too religiously right wing.
The mainstreaming of Chabad in leading synagogues around the world would seem to go against the Chabad model of opening independent Chabad Houses and building autonomous communities. On the other end of it, why would a Modern Orthodox shul choose a Chabad rabbi, whose chassidic lifestyle is seemingly so at odds with that of the congregation?
Whereas other rabbis want to build shuls and increase membership, Chabad rabbis want people to practice Judaism. Chabad rabbis, even in large communities, are less interested in the institution of the synagogue and much more focused on the personal observance of individuals.
The reason it works is that the whole problem with synagogue life is its institutionalized, depersonalized nature, which alienates people and makes them feel uncomfortable when they attend. But when the focus is on the person rather than the structure, no one feels like he or she is being asked to simply populate the pews.
The Weinbergs in Cape Town are an example of how this works. I stayed in an apartment right across from them yet I barely got to see them, so busy were they hosting guests in their home, teaching bat mitzvah classes, conducting funerals and running the shul minyan, among countless other responsibilities. Their focus was not on their responsibilities to an institution’s board or membership but rather on giving their lives to the service of their fellow Jews who require religious guidance and inspiration.
The Weinbergs do not have career but a calling. A career ends at night and stops completely on vacation. A calling is forever. It exists whenever there is anyone in need. And the Jewish people today have unending spiritual needs. The focus, for example, at a bat mitzvah class is not the speech the girl will give but the Shabbos candles she will light, the kosher food she will eat, and the Jewish books she will read well after the ceremony is over.
But is it right for rabbis who run synagogues to put more emphasis on congregants observing tradition than on the functions of the shul? Is this not a diversion from their core responsibilities of building the congregation?
Here’s my response, and it’s pretty brutal. Synagogue life for many is unbelievably monotonous. They find the shul service long and boring. We try to alleviate the bland routine of shul life with rabbis who are great speakers and by offering a delectable kiddush after the davening.
Fair enough. Good whisky may indeed bring to life what can seem to some like a dead service. But the key to making shul exciting is making every person who attends feel like he or she belongs. Home life is exciting not because there are fireworks every night but because of the comfort and nurturing it provides. Shul is the same.
When people start observing a Torah lifestyle they see the shul as an intrinsic element in their lives. It provides comfort for families and nurturance for the soul. As they find a sense of belonging they begin to participate, and the monotony ends.
I regularly travel around the world to speak. I am at different shuls all the time. But I am never a stranger. I am always among my people. Because I am committed to Jewish life, every shul is my home.
Chabad rabbis are enjoying so much success around the world as mainstream rabbis because their emphasis on Jewish observance over synagogue attendance makes people feel, once they do begin attending, that shul is an extension of home.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is founder of This World: The Jewish Values Network and the bestselling author of 25 books including his most recent – “Renewal: A Guide to the Values-Filled Life.“