Many questions surrounded the future of the Chabad-Lubavitch branch of chassidism after the death of its seventh rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, on June 12, 1994. The Rebbe had no children, and no successor was named. But 20 years later, Chabad is not only alive and well, its 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 JNSto 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, 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.
The Rebbe 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 kehillah (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 chiddush [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.”
Rabbi 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,” he said, 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.”
As Rabbi Weil put it, in the Modern Orthodox community the best and brightest individuals become hedge fund managers; in the haredi community the best and brightest become heads of major yeshivas; in the Chabad movement, the best and brightest become emissaries.