Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Chabad Wave

A joke from the early 1990s went like this:

Q: Which religion is closest to Judaism?
A: Chabad (Lubavitch).

That was then, when in his final years the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, allowed his more excitable followers to play with the idea that he was the Messiah, and the rest of us grew ever less patient with their antics. Then in 1994 he died, as old men often do; there was a period of confusion; and eventually the Chabad movement moved forward. After 200 years of always having a charismatic Rebbe as their leader, they decided not to choose a successor to Menachem Mendel, who is still the Rebbe, but they figured out how to do without.

This was not obvious. At the time many knowledgeable observers were convinced the crises would bring Chabad down. Nor is the story over yet - it never is, so long as life goes on - and there still are fringe groups in Chabad who are convinced the Rebbe isn't dead, and much of the mainstream of Chabad still reveres him to an extent and with an intensity that makes the rest of us uncomfortable. Though their outward appearance is of Haredi Jews, the Haredi world by and large doesn't hold Chabad in high esteem, partly because of the messianism, but also because Chabad engages intensely with the non-Haredi world, which is the biggest no-no around.

In spite of all this, Chabad is one of the most interesting parts of the never-boring Jewish world. I would go so far as to speculate that it's one of the most important trends in the Jewish world, at least outside of Israel; even in Israel, where it must compete with an entire and very vital Jewish universe, it manages to hold its own ground.

The Forward has a mostly positive story about how Chabad is engaging Jewish students on American campuses; when you think of the many trends on campus, it's hard to find any fault with these folks whatsoever. The more the better, period: and apparently, indeed there are ever more of them.

The story of Chabad on campus, however, is merely a section of the larger story, of Chabad everywhere: the movement is setting up stations literally all over the world, where they offer a kosher Jewish environment and logistical support to whomever might need it. Israeli tourists (there are always Israeli tourists everywhere at any given moment, probably about 20 million of them) often plan their travel itineraries with an eye to these bases, and I don't mean only orthodox tourists; on the contrary, often it's the totally secular young backpackers. American Jews. Italian Jews. I recently encountered two young Bosnian Jews at a Chabad house to which they repair regularly to imbibe a bit of Jewish atmosphere. There's a flowering Chabad presence in Melbourne (two synagogues, inevitably) that once offered me a week's worth of Daf Yomi sessions away from home.

There's a theological depth to this which I won't go into, but there's also an earthy pragmatism: if you reach out to unengaged Jews often enough, some will reach back. Once they're in the fold, their ability to reach out will multiply the potency of the movement.

As I said: an interesting evolving story.


Michael W. said...

The Hillel at my college had a relationship with the local Chabad at a small town in Pennsylvania. But they broke ties before I came to that school. I wasn't told exactly why but I assume it was because the Jewish college population at my school are very secular and Chabad wanted to make them more observant.

Victor said...

Michael, students usually have nothing to do with a Chabad House's relationship with the local Hillel. The battle is always over money, funding, which a product of participation.

As most Hillels are partially and directly financed by local Jewish Federations - umbrella organizations for Jewish community resources - they represent the inefficient community orthodoxy that is slowly destroying generation after generation of young Jews. Every decision made by a Hillel has to go through a board of (usually old) funders, who have no idea what's going on at the campus, but feel they should have a say about it.

At the same board meeting, you can be accused of being too religious in your programming, and not having enough "ruach" (Jewish spirit). It's inane, disjointed and leaderless. I can count the number of functional Hillels around the country on my two hands, but even there it's mostly a few charismatic people and inertia, not sustainable over the long term.

The Hillel system is dying. You should see the crap they put out in their strategic planning. They spend half their time talking about "branding", as if they're selling a product, but they don't know what that product is and can't define it "Jews doing Jewish things with other Jews". They literally encourage local Hillels to print keychains and emulate coffee shops. The rest of it is obsessed with "interfaith Shabbat dinners", "model Seders" and "tikun olam". Most Hillel directors are secular administrators who know nothing about Yiddishkeit. They fund-raise full time and take a 3.5% pay increase regardless of performance. Many smaller Hillels service the same 8 Jews who come twice a week because this is their small clique, and do nothing to reach out to hundreds of students on campus.

If you're uncomfortable about opening up a Talmud, wrapping Tefillin or starting Shabbos meals on time (many Hillels start them early because the "administrators" don't want to work late), you have no business being employed to reach out to and engage Jewish students.

When a Chabad House comes to a university, it's like a breath of fresh air. Dozens of Jewish students pop out of the woodwork and start attending Shabbos meals, wrapping tefillin, learning Torah and doing all those Jewish things that Hillel's strategic planning said would never be popular.

And that just pisses Hillel and their sycophants in the Federation system to no end.

Ultimately, this is about two perspectives of the world and the role of Jews in it. Hillel and the Federation system exists to help assimilate Jews, or to provide a place where Jews can assimilate together. Chabad exists to help Jews dissimilate, while remaining engaged with the world.

Joe in Australia said...

I think Victor is harsher than is warranted, but he's described the problem accurately. The Hillel structure is based on administrators who are not involved with young people themselves and who will not suffer any repercussions from failure. The rabbi is either at their mercy and constantly second-guessed, or, which is worse, allowed to stultify because the administrators can't be bothered finding a replacement.

Chabad sh'lichim, on the other hand, typically raise the bulk of their own money or depend on another shliach nearby. If they don't succeed they can't survive. And there are so many young Chabad rabbis looking for positions that an unsuccessful rabbi will soon find his position lost to a more active and charismatic one. There are exceptions to all this, of course, but that seems to be the general strategy.

Michael W. said...

Guys, I think you don't know much about Hillel.

As a former VP of a Hillel at small college, let me tell you how we run. We have about 120 (I'm guessing, out of about 4,000 students) Jews on campus. We had 50 people out are "Chocolate Seder". We don't have a Hillel House so we do all of our events at the Student center. We are the most active religious group on campus.

95% of our funding comes from the the Student Senate (the same amount every year). We fund raise once a year in September when we invite parents and family for a brunch. All of our Senate money is spent on events that reach out to all students.

Our Hillel is completely controlled by the Jewish students who get involved. There are no administrators, just an advisor (who is actually Christian and the head of Religious Affairs Department because we don't have anyone else to do it, but we are her favorite group anyway) and she never bothers us.

Victor is right that we don't promote Shabbat, Talmud and Torah learning, and basic rituals. The main reason is that we don't have the resources. All of Senate money has to be spent on things that is open to all students. Wearing teffilin is not something gentiles care to do nor something that Jews want others to do either.

I go to a small college in PA. It's like living in Christendom. Hillel is the only time I can meet other Jews and do Jewish things (even if they aren't "authentic" like Chabad does).