Article Library / 2015

2014-2015 Annual Assessment

The second response that we would like to consider is that of Chabad. While the response of encouraging Jewish family formation and fertility can be considered “counter- cultural”, the response coming out the Chabad movement, a more than two hundred year old, very traditional Chassidic sect, paradoxically, seems to be congruent with the contemporary individualistic ethos.

Pew and Chabad – Why does Chabad not Appear in the Survey?

Among the plethora of reactions to the 2013 Pew report on Jewish Americans the reactions of Chabad and other ultra-Orthodox rabbis working in Orthodox outreach to other Jews were noteworthy. Whereas the mainstream Orthodox reaction to the Pew study was alarm, as it stressed the very high rates of out-marriage and the growing sector of “Jews of no religion,” which has a very attenuated tie to Jewish practices, belonging, and commitment, these rabbis responded quite differently. Some of them challenged the reliability of the study; others viewed the study as cause for some optimism.

Challenges to the study’s reliability, basically derive from a perceived chasm between what the study reported about Jewish life in America and the felt experience of these rabbis. Rabbi David Eliezrie, a Chabad Hasid who is president of the Rabbinical Council of Orange County and Rabbi Tzvi Nightingale, outreach director for Aish HaTorah felt that Pew had somehow missed the story of Orthodox renewal, which is symbolized above all by Chabad with its 959 Chabad centers spread all over America. As Eliezrie writes:

“Walk the streets of Pico/Robertson, North Miami Beach or Flatbush in Brooklyn. Thirty or forty years ago it was tough to find a few religious Jews and today these neighborhoods are bursting with young religious families.”34

Similarly, Nightingale for his part writes:

“I find this study somewhat skewed and almost worthless. Why because they left out Chabad…. ” Because the Pew study did not provide a “Chabad option to check,” it has “totally ignored the most dynamic movement in Judaism in recent years.”35

Alan Cooperman and Greg Smith, the study’s authors, duly responded. They wrote that the study makes no such claim “that the numbers of Orthodox have dropped over the decades.” “In fact,” they write, “our report shows that compared with other Jews, the Orthodox are much younger on average and tend to have larger families which suggests that there share of the Jewish population will grow.” More tellingly, they argue that respondents did have the chance to mark a Chabad option. In addition to being asked whether they were Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform they were given the option of identifying as ‘something else.’ Indeed, a fair number of Jews self-identified as ‘agnostic’ or ‘atheist,’ ‘Reconstructionist’ or ‘Jewish Renewal.’ Furthermore, those who identified as Orthodox were asked whether they consider themselves Hasidic, Modern Orthodox, Yeshivish, or some other type of Orthodox. Over 150 respondents identified as Hasidic including a very small number (too small to analyze separately) who identified specifically as Chabad or Lubavitch. In other words, according to Cooperman and Smith, respondents did have the opportunity to identify themselves as Chabad, they simply did not do so.36

Despite this altogether sound response, Eliezrie and Nightingale’s criticism goes deeper. They are aware that under received, conventional terms of self-identification and denominational belonging very few people will identify as Chabad. Their deeper claim is that the very terms of Jewish identity, practice, and belonging are changing and that the Pew report does not capture this. Thus as Nightingale writes: “It [Pew] is based upon a completely outdated model and mentality,” and Eliezrie agues, “Pew used an old methodology to measure a more complex and diverse Jewish community in a post-denominational age.” In other words, these rabbis claim that a deep shift in the very nature of Jewish identity, practice, and belonging is occurring beneath the surface and one of the phenomena (perhaps in their eyes – the phenomenon) recording this is Chabad with its hundreds of centers and programs attracting larger numbers of Jews.

Thus, Eliezrie is aware that the vast majority of Jews who attend Chabad centers are not Orthodox observant and that few will self-identify as Orthodox. He knows that many Jews who participate in Chabad activities are members of Reform temples and Conservative synagogues. Nevertheless, “while these Jews are not becoming fully observant they are allowing for Jewish tradition to have a stronger voice in their lives.” His complaint is that the Pew study did not develop any instruments to register this significant trend in American Jewish life.

While Eliezrie and Nightingale are partisan writers, rabbis committed to Orthodox outreach, more impartial academic and journalistic writers are also starting to notice the importance of Chabad in Jewish American life. Thus, according to the 2014 Greater Miami Jewish Federation Population Study: A Portrait of the Miami Jewish Community, directed by Prof. Ira Sheskin,37 26 percent of the Jewish households in Miami-Dade county had engaged with Chabad programming over the past year, including 42 percent of Jewish households with children at home. Although some communities reported the number of participants in these activities to be a bit smaller, the Miami study’s number is very similar to the number David Eliezrie adduced for Chabad engagement in Orange County, CA. Other writers, such as Sue Fishkoff,38 also noticed the widespread presence of Chabad in American Jewish life and their relatively extensive engagement with it, though her treatment of this is more journalistic and anecdotal.

It would seem then, that it worth exploring the suggestion that there is a shift taking place in the very nature of Jewish identity, belonging, and practice in America, and that conventional instruments for measuring these parameters and not entirely adequate. That is, measuring instruments that rely solely on synagogue membership and denominational affiliation may not be capturing the entire story of Jewish identification and engagement, and that they may have to be complemented by new approaches to Jewish engagement that rely less upon these parameters. Is Jewish identity in the United States moving from a community of fate paradigm to one of individual choice? In previous Annual Assessments we raised this suggestion and explored it from the point of view of contemporary Jewish culture and creating Jewish meaning. In this Annual Assessment we will look at this shift from a different vantage point – that of ultra-Orthodox sponsored activity. In a surprising fashion, contemporary Chabad theology and practice fits this new paradigm of Jewish identity.

From Community of Fate to Individual Choice

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik famously argued that the Jewish people can be characterized in two different, perhaps contrasting, ways – as “community of fate” (not to be confused with communities of faith) and as a “community of destiny.” Soloveitchik’s argument was, of course, philosophical and theological. We would like to take the “community of fate” concept and employ it in a more sociological framework. According to this understanding being Jewish is a “given” – something that is imposed upon you or about which you have no choice – like skin color. One accepts that one is Jewish as part of the “natural order” and the taken for granted state of affairs. A central part of this conception is that one as a Jew naturally belongs to a community of similar individuals, and these communities are important for self-defense and advancing group interests (which are also the interests of the individual). This model of Jewish identity is, of course, the received, historical format of Jewish identity. Until modern times, in both Christian and Muslim lands, Jews formed corporate communities with distinct rights and obligations vis-a-vis both the non-Jewish state and society. Membership in a Jewish community was involuntary; one was born into it. Until modern times, the only way one could exit the community was by conversion, either to Christianity or to Islam.

Though from a formal point of view, separate corporate communities were abolished with the advent of the modern nation state, the Emancipation (1791 in France), the accession of Jews to modern national citizenship, and the relegation of religion to the private sphere, the habits of thought and sentiment that accompanied the traditional format continued, in many cases, for decades and even centuries. Thus, in America, especially with the wave of East European immigration starting in 1880, Jews continued (along with other white European immigrant ethnic groups) to congregate in distinctive neighborhoods and overwhelmingly to marry each other, despite a precipitous fall off in religious behavior, especially among the second generation. They also joined synagogues. Even though in America, being Jewish is legitimately only a religious identity, synagogue membership then, and largely today, expresses ethnic belonging. Thus, though American Jews are formally emancipated and fully-fledged citizens, they tended to think of themselves as a separate, given primordial group whose social existence had corporate characteristics, until the mid-20th century.

This, we suggest, was reflected in the method of synagogue funding. Originally, American synagogues sold pews in order to fund themselves, an arrangement appropriated from Protestant churches. However, as this method began to be criticized – both in church and Jewish circles – synagogues turned to raising dues. It appears this method was acceptable because individual East European Jews identified paying synagogue dues with paying the communal taxes they, or their parents and grandparents had paid in Europe. Synagogue membership became the prime vehicle and expression of one’s Jewish communal identity. As Steven M. Cohen and Lauren Blitzer argued in the 2008 paper, “Belonging without Believing,”39 Jews belong to religious organizations (synagogues) to a degree that is reminiscent of Christian evangelicals, yet they ascribe less to religious beliefs than non-Jewish atheists. In sum, being Jewish was mainly a matter of Jewish communal belonging and entailed a sense of mutual responsibility for all Jews and endogamy. Since synagogues divided themselves along denominational lines (as did the Protestant churches), one’s individual Jewish identity had a “flavor,” it was either Reform or Conservative or Orthodox.

From the mid-20th century, and especially in the last third of that century, this format of Jewish identity began to change. As the result of World War II and the GI Bill (Serviceman’s Readjustment Act of 1944) separate white ethnic identities began to erode and disappear. Americans of Polish, Italian, Jewish and other ethnic ancestries became part of the white majority. Together with this, interfaith and interethnic marriages started to become the norm, even the cultural ideal. Thus, starting in the 1970s, Jewish intermarriage rates began to shoot up. Together with all this, Jewish identity as belonging to a primordial, given community of fate started to weaken. Instead, Judaism became one of the myriad ways that individual Jewish Americans started to add or realize fulfillment and meaning in their lives. Jewish prayer, study, meditation, activism etc. became one of the countless meaning-giving activities Americans participate in voluntarily and consume. In other words, Jewish identity in America began to move from a primordial, communal identity to an individualist consumer one.40 This process in regard to (white) ethnic identity in general was summarized by Herbert Gans in his landmark article on Symbolic Ethnicity, which he described as a way of expressing ethnic identity that is “easy and intermittent,” “voluntary,” and “diverse and individualistic,” and which does not require “arduous or time-consuming commitment” or “demand active membership” in an organization or community.41

Chabad and Individualist-Consumer Judaism

This change, we suggest, is the background to the flourishing of the Chabad outreach program. We want to look at Chabad not only because of its intrinsic ethnographic interest, but also because we would like to explore whether Chabad can provide a model for promoting and strengthening Jewish identity in the individualist 21st century culture available to Jewish educators and community leaders who do not share the Chabad worldview and theology (and may in fact not be religious at all). But in order to accomplish that, we must try and understand Chabad outreach in its own terms – what are its assumptions and what are its aims?

The Chabad outreach program is derived from Chabad theology as initially formulated at the end of the 18th century and developed in the last generations under the leadership of the last two rebbes: R. Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson and his son-in-law R. Menachem Mendel Schneerson. According to this theology, the goal of the creation is to make “a dwelling place for Him [God] in this material nether-world.”42

שתכלית בריאת העולם הזה שנתאווה הקב”ה להיות לו דירה]).
[בתחתונים” – לקוטי אמרים [תניא חלק א, ל”ו

Chabad theology teaches that the world – that is the material world in which we live – is in fact hidden Godliness. That is, that the world comes from God, or more precisely, is Godliness, however, we as created beings cannot perceive this.* The concrete meaning of to “make for Him [God] a dwelling place” means to expose the essential Godly nature of the world. One of the central paths of accomplishing this is by doing mitzvot with worldy material objects (leather boxes and straps for tfillin, woolen strings for tziztit, wheat flour and water for matzot etc.) By using material worldly objects in order to perform divine commandments, one highlights their true divine nature and purpose. That is, one “loads them” with spiritual and divine meaning. This attribution of divine meaning and purpose does only apply to the concrete material objects of the mitzvah itself (i.e. the tefilin straps and boxes) but to the entire chain of their production and existence. Thus, to take again the example of the tefilin straps. Laying tefilin does not only endow the straps and boxes with divine purpose and meaning it also endows the cows whose skin provided the leather, the water they drank and the grass that they ate. Thus by doing material mitzvoth Jews endow the entire material and natural world with inner divine and meaning and purpose. However, this divine meaning and purpose is not perceptible in the current unredeemed state of the world. The meaning of the Messianic era is that the true divine purpose of and meaning of the material, nether world becomes perceptible and apparent to all.43 Chabad chasidim are fond, in connection with the Messianic era of quoting the verse from Isaiah 11:9 כי מלאה הארץ דעה את ה’ כמים לים מכסים …

“for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.”

Chabad’s activity is based upon very different principles from that of the conventional organized Jewish community. They are much less concerned with “membership,” and group and denominational boundaries. They are much more concerned that individual Jews (and the Jewish collectivity, especially in Israel) do mitzvot and endow the world with divine purpose and meaning through individual acts of tzedakah, the laying of tfilin, shaking a lulav and etrog, chesed and lovingkindness, and Sabbath observance. They invite the individual Jew to do something truly meaningful – to endow the world with divine purpose – without demanding membership and membership fees and long-term commitments. Chabad metaphysics and activity is truly suited to an individualist, fluid age and to an age of “symbolic ethnicity.” They offer, as it were, capsules of ultimate meaning that can be consumed with other kinds of capsules of meaning (Zen, movies, literature, sculpture, shopping) on various levels.

Despite its individualist cast, Chabad centers, do offer an important experience of community. Here too, the interpersonal experience Chabad offers is different from the conventional one offered by the Jewish community. Chabad religious philosophy and practice basically strips people and situations down to their metaphysical essentials. Viewed in Chabad eyes, individual Jews are not “members of the Jewish community” with social roles, status, and resources. They are basically divine Jewish souls placed in the lower material world to provide God with a dwelling place. Thus, ideally speaking, Chabad social practice and convention tends to ignore the external “garments” of money, status and sexual attraction. Rather, it tends to relate to people on the basis of their common human/Jewish essence, creating an egalitarian, open, and accepting space (for Jews) that ignores social distinctions. It resembles the concepts of “communitas” that the anthropologist, Victor Turner made famous.44 In practice, of course, individual Chabad shlichim are human beings and as such may be drawn to the charms of money, status and sex as much as anyone, but their institutionalized religious and social practice has enough “communitas” in it to make the communal experience of Chabad “special” for most people. Chabad, uniquely, does not require global personal commitments in order to participate in their capsules of meaning making Jewish activity, but it also provides an open, accepting experience of community.

Chabad’s “individualistic approach” is rooted in “metaphysical collectivism.” The individual Jewish souls are in fact organically rooted in Knesset Yisrael (Ecclesia Israel, or the Community of Israel) – a unitary spiritual entity ultimately rooted in God Himself.45 Thus, Chabad rejects the current denominational principles by which the Jewish community is organized. In fact it regards “denominations” such as Orthodox and Reform as harmful fictions that needlessly divide Jews from each other.

In ideal terms Chabad seems suited to provide a path to Jewish identification in individualist, fluid 21st Century American culture. How does it work in practice? Here there are probably more questions than answers. No doubt a broad range of folks participate in Chabad experiences episodically, but there’s not much data assessing the impact of those experiences on Jewish decisions, values, and behaviors. It seems that it is able to provide a framework in which Jewish activity and identity can reside comfortably with other multiple identities and identifications. This is a framework Jews of no religion and those who are partially Jewish (provided they have a Jewish mother) might find especially congenial. Can this serve as hook for further Jewish commitment and affiliation? Chabad chasidim and shluchim are of course very committed to the Jewish people and what they understand is its welfare. Can they impart this commitment, beyond providing capsules of Jewish meaning, to “borderland Jews” with thin affiliations and identification? A further problem is that the data we do have relates to geographical areas where many Jews with Jewish religious or ethnic background have lived for decades – Miami-Dade, Flatbush, etc. So while many Chabad centers are in areas that were hitherto devoid of Jewishness, we don’t know what their effect has been. It should be noted though, that a study now being conducted seems to preliminarily indicate that higher rates of involvement with Chabad on campus are associated with higher net levels of Jewish engagement among alumni in their 20s.

Beyond the issue of determining and measuring its effectiveness, there are questions concerning Chabad’s cost to the community. For example, when Chabad moves into an area does it siphon off money and people from existing Jewish organizations and programs, in effect bringing no net gain to the community?

Finally, there is the issue of whether non-Chabad frameworks and organizations can adopt Chabad techniques and approaches. Can these techniques and approaches be abstracted out of Chabad’s religious philosophy and practice? Can one construct equally effective capsules of meaning if one does not accept Chabad’s specific, mystical worldview?
We briefly introduced Chabad outreach in this essay because it seems to be a vibrant Jewish phenomenon, which appears to operate by different rules and assumptions than mainstream Jewish religious, educational, and communal institutions. Sustained and systematic research on Chabad may answer the questions raised above and accurately include Chabad and its potential impact on American Jewish identity in the overall picture of the changing American Jewish community.