Steven Windmueller
Steven Windmueller
Where Jews and Judaism Meet the Political Road!

A Second Take: What Can We Learn from Chabad?

In 2012 I had occasion to address the question, so what can we learn from Chabad? In that piece, which would be among the most widely quoted and referenced articles in my collection of writings, I laid out ten take-aways![1]

With the release of 2020 Pew Study on American Jews[2], there has been a renewed focus on Chabad and its impact and imprint on Jewish life.[3]

 For the first time in its surveys of Jews, Pew asked about Chabad, the Orthodox movement that offers Jewish programming across the United States. Researchers found that 16% of American Jews participate in Chabad’s activities “often” or “sometimes,” including services. But of those who participate “often” or “sometimes,” 27% are Reform, 26% are Conservative and 16% are unaffiliated. Another 21% of U.S. Jews said they “rarely” attended Chabad activities, for a total of 37% who have participated in some kind of Chabad programming at least once.

A Jerusalem Post story offers this assessment:[4]

The Chabad emergence… is a game changer for American Jewish life. The numbers are startling: 38% of all US Jews have engaged in some way with Chabad programs. …75% of those who are involved with Chabad do not self-identify as Orthodox. The younger the segment, the more connected they are with Chabad.

Is Rabbi David Eliezrie correct when he concludes: [5]

Chabad has created a new paradigm in modern Jewish life, reversing trends of over a century of Jewish disconnecting from orthodoxy as they became less observant. Today’s Jews, many of whom are not fully observant, choose Chabad as their point of affiliation. They are open to more tradition.

In 2015 Eliezrie authored an in-depth analysis of Chabad, providing additional insights into this movement’s unique and effective operating modality.[6]

Indeed, Chabad’s economic prowess follows its religious imprint. According to various sources, “Chabad, in its entirety, raises between $1- and $2-billion a year in donations…”[7]  A Charity Navigator report from 2018 identified that Chabad expended 88.8% of its resources on programming, giving it an extraordinary 96.56% on its rating form.[8] The outcome here is dramatic, as it is clear. This represents a religious system that is primarily focused on outcomes.  Adding to this notion, Prof. William Shaffir of McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario who has studied Chabad as a religious phenomenon noted the essential ingredient undergirding this movement:[9]

Notably that every Jew counts, and that within each Jew, there exists the pintele Yid –that point of authentic religious faith. It is the duty of Chabad to connect to this point.

Shaffir believes that if Chabad were to construct an operational mantra, it would read: “Sacrifice when necessary, dedication and commitment.”

What does this story mean for the rest of us?  How much of the Chabad formula is applicable to other movements within American Judaism?  As liberal denominations seek to redefine their message and meaning, they will need to adopt alternative religious delivery systems.

We find many Jews are exploring spirituality, engaging in serious text study, and importing more religious practices. As various studies suggest, this moment portends a new age in American Jewish religious practice as we observe the expansion of alternative expressions and instruments of Jewish learning.  Likewise, under the rubric of the sovereign self, we see the growth of privatized Judaism, as Jews seek to personalize and individualize their ritual connections. In what ways can Chabad’s model of service and practice inform and support these various expressions?

In my earlier writing about Chabad, I observed the following:

This highly focused commitment to traditional practice and to service is not easily transportable. This unique alignment of faith with outreach clearly requires a particular type of community and movement where individuals are able to transcend their personal agendas in order to foster a shared global mission.

As I commented nearly a decade ago, “No one should discount Chabad’s impact on the American and global Jewish scene. It represents a unique and significant presence.”

[1] http://ejpprod.wpengine.com/unpacking-chabad-their-ten-core-elements-for-success/

[2] https://www.pewforum.org/2021/05/11/jewish-americans-in-2020/

[3] https://forward.com/news/469361/pew-survey-american-jews-chabad-israel-food-intermarriage/

[4] https://www.jpost.com/opinion/pew-us-jewry-is-shifting-profoundly-chabad-is-on-rise-669549

[5] Ibid.

[6] https://www.google.com/search?q=The+secrets+of+Chabad%2C+book+by+David+elie&rlz=1C5CHFA_enUS892US892&oq=The+secrets+of+Chabad%2C+book+by+David+elie&aqs=chrome..69i57j33i160.15794j0j15&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8

[7] https://www.cjnews.com/living-jewish/the-secrets-of-chabads-global-expansion

[8] https://www.charitynavigator.org/ein/030485880

[9] https://www.cjnews.com/living-jewish/the-secrets-of-chabads-global-expansion

About the Author
Steven Windmueller, Ph.D. is an Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. Prior to coming to HUC, Dr.Windmueller served for ten years as the JCRC Director of the LA Jewish Federation. Between 1973-1985, he was the director of the Greater Albany Jewish Federation (now the Federation of Northeastern New York). He began his career on the staff of the American Jewish Committtee. The author of four books and numerous articles, Steven Windmueller focuses his research and writings on Jewish political behavior, communal trends, and contemporary anti-Semitism.
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