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Chabad: Doing for the Jewish Community What Others Are Not

When I reflect on Chabad, I think of that famous line from Star Trek: “…to boldly go where no one has gone before!”

That’s because Chabad is doing things for the Jewish community that almost no one else is performing — and they are not getting nearly enough credit for it from the Modern Orthodox community.

For example, Chabad carried out very important work on behalf of the Russian Jewish immigrants. Between 1989-2006, approximately 325,000 Jews immigrated to the United States from the Soviet Union. Many of us probably remember donating furniture and other items to new Russian Jewish residents and performing other acts of Chesed for these individuals. But how many of us were concerned about whether they would be able to live Jewish lives once they had resettled? Chabad was … they made a strong and concerted effort to reach out to these new immigrants on a religious level, making sure that the next generation of Russian Jews would stay connected to Yiddishkeit.

Chabad is also doing wonderful things on college campuses across the country. I don’t have to tell you the challenges that Jewish students (both Orthodox and non-Orthodox) have at secular colleges today — between the attractions of living a non-observant lifestyle and the anti-Israel rhetoric, it is very difficult to remain observant and/or to be proud of Israel. While the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (JLIC) program at select campuses is helping many Orthodox students, there are dozens of other campuses where there are no JLIC advisors and where Chabad has helped connect with both observant and non-observant Jewish students, making sure they stay connected to their faith. The percentage of Orthodox students who are no longer observant after four years of college is already troubling, but I can tell you with full certainty that it would be a whole lot worse were it not for Chabad.

Our Jewish schools and institutions are all struggling to find ways to develop meaningful programs for our teens that will be attractive to them. After all, most of our teens are so busy with school and extracurricular activities that they don’t have time for much else … and when they do have any free time, it’s usually occupied by social media. Many years ago, Chabad found the key to engaging with teens with an incredible program called Friendship Circle, which encourages teens to volunteer to become partners with youngsters with special needs on Sunday mornings. The program runs nationally across many communities and is a huge success.

If you are like me, you likely have traveled to various places, either for business or pleasure, and probably were concerned about the availability of kosher food and the possibility of finding a minyan. No doubt the first thing you checked is whether or not there was a local Chabad serving the area. I’ve been fortunate to take advantage of Chabad’s services while traveling to San Diego, Puerto Rico, Myrtle Beach, the Dominican Republic and several other places. Thank God, they are pretty much in every tourist attraction area and business center across the globe — even in places you would never expect. Dennis Prager recounted that he was once in Phnom Penh in Cambodia and was amazed to see that a local Chabad made kosher food available to visitors. Said Prager, “My new definition of a remote area is a place that Chabad does not serve!”

They also are not afraid to build up and maintain Jewish communities that are often dying. As an example, decades ago New Haven, Connecticut was once a thriving Modern Orthodox Jewish community but has fallen on hard times recently. However, the local Chabad community is now thriving there; they have opened three kosher restaurants in the last few years. Dozens of other cities across the country that have seen their Jewish communities dwindle have also been saved by a Chabad shaliach moving in and building the community back up.

Of course, let’s also not forget the important work that they are doing online. Chabad.org is a major traffic site on the web for Jews across the world. You can find an amazing amount of great divrei Torah on the site, along with excellent translations of the Tanach, the Mishneh Torah, and other important works. There are inspirational stories … parenting tips … Jewish activities for kids … pretty much everything for everybody. Before many of the other Jewish organizations built their websites, Chabad was there first, harnessing the power of the Internet to spread their message to others as widely as possible.

Chabad also is smart enough not to tread on the turf of existing institutions when they move into a community, and they focus on what’s missing rather than try to compete with what is already in place. When Chabad opens a chapter in a community that has an existing infrastructure, they do not try to start another shul in the community. Instead they focus on developing programs that might be lacking in the community, such as a Jewish nursery school program and a Jewish day camp. These Chabad programs can often become feeders to the local Modern Orthodox shuls and schools. In such cases, it’s a win-win for all parties.

I’ve been privileged to get to know some of the local Chabad individuals in our own Stamford community as well as in other areas — and I am incredibly impressed with their menschlichkeit and their commitment to their cause. I am not sure where they obtain their secular knowledge, but they are all worldly and can discuss virtually any issue intelligently with you. They raise their children to be respectful and non-judgmental, and encourage them to give back to the Jewish community, just as they have done.

That’s not to say that Chabad families don’t have problems. The Chabad lifestyle certainly does not appeal to everyone and some find the written and unwritten rules of the community to be too rigid for their taste.

It’s time for individuals like us in the Modern Orthodox community — many of whom have greatly benefited from all that Chabad has done — to give a little more hakarat hatov to Chabad. To the many friends of mine in the Chabad community … thank you for all that you do.

About the Author
Michael Feldstein, who lives in Stamford, CT, is the author of "Meet Me in the Middle," a collection of essays on contemporary Jewish life. His articles and letters have appeared in The Jewish Link, The Jewish Week, The Forward, and The Jewish Press. He can be reached at michaelgfeldstein@gmail.com
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