Like so many of my fellow North American Jews, I am proud of my heritage but I am not terribly observant. I always attend High Holiday services and I make the occasional appearance for special events or commemorations, but no conventional synagogue would survive for very long if they had to depend on people like me.
So given my indifference if not downright resistance to much of orthodox Jewish practices and customs, how did I find myself attending services at Chabad and feeling more comfortable in that environment than I have felt in any other place of worship ? Mostly, I credit the Chabad Rabbi, Yisroel Bernath, an expert in the requisite matters of religion, a compassionate and open-minded individual but also one of the most dynamic, shrewd and inventive marketers I have ever met and that comes from someone who spent nearly 30 years in the corporate marketing world.
This is a guy who knows everything there is to know about social media, is expert at getting the word out about Chabad’s activities, has together with his wife Sara organized numerous courses and other informative events, has instituted a variety of community outreach programs that provide services to a great many people in need or in distress (and not just Jews), is intimately aware of every milestone or challenge faced by his congregants, and with his second-in-command, Rabbi Zvi Hershcovitch, conducts services that are joyful, exuberant and engaging.
But the talents and passion of the Rabbi are not the only reasons I support Chabad. Like so many Jews, I have a problem with the traditional place-of-worship model that pays Rabbis $300,000 salaries and requires the maintenance of large, expensive buildings. Rabbi Bernath runs his Chabad House on a very limited budget, without the major benefactors that many synagogues have traditionally enjoyed, but he runs such a streamlined operation that members don’t have to raise the substantial amounts of money that most synagogues require to stay ‘in business’.
There is another area in which traditional Jewish synagogue practices and Chabad’s approach differ, and that is in the tone of the services. There is a marked passivity in many larger Jewish synagogues where services are conducted by the Rabbi and Cantor with minimal participation by congregants. Not quite the same at Chabad where services are a virtual free-for-all, with the Rabbi managing to involve nearly everybody in the goings-on and where orthodoxy takes a back seat to participation and celebration.
I know that many Jews blame Chabad for the declining fortunes of conventional synagogues, but surely this is a chicken-and-egg question, i.e., has Chabad driven Jews away from their ‘normal’ houses or worship or has the inability of old-school religion to adapt to changing attitudes and financial abilities driven Jews to Chabad ? I’m sure readers know on which side of this divide I fall.
Well, now I’ve gone and done it : I’ve talked myself into going to Shul more often. Thanks a lot, Rabbi Bernath.