By Rabbi David Eliezrie
It seems that we are in the season of Jewish community surveys. First, there was a survey published in D.C., then in the Bay Area and now its strike three, Pittsburgh. The Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh survey was conducted by the Steinhardt Social Research Institute at Brandies University. It’s the same old, same old. Chabad is again undercounted. The fact is that Chabad has had a major presence in the community for decades, the crown jewel being the Lubavitch Yeshiva established in the early forties – which has been graciously supported by the Pittsburgh Jewish Federation. Complementing the Lubavitch Educational center is a broad network of Chabad centers and programs throughout the community. Pittsburgh, as in the D.C. and the Bay Area, did not ask if local Jews are active in Chabad. The same disproven methodology of denominational self-identification in an era of post-denominational Judaism.
Today there are some 550 Conservative synagogues in North America, close to 800 Reform and about 1000 Chabad Centers. Clearly things are changing. In both D.C. and Pittsburgh, the Brandeis researchers attempt to exclude Chabad from what they call “brick-and-mortar synagogues” and lump Chabad together with “independent minyanim.” Independent minyanim usually refer to small groups of individuals who have organized in a creative, non-institutional fashion to foster community and Jewish engagement. Most do not have full-time rabbis or facilities. Comparing them to Chabad centers is simply inaccurate.
Every Chabad center is led by a full-time rabbi and rebbetzin. All have facilities, and though some of the embryonic Chabad centers may start out operating out of the rabbi’s house, they eventually graduate to storefronts, buildings, and campuses. They too are brick-and-mortar centers, and claiming otherwise flies in the face of reality. The truth is that one can easily find a great number of Chabad centers as large as nearby liberal congregations.
Like many synagogues, Chabad offers a full array of services, including holiday and life cycle events, religious services, and education for children and adults. They provide quality programming from the resources at Chabad Headquarters such as adult education by the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute, teen clubs by CTeen, activities for children with special needs by the Friendship Circle, informative websites by Chabad.org. They take advantage of other support services for Hebrew Schools, preschools, summer camps and other projects.
The real difference between Chabad centers and the traditional synagogues is the business model. Most Chabad centers do not have formal membership. They are entrepreneurial with the rabbi and rebbetzin taking the leadership role. And Chabad isn’t the only one to forgo membership. Some traditional congregations are following this trend and shifting their models to the non-membership one Chabad pioneered. Even though they may not have adopted the entrepreneurial leadership model that Chabad Shluchim have, nor the concept that for the Shliach, it’s a lifetime posting.
Groups conducting community studies need to reevaluate the repeated use of a flawed methodology in its community surveys. Some Jewish demographers have already shifted their approach to properly researching Chabad’s role in the Jewish community. Not measuring the shift of significant numbers to Chabad is a disservice. Those organizations conducting the surveys that fail to modify their methodology will only continue to foster doubts about the quality of their research and the use of their data to plan a Jewish future.
Rabbi David Eliezrie is the author of The Secret of Chabad – Inside the world most successful Jewish movement.