By Rabbi Beryl Frankel
A recent survey conducted by the Jewish Federation of Miami, found that in 2014 about one in four Jewish households in the Miami area participated in Chabad-Lubavitch programming. But truly groundbreaking was the breakdown by age group: 36 percent of families ages 35-47 and nearly half (47 percent) of families age 35 and younger engaged with Chabad programs.
Over the past ten years, 71 Chabad shluchim (emissary couples or families) have established communities around the world catering exclusively to young adults (ages 25-39); of those, 55 have been established just in the past two years. Data collected from just 25 of these locations, over the past 12 months, has so far revealed impressive statistics: 108 Jewish weddings, 408 Jewish holiday and Shabbat experiences with more than 24,000 attendees, over 5000 Torah classes and discussions.
What is driving this?
As a leader who has traveled the globe assisting in the establishment of hundreds of Chabad houses and who has helped bring to life many of Chabad’s educational initiatives over the last 46 years, I asked Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky that question. The insight he shared with me – surprisingly simple, yet fascinatingly insightful – underscored that Chabad’s success in general, and particularly with young adults, isn’t the result of a trick, technique, or program model.
What he said can be distilled into two Hebrew words: ahavat yisrael (love of a fellow Jew). Ahavat yisrael means that just as one loves members of their family – in fact, just as one feels a powerful “self-love” for every part of one’s own body – in the same way, one should love every Jew. The Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of blessed memory, taught us that we are one family, and we are one body. At the core of every Jew is a neshama, a soul, which is connected at its source with every other Jewish soul, no matter who, no matter where. So, in essence, we are all one.
In addition, the fact that every Jew possesses a soul means that they are special by virtue of their very existence, since the soul’s worth is beyond measure. They aren’t a means to an end; they are the end itself.
This love for every Jew is the reason we strive to be there for another Jew in any way we can – materially or spiritually.
Chabad is known for its Jewish outreach efforts. Some say that what motivates these efforts is a desire to ensure Jewish continuity, to strengthen commitment to Jewish tradition and values, or to grow the Jewish community as a whole.
But the motivation is deeper than that. We share the beauty of Judaism with other Jews because that is a natural expression of love. A person shares what is important to them with whom they love. We know that Judaism is a gift, helps us connect to the Almighty through growing and striving, exhilarates our mind and electrifies our soul – how can we not share it?
This approach may sound simplistic, but its simplicity is what makes it so inspiring – and successful. It isn’t data-driven or fiscally beholden. We aren’t looking for watersheds, benchmarks, or tipping points. It’s not about the “next generation” or the “Jewish future.” It is about reaching one Jew and igniting one soul, even for one moment.
And, along the way, watersheds and benchmarks are quietly surpassed. The imperatives of the Jewish nation are met, and Jewish continuity is ensured.
This happens because when we work with young adults, we don’t see them as future donors, Hebrew school parents or synagogue funders. We consider them intrinsically important members of the Jewish nation – not because of what they will become, but because of who they are now. Young adults feel this. They understand that they are recognized, special, significant. They realize how important they are, and how much of a real impact they can make. They feel the power of the here and now.
Rabbi Beryl Frankel is the Coordinator at Chabad Young Professionals International.