Unpacking Chabad: Their Ten Core Elements for Success

by Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.

Whenever I am invited to speak about institutional transformation within the Jewish community, invariably among the first questions is one associated with Chabad Lubavitch.

Certainly one can understand this type of inquiry. Indeed, there are a number of elements that reflect the success and impact of Chabad. They have built a billion-dollar international empire, with their own news service, publishing house, and hundreds of Websites. Today, more than 4,000 Chabad shluchim serve communities across the United States and throughout the world.

In analyzing their mission, structure, and program, I have identified ten operational principles that seem to define the core elements of Chabad’s impact and success:

  1. Begin with One Jew at a Time: the quintessential organizing principle for Chabad is framed around this concept. Their outreach approach is about building personal connections as the basis of their work.
  2. Meet Clients Where They Are: Unlike most ideological and traditional movements who from the outset establish expected norms of behavior and practice, Chabad does not prejudge its audience but rather seeks to embrace individuals wherever they maybe on their Jewish journey. “Motivated by his profound love for every Jew and spurred by his boundless optimism and self- sacrifice, the Rebbe set into motion a dazzling array of programs, services and institutions to serve every Jew.”(1)
  3. Construct and Sustain an Image of Tradition and Authority: Chabad’s credibility in part rests with the image of its rabbis as seen as representative of a distinctive tradition.
  4. Remember It’s All about Branding and Promoting Symbols: Chabad is particularly adept at creating and promoting a series of public symbols that align Jewish practice within the context of a secular setting.
  5. Market a Core, Shared, and Embracing Message: Chabad is extraordinarily clear about their purpose and intent. According to Shneur Zalman, the founder of Chabad, “the intellect consists of three interconnected processes: Chochma (wisdom), Bina (understanding), and Da’at (knowledge). While other branches of Hasidism focused primarily on the idea that “God desires the heart,” Shneur Zalman argued that God also desires the mind, and that without the mind the heart was useless. With the Chabad philosophy he elevated the mind above the heart, arguing that ‘…understanding is the mother of … fear and love of God. These are born of knowledge and profound contemplation of the greatness of God.’”(2)
  6. Frame the Message at the Top, but Implement the Agenda on the Ground: If 770 Parkway, their international center, sets the core message, Chabad representatives in the field are key to the operational intent and focus of the movement. As Dennis Prager observed: “Chabad rabbis and their wives have an acute sense of transcendent purpose, probably on a near-daily basis. How else can one leave the Chabad and Orthodox cocoons of Brooklyn for a lifetime in Cambodia, the Congo or Bolivia, to cite three rather challenging examples of where Chabad shluchim have committed themselves to live out their lives.”(3)
  7. Understand that Happiness is both a State of Being and an Action Plan: They literally “sell” happiness within a Jewish context. Prager writes: “In light of that, the happiness that the vast majority of Chabad rabbis and their wives radiate is perhaps the most powerful asset in the Chabad rabbi’s arsenal. That they maintain this cheerful demeanor given their often-difficult financial and social situation is a credit to them – and to their faith. This is very attractive to the overwhelmingly non-Orthodox Jews with whom they relate.” Chabad, unlike other Hasidic communities, places particular attention on to the emotional attributes of Chesed (“kindness”), Gevurah (“power”), and Tifereth (“beauty”).(4)
  8. Build a Supportive and Embracing Infrastructure: Chabad’s strengths are represented through its campus services, camps, schools, drug rehabilitation programs, and the myriad of other activities that meet vital service programs and touch the lives of Jews and non-Jews in need of connection, community and care.
  9. Employ History and Celebrate Leaders: Chabad is particularly conscious and committed to its past and pays special attention to memorializing and honoring its founders and leaders. In turn, this mantra has become an important and sustaining element of its continuity. The development of Chabad-Lubavitch as an outreach organization can be traced to the early 1940’s, when the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn appointed his son-in-law and later successor, Rabbi Menachem Mendel, to direct the educational and social service programs of the movement.
  10. Claim the Street-Own the Past: While the rest of the Jewish religious and communal world is about preserving and sustaining “place”, Chabad is about “the moveable feast” allowing the street to be its marketplace. Beyond the street, Chabad has also captured the past, confirming unto itself a mantel of religious authority that has become appealing to a vast number of donors who view its practices as “authentically Jewish”.

Some General Reflections:

I find that many leadership experts focus on Chabad’s organizing model, but can it be copied and reproduced elsewhere? One finds numerous articles and books that seek to uncover Chabad’s methodology for success. Among the materials that interested me included Sue Fishkoff’s Rebbe’s Army: Inside the World of Chabad Lubavitch (Schocken Books, 2003) and Dr. Maya Katz’s The Visual Culture of Chabad (Cambridge University Press, 2010). Fishkoff seeks to describe the inner workings of this movement, providing her readers with a rich understanding of the methodology and style that defines Chabad. Maya Katz on the other hand is seeking to extract from the symbols and activities an ideological framework for understanding the power and impact of its message.

According to Katz, Chabad has reinvented itself over time, moving from a charismatic leader-centered institutional model to the largest international Jewish religious organization with a distinctive mission and a brand-orientation. Under the Rebbe’s leadership the movement was transformed into a global network, creating “Chabad sacred space”. This involved constructing distinctive graphic symbols including logos- publications-stamps-stickers-posters that served to define and individuate the organization and its message.

Toward that end Dr. Katz writes:(5)

“We are justified in viewing the history of Chabad visual culture predominantly as the art of protest, rooted in a long tradition of political, social and religious activism. Portraits of religious leaders double as commentary on citizenship, pictures of celebration double as campaigns against assimilation, public holiday exhibitions double as demonstrations, and Chabad symbol systems double as symbols of revision.”

Employing the notion of “ufaratzta” the Hebrew term derived from the biblical passage (Gen. 28:14), “Your descendants shall be as the dust of the earth; you shall spread out to the West and to the East, to the North and to the South”, Chabad in the late 1950’s and 60’s established its own organizing principle. Its institutional motto for the promotion of “yiddishkayt” (religious Jewish culture) would be repackaged and marketed in “song, literature, architecture, and graphic design.” The appearance of ufaratzta can also be found in Isaiah (54:3) where geographical expansion is aligned with a messianic vision. Employing a numerological formula (gematria), ufaratzta corresponds to “770”, the address of the world headquarters of Chabad, 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn. Being able to make this physical connection permitted Chabad to join together its worldwide mission and programs to its center of operations.

Over the course of his tenure Rav Schneerson would introduce mivtzoyim (religious revival campaigns). Some of these campaigns had associated with them “acts of kindness” directed toward Jews and non-Jews, while others were identified with performing specific religious practices, including the wearing of tefillin for young men over the age of bar mitzvah, encouraging women and young girls to light Shabbat candles, and engaging married women to visit a ritual bath following their menstrual cycle.

Chanukah menorahs displayed in public parks, malls and other open spaces would serve as the single most defining element of this campaign of engagement. By adopting a menorah “that not only represents a break with traditional menorah design but with the Zionist-inspired design”, Chabad would establish its own “religious diaspora symbol” which over time has become a central marketing and branding image of the organization.

“By drawing on the idioms of ‘art’ and ‘display’ for presentation of mivtzoyim, Chabad not only promoted religious Jewish culture, or yiddishkayt, but did so in a manner that was unapologetic, publicly embracing its diaspora roots and future.” Countering the Zionist focus on the land, Hasidim through its use of public ceremonial art would celebrate the “return of religion”. While the rest of American Judaism would claim the private space of the sanctuary, Chabad would capture the public square.

In taking ownership of the street, Chabad would employ art and “musicological practices” as a way to attract unaffiliated Jews. In creating “a comfortable and familiar environment for culturally aware, nonobservant Jews” Chabad focused on reinvigorating traditional Jewish culture, by transforming public space into a sanctuary for religious engagement and connection.

Employing its array of public programs afforded Chabad the opportunity to achieve “brand recognition”. For example, Rav Schneerson would single out the month of Kislev, “employing Chanukah as a particularly auspicious occasion to reflect on the movement’s institutional mission.” Through its intercontinental satellite programs, streaming video presentations, its Chanukah Live spectacular, the movement was able to target key constituencies and to deliver core messages. In doing so, Chabad achieved yet another of its marketing and mission functions: kiruv (outreach) to key Jewish and non-Jewish audiences.

Over the course of time, Chabad has successfully been able to achieve many of its core operating goals. On the one hand “much of Chabad visual production consciously embeds the styles, pictorial conventions, and symbols of other cultures to manifest a distinct worldview,” while at the same time the organization continues to strive to maintain its “theological absolutism”.

In her text Maya Katz argued that Chabad redefined “Jewishness in the world.” As a movement with its “defense of diaspora culture” and its celebration of “American pluralism,” Katz holds to the notion that Lubavitch Hasidism is seeking to replace Zionism in the United States.

A Critical Assessment:

Will this form model of organizing work for others? One needs to keep in mind the religious imperative that sustains Chabad. 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 Prager noted, “The self is subordinate to the good of the organization.”(6)

Similar to the Mormons, Chabad effectively combines the elements of religious fervor and conviction with a worldview. Here passion and mission are aligned, and that type of social construct does not easily fit the framework of liberal Jewish religious or communal institutional models.

Chabad is not without its critics. Controversy and tension exist within the organization over an array of legal matters and religious issues, and the voice of dissenters can certainly be heard outside of Chabad critical of this movement on a number of fronts.

In the end, no one should discount Chabad’s impact on the American and global Jewish scene. It represents a unique and significant presence. At best, organizations may seek to emulate certain elements associated with Chabad’s methodology of outreach and engagement. However, it is unlikely that other groups within the Jewish community have the capacity or commitment to enter the marketplace to construct a competing model of service or religious activism.

Dr. Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Los Angeles campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. His website, thewindreport, provides an overview of his research and writings.

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Comments

  1. says

    … and do not forget #11: solicit truckloads of cash from donors of various denominations and persuasions to pay for branding, getting the message out and building that infrastructure!

  2. says

    Excellent piece, Steven. I, too, have studied Chabad’s methodologies (I even attended two of the International Schluchim conferences) and agree there are many strategies they employ that can be adapted in our attempts at outreach and engagement. However, I must disagree with your final conclusion. I firmly believe there is the possibility of creating a “Chabad for the rest of us” in the so-called liberal community. When 37% of Jews surveyed in NYC claim they are “Just Jewish,” there are plenty of unengaged people that would be attracted to an outreach effort, fronted mainly by passionate “liberal” rabbis, based on some of the same principles you identify, but mainly represent what I’ve been calling a “Relational Judaism.” This is exactly what we have envisioned in the Synagogue 3000 “Next Dor” initiative which has placed young, engagement rabbis into mainstream synagogues but with marching orders to spend the majority of their time out of the building building relationships, bring people closer to Judaism. Of course, I am well aware of the challenges to scale up such an initiative – it would take many millions of dollars, but I know that many of our best rabbis and brightest rabbinical students, many of them already trained in the art of community organizing, can take their passion to the streets and claim a piece for a “liberal” alternative.

  3. says

    Kol HaKavod Steven – a very thoughtful and thorough piece. I would add one more element to Chabad’s success: “Authenticity”. There is no denying that to the secular world Chabad has become the face of Judaism in the United States even though the vast majority of American Jews do not associate with or practice in the ‘Chabad Style’. I know many liberal Jews who do not support their own movements or institutions as the level they give to Chabad. When asked some will tell you that even they themselves think of black hat, beard and Sheitl wearing Jews as ‘real Jews’ seeing themselves as inauthentic. Before we can model after Chabad’s practices (some of them and if we even should) Progressive Jews need to embrace their own Jewish identity and practice. Seeing it not as Jewish – Lite, but Jewish – Right!

  4. Chiam says

    Part of the appeal of Chabad is that there is no required cost to become involved. Compare this to the typical Reform or Conservative Synagogue where membership requires a commitment of $3000 or more per year membership dues, plus building fund, plus Hebrew School.

    Many Reform and Conservative synagogues have expensive buildings, pay their clergy high salaries, and have staffs of administrative personnel. They have become big business.

  5. says

    Great piece. See also http://galusaustralis.com/2012/03/5798/understanding-chabad-and-messianism/

    Analyses like this usually come from a perspective of “how can we replicate the success of Chabad?” The answer isn’t always in copying operational principles, rather looking back to the mission-driven origins of the movement. While in the early days, it was very top-down (i.e. directed by the Rebbe), in the absence of a physical leader, it has shifted to grassroots and remains very effective.

  6. Baruch Frydman-Kohl says

    Steve, This is an excellent piece, highlighting what so many Conservative and Reform rabbis find frustrating with Chabad: the phenomenal ability to get past ideological definitions because of a popular perception that Chabad cares for individuals, is non-institutional and is religiously authentic. The nimbleness of Chabad also stems from its ability to share success stories and the relative autonomy that each rabbi has to implement his particular vision. Most existing synagogues – including Orthodox congregations and their rabbis- are focused on providing membership service (worship, educational and lifecycle), leaving staff with insufficient time to do the motivational work based on deep relationships that forge spiritual development. Liberal rabbis could also do this work (as Ron Wolfson suggests), but there is another element that needs to be considered. The willingness of Chabad rabbis and their families to dedicate their lives to their mission requires great personal sacrifice. Most other rabbis – even the most dedicated, of all stripes – want to earn a decent living and enjoy the benefits of a middle-class life, so the operation of Chabad is based on a different economic model from congregational and communal work. Still, rather than complain, the rest of us can learn much from the successes of Chabad and would do well to emulate what can be applied to our own communities.

  7. Jordan Goodman says

    Shalom All,

    Thanks to Dr. Steve for the analysis of Habad’s effective strategies. Liberal/progressive/secular Jews/Judaisms trying to copy them would result in abject failure for the following reason. On one foot, Habad Rabbi’s have kishke level convictions born of and undergirded by their unwavering belief in the truth and power of their brand of Judaism. To paraphrase Baruch in his comment above, convictions are what enable them to face financial and other uncertainties when setting up shop in a new locale. Convictions are what enable them to forgo a middle class lifestyle. Conviction’s are what enable them to be truly authentic.

    As Peter Drucker once said, “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Quite simply, based on results, non Orthodox Judaisms don’t engender/inspire convictions no less kishke level convictions of the above-mentioned nature. Nor, based on results, do they inspire the building of a nurturing community culture that would support such convictions.

    All the strategy in the world won’t amount to a hill of beans without being preceded by a complete rethinking and retooling of Non orthodox Judaism which most Jews in North America have left in droves save for an occasional life-cycle event or a high holiday worship service.

    An answer can be found in an analysis of megachurches. Their leaders and followers have convictions and a thriving religious culture analogous to those of Habad. Because they have no constraints on the use of music, drama, and the arts during their worship services, they have been able to build a very successful delivery system for their beliefs that reaches and teaches their flock as well as those others who may be just investigating or exploring. For those who recoil at this suggestion lets remember the following from Pirke Avot 4:1:

    “Ben Zoma says:? Who is wise?? The one who learns from every person”

    Megachurch success is transferable but not without first transforming the product to be delivered, i.e., non Orthodox Judaism. On one foot, it all begins with answers to the questions, “Why be Jewish, Why do Jewish? Why Judaism?” the rest is commentary. so who among us is willing to study and more importantly to act anew?

    Biv’racha,
    Jordan
    eashtov@aol.com

  8. Chaim says

    What Jordan implies is that non-Orthodox Judaism is led by clergy who are essentially careerists who don’t have convictions. In fact this is probably true for the younger clergy today. They have a career similar to that of a social worker, but the pay is much, much better.

  9. Dovid Eliezrie says

    Congrats to Steve for his outline of ten reasons why Chabad is having success. Beyond his excellent analysis there are two other crucial elements.

    The great struggle in modern times has been the balance between Jewish values and the freedoms offered in Western culture. Chabad has attempted to take a unique approach. Engaging modern society while retaining loyalty to classical Jewish ideas and traditions.

    Secondly Chabad success is built on its commitment to Jewish learning and scholarship The classes in our Chabad Center are filled with Jews from all backgrounds and affiliations. The learning helps them discover how Judaism can enrich their lives with intellectual depth and spiritual meaning.

    I would say to my esteemed friend Ron Wolfson, that it is not just about the welcoming, its about the message. Jews in Chabad centers, many for the first time in their lives, are revealing the intellectual enrichment that Torah can offer. As they study Torah they grow in their commitment to Judaism.

  10. Jordan Goodman says

    Shalom Chaim and All,

    @ Chaim, you inferred incorrectly for I don’t presume to know the hearts of those who seek to teach Jews Judaism, for knowing someone’s heart is God’s job (Hu bohain k’layot). I believe that non Orthodox Jewish clergy are doing the best they know how. A careful reading of my posts shows that the fundamental problem is with the product i.e., non Orthodox Judaism, with which they have to work. Based on results, the seminaries and movements of non Orthodox Judaism have failed to instill and inspire in them the values that are needed to succeed in the marketplace of religious and spiritual opportunities. Based on results, Habad and the Megachurch movements are monumental successes.

    @Dovid, thanks for amplifying Dr. Wolfson’s comment on welcoming to include the foundational importance of the message; a message which is the outgrowth of the convictions Habad has re the power and truth of their brand of Judaism. For this there is no substitute. And this is exactly what non Orthodox Judaism lacks and needs to provide before anything else. In light of the fact that most Jews in North America have left and continue to leave current forms of non Orthodox Judaism, my question to Dr. Wolfson is “to what are we welcoming these folks?”

    Biv’racha,
    Jordan

  11. says

    Thanks to my good friend Dovid and my new friend Jordan for adding the crucial importance of “product” and “message” – Jewish learning that leads one to a life of meaning, purpose and blessing, Of course, “welcoming” is not sufficient; it is only a beginning of the process of building a relationship with a Jewish community. Of course, we need to go beyond welcoming to serious engagement with Judaism on a number of levels, including what it means to be connected to Jewish family, friends, community, peoplehood, Israel, the world, and God.

    Dovid is correct that serious Jewish learning is a gateway to engagement with Judaism. There is serious Jewish learning going on at Chabad, at the Florence Melton Mini-School, at the Department of Continuing Education at American Jewish University, at Valley Beth Shalom (Encino) College of Jewish Studies, at Mechon Hadar, at the Hartman institute, at any number of Jewish academic institutions. I think Dovid would agree with me, however, that the personal invitation of a Chabad rabbi is the key motivating factor to getting the person to the classes. As attractive as the Chabad marketing is…and it’s as good as it gets…I don’t believe that is what truly gets people in the door. Aseh l’cha rav, aseh l’cha chaver…that’s what happens in the best Jewish learning settings. My only point is that the process for rabbis might be just the opposite: “make yourself a friend, and then you can be their rabbi.”

  12. says

    R Dovid Eliezrie:

    Chabad has attempted to take a unique approach. Engaging modern society while retaining loyalty to classical Jewish ideas and traditions.

    “Take” is an interesting word, especially in conjunction with :”unique”. Because that approach is, of course, that of Modern Orthodoxy, and in the past, Conservative Judaism. So it’s not unique, or, to the extent that it is unique, Chabad has “taken” (i.e. co-opted) it from other groups which have used it with more or less success. Esp. since taking (????) in Hebrew tends to imply force – as in ???? ???. (taking a wife)

    Chabad was already wildly successful in the kiruv game without leaving the parking lots open, or pandering to the current “kabbalah” craze (as opposed to true chassidus, which is not really approachable until one has spent a considerable time in the system). But, adopting approaches popular among other groups (e.g. openness to modern society, or contemporary kabbalah-lite) is a normal part of appealing to the masses.

    So I guess I’m saying, you guys didn’t need it, but since it was out there, you have no problem using it.

  13. lubavitcher says

    in element #10 you write that unlike other chasidic groups, chabad focuses on the emotive attributes of CHesed, Gevururah, and Tiferes, in actuality the hebrew acronym of these attributes is CHaGa”T, which is the name that sets apart other chasidic groups, who’s main focus is in fostering an emotional awakening to g-d, not necessarily through intelectual perception, but rather awakening the faith within, through getting inspired by the tzadikim, the holy jewish leaders.

    by contrast chabad demands contemplation, and using the intelectual faculties of CHochma Bina and Daat (CHABA”D), to come to an inner recognition of g-d, the meaning of his commandments, and his torah. the next step is then to let that recognition flow to the heart and thereby arouse a personal inner feeling to g-d, expressing itself in the emotions of love and fear towards g-d.

    the ultimate however is the deed. that everything in our personal service to g-d, should come in to actual deed, doing the commandments and living a life of devotion to torah.

    and for that matter the collective service that the jewish nation has been doing throughout the generations, should come in to actuality. so that which the jewish nation has for generations been proclaiming about the unity of g-d, in our shema yisroel prayer, we yearn for the day when it will be recognized in the whole world, that g-d is the king of the world, and we should serve him wholeheartedly. in the speedy coming of our righteous moshiach.

  14. Yisroel Bernath says

    Well done. The ending said it all…. “In the end, no one should discount Chabad’s impact on the American and global Jewish scene. It represents a unique and significant presence. At best, organizations may seek to emulate certain elements associated with Chabad’s methodology of outreach and engagement. However, it is unlikely that other groups within the Jewish community have the capacity or commitment to enter the marketplace to construct a competing model of service or religious activism.”

    I think you missed a core element. Chabad rabbis are open-minded and willing to partner with local organizations and constituencies to create a better, more engaged Jewish world. Instead of trying to emulate and compete with its model, why not join them.

    We need as much goodness as possible in this world, Jewish organizations need to come together. Share resources and talents. Together we can do so much more.

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  1. […] Claim the Street-Own the Past: While the rest of the Jewish religious and communal world is about preserving and sustaining “place”, Chabad is about “the moveable feast” allowing the street to be its marketplace. Beyond the street, Chabad has also captured the past, confirming unto itself a mantel of religious authority that has become appealing to a vast number of donors who view its practices as “authentically Jewish”. continue… […]