By David Werdiger
I read Rabbi Joshua Rabin’s article Wait, Doesn’t Chabad Do That? on these pages with much interest, for a number of reasons. I’m a card-carrying Chabadnik (gezhe or “true blood,” yet on the modern end of the spectrum), actively involved in the Jewish innovation space (ELI Talk and LaunchPad alumnus, and more), and deeply concerned with Jewish continuity.
While it’s always nice to hear people waxing lyrical with praise for Chabad’s work, his focus on “tactics” reminded me of a discussion I had with a young Rabbi at a YU-affiliated Yeshivah our son was attending in Israel several years ago (the Rabbi now works for NCSY). He wanted to understand more about Chabad’s “special sauce” and the “tactics” that made them so effective in their outreach work.
I responded that one cannot copy tactics without adopting the strategy that underpins them.
This is because the tactics flow directly from the strategy, not the other way around. It actually goes deeper, because strategy is built on values and purpose. Maintaining that top-down view is essential for any organisation to remain congruent and maximise its effectiveness.
It’s wonderful that other Jewish groups hold public Chanukah menorah lightings and dress up to hand out hamentashen to strangers on Purim. Not because it validates Chabad’s model, nor because imitation is the highest form of flattery. Rather, because it means a few more Jews will celebrate Chanukah and Purim as a result.
This is because a key plank in the Chabad doctrine and values is that every extra positive thing, no matter how small, is worth doing. Putting on tefillin with someone you’ve never met and may never meet again is just one step closer towards welcoming the Messianic ageto the world. The Chabad doctrine of Ahavat Yisrael – love of a fellow Jew – can be viewed as an ancient form of egalitarianism: by looking at the soul rather than the external, we can see the Godly essence that is equally a part of every Jew. Chabadniks (mostly) celebrate the success of others, rather than viewing them as competition.
Another plank is the way Chabad shluchim view their jobs. A couple of years ago we spent Sukkot with our cousins who are shluchim in Hanoi, Vietnam. It’s a very tough gig – a largely transient Jewish population, and socially very isolated. When one of the guests at the Shabbat table asked the Rabbi how long his posting was, he looked at her quizzically. His position was not a five-year overseas posting, but a lifetime occupation – roles in Chabad are not a job, and not a ‘gig.’ Rather, they are a calling.
Further to this point, one of the most important features of Chabad is its organisational structure. It is not hierarchical, with members able to (and therefore seeking to) climb a corporate ladder, or shluchim getting directions from regional heads. Rather, there is a flat structure: there is the Rebbe (and his teachings), and everyone else. Chabad is a distributed, mission-driven organization.
The Chabad hashkafah (worldview) which Rabbi Rabin describes (and does not personally ascribe to) is actually shared by all strictly Orthodox groups. What distinguishes Chabad are the core values of celebrating every micro-success, Ahavat Yisrael, and of life-long dedication to the mission.
I’m not suggesting for a second that mimicking tactics without the same strategy or values is worthless – as already mentioned, every positive step to bring Jews closer is nothing less than a positive step. Organisations routinely look at others for ideas and inspiration; the Talmud states that “the jealousy of Torah scholars leads to an increase of knowledge” (Baba Batra 21a). I’m also not suggesting that every Chabad shliach or adherent is a perfect living embodiment of its values – we are still human beings.
It comes down to this: every Jewish organisation seeking to adjust and be relevant in the contemporary world ought to understand and be able to articulate is own values. From there, they can develop the strategy to achieving their goals, and the tactics required for execution. That approach will result in a consistent and congruent message both internally and externally.