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.