Wait, Doesn’t Chabad Do That?

By Rabbi Joshua Rabin

I am an unapologetic Chabad fanboy.

In 2019, this hardly makes me unique. Ask any Jewish leader about effective tactics for engaging the under-engaged and little time will pass before the conversation turns to the ways in which Chabad is the most ubiquitous Jewish presence in the world, whether that includes asking men to put on tefillin, ensuring that a menorah is lit every Hanukkah at the White House, and or running the world’s largest seder in Kathmandu. I remain a Chabad fanboy in spite of the fact that I completely disagree with a large percentage of Chabad’s haskafah (worldview), whether that includes egalitarianism, evolution, secular education, “Who is a Jew?,” the separation of church and state, Jewish pluralism, and too many other issues to count.

Chabad’s approach to outreach was the greatest disruptive technology of twentieth century Jewish life, and if other institutions want to thrive in the twenty-first century, they must adapt to the tactics Chabad made famous. Judaism is eternal, but Jewish institutions are not. No one understood this better than Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson ztz’’l, and we are all the students of his revolution.

(As a humblebrag, it was a career highlight when an article I wrote on this subject for eJewishPhilanthropy was quoted by Chabad on their website as proof of their success. As a bonus: They referred to me as “rabbi.”)

In a new Jewish world, leaders need to adopt unexpected tactics to achieve their goals. While every synagogue likes to think of itself as “warm and welcoming,” the walls of our institutions remain the highest barriers of entry for far too many Jews. Dr. Ron Wolfson and Rabbi Kerry Olitzky deserve the greatest credit for spreading this idea to the mainstream Jewish community, with the former making “relational Judaism” a standard principle of vibrant Jewish life, and the latter challenging institutions to do “public space Judaism” and create the low-barrier entry-points to engagement.

This past month, USCJ published a photo essay entitled “Wait, Doesn’t Chabad Do That?,” an album of over a dozen Conservative congregations bringing Judaism into the public, a story through pictures that will give others a feel for much how possibility exists for what congregations can achieve, and how many great exemplars already exist.

For example, congregations in our network chose to bring Hanukkah to the broader community. Congregation Agudas Achim in San Antonio, Texas brought Hanukkah to SeaWorld,

while Congregation Har Shalom in Potomac, Maryland thought it was better to bring their hanukkiyah to the neighborhood.

The JCC of Harrison took a different approach, making sure that their rabbi’s car was always ready for Hanukkah,

whereas Congregation Bnai Zion in Chattanooga, Tennessee brought Hanukkah to Barnes and Noble.

The best part of these stories? None of them are new. Many more stories exist for every holiday and significant Jewish moment in the guide. However, the challenge and the opportunity is that this is still not the norm for most synagogues.

Several congregations brought Judaism into the public realm in ways that get more attention by the press, and some congregations event created completely separate brands to target new audiences, such as the Riverway Project in Boston, or the Jewish Mindfulness Center of Washington DC. But what I love about the above examples is that almost all of them can be done by any synagogue of any size, and almost all of them can be done for little to no cost. The only thing standing in the way of every synagogue living by these examples are systemic inertia and learned helplessness.

When I share these stories, sometimes I am asked, “At a time of aging demographics, crumbling infrastructure, and shrinking demographics, do synagogue leaders really have the time to dress up in Purim costumes to give strangers hamentaschen?”

My answer: Not only do they have the time, they must make the time. Those congregations that make the time will be the best prepared to embrace the present and the future, rather than let the future keep happening to them. Clayton Christensen writes in The Innovator’s Dilemma that organizations “can succeed in disruptive technologies when their organizations align with the forces of resource dependence, rather than ignoring or fighting them” (xxiii-xxiv). Synagogues that ignore the ways that Jews come into Jewish life do so at their peril.

As we approach Purim, I can only hope that every synagogue of every size, location, and kind can live by the examples of these Conservative congregations I serve. With Purim and Pesah just around the corner, now is the perfect time for your community to go out into the community, in a place where there are a lot of Jews but not a lot of Jewish, and do something free, open to the public, and accessible. And if someone walks by and asks you, “Wait, doesn’t Chabad do that?,” you can brim with pride and say, “Yes they do. And so do we.”

All the rest is commentary. Go and study.

Rabbi Joshua Rabin is the Director of Innovation at the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ), and is the Program Director of the USCJ Convention. You can read more of his writings at www.joshuarabin.com.

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