Feiler Faster

Is Chabad the future of Judaism? Some Reform and Conservatives must think so, they’re criticizing it pretty heavily these days. First some background.

WHAT’S Chabad’s secret? They offer ease of entry. People taking baby steps into Jewish life are intimidated by institutions that seem to demand a deep commitment at the outset. Although individual Chabadniks are committed to “Torah-true” Judaism, the shlichim celebrate individual mitzvot, individual acts of belonging. One is fine, two is great, three’s a mechaieh. No one joins Chabad on the installment plan. In fact, people tend not to “join” Chabad at all. Chabad houses tend not to have memberships. Chabadniks will say that the message is that individuals are valued for their participation, not their contribution to the building fund.
Chabad is pluralist. I know, I know – theologically Chabad has about as much respect for non-Orthodox, indeed, non-Chabad streams as Ann Coulter has for liberals. But shlichim operate their centers on a come-one, come-all basis, putting up fewer barriers of behavior and biology than even some Reform synagogues.
Chabad is friendly. Oy, is it friendly. I always compare the Morristown college to the old IBM in the way it is able to churn out ambassadors who so fully and consistently reflect the mission and values of the institution. I often can’t tell various shlichim apart – not because I am a dolt or a bigot, but because so many are so similarly warm and good-natured.
Finally, Chabadniks are p.r. whizzes. They were early adopters of all the latest technologies, have an enviable dominance of the Jewish web, and manage to keep their branding cutting-edge.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, head of the Union for Reform Judaism, recently wrote a column criticizing Chabad for offering to perform bar and bat mitzvot with few if any requirements. At typical synagogues, such requirements include religious school attendance, a commitment to study and worship, and a level of synagogue skills. Chabad “is the place that you go when you do not want to join a synagogue or subject your child to a meaningful course of study,” wrote Yoffie. Hmmm. What’s he worried about?