Guide to Chabad Kiruv: It’s a Love AND Hate thing

This is the third part in a series of anonymous guest posts written by someone who has been in the kiruv field for many years. (Check out the Yeshivish and Modern Orthodox posts as well)As is always with any post including my own, I do not necessarily agree with any of the following, but I love placing opposing opinions on my blog – so if you want to respond to this, by all means send me an email.

Guide to Chabad kiruv:

Well, we can’t talk about Kiruv without talking about Chabad. You’ll see a stronger reaction about Chabad than anyone else. That’s because with Chabad, you either love them or hate them. Or, as I would like to surmise, you can love them AND hate them. That’s because there are many different types of Chabad Houses:
• Campus Chabads
• Obscure foreign country Chabads
• Chabads within Frum communities
• American Chabads in areas without Frum communities.

The Good

Campus Work

Chabad in many ways has filled in the gaps that other segments of the Jewish community didn’t want to fill. First, they went on to campus. Tens and tens of thousands of students have interacted with Chabads on college campuses. They went places no one else was going, and had a huge impact on student’s lives. Just by providing a Jewish environment for these kids helped counteract the other influences on campus. College campuses are hedonistic pleasure domes, replete with any vice one can imagine. Having something Jewish on campus at least kept these kids connected.

Where were the other segments of the Frum community? Nowhere to be found. Recently Yeshivish Kollels have gotten more involved in campus Kiruv, mostly with the “Maimonides Program”, and the Mod Ox world has started serving campuses with large concentrations of students who grew up in religious families (I wrote it that way intentionally), such as UCLA, Maryland, Penn, Columbia, etc. But who’s at SUNY-Albany? The University of Arizona? Berkeley? Austin? Ohio State? It’s Chabad. They were ahead of their time, and have created a network of Chabad Houses for Jewish (and non-Jewish) students across the country.

Obscure Place Chabad

We all love “obscure place Chabad “. Its great knowing that if you’re going to Cancun, Thailand or Venice that there’s a local Chabad to spend Shabbos with, help out with Kosher food, etc. There is literally no one else doing anything like this. Plus they serve as a haven for students or transients who are living in these locales. They also have helped build up communities in far flung places that no one else wanted to go to, like Russia and Germany. Here again, Chabad is the only one doing this, and they were ahead of their time. No one’s fighting them for this type of work, and they happily do it. It has been a tremendous boon for the Jewish community.

The Bad

Chabad in Frum Communities

It starts to get very ugly and political when Chabads enter Frum communities, or at least cities with decent sized Frum communities. In many ways the Frum community has decided to pick and choose when they want Chabad around. The message basically is, “Go out to the campuses and crazy locations, but stay away from our turf.” So there is some hypocrisy in how we want to use Chabad when it suits our purposes. At the same time, Chabad does not make it easy to welcome them.

As much as the public image of Chabad is of the smiling, dancing Rabbi, they are vicious when it comes to turf wars. As much as they will say that they are only in town to work with the unaffiliated, that is not really true. First of all they will ask anyone for money, no matter where they are affiliated. Plus, if Chabad gets to an area first, and that community grows, any newcomers are considered outsiders who need to be removed at once. This has happened all across the country. Plus, Chabad has perfected playing the victim card, and they will always make you look bad. Chabad is like the cute baby velociraptor, it looks so cute and cuddly, but if you get too close, it will rip your face off. Chabad has such a strong public image that responding to Chabad attacks often makes you look worse, plus they’ll play the victim card if you counter-attack. I know this sounds ugly and petty, but that’s what’s going on out there. Yeshivish Kollels despise Chabads, because Chabads almost always view them as threats. A Mod Ox Shul is not a threat, because they attract their own limited constituency. But a Kiruv Kollel who is trying to reach out to unaffiliated Jews (and raise money from them) is a real threat to Chabad, so they fight back with force: smear campaigns, intimidation or even public humiliation.

The Rebbe

For the vast majority of Frum Jews, and many non-Frum Jews, there is a certain cognitive dissonance when talking about Chabad. In order to work with Chabad, and to participate with Chabad, you need to forget about what they really believe. Because the more you think about it, the harder it is to have anything to do with them.

It all comes down to the Rebbe. Now, we all respect and revere our leaders. Every Chassidic movement has their Rebbe who they hold about all others. That’s just a part of Chassidus, and Litvish Yeshivas do the same thing. But this is very different. I once heard a bit from the comedienne Sarah Silverman, who was wondering how she’d explain to her future kids the differences between her faith and that of then boyfriend Jimmy Kimmel (Frumsatire.net does not in any way endorse intermarriage). She decided she would tell them, “Your mother is one of the Chosen People, and Daddy believes that Jesus is magic.”

That’s Chabad: “The Rebbe is magic.” The Rebbe watches over you. You can ask the Rebbe a question and then open a book of His Sichos and He’ll show you the answer. The picture of the Rebbe is watching over and protecting us. We’ll put letters by the Rebbe’s grave and He’ll read it and respond. How? Because the Rebbe is magic! Yes, I compared their relationship to the Rebbe to Jesus, because the shoe fits. The Rebbi has turned into “Rebbe Jesus”, and its only getting weirder and weirder. The more you learn about what they truly believe, and the closer inside you look, the less you want to do with Chabad. It’s just all too weird.

Be clear about one thing: All Chabadniks believe the Rebbe is magic. They HAVE to believe it. Chassidism is based on having a Rebbe as a leader and guide. Rebbes always die, so why has the Lubavitcher Rebbe not been succeeded by a new Rebbe? I’ve asked Chabadniks this question, and they say, “When you have a Rebbe this perfect, this special, how could anyone succeed them?” Why is their Rebbe more special than any other? Why was he more special than the previous Lubavicher Rebbes who were replaced? I have no doubt that he was an incredible Talmud Chcaham and Tzaddik, but what separates him from the Gerer Rebbe or the Belzer Rebbe? Or, for that matter, the previous Lubavitch Rebbes? It must be because he’s magic.

The longer they go without a Rebbe with a pulse, the crazier it’s going to get. They need to constantly justify why they exist as a movement but don’t have a Rebbe with a warm body. It can only be because the Rebbe is magic. People focus a lot on if a particular Chabbadnik thinks the Rebbe is Mashiach, and I say every Chabbadnik is guilty until proven innocent, but at the very least, they all believe the Rebbe is magic. They have to, otherwise they are a movement whose leader died and will never be replaced-that is not a movement anyone would want to be a part of. That’s not a movement their children can get excited about. They need the Rebbi to be magic, and the need will only grow over time.

(As an aside, why don’t Chabad kids go off-the-Derech en masse? Wouldn’t any thinking person start running for the hills? Are they that brainwashed? Does human nature make it that difficult to break from our communities? Is this actually happening but I’m not aware? I would think it would be like a kids finding out that Santa Claus isn’t real, except that your entire life philosophy was based on Santa Claus. Wouldn’t you be resentful?)

Notes from Heshy: I know a ton of chabad kids who are off the derech, but unlike other off the derech kids, many of them choose to remain within the community, heck in Crown Heights there’s an off the derech apartment building and many off the derech chabadnicks still identify as chabadnicks. Off the derech chabad kids also have an advantage, they speak and read english, many of them have high school diplomas and they understand the real world because of their sects openness to it so many of them make it financially, unlike real chassidim who don’t speak or read English and have trouble with living outside of Williamsburg, KJ or New Square.

Chabad has become its own cult-like sect. Who do they fit in with? Where do they belong? It’s inaccurate to say they are Chassidic, because other Chassidic groups have disowned them, and again, they don’t have a Rebbi who can fog up a mirror. They have not been embraced by, or embraced, any other segment of Judaism. The Yeshivish community wants nothing to do with them. They are on their own, and they prefer it that way. They don’t want people getting too close, because they know if people see behind the curtain, they’ll realize that the man pulling the strings believes the Rebbi is magic.

So Chabad plays a cute little game. They now have a public face that deemphasizes the Rebbi. They’ve gotten plenty of pr savvy, and they know that the Rebbi stuff is not good for their public image. It’s just not good for business; the Rebbi doesn’t sell.It reminds me of scientology. They work hard on their public image and reveal their true beliefs only to their “insiders”.

Chabad’s Skills

1. Fundraising

Chabad rocks at fundraising. They are relentless. Shuls and Kollels often struggle with fundraising because it can be awkward and uncomfortable, but Chabad seems undeterred. They are not scared to bring up money, and to mention it over and over again. Plus, Chabad houses have complete control over their centers, so they really are or Kollel Director, who is fundraising for an organization, so the stakes are not as high. Plus, they are on rich people like white on rice. They’re first priority is fundraising.

2. Stability

Wherever Chabad goes, they go for life. Especially in smaller Frum communities, where most Kollel members and Shul Rabbis have limited shelf life, they stay long term and are willing to make the sacrifices necessary to make that happen. Now there is a downside to this. Bad Chabadniks don’t get replaced. Not every Chabadnik is cut out for this line of work, and there is not much of a system to replace the guys who are not effective.

3. Public Relations

Chabad has become the master of pr. They’ve created a true brand that for the most part is positive. They’ve developed a website template that makes the smallest of Chabad Houses look like a professionally run institution. They buddy up to celebrities and politicians, do public Menorah lightings, and generally will do ANYTHING if it attracts attention, even losing some dignity in the process. The way they latched on to Mattitsyahu and tried to exploit his celebrity was sickening to watch, but that was an offshoot of the Chabad pr machine.

4. Welcoming and Open Minded

Chabad does an excellent job of being welcoming and open-minded, where people don’t feel judged when they walk in the door. This also leads to Chabad’s reputation of attracting oddballs and losers, which can push away actual normal people.

How Effective is Chabad?

Chabad is much more effective at reaching out to Jewish who are poorly educated and/or have traditional mindsets. Russians, South Americans, Secular Israelis: Chabad has a chance to really work with them. But Americans? Very little success. Don’t get me wrong, they’ve impacted tons of American Jews. But how many actually become Chabad? For the huge numbers of Shluchim out there, a very small number. Chabad is much more emotional and experiential, but not nearly intellectual enough for the average American.

So there you have it. Chabad: The good, the bad, and the Rebbi. Maybe I’ll write some future posts if the mood strikes.