Klal Perspectives Winter 2013

The Unique Model and Success of Chabad


1) How effective is kiruv? When a Jew who knows nothing about Judaism attends an enjoyable Torah class, kiruv is effective. In fact, even when a Jew simply tells the rabbi, “You know, you have a point there,” kiruv is effective.

2) How should outreach success be measured? The sole criterion of success in kiruv is growth in Yiddishkeit, just as it is the true criterion of success in allavodas Hashem.

3) Has “kiruv” run its course? The very question is astonishing. To the contrary! Neshamos (souls) are crying out for true Yiddishkeit like never before. There is more success today than ever.

And now the “Pirush Rashi” (explanation):

Chabad of Orange County, CA as a Reflection of the Entire Country

The American outreach movement is just beginning to explode. Through decades of planting the seeds of an intricate and extensive kiruv network at the Rebbe’s direction, Chabad has employed a basic set of principles that serve as the foundation for a successful model of kiruv.

For over a century American Jews have been distancing themselves from traditional Judaism. Now, they are finally moving closer. Reversing the trend of moving away from Jewish practice and observance, Jewish families are increasingly seeking meaning in Torah and Mitzvos. These new trends reflect a major shift in the attitudes and involvement of Jews in Judaism. Not only are Jews becoming fully observant in larger numbers, but even many who are not yet prepared to be fully shomer mitzvos (Mitzvah observant) are increasingly choosing to associate and participate with a community that is based on Torah values. This trend has a positive effect not only on the 25-35% of American Jewry actively engaged in Jewish life, but also for the others who historically have been on the periphery.

My community of Orange County, California is a microcosm of this trend. There are fifteen Chabad Centers in Orange County, ranging in size from storefront operations to community centers in large facilities, offering myriad programs for those of all ages. In addition, Orange County has both a large and a small non-Chabad synagogue, ably serving the community.

During the most recent High Holidays, a full 25% of those in the local Jewish community who attended services chose to participate in services at either one of the Chabad Centers or at one of the Orthodox Shuls. While there are no more than 125 Shabbos observant families in the county, close to 5,000 Jews walked through the doors of a halachic prayer service on Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, or both. Many of these Jews had never before attended a halachic service. In fact, some had never attended a prayer service at all!

Community involvement extends way beyond the High Holidays, and increasingly focuses on Torah learning. For example, Chabad’s Jewish Learning Institute (JLI), which is the world’s largest network of adult Jewish learning, registered over 17,000 students to take its most recent 6-week course. In Orange County alone, the course was offered in ten locations. Similarly, in Orange County, close to 2,000 children participate in at least some dimension of the Chabad educational network, which includes a day school, two summer camps, three preschools, fifteen Hebrew Schools, six Hebrew Highs, numerous youth clubs in high schools and the Friendship Circle for special needs kids.

Orange County’s ongoing transformation is reflective of a major national trend emanating primarily from Chabad’s efforts. Over just the last eighteen years, the number of Chabad Shluchim (emissaries) families in the United States has quadrupled from 400 to just over 1,600.[2] In many communities, Chabad Centers have evolved from storefront operations into true community centers that serve as the mainstream of Jewish life. Participants attending Chabad Centers located outside urban Orthodox cities[3] are predominantly not fully shomer Shabbos,[4] many viewing their connection to these Chabad Centers as their primary Jewish identification.[5] Others join only specific programs within a Center.

On campuses throughout North America, tens of thousands of students participate annually in the over 175 full-time Campus Chabad Centers, tens of thousands of younger children attend the over 350 Hebrew Schools[6] and Gan Israel summer camps. As this demographic matures, marries and builds their families, we expect that they will tend to affiliate with Chabad and other Orthodox institutions, even though most will not become fully observant. In fact, this anticipated trend has already started. One highly visible and classic example is Congressman and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who was involved with Chabad as a college student and today is a member of an Orthodox Shul.

Against the backdrop of non-Orthodox Jewry’s struggle with sustaining its community’s affiliation and commitment, this growth is particularly impressive and worthy of study. While the traditional behemoths, such as Federations, JCC’s and the non-Orthodox movements,[7] are suffering significant declines in participation, closer affiliation with Torah and Mitzvos is increasing. Contrary to many naysayers, Chabad’s experience is that younger Jewish Americans are less likely than their elders to bear anxiety, negative perspectives or prejudices towards Orthodoxy, an attitude that served as a major barrier to outreach in previous decades. Though most will likely not become fully observant themselves, their connection to Torah on any level increases the chances[8] that their children will be exposed to educational programs with a Torah perspective, and will thereby be encouraged to increase their observance and move closer to Yiddishkeit. The decrease in the past bitterness of non-Orthodox Jews to Torah and Orthodoxy, though perhaps a reflection of a lesser prior integration into the Jewish community, is also introducing new momentum in the transformation of contemporary Jewish life in the United States.

The Underlying Chabad Principles of Outreach

The success of Chabad’s approach is likely due to Chabad’s unique view of the function of kiruv and their unique approach to practicing it. In fact, Chabad’s approach is quite distinct in certain regards from the outreach approach adopted by other segments of the Orthodox community.

For one, it is an approach based on ahavas Yisroel (the Mitzvah to love one’s fellow Jew) as understood through the lens of Chasidic principles passed down from the Baal Shem Tov, founder of the Chasidic movement some 300 years ago. As found in the Sefer HaTanya (written by the Alter Rebbe, first of the Chabad Rebbes):

… viewing one’s physical body with scorn and contempt, and finding joy only in the joy of the soul alone, is a direct and easy way to attain the fulfillment of the commandment “Love your fellow as yourself,” [which must be directed] toward every soul of Israel, both great and small. For… the soul and spirit – who can know their greatness and excellence, in [having] their root and source in the living G‑d? Being, moreover, all of one kind and all having one Father — therefore… all Israelites are called ‘real brothers’ by virtue of [the fact that] the source of their souls [is] in the One G‑d; only the bodies are separated…

This is what Hillel the Elder meant when he said, in regard to the fulfillment of this commandment, “This [Mitzvah of ahavas Yisroel] is the whole Torah; the rest is but commentary… “[9]

In terms of implementation, this manifests itself in many ways. For example, most outreach efforts tend to encourage the non-observant Jew to adopt an approach to Torah and avodas Hashem (service of G‑d) reflective of the mekarev’s (outreach practitioner’s) own community. By contrast, Chabad focuses on the individuality of each person, helping them each on their personal journey towards observance. Not only does this appreciation of the differing inclinations among people offer a much wider breadth of modes of acceptable Torah observance (and thus a greater likelihood that a Jew will find a mode of avodas Hashem with which they are comfortable[10]), but it is also the predicate for Chabad’s commitment to an open and nonjudgmental Jewish environment for those who are not yet willing to make the leap to full shmiras hamtizvos.

On one side are the non-Orthodox segments of Jewry, who have often diluted, ignored or perverted Judaism in their attempt to make Judaism appealing to alienated Jews, and on the other side are other approaches to Orthodoxy, which guard Torah’s purity and authenticity, but in the process often assume a judgmental manner that alienates many Jews who do not live by their standards. Chabad is committed to a third alternative – passionate adherence to halacha and Torah standards, while vehemently ensuring that one’s own commitment to the mesorah(tradition) does not prove to be alienating to non-observant Jews.[11]

The distinctions among the respective approaches to kiruv may also influence each community’s respective approach to measuring success. While others have measured success in how many people make a major life transition and become fully observant, Chabad has recognized that moving towards tradition is a long process, and that nurturing the process patiently and non-judgmentally is the sole responsible manner of attracting Jews to authentic Judaism. For Chabad, success is not just the person who has become fully shomer Shabbos, but even an increase in the observance of just a single Mitzvah.

At the core of this approach is the view that there are no “rechokim” (“distant” Jews). All Jews share a common spiritual source and destiny and all Jews are connected with a common heritage that reaches back to Sinai. In Chabad’s worldview, no Jew is ever far from Judaism, since every Jew posses a spiritual core that simply needs to be revealed. The challenge of the mekarev is to find the common connection, light the candle and expose the Jew who has had little background in Yiddishkeit to the depth of Jewish learning and beauty of shmiras hamitzvos.

Former Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Yisrael M. Lau, related:

I once mentioned to the Rebbe that I am actively involved in “kiruv rechokim,” bringing back lost Jews who have strayed afar. The Rebbe immediately corrected me, “We cannot label anyone as being ‘far.’ Who are we to determine who is far and who is near? They are all close to G‑d!”[12]

Another story:

One year, shortly after Rosh HaShanah, George Rohr, the prominent New York philanthropist and supporter of Chabad, was understandably proud and excited to tell the Rebbe of the beginner’s service he had conducted at Manhattan’s Kehilath Jeshurun: “Rebbe, you will be pleased to know that we had 180 people for Rosh HaShanah services who came to us with no background.” The Rebbe did not react. Rohr, thinking that the Rebbe had not heard what he had said, repeated his words, this time in a louder voice. “We had 180 people for Rosh HaShanah services who came to us with no background.” The Rebbe rebuked him: “How can you say such a thing? How can you say that they have no background? They have a background. They are the children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rivkah, Rochel and Leah.”

The Rebbe was identifying a mystical reality, while pointing to a flaw in attitude that too often translates into perceptible messages (and often very subtle vibes) of distance that Orthodoxy risks conveying to other Jews.

In addition to Chabad’s distinct attitude, Chabad’s strategic approach is rather unique, as well, and has proven to be extremely successful. Rather than focus on a specific demographic, age group or location, Chabad has deliberately and methodologically established multiple ports of entry for all Jews into Yiddishkeit.

For example, Chabad has been at the forefront of capturing the outreach potential of the Internet. Chabad.org is currently the single largest and most frequently visited Jewish website, internationally. The site offers everything from entry-level articles on Judaism to full-fledged translations of classic Torah texts. The site has created a remarkable interface with over 1,000 affiliate sites (look at www.Jewishafrica.com and my site www.ocjewish.com, and you find they both have the same content yet they are customized for the local community) that coalesces content from all over the globe and gives it a local flavor and yet a national feel.

Similarly, in the area of adult education, Chabad’s Jewish Learning Institute,[13] discussed above, is the world’s largest network of adult education and has revolutionized Torah learning, with over 350 English speaking locations, and course offerings in Hebrew, Spanish, and Russian. The Jewish Learning Institutelaunches three flagship courses a year, with textbooks, teacher training, PowerPoint presentations, and marketing support. There are women’s courses, parsha courses and material for Jewish holidays. JLI has created the National Jewish Retreat[14] where over one thousand Jews annually spend five days immersed in intensive Jewish learning. Chabad also initiated JNet.org as an alternative Torah learning model.

As mentioned earlier, there are numerous programs addressing young children, in camps and schools, as well as adolescents, in programs such as Cteens.com (Chabad Teen Network). Chabad Campus centers have developed remarkable programs like Sinai Scholars and Israel Links, as well as national and regional Shabbatons. Chabad’s Mayanot Yeshiva in Jerusalem is one of the top two Birthright Israel trip providers, annually bringing thousands of college students to Israel on programs that stress spiritual connection to the Jewish homeland.

Chabad’s experience has evidenced that kiruv is most effective when the focus is both broad-based and multi-dimensional, premised upon the love and respect of every Jew. These principles dictate that a deliberate, coordinated and multi-dimensional outreach strategy is far preferable to a balkanized approach to kiruv. Moreover, these experiences dictate that outreach success must be measured over the long-term rather than in annual calculations of new shomrei Shabbos. The focus should be on each individual Jew’s personal spiritual needs, and on ensuring an appropriate pace of growth for that individual. The focus on evolutionary and individualized spiritual growth is not only more compelling philosophically, it is also more effective. In fact, the success of this model is reflected in the proliferation of those who seek to replicate Chabad’s approach. [15]


How does Chabad define success? Is it the transformation of a Jew from a secular lifestyle to one that is fully observant? Or is it the beginning of a trek from a life orientation devoid of Torah to one that attempts to integrate elements of Yiddishkeit into one’s life? Or is it the performance of one mitzvah on a street-corner in Manhattan? To me, it’s clear that the ultimate goal is the former. But it is equally clear to me that success is any of these.

Kiruv in America has not run its course. If anything it is finally getting its groove. Kiruv has moved traditional, authentic Judaism from the periphery of American Jewry to the mainstream of Jewish life. Though perhaps not translated into the masses of Jews becoming observant, increasingly large portions of American Jewry are being comfortable with, and connected to, the basic premises of Torah andmesorah.

Today, the Jewish institution down the block is frequently the local Chabad Center. More and more Jews are becoming regulars at halachically based programs, educating their kids, and slowly being tugged towards greater observance. The development of a national infrastructure that touches every Jewish community in the country, from North Dakota to North Carolina, has set the stage for the next step in the return of more Jews to the observance of their ancestors. It is a growth enterprise, certainly worthy of investment.

Rabbi David Eliezrie is a Chabad Shliach in Orange County California, and is the author of an upcoming book on the Jewish Rennaissance created by the Rebbe and his Shluchim. He can be reached at [email protected].

[2] That this growth has occurred after the passing of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson (1902-1992) is a miracle in its own right, deserving of its own article.

[3] In fact, many tend to move to larger frum communities as their level of observance increases. As one of the leaders of the RCA told me “you are filling the pews in the OU synagogues.”

[4] Some of these individuals take broader leadership roles in the community, creating a trickledown effect on groups like Federation, Israel advocacy organizations and community groups, nudging them closer to an agenda that, at the very least, respects Torah values.

[5] This identification creates a unique challenge to demographers seeking accurate data on affiliation trends within the Jewish community. The demographer is simply unable to classify an individual who participates in a Chabad Center, yet doesn’t self-identify as Orthodox. This issue in particular, alongside with the broader nature of hybrid identities, warrants much greater exploration, and may serve as a topic of an article I am contemplating.

[6] For more on the remarkable growth of Chabad Hebrew Schools, see the Avi Chai Foundation study on Hebrew Schools at http://avichai.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/Schools-That-Work-What-We-Can-Learn.pdf and the full study which is detailed in “Learning and Community,” available at http://www.amazon.com/Learning-Community-Supplementary-Twenty-First-Brandeis/dp/1584657707.

[7] The Conservative movement has lost a third of their membership in recent years. While some of those departing have moved towards Reform, significant numbers have affiliated with Chabad. My Chabad Center includes three past presidents of a local conservative congregation that closed. More at http://forward.com/articles/8149/survey-shows-conservative-judaism-s-numbers-drop/

[8] Indeed, the millennial generation is ostensibly less religious than their parents are. Nevertheless, we track a deeper openness to tradition among this generation.

[9] Tanya, beginning of Chapter 32.

[10] If you take a moment to ask almost any baal teshuva, you will almost always discover that, along the away, a Chabad Shliach played a role – and many times a significant one – in the transition from a secular lifestyle to observance.

[11] The Rebbe on outreach (with English subtitles), http://www.chabad.org/1339417, and his perspective on giving rebuke to others whose level of observance may need improvement. www.chabad.org/1264759

[12] Remarks delivered by Rabbi Lau at the Israeli Knesset. His full remarks can be found at www.chabad.org/395794

[13] www.myjli.com. As a teacher of JLI, I can testify how this comprehensive program has changed limmud Hatorah (Torah learning). Most Jews have little experience with classic textual learning. JLI courses have created textbooks in English that allow a student to encounter the great classic texts of Torah with English translations. Classes have Powerpoint presentations as well, to enhance the learning experience. All this opens the door for untold numbers to Torah learning.

[15] Chabad’s Model of Outreach Gains Favor among Fervently Orthodox, Uriel Heilman, JTA, December 9, 2003. Available at www.jewishfederations.org/page.aspx?id=52577