The past few weeks I have seen a revolution. On a lecture tour that took me to Sydney, Australia and Cape Town and Johannesburg, South Africa, I hardly found a major mainstream synagogue without a Chabad Rabbi. Shules that once swore they would not invite in Chabad are now attracting large numbers of new members under the helm of young and charismatic Chabad Rabbis. Many are the biggest Shules in their respective countries. In Sydney, Australia I spoke at Central Synagogue, where Rabbi Levi Wolf has transformed a synagogue on the decline into a renowned powerhouse; for Rabbi Benzion Milecki whose years at Southhead Synagogue have made it one of the most vibrant in the Southern Hemisphere; and for Rabbi Motti Feldman, creator of the vibrant Dover Heights community.
In Cape Town I had spoken several times in previous years at Sea Point Synagogue, with South Africa’s largest membership. It’s now on fire through the charismatic leadership of Rabbi Dovid Weinberg, where I spoke Friday night and Saturday. I also had the pleasure of once again speaking Chabad of Cape Town which for 35 years has molded Judaism in Cape Town under the dedicated leadership of Rabbi Mendel Popack.
In each of these countries, as well as in the United Kingdom and even the United States Chabad Rabbis are beginning to take over centrist, modern orthodox communities that once saw Chabad as too right-wing religiously.
The mainstreaming of Chabad in leading synagogues around the world would seem to go against the Chabad model of opening independent Chabad Houses and building autonomous communities. And why would a modern-orthodox community choose a Chabad Rabbi with his unshaven beard, long black coat, and large brood of kids which seems so incongruent with the values of the Shule itself?
Whereas other Rabbis want to build shules and increase membership, Chabad Rabbis want people to practice Judaism. The Synagogue is just one avenue by which to do so. Chabad Rabbis, even in large communities, are less interested in the institution of the Synagogue and much more focused on the personal observance of the individual. This is counter-intuitive. Most Rabbis are brought into Synagogue to build membership and make them into hives of activities. But Chabad Rabbis remain true to their upbringing and continue to focus on making people more involved with tradition.
The reason, however, that it works is that the whole problem with Synagogue life is its institutionalized, depersonalized nature, which alienates people and make them feel like uncomfortable when they attend. But when the focus is on the person rather than the structure no one feels like they’re being asked to simply populate the pews.
The Weinbergs in Cape Town are an example. I stayed right across from them in an apartment yet I barely got to see Rabbi and Mrs. Weinberg, so busy were they from morning till night with hosting guests at their home, teaching Bat Mitzvah classes, doing funerals, running the Shule minyan, and countless other responsibilities. But their focus was not on their responsibilities to the membership but on their having been educated to give their lives to Jews who require religious guidance and inspiration. The Weinbergs do not have career but a calling. A career ends at night and stops completely on vacation. A calling is forever. It exists whenever there is one in need. And the Jewish people today have unending spiritual needs. The focus, for example, at a Bat Mitzvah class is not the speech the girl will give but the Shabbos candles she will light, the kosher food she will eat, and the Jewish books she will read well after the ceremony is over.
But is it right for any Rabbi who runs a Shule to put the emphasis on a congregant observing tradition rather than coming to Shule? Is this not a diversion from their core responsibilities of building the Shule?
Here’s my response, and it’s pretty brutal. Synagogue life for many is unbelievably monotonous. They find the Shule service long and boring. We try and obviate the routine of Shule life with Rabbis who are great speakers and offering delectable kiddushes that follow. Fair enough. Good whisky may indeed bring to life what can seem to some like a dead service. But the key to making Shule exciting is making every person who attends feel like they belong. Home life is not exciting because there are fireworks every night but because of the comfort and nurturing it provides. Shule is the same. When people start observing a Torah lifestyle they see the Shule as an extension of their lives. It provides comfort for families and nurturance for the soul. It’s a part of what they call home. As they find a sense of belonging they participate and the monotony ends.
I regularly travel around the world to speak. I am at a different Shules all the time. But I am never a stranger. I am always coming home to my people. Because I am committed to a Jewish life, every Shule is my home.
Chabad Rabbis are having so much success around the world as mainstream Shule Rabbis because their emphasis on Jewish observance over Shule attendance makes people feel, when they begin attending Shule, like it’s an extension of a life of which they are a part and to which they belong.
Shmuley Boteach, ‘America’s Rabbis,’ is founder of This World: The Jewish Values Network and is the international best-selling author of 25 books, including his most recent work ‘Renewal: A Guide to the Values-Filled Life.’ Follow his trip to Africa on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.