Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.

The Chabadization of Judaism

March 31, 2011 2:55 am 0 comments

The Sea Point Synagogue in Cape Town, South Africa. Photo: JVL

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.

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition. Comments written in all caps will be deleted.

Current day month ye@r *


  • Arts and Culture Features Opinion Playwrite Iddo Netanyahu: ‘Hitler Always Talked About Peace’ (INTERVIEW)

    Playwrite Iddo Netanyahu: ‘Hitler Always Talked About Peace’ (INTERVIEW)

    Late Friday night, on November 13, I was headed for bed when an ominous news bulletin flashed across my computer screen – something about a shooting in Paris. It wasn’t long before the “small number” of shootings and casualties began to double and triple and quadruple. The locations of attacks seemed crazily disorganized, and the tweets and videos became more and more horrifying. It was a long night for many stunned observers. We tried to understand what was happening, and […]

    Read more →
  • Israel Theater BDS Gives Belgian-Jewish Actress New Lease on Life in Tel Aviv

    BDS Gives Belgian-Jewish Actress New Lease on Life in Tel Aviv

    In an interview with the Israeli site nrg on Wednesday, Belgian-Jewish stage actress Noemi Schlosser recounted immigrating to Israel after her career in Europe was destroyed by BDS. Schlosser said she had enjoyed success in Belgium and international acclaim until she was targeted by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement for her pro-Israel stance during Operation Protective Edge — last summer’s war against Hamas in Gaza. She described watching the theaters where she performed go from packed to nearly empty over a short period of […]

    Read more →
  • Israel Sports In Israel for Champions League Soccer Match, Chelsea Manager Says Team Not Worried About Security Situation

    In Israel for Champions League Soccer Match, Chelsea Manager Says Team Not Worried About Security Situation

    The manager of the Chelsea Football Club said on Monday that he is looking forward to playing in Israel this week against Maccabi Tel Aviv, in spite of the security situation, Israeli news site nrg reported. Jose Murinho, who is already in Israel with his team to compete against Maccabi in the Champions League soccer match, was  asked whether he was worried about the current wave of Palestinian violence sweeping the country. “I have no worries at all regarding the security situation, and neither do […]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews Opinion In the Middle East, ‘The Tail Wags the Dog’ (REVIEW)

    In the Middle East, ‘The Tail Wags the Dog’ (REVIEW)

    Blaming the West has become the most pervasive method of teaching for many Middle East studies departments, which are becoming the heart of pop-culture academia. Efraim Karsh, a distinguished professor of Middle Eastern studies at Bar-Ilan University and professor emeritus at King’s College London, in his latest book The Tail Wags the Dog: International Politics and the Middle East, dispels this myth. “Britain’s ‘original sin,’ if such was indeed committed, lay not in the breaking up of Middle Eastern unity but […]

    Read more →
  • Features Spirituality/Tradition With Popularity and Sales up, ‘Mensch on a Bench’ Has Much to Smile About

    With Popularity and Sales up, ‘Mensch on a Bench’ Has Much to Smile About – The Mensch on a Bench is so much happier now than he was a year ago. Look carefully and you will notice that, whereas the previous Mensch had a decidedly worried look, this latest version of the popular Hanukkah toy is flashing an exuberant grin. Is the erstwhile Mensch smiling because he expects to be in some 100,000 homes by year’s end? In truth, the change in visage was suggested last year by the “sharks” on ABC’s Shark Tank […]

    Read more →
  • Music US & Canada Adam Sandler Updates Famous ‘Chanukah Song,’ Includes Hulk Hogan, David Beckham and Scarlett Johansson in Latest Version

    Adam Sandler Updates Famous ‘Chanukah Song,’ Includes Hulk Hogan, David Beckham and Scarlett Johansson in Latest Version

    Actor Adam Sandler unveiled a new version of his famous “Chanukah Song” on Saturday, adding a slew of Jewish celebrities to the ditty’s updated lyrics. The comedian — who released the original song about being Jewish during Christmas in 1996 — performed the latest version of the comedic track during the New York Comedy Festival at Carnegie Hall. Marvel Comics creator Stan Lee, actor Jake Gyllenhaal and “the two guys who founded Google” are among the famous Jewish celebrities now in the line up. Sandler also included lyrics about Star Wars‘ Princess […]

    Read more →
  • Music US & Canada Famed Israeli Violinist Itzhak Perlman to Receive Presidential Medal of Freedom

    Famed Israeli Violinist Itzhak Perlman to Receive Presidential Medal of Freedom – Famed Israeli violinist Itzhak Perlman will be among the 17 recipients of America’s Presidential Medal of Freedom next week. He is the fourth Israeli to receive the highest civilian honor in the US. “A native of Israel, he came to the United States at a young age and was introduced to Americans broadly when he appeared on the ‘Ed Sullivan Show’ in 1958. Mr. Perlman made his Carnegie Hall debut in 1963 when he was 18,” a White House […]

    Read more →
  • Features Spirituality/Tradition Don’t Think Israel is a Luxury Destination? Check Out These 6 Spots

    Don’t Think Israel is a Luxury Destination? Check Out These 6 Spots – While Israel is a common destination for cultural and religious pilgrimages, travelers seeking the best hotels, fine dining, and upscale relaxation less often find themselves in the Holy Land. Yet in recent years, the country’s burgeoning tech scene has attracted a business crowd accustomed to ritzy accommodation. Besides, the permanent summer of Tel Aviv and Eilat makes them prime destinations for European vacationers. Israel’s populace managed to tame the swamps and irrigate the desert — so going luxury should […]

    Read more →