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.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Arts and Culture Theater US & Canada New Play Explores the ‘Arrogance’ of American Jews Critical of Israel, Playwright Says

    New Play Explores the ‘Arrogance’ of American Jews Critical of Israel, Playwright Says

    In his new play Mr. Goldberg Goes to Tel Aviv, playwright Oren Safdie tackles an issue that he has a major concern with: the relationship between Israelis and left-leaning Diaspora Jews with their “I know better” critical views. At the heart of the one-act play is Tony, a Jewish and gay Palestinian sympathizer who expresses strong anti-Israel sentiments when the play begins and at one point even sides with a Palestinian terrorist who holds his captive. Tony, who is also an [...]

    Read more →
  • Music US & Canada Hassidic Parody of Taylor Swift Song Apes Long Jewish Holidays (VIDEO)

    Hassidic Parody of Taylor Swift Song Apes Long Jewish Holidays (VIDEO)

    A Jewish comedy troupe released a parody video on Wednesday of Taylor Swift’s hit song Shake It Off in which they joke about taking extensive time off from work for Jewish holidays. “And the goyim gonna stay, stay, stay, stay, stay. And the Jews are gonna pray, pray pray, pray, pray. I’m just gonna take, take, take, take, take. I’m taking off,” goes the chorus for I’m Taking Off. Menachem Weinstein, the video’s lead singer, is the creative director at [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Jewish Literature On 75th Anniversary, Looking at the Jewish Influence on Gone With the Wind

    On 75th Anniversary, Looking at the Jewish Influence on Gone With the Wind

    JNS.org – The 75th anniversary of the premiere of “Gone with the Wind” on Dec. 15 presents an opportunity to examine the Jewish influence on one of the most popular films of all time. That influence starts with the American Civil War epic’s famed producer, David O. Selznick. Adjusted for inflation, “Gone with the Wind” remains the highest-grossing movie ever made. It earned the 1939 Academy Award for Best Picture, the same honor another Selznick film, “Rebecca,” garnered in 1940. Selznick [...]

    Read more →
  • Featured Music US & Canada EXCLUSIVE: Matisyahu Provides Most Extensive Analysis Yet of His Religious, Musical Evolution (INTERVIEW)

    EXCLUSIVE: Matisyahu Provides Most Extensive Analysis Yet of His Religious, Musical Evolution (INTERVIEW)

    Matisyahu got candid in an exclusive interview with The Algemeiner on Monday about his religious and musical journey – after shedding his Chassidic skin, yarmulke, long beard and all – from the start of his career in 2005 when he became a reggae superstar with hits King Without a Crown and Jerusalem. The singer-songwriter embarks on his Festival of Light tour this month, an annual Hanukkah event that stops in Montreal, New York, and other cities before ending in San Juan, [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Personalities ‘Sheriff of Mars’ Unveils Endearing Life of Jewish Music Star Hidden in the Fields of France

    ‘Sheriff of Mars’ Unveils Endearing Life of Jewish Music Star Hidden in the Fields of France

    JNS.org – It was an era of steel strings, guitar heroes, and storytellers—high on heroin, rebellious. Outlaw country music, the hallmark of Nashville’s powerful and angry music scene of the 1970s, was the brew of greats such as Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, and Townes Van Zandt. But there is another, little-known music hero of that era: Daniel Antopolsky. A Jewish lad from Augusta, Ga.—the son of immigrants who settled in the south and ran a hardware store on Main Street—the [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture US & Canada Iranian Actress Replaces Israel’s Gal Gadot for ‘Ben-Hur’ Remake

    Iranian Actress Replaces Israel’s Gal Gadot for ‘Ben-Hur’ Remake

    Iranian actress Nazanin Boniadi replaced Israeli star Gal Gadot as the female lead in the new Ben-Hur remake, Hollywood.com reported on Tuesday. The Homeland actress will play Esther, a slave that Ben-Hur sets free and falls in love with. Gadot quit the movie when it became clear that filming conflicted with her schedule for the Man of Steel sequel. The Israeli actress plays Wonder Woman in the superhero film Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. Actor Jack Huston takes on the [...]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews Personalities Biography Sheds New Light on David Ben-Gurion’s Place in Jewish History

    Biography Sheds New Light on David Ben-Gurion’s Place in Jewish History

    JNS.org – There is one sentence in “Ben-Gurion: Father of Modern Israel” that made me sit up in surprise. I thought that I knew the basic facts about how Israel came into being, but while describing what it was like in the days and hours before the state was declared, author Anita Shapira provides one important anecdote I was not aware of. On the 12th of May, the Zionist Executive met to decide what to do. Moshe Sharrett had just returned [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture US & Canada ‘Death of Klinghoffer’ Actress Compares Met Opera to ‘Schindler’s List’

    ‘Death of Klinghoffer’ Actress Compares Met Opera to ‘Schindler’s List’

    An actress starring in the controversial Met Opera The Death of Klinghoffer defended the show on Tuesday by comparing it to the 1993 Holocaust film Schindler’s List, New York Post reported. “To me, this was like [the movie] Schindler’s List. We make art so people won’t forget,’’ said the actress, who plays a captured passenger in the show and asked not to be identified. The Met Opera focuses on the infamous murder of Lower East Side Jewish resident Leon Klinghoffer, 69. The wheelchair-bound father of [...]

    Read more →



Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.