Why Chabad and Jewry Urgently Needs an Institute of Jewish Values
by Shmuley Boteach
Forgive the imperfections contained in this column. I am writing it quickly and late at night in order to respond to Chabad feedback I have received the entire day concerning the launch event I staged this past Sunday in Alpine, New Jersey with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor as guest of honor.
I have long lamented the fact that Chabad, the most important Jewish educational organizational in world history, is successful in every area but one: communication. We are a community of extraordinary Rabbis, activists, builders, and fundraisers. But our reach has little to no penetration in the mainstream media. We are rarely represented on television, radio, film, or leading websites. We are largely unknown beyond the Jewish community and the non-Jewish community of large cities.
And yet Chabad’s goal is a Messianic world, a global society suffused with a knowledge of G-d based on ancient Jewish values and teachings. Can that be achieved without a mastery of the media?
I have therefore long dreamed of creating an institute that would train young Jewish scholars – both from Chabad and elsewhere – in the art of becoming exponents of Judaism in the media. The institute would focus on teaching source materials on Jewish values pertaining to five critical areas:
1. Marriage and Relationships
2. Parenting and Child-rearing
3. Media and the Culture
4. Politics and Foreign Policy
5. Finance and Materialism
These are the areas that America, the world’s most influential nation, requires the most guidance. Divorce continues to hover at fifty percent. A growing generation gap separates parents from children. The media becomes more shallow by the day and the culture more decadent. Politics are polarized between right and left and American foreign policy vacillates between remaining silent on the slaughter in Syria, on the one hand, and taking aggressive action against murderers like Bin Laden on the other. And materialism has so corroded the soul of America that in 2008 we nearly collapsed a $10 trillion economy.
All five areas can use a healthy injection of Jewish values if only we could create the exponents to deliver them. The urgency of bringing Jewish values to the masses is all the more pressing given the shocking lack of happiness in a nation that now consumes three quarters of the world’s anti-depressants.
I was honored that the highest ranking Jewish elected official in American history, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia, accepted my invitation to headline our launch event. Eric is a man of patriotism and vision, a public servant with a steely core, great pride in his Jewish tradition, all coated in a deep layer of humility. I have the privilege of studying with Eric Jewish texts relating to Jewish values in his Congressional office and, as a political leader who loves this nation, he agrees that the United States is great because of its values.
As the event came together, I reached out to a wide spectrum of Jewish personalities to join us. Touro President Dr. Alan Kadish was present as was Rabbi Menachem Genack, the global head of the Orthodox Union’s Kashrut Division and one of America’s greatest orthodox scholars. Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, worldwide head of Chabad, also graciously accepted an invitation I conveyed through his son, my friend Rabbi Shmaya Krinsky, as did other Chabad leaders who are doing outstanding work through its global network. Their participation saluted Congressman Cantor’s tireless efforts on behalf of Americans in general and the State of Israel in particular. It also did honor to my dear friend David Slager, one of the prime backers of the new institution who was my student at Oxford and served as President of my organization, the Oxford L’Chaim Society. At Oxford David deepened his commitment to Judaism and has now emerged as a global philanthropist supporting Chabad activities globally.
It is no secret that amid my incontrovertible Chabad identity I clashed with my superiors at Chabad UK, who taught me so much, over the participation of thousands of non-Jews at our events as we grew to become the second largest student society in Oxford’s history. These well-intentioned and selfless men feared that the huge non-Jewish presence might dilute the Jewish character of the organization. I responded that we were educating thousands of non-Jewish future leaders in Jewish values and raising the profile of Jewish learning and tradition. I saw their passion for our activities as a sign that Jewish wisdom could enrich the lives of all the earth’s inhabitants.
Matters came to a head when a young African-American Christian Rhodes scholar by the name of Cory Booker, with whom I studied Torah nearly every day, became our President. Having a non-Jewish president shook the Chabad establishment and an order went out to rescind the membership of all the non-Jewish students. It was an order I simply could not follow. I explained that Cory was one of the most unique individuals I had ever met, a man of warmth, brilliance, and magnetism whom I knew would emerge as a respected world leader and would be an incomparable friend to the Jewish people. I could not embarrass Cory or any of the other non-Jews who were my students, supporters, and friends. I was supported in this decision by the legions of Jewish student members, many of whom were actually brought to our Chabad House by their non-Jewish friends.
With pressure mounting and a legal battle brewing, my wife and I agreed, on one of the saddest days of our lives, to resign our positions as Shluchim of the Rebbe in Oxford. We both signed the resignation papers with tears that have never fully left us.
It gives me both pride and pain to see how Mayor Cory Booker of Newark, recently voted by Time Magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world, has been embraced as Chabad’s most sought-after speaker in the United States. Pride, because the Torah that Cory and I continue to study serves to inspire hundreds of thousands of Jews the world over with his eloquence and passion for Jewish teachings, amid his firm devotion to his Christian heritage. Pain, because the unresolved issues created by Cory’s presidency and my alienation from my own community continues to affect me and my family.
I give thanks to G-d that so many former Presidents of the Oxford L’Chaim Society occupy positions of leadership that positively affect world Jewry, from Ron Dermer who is Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s chief advisor, to Cory Booker who is the most beloved speaker in the American Jewish community, to David Slager who supports Jewish institutions the world over.
But when I see good men like Chabad head Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky being criticized for attending events that simply seek to promote Jewish values in the mainstream culture, I question whether the Rebbe’s dream of an all-encompassing Ahavas Yisroel will be fully realized.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is the international best-selling author of 26 books, the London Times Preacher of the Year, and the recipient of the American Jewish Press Association’s Highest Award for Excellence in Commentary. His books on Jewish values, “Renewal: A Guide to the Values-Filled Life,” and “Judaism for Everyone: Renew Your Life Through the Vibrant Lessons of the Jewish Faith”, have both been published by Basic Books. His columns regularly appear in the Wall Street Journal, The Jerusalem Post, and The Huffington Post. Follow him on Twitter @Rabbi Shmuley.