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June 29, 2012 12:01 pm

The Dynamism of Chabad Franchises

avatar by Jeremy Rosen

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Chabad rabbis with former President George. W. Bush. Photo: wiki commons.

The Chabad (Lubavitch) Chasidic movement is one of the phenomena of our time. It originated in Eastern Europe. Its transplantation to the USA in 1940 was transformational–but only because of its charismatic leader, the late and beloved Rebbe (with apologies to those who think he still lives) who took the helm after his father-in-law died. He was an amazing man and a visionary. His genius was not just to turn a small Chasidic sect, disorientated and confused by Communism in its home territory and then dislocated by Nazism, into a dynamic world force in Jewry. It was to introduce Madison Avenue methodology into his movement in the 1950s, which stimulated its fascination with and effective use of publicity, fundraising, and outreach.

For the uninitiated, Chabad is a Chasidic movement that is overtly evangelical amongst Jews. It was the first sect to welcome Jews regardless of the level of their religion or affiliation. It sent out young neophytes to stand on street corners asking passers-by if they were Jewish and wished to perform a Mitzvah. They gave the impression that they were totally open minded when in fact they were a very traditional movement and would brook no internal deviation. Its ideology was driven by a long-established Messianic fervor that encouraged every member to believe that he or she could help make the world a better place and bring the Messiah.

I should declare here that I have great difficulty, no, I actively disagree with much of Chabad ideology, both religious and political, but I confess my awe at the service and dedication its apostles offer the Jewish world. I loved that the Rebbe required his followers to be committed to Israel, to the state and the army. But he also chose to identify with the extreme right-wing “land or nothing” political position in Israel. I dislike Chabad’s understanding of the human soul and have little patience for much of its unique customs and calendar, but that is its business. For the average member, it is probably a necessary way of keeping them together and on track, and I remain amazed at the way the movement seems able to replicate the unfailing good humor of almost all its devotees, and their commitment and loyalty.

Generations of young “Shluchim” were sent out into the world to spread the Jewish word to Jews. The official ones were given seed money and then expected to become self-sufficient setting up Chabad communities and centers (and no one seemed to bother to ask too much about the financial conditions). They were soldiers in the Rebbe’s army, ready to do his bidding. They would graduate, then go to see him, to receive his commission and blessing. They had a spiritual support structure that enabled them to go far from the security of the movement’s headquarters in Brooklyn and still feel intimately bound with every word and idea of the Rebbe. They referred to his texts for direction during his lifetime, and even after his death these are treated as oracular. Wherever the representatives went they sent their sons back to headquarters for their further education and the replication of the typical Chabad representative with a unique black hat, frockcoat, untrimmed beard, and appearance tailored as closely to that of the Rebbe himself as nature and artifice allowed.

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The model the Rebbe established worked well throughout his reign. There were of course hiccups; the turf wars and power struggles, financial indiscretions and misappropriations. There were occasionally rivalries and splits but they were kept under control by the Rebbe’s authority and only tended to explode after his death. It worked as Chabad spread around the world and gained the foremost reputation for providing religious services no matter where in the globe you might be. In effect, Chabad is a hugely successful franchise with all the support structure franchises offer. However, over time, official Chabad houses all but saturated the Jewish world. What was a new graduate to do if he had no franchise to inherit?

Already in the Rebbe’s day, the problem arose as to how to deal with the next generation. A small Chabad house could support one or two families, but then what if you had ten children and they had all been conditioned to follow the tradition? As the supply of trained personnel exceeded the positions available and as Chabad spread, so the availability of unconquered territory began to diminish. They began to look for positions in other organizations and communities. But the really innovative coup was its own extension of the franchise. The new model that really only gained recognition after the Rebbe, was unofficially called “mushrooming”. Neophytes started to move into new areas, to infiltrate established communities. If you had an idea for a mission, you went with it. No matter whose territory it was. You either survived and built up your counter-franchise or you failed. Rather like the Christian preachers who followed the wagons West way out of reach of the Established churches.

I am not sure that an organization with a strong central organization under a powerful single head could or would have made this leap. But I would argue the Rebbe’s greatest success was in the one area that others see his failure: his failure to appoint a successor. That was his greatest stroke of genius of all.

The Rebbe was faced with the issue of continuity. I do not think there was anyone who could have stepped into his shoes. So better have no one than someone who would disappoint, who perhaps in his insecurity might try to impose too much control, to stifle individuality. Many second generation Rebbes became stricter and more obscurantist to bolster their credentials. By dying intestate, the Rebbe left his image as the role model. But he also bequeathed the first religious franchise system in Judaism. It was a master stroke. The ideology was there and fixed. But the way of continuing and allowing for individuality, creativity, and enthusiasm was to throw everything open to anyone in the movement to sink or swim. I cannot think of a more obvious example of religion borrowing from successful commerce.

Chabad is a practical movement that is out in the world facing practical challenges. In the practical world there must inevitably be different ways of doing things. The theological world always yearns for obedience and conformity. Chabad has within it the seeds of continuous creativity–not religiously, I hasten to add, they is little innovation there, but organizationally. A central powerful figurehead tends to impose rigidity and conformity. A looser system encourages individuality even within its ideological structure. That was the Rebbe’s genius, and it is now Chabad’s great strength.

Institutions and religions create hierarchies and centralized control. This leads to fossilization and the dead hand of conformity. That is what ends up infecting and destroying most religious institutions and systems. But at least organizationally, dynamism and creativity was the Rebbe’s secret weapon.

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  • A REAL American

    Jeremy Rosen,

    Your essay on Chabad and the Rebbe is superficial at best and at times wholly ignorant. The Rebbe was driven not just by a desire to bring Mosiach (which would bring harmony and joy and G-dly revelation to the entire world), but by his unqualified love and concern for every single Jew in each nook and cranny of the globe.

    It never ceases to amaze me when I hear story after story of Jews in some of the most remote parts of the globe who were visited by an emissary of the Rebbe who was sent to that specific location at the personal request of the Rebbe in order to administer to the religious, spiritual and even in some cases psychological needs of the person or persons being visited—despite the fact that the assistance was never even requested.

    And the Rebbe’s assistance and concern didn’t stop at his laser like focus on the the welfare of the Jews. He is credited by former Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm as being the inspiration behind the creation of the Food Stamp program to feed the poor.

    http://www.chabad.org/therebbe/article_cdo/aid/558041/jewish/Turning-Disappointment-into-Food-for-the-Hungry.htm

    There are just some of the countless things known and unknown that the Rebbe did to help not only his fellow Jew but his fellow man. How anyone can write an article about Chabad and the Rebbe without mentioning these things is beyond me.

    Furthermore, the Rebbe had a very nuanced view towards Israel, nothing at all like the oversimplified view that you project in your article.

    To start with, the Rebbe broke away from most other Chasidic groups in his support for Israel; the Jews who lived there and the IDF (many young Chabadniks volunteer for the IDF). I don’t wish to attribute any of my thoughts to the Rebbe, but if I understand his position correctly, the Rebbe felt that Aretz Yisrael–the land of Israel is immensely holy, but the people living there are even more so. The Rebbe understood that every single inch of soil surrendered to the Palestinians would be used as a launching pad for terrorist attacks needlessly spilling the blood of the Jews he cared so much about.

    The Rebbe did not espouse POLITICAL positions, these were positions of pucach nefesh–which is one of the many thing the Rebbe stood for. And 18 years after the Rebbe’s passing, his memory and his teachings continue to inspire a generation of young Chabadniks–many of whom weren’t even alive at the same time as the Rebbe–to continue to seek out and administer to the needs of their fellow Jews—no matter how remote the location is that they might be hiding.

    • jeremy rosen

      Thank you Real American for your reply.
      I neither claim to be an expert on Chabad nor do I claim anything more than my own very personal perspective. Everyone else is welcome to theirs.
      My piece was a lighthearted observation and certainly no thesis!
      Jeremy

  • asg6679

    Why is it that these so-called “Good” Jews always try to make their form of Judaism out as the superior form? They can’t help themselves to take swipes at those Jews who do it a bit differently then them? You would think that in this day and age we might want to knock that childish rubbish off and embrace each others differences because we are currently facing one of our most formidable challenges to date. Most of us Jews do have one common mission, the survival of Jews and Israel. I am not a Chabad follower nor am I a Hasidim. But enough with the internal bickering. The second and third paragraph of this article was completely unnecessary except to massage the ego of this writer in his belief that he is a better Jew than ‘those who would be foolish enough to follow Chabad.’

    • jeremy rosen

      Indeed ASG I wish I knew how to distinguish “Good Jews” from “Bad Jews” other than very superficially and I dont believe God is superficial. Only the Almighty knows and as the Talmud says, many of “Those who are on top in this world are at the bottom in the next.”
      Jeremy

  • The Lubavitcher schliuchim do a good job overall, but of course any of them who mistakenly believe that M.M.Schneerson is returning in a second coming like Jesus of Nazareth or even the Mahdi are mistaken. The Lubavitcher should see themselves as representatives/ambassadors under the World Peace 2050 umbrella.

  • this article displays a superficial knowledge of the inner workings of Chabad and a superficial knowledge of Franchises. yes, on the surface they are somewhat similar.

  • kevobx

    What is Judaism? Where did it come from, was it taught at mount Sinai? Did Moses ever speak priesthood? *Hebrews 7:14 For it is evident that our Lord sprang out of Juda: of which tribe Moses spake nothing concerning priesthood. *Numbers 2:33 But the Levites were not numbered among the children of Israel; as the Lord commanded Moses. (Revelation 21:12) are the real Jews of the Bible!

  • There is a “happy militarism” about Chabad’s approach to Judaism that is infectious. Chabad has an open unrestrained passion for Judaism that other branches of Judaism lack

  • EG Proulx

    Rabbi, Insightful observation about Chabad. The homogeneity of the group is apparent, and pretty impressive. They’re not robots, not hypnotized, their your normal, squabbling Jew, yet maintain, as you state, a level of uniform cheer. And, the franchise is strong. The Rebbe loosed the Invisible Hand to work its wonders.
    EGP

    • Anonymous

      Thank you. Yes I believe one needs to validate, appreciate and encourage the good in people and movements without pretending that everything is perfect . For nothing human can be. I am not one to nail my colors to masts but were I to I cannot think of a more admirable one.
      J

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