The Realignment of American Jewry

by Rabbi Dovid Eliezrie

If only traditional Judaism would lower its standards, become more open minded, there would be a Jewish renaissance. That is the assertion of Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, in a recent article in the Jewish Week. He points to what he calls “open Orthodoxy” as proof that a shift is underway. He believes that if this movement continues to grow it will create a new Jewish middle. 

American Jewish life is already experiencing a fundamental realignment. There is a new Jewish middle and it’s not Greenberg’s brand of an orthodoxy that has lowered classical standards of Halachic observance, pushed time honored principles of belief to the edge, and some would argue beyond it. That new Jewish middle is Chabad, and, as they say, the proof is in the numbers.

Today in North America there are more Chabad Centers than either Reform or Conservative Temples. And while many liberal congregations are consolidating and merging, Chabad is booming and building. Evolving in cities and towns across the US, from living rooms, to storefronts, and eventually impressive centers, filled with Jews of all backgrounds. This shift is happening without compromising core values of Halacha and belief. If you walk into a Chabad Center in Bozeman or Boston, you will only find Chalav Yisroel on the table. The Mechiza will be the proper height, and there is no initiative to institute “Partnership Minyanim.”

The recent demographic survey, by the very non-orthodox Jewish Federation of Greater Miami, reveals remarkable statistics on Chabad involvement. These numbers are indicators of the restructuring of the American Jewish community already underway. In Miami 27% of local Jews are active in Chabad, among Jews 35 and younger the number skyrockets to 47%. What is most intriguing is that only 20% of those who attend Chabad self-identify as Orthodox. The Jewish middle is clearly shifting, and while tiny numbers may gravitate to Greenberg’s new brand of orthodoxy, the numbers are infinitesimal in relation to Chabad. By choosing Chabad the new generation is boarding a train headed towards observance instead of away. For some it may move at a slow pace, for others more rapid, but the direction is a new one for many Jews.

What is drawing them in? It’s a balance of Ahavat Yisroel and fidelity to tradition. Jews coming to Chabad understand this unique dichotomy. Every Jew is welcome, but the rules are not changing. As one prominent leader of a local Temple told me some years ago “You guys don’t move the goalposts.” It’s a Judaism of “what you see is what you get.” Many are tired of religious committees changing the rules after long cantankerous meetings. They respect the fact that Halacha is upheld and beliefs are not modified. They appreciate that Judaism is not imposed on them, but rather they are given the space to grow at their own pace in observance, slowly, Mitzvah by Mitzvah.

This shift in modern Jewish life is already having broader implications for Jewish communities. Chabad’s focus on the deeper spiritual connection to Israel, and its strong stance on ensuring its security is prodding many Jews to be more supportive. Its emphasis on Jewish education and observance is influencing major groups like Federations, to elevate those areas on the communal agenda.

At the core of Rabbi Greenberg’s arguments is a deeper debate over how does an observant Jew straddle living in a modern open western society and maintaining religious values. . Life back in the European Shtetl may have been bleak, but it was also predictable. Jews lived in a closed community, with little choice or opportunity. Today the sky is the limit. You can live a life of freedom and chart your own destiny. You can spend years in Kolel, run for Vice President of the United States, or have a successful business career.

Traditional Judaism reacted to the challenge of this new reality in a variety of ways. Some hunkered down, attempting to build a moat between themselves and the society around them. Many religious Jews strove to navigate this new paradigm, seeking a middle ground, balancing modernity and Torah values. Those in Rabbi Greenberg’s camp advocated a greater integration, allowing Western values much greater influence. Chabad took a strategy of “principled engagement.” To deal with the world, but always have Torah as the core values animating that engagement. 

The variety of responses in the Orthodox community to the question of the joining the army in Israel are illustrative of these divergent philosophies. The Religious Zionist movement encouraged its young men to join the army or Yeshivat Hesder. The Haredi community reacted in varied ways, some strongly resisting serving. Others in the Haredi camp are slowly becoming more open to the idea. Chabad Chassidim historically welcomed the opportunity to serve, joining the army after completing Yeshiva and period in Kolel. 

Underlying Chabad’s approach of principled engagement are philosophical concepts that Chassidus-Chassidic philosophy stresses greatly, that the world is inherently good and holy. Our task to reveal the Kedusha-the sanctity-embedded everywhere in the world. That each person has a Divine soul, with unlimited potential for good.

Jews of all stripes are drawn to the Chassidic teachings that emphasize the possibility for sanctity in everything we do, and the power of each individual to make world a “Dirah Betachtonin.”, a dwelling place for Hashem. The key to Jewish renaissance is not by lowering standards of observance, rather living a Judaism filled with compassion for another, while striving to follow the teachings of Torah to the fullest.

Rabbi Dovid Eliezrie is author of The Secret of Chabad-Inside the World’s Most Successful Jewish Movement. He is a Chabad Shliach in Yorba Linda California.

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9 Responses

  1. Ysoscher Katz says:

    To present Chabad as a legitimate alternative to progressive Modern Orthodoxy is just silly.

    We too could have offered people a simplistic yiddishkeit,  If all they wanted from us was coffee, mashke, and a place to chap a minyan when there is no alternative. 

    In reality that is what they are looking for when they stop by at a Chabad house.

    To us they come when they return home from those far flung places where Chabad is the only option.

    Once they are home and realize that the saccharinized fair usually offered at Chabad houses doesn’t offer solutions for the challenge of being a frum and committed Jew in the 21st century, they turn for help to modern orthodoxy.

    They look to us for a yiddishkeit that strongly endorses tradition but at same time proudly embraces modernity. Chabad houses do not offer that. They want us to promulgate a yiddishkeit they would like their children to embrace, not one they would merely gawk at as onlookers. (The fact is that Modern Jews join Chabad events as observers, not as participants. They are an interesting curiosity: fun to observe from a remove, but not inviting enough to embrace.)

    A more appropriate comparison  would have been Chabad high schools vs. MO ones. If Chabad were to run high schools and people were to enroll their children there en masse, it would have been dispositive. That would have proven the superiority of the Chabad model. In the mean time, this analogy is irrelevant because it compares two disparate products. One offers a fleeting encounter, while the other is attempting to provide an all encompassing experience.

    • Shmuel W says:

      Though I partially (emphasis added) agree with Ysoscher, why does he start off his comment stating the writer’s position is “silly”? It starts off the post in an oppositional tone and precludes substantive discussions.  Second note the shift away from the term OO to “progressive modern Orthodoxy” (Yasher Koach R’ Gordimer). That being said he is mostly right IMO that Chabad is convenient rather than calling to the klal.  The line on mashke and minyan is devastatingly accurate. But to play  a little chess in the multi dimensional different parts of klal yisroel (including groups whose Orthodoxy is a disputed pint) let us compare yeshiva oriented high schools and batei medrash versus MO (let alone OO) high schools.  Percentage wise how many alumni of “open Yeshivish” (my own term) high schools are frum 10 years on? 20 years on? Who is learning at least a little bit a week and involved in the jewish community versus graduates of MO high schools? Compare the high schools by objective metrics of shmiras hamitzvos ettc…) Or Even better when I was learning in the Mir and in Ner Yisroel there were many alums of MO high schools who came to more right wing yeshivas (the reverse trend is far less common). What does that say about comparing the sides?  Finally  Ysoscher states “They look to us for a Yiddishkeit that strongly endorses tradition”. In OO/NC though they sadly will not find that and hopefully that will change sooner rather than later.  

      • R.B. says:

        Yeah, I also found that claim strange. If anything, those looking OO are NOT looking for tradition. They are looking for a “push the envelope” viewpoint.

  2. lacosta says:

    1. many jews are attracted to the model of come-and-don’t-pay that chabad offers.   people speak with their money , and not needing to pay > $1000 and get free kiddush to boot , uncommitted jews would sit thru almost anything for that… [have had clients who moved their accounts from Reform to Chabad as a cost-saving measure…]

    2. many of these jews drive to their Temple Fri nite and then drive to their Chabad shabbat  morning.  chabad is cool with that.

    3. the buy in of the membership to any of Orthopraxy , orthodoxy, chassido-doxy, worship of the Rebbe  [let alone ‘yechi-hamelech’]  is undoubtedly very low—though clearly not zero.  This is more akin to the British Empire model of belonging nominally to an institution, whose practices one tolerates but is not neccesarily influenced by….


  3. lacosta says:

    >>Chabad Chassidim historically welcomed the opportunity to serve, joining the army after completing Yeshiva and period in Kolel.

    — hasn’t this changed in the last 20 yrs? i thought it’s now rare for them to join.  i also heard that going on shlichus will serve as a ‘sherut leumi ‘ equivalent—the best of both worlds:  exempt from army, considered ‘achareii tzava’ AND the opportunity to try and influence Israelis around the globe…


  4. lacosta says:

    kudos to rabbi adlerstein for allowing a chabad space in this website. for so long , chabad has been considered as Other as MO is by the haredi world . still subject to derision in most circles ,especially Litvish,  referred to by the N-word equivalent ‘chabadsker’, feared for its other-religion-like Messianism… Yet if the plane goes down over Peoria or Prussia and the sun is setting Fri pm, only the hardest-line Yeshivaleit will refuse to pray with them or eat their food….

    if Satmar can ‘fier a tish’  in Chabad of Palm Springs,  then maybe the haredi world IS  takke changing….

  5. Shades of Gray says:

    R. Yitz Greenberg mentioned Chabad in his original article(“Chabad differed from the ultra-Orthodox by its positive approach to Jews of every standard of observance and belief.”) I would add that Aish Hatorah and  others in the Charedi world have  followed Chabad’s pioneering  approach,  “beyond sectarianism” as  Prof. Adam Ferziger puts it.

    Even without NCSY,  modern Orthodoxy does outreach by  its very  existence– by providing additional options in Orthodoxy in line with  Project Makom’s(Jew in the City)idea of providing  additional options in Orthodoxy.

    In this vein, I  heard from an educator a few years ago who has connections to both the Charedi and MO worlds in the name of a Charedi figure(he didn’t mention who, only that “I’d recognize the name”) that “if modern Orthodoxy didn’t exist, we’d have to invent it; now that it exists, we can explain why we don’t hold of it “(interestingly, one of the speakers made the exact same point at the recent  Porat conference; Porat notwithstanding, I don’t find the point controversial,  since a Charedi figure apparently said it as well…).  Similarly, Rav Shteinman allowed R. Pam’s Shuvu model for the recent French aliyah, after much deliberation, thus “inventing” (or adopting) a new approach where none existed before.

  6. RYW says:

    I am disappointed in R Eliezri. I love Chabad because they focus on Ahavas Yisroel and dont get involved in putting other Jews down. I know that to get published on Crosscurrents you have to criticize and denigrate other Jews (and bonus points if they are open orthodox) but this is beneath the dignity of a shaliach.  The timing of this article with the others about major problems in the Chabad world cant be coincidental. Kol Haposel, Bemumo Posel. I didnt believe it, but once I read this article I realized that Chabad is indeed going down hill. Sad to see.

  7. Lee Smith says:

    Kol Hakovod to Chabad.  Its wonderful to travel almost anywhere in the world and find a Chabad outpost, often the only Yiddishkeit around.  As a traditional egalitarian Jew, I have benefited many times from the island of Shabbat and Kashrut and observance provided by Chabad in places I visited or meetings I attended even if my wife and daughters could not fully participate as in my ideal synagogue or community– at the very least I knew the food will be Kosher, Shabbat will be observed, and I will be in the company of fellow Jews.  However, comparing Chabad to the modern/traditional movements is indeed apple to oranges– but Chabad thanks for what you do provide!

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