The Last Word: The Master Knocks

by Rabbi Dovid Eliezrie

“The day is short, the work is great, the workers are lazy, but the reward is great, and the master of the house is knocking [at your door].” Pirkei Avos

Yasher Koach to Rabbi Gordimer, first for this loving criticism, and then his mea culpa. Both are accepted and appreciated.

A few brief points.

Chabad, as any community has challenges, both internal-as we live our lives as Chassidim. External-as we deal with the broader Jewish world through Shlichus. Chabad is community of Chassidim struggling with many of the same issues the rest of the Frum community faces. In some areas we have been very successful and others we are wanting. Internally-and this may not be perceived outside of Chabad-there is much self-reflection and internal debate about a wide variety of topics. Be it educational institutions, leadership, communal standards of observance etc. etc.

In particular in developing institutional infrastructure for Shluchim there has been stellar achievements. To point to three impressive ones, the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute has revolutionized Torah learning with amazing curriculum and programs. Chabad on Campus has changed Jewish life on universities and colleges. has become the largest Jewish presence of the web, touching untold numbers. 

The major thrust of my piece was a much broader phenomena. Historically Jewish life in the US revolved around denominational affiliation, Orthodox, Conservative and Reform. In recent decades most Orthodox Shuls were populated by Orthodox observant-Shomer Shabbos. Now we are seeing a major realignment into new groupings. The Orthodox BH continue to grow. The Reform and Conservative are facing major challenges. Conservative has lost 40% of its members, and Reform is on the demographic precipice, its population aging, its membership numbers bolstered by intermarriage.

My term “a new Jewish middle” refers to the hundreds of thousands who now attend Chabad. They range across the spectrum of observance, from the most frum to High Holiday Jews. Many have not been affiliated in the past, others historically attended liberal congregations. In that context, in most cases, the messages from the pulpit where inimical to observance. The educational values offered their children, did not prod them towards more Torah and Mitzvahs. Many times, it endorsed the opposite.

Now that these Jews attend Chabad it’s a different tone. In Chabad they are getting a fresh direction towards Torah and Mitzvahs. A portion will become fully observant, others will increase their observance in smaller steps. At the very least their children will exposed to Torah true Judaism which can only inspire them in the years to come.

Today Chabad has more centers than either Reform or Conservative has Temples. Most Chabad Centers serve a smaller demographic then attend a liberal congregations. However it is only a matter of time until the “Chabad affiliated” will match, or exceed the size of either of these movements. This will have a profound effect on Jewish communities in a myriad of ways.

Amongst the core of Jews engaged in Jewish life we are witnessing “realignment”. The continued growth of orthodoxy, and the shift-at times subtle- of many Jews towards Yiddishkeit prompted by Chabad and other outreach groups. Coupled together, these two trends have the potential in the long run to change the direction of American Jewry.

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19 Responses

  1. Reader says:

    “hundreds of thousands who now attend Chabad.”

    Where is that figure from? Lubavitch PR HQ? How about some digits, documentation, and specific detail rather than vague claims?

    “it is only a matter of time until the “Chabad affiliated” will match, or exceed the size of either of these movements. This will have a profound effect on Jewish communities in a myriad of ways.”

    Maybe, maybe not….similar statements were made re Conservatism when it was on the ascendancy. And see what happened. It didn’t last.

    • sb says:

      Except that one movement is based on being shomer mitzvos and those movements always grow and last.

      The other movement is based on secularism, and those movements always decline.

      I’m sorry if I can’t give you “digits,documents and specific detail” , but I am pretty sure that all our history has proven the point.

    • mb says:

      Reader, do the math. If Chabad have 4000 centres, and they each get just 10 men for Shabbat, that’s 40,000 right there. add in Rosh Hashana and YK, I can easily see how they get hundreds and thousands of unique visitors per year. Stop nit picking!

      • lacosta says:

        Many chabads of course only get a minyan on special occaissions like yom kippur….

      • Reader says:

        Lubavitch plays games with their numbers, trying to make it seem like they are larger than they are.

        Some of the Habad houses are quite small actually, without a full schedule of minyanim. Some of the people that occasionally go to them, also attend services at non-orthodox Temples. If someone comes to a Habad house for a bar mitzvah once, he is then counted in their stats as one of their constituents? Misleading and deceptive.

        Another case would be if a Lubavitch house has a minyan with the shliach, along with a few bochurim from Lubavitch, and a few locals, for example, that doesn’t count as if the whole minyan were local regulars.

        Another case would be Modern Orthodox students attending Habad house while at university. But when they leave school, they go back to non-Lubavitch Orthodox Shuls. Is Lubavitch still counting them in their alleged statistics?


      • dr. bill says:

        First, they don’t have 4000 centres, only 3500 worldwide; i would guess 2500 or so centres in North America.  Second, at a budget of 1.5 Billion dollars (estimated) i could think of other ways that sum could be spent more productively.  Third, like many groups, chabad does not do a good job supervising/ disciplining its diverse base of adherents.  Any organization of that size requires much more elaborate controls.  Fourth, in any synagogue listing I have seen, they choose not to list as an orthodox organization; I assume if a great deal of their support comes from reform (and conservative) Jews they want to be seen as different.  Fifth, if their role in kiruv was anywhere near what some would like to believe, it would show up in demographic surveys.  Sixth, the declining level of secular education in many of their (brooklyn) schools, unfortunately moves them in the direction of a cult.  Without a powerful leader, excess cannot be controlled effectively.

      • mb says:

        Reader, Dr.Bill, LaCosta, what’s irking you? Who cares how Chabad attendees are actually counted? The issue at hand was not how many cross their threshholds, but whether they are the new centre. Personally, I think that is a nonintellectual, hyperbolic claim, especially when you consider their position on Israel! Stop worrying about a few hundred people here or there, please.

      • lacosta says:

        not irks , but honesty.  chabad beyond any other branch of judasim scours any written or media word that either casts it in a good light, in which case it will get to, or negative—in which case its veracity will be denied and the authors vilified.

        chabad does great work. in can stand on emes. the rebbe would not have had it any other way.

  2. dr. bill says:

    Halevi the rate of assimilation among Reform and Conservative Jewry could be changed.  And perhaps Chabad has had some impact on the rate of intermarriage.  But I have seen no study, and after half a century of such efforts, the results are not encouraging.  The few times I have attended a Chabad shul on Shabbos, I have seen parents (or more often grandparents) but few are accompanied by their children.  Undoubtedly, the picture on college campuses is different and perhaps the future will be different, but I remain skeptical.

  3. Shmuel W says:

    Yes chabad does good no one denies that but lets not use that as cover for underlying challenges. Chabad has serious theological issues both its pseudo messianism that is in direct contrast to historical normative Jewish belief, its hiskashrus and others including its questionable ability to work with other frum groups (did they join the spectrum of Kla Yisroel on major issues of the past 100 years)?. Also though Chabad outreach is large, Aish, Me’or, Ohr Samayach, RAJE, NCSY, JLIC,  JWRP, the community kollelim,  R’ Yitzchak Berkowitz’s enterprise, Bnei Akiva Shluchim and many other litvish to MO organizations and people are spreading Torah and mitzvos to the unaffiliated and account for a significant if not majority of the return of ppl to Yiddishkeit.  and its of note that R’ Eliezrie doesnt even mention them in his “new Jewish middle”.

  4. Jon Baker says:

    It’s a matter of longstanding policy – Chabad does not join in other groups.  They refused to join Agudah over 100 years ago, while other chasidim like the Gerrers joined en masse, and became a major influence in Agudah.

    That happens in small situations too – one year, my old shul had a strong-minded president who did the work, and included our shul in Rabbi Buchwald’s Shabbat Across America program.  The next year, he left some of it to the rabbi, and it became “Shabbat across the Slope” on a different weekend.

    Or the neighborhood Jewish fair, we used to participate, but one year someone called the Rabbi’s house instead of the president’s, and was told in no uncertain terms that the synagogue refused to participate in the local fair.  Instead, we had a separate one , indoors, to which almost nobody except Crown Heights people came.

    I don’t know the reasoning, but it has clearly been policy through at least the last three Rebbes’ terms.

    • Shmuel W says:

      Yes these are just small examples. Chabad is the opposite of a team player. The motives for this are for each to interpret.

    • gg says:

      True. The rebbe rashab (5th) was with rav Chaim brisker in not joining or supporting Agudah. There are other groups as well such as satmar and others

    • S Ziskind says:

      I’m not sure why Chabad left AI but please remember that Belz isn’t in it either.

  5. Micah Segelman says:

    Thinking about this topic I’d add that the relationship of Chabad and other Orthodox kiruv organizations to Reform and Conservative may be somewhat more complex to what is indicated here. Being involved with Chabad or a different kiruv organization and being involved in a Reform or Conservative synagogue are not mutually exclusive. There are many people who do both. I recently had a discussion with an individual who is a Reform Rabbi who told me they had previously had considerable, positive exposure to Orthodox (not Chabad) kiruv organizations.

  6. Dovid Eliezrie says:

    A few brief thoughts in response to some of the points raised in the comments
    Micah Segelman is on point on one of the intriguing phenomena in Jewish communities. Many Jews are double dipping, historically they were members of Reform/Conservative-or still are- and they are active in their local Chabad’s as well as other orthodox groups.  Adult education, holiday celebrations, Children’s educational programs and summer camps are areas where we see high attendance from members of liberal congregations. Dr. Jack Wertheimer has written about this trend in Commentary  claiming it has an effect on liberal congregations.
    Yes Chabad did not join Agudah largely due to the engagement in the political process, something Chabad has always refrained from. While this is at times an important and vital mission, we defer those others, be it Agudah, OU, Young Israel to be on the forefront of public policy. Locally Chabad Centers have in many cities-and of course this depends on local communal dynamics-worked with other groups.
    Many other groups do many wonderful projects for Yiddiskiet, NCSY, Aish, Kolels etc. Chazak Chazak.   However they have a different strategy than Chabad, which is to send a couple for life in live in a community with a mandate to take care of whatever communal needs are required.
    As for statistics. The facts are in the numbers, today there are 4,300 Shluchim families worldwide in some 85 countries. In the US/Canada 1,600 Shluchim, and 950 Chabad Centers-they range from community Chabad’s, Campus centers, Schools etc. Each is financially independent and raises it budget locally.  Each is an organic part of the local community. The range in size from small storefront operations to larger community centers. If we take a conservative estimate and say each has a core constituency of 150-200 families, some 3-400 people then we have between 3-400,000 Jews actively involved with Chabad. This can mean many things, the guy who turns up every day for Minyan, the family of preschooler, summer camps, college students, a new area of activity-millennials,  and the High Holiday Jews. The point is close to a half a million of North American Jews see Chabad as their primary portal for Jewish identity, education, involvement etc.
    The Pew Study did not discover this statistic because it asked about denominational self-identification not where people are active. Unless people are Shomer Shabbat they do not self-identify as orthodox.  I talked to the author of the Pew study at length and he admitted they had flawed approach to asking about Chabad, The recent survey of the Jewish Federation of Greater Miami used a different methodology asking about activity with Chabad. The results were 27% of all Jews, and 47% of Jews 35 and younger are active with Chabad, only 20% of those active in Chabad self-identify as Orthodox.
    The central premise my piece is the realignment of American Jewish life is based on three factors, the growth of orthodox, the weakening of the liberal movements, and the emergence of Chabad as a place that many Jews, many not fully observant who are becoming more involved with traditional Judaism. These factors in the long run will create a new dynamic that will profoundly impact Jewish life in the US.


    • Shmuel W says:

      Kudos R’ Eliezrie for responding to the comments, definitely reflects well on your openness to some of the discussions being had. Yet at the risk of highlighting some differences I will comment further.  1) On Chabad working with the the rest of Orthodoxy it isnt about “joining” the agudah 100 years ago, thats a straw man. It isnt about joining an organization, but rather they dont work together on any of the big issues, from the issues of the religious- secular status quo from the beginning of the state of Israel, to the recent asifah on technology (obv not everyone agrees on that), Chabad is not a team player and many in Chabad themselves admit to this.  Also, Chabad does engage in the political process. Shea Hecht and Chanina Sperlin do this for a living. In E. Yisroel Shlom Dov Wolpo (an avowed pseuodo-messianist)  founded a political party called Eretz Yisroel Shelanu.

      Also though I am happy you support Litvish and MO kiruv organizations, and yes Chabad operates differently, where there is overlap there are tensions in many places between Chabad and everyone else.  In Europe the Conference of European Rabbonim now led by R’ Pinchas Goldschmidt has existed since its founding by Sir Israel Brodie since the 1950’s but Chabad didnt ever join as they grew in Europe and opened a competing Rabbinic/Political body, the EJA with Menachem Margolin as its heads.

      Hopefully the future will have more collaboration then less, but the record is less then stellar. Also one issue that R’ Eliezrie didnt bring up b/c this is part of the divide, is the pseudo messianism which contradicts normative historic Jewish theology.  To quote from elsewhere In 1993 had you “asserted that Moshiach appeared, clearly indicated that he is Moshiach, repeatedly affirmed to his followers that his generation is that of the ultimate redemption, died or appered to die in an unredeemed world, and will return from the dead to complete the redemption” every Jewish denomination would state that is something more in line with Christianity than with Judaism.    






      • Steve Lieber says:

        To comment on the one point where I have of personal knowledge.

        The reason the RCE was founded in Europe was due to the lack of willingness by the CRE to accommodate all the Chabad Rabbonim throughout Europe. Very limited numbers of communal Rabbonim associated with Chabad were invited. For example, of the hundreds of communal Chabad Rabbonim in Russia, only 5 were invited to the CRE. Similarly in the Ukraine and numerous other places like France and Germany. While it may be understood because the numbers of European Rabbonim who are Chabad greatly out number the others, and for the present CRE leadership it would then take on too much of a Chabad flavour if they were indeed impartial, you can’t blame Chabad for creating an alternative where they are fully represented. Here they were much more excluded rather than excluding themselves.

        There remains much to do to integrate Chabad and the wider community but its not all one way.

    • Dovid Eliezrie says:

      Thank you Shmuel W.

      1. There is a vast difference between the community of Crown Heights, which like other religious neighborhoods is involved with the political process and Chabad as a movement. Yes, the resident of Crown Heights are a majority of  Chabad Chassidim.  There is a local community council elected by the residents, they advocate for issues important to the residents.  The official institutions of the movement are not involved in the local issues nor any other politics. The individuals you mention are acting as private citizens representing their neighborhood.

      2. While I prefer not to air the dirty laundry in public. The actions, policies and attitudes  of Rabbi Goldshmidt have made cooperation with him a daunting challenge. Time and again resisted any effort to bridge the gap, his hostility to Chabad is well documented and outside of the norm of most in the Litvash community.  Today the Conference of European Rabbis is far from a representative of European Orthodoxy, rather just a segment (an important one) , that is by their choice  not work with Chabad.

      3. As for the Moshaich issue, here to there is total misunderstanding.  The Meshistim-and I am known as a strong opponent-do not believe that Moshiach appeared and died. Rather based on Perek Hachelek believed before the Rebbe’s passing he was the best candidate (emphasis on the word candidate) and afterwards Moshiach can come from the living or the dead. I suggest you take a look at the footnotes on the Artscroll Gemara, 98A, footnote 57, 98B, footnote 42. it seems they were written by the Meshistim.  It is an excellent articulation of their Shitah.  Finally this is a theology that is weakening.

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