Friday, September 23, 2016

The Chabad Outreach Model

Havdalah ceremony at a Crown Heights campus outreach event (RNS)
What should the goal of Orthodox outreach be to non Orthodox Jews? At first blush one might be tempted to say to convince them to become observant. Obviously it would be an ideal scenario to be able to convince God’s chosen people to obey His directives. Which He set forth in His Torah as interpreted by rabbinic leaders throughout history.

In some cases that does happen. But as Lubavitch-Chabad will tell you a very tiny slice of non Orthodox Jew that they reach out to, actually become fully observant. What Chabad will also tell you, somewhat surprisingly, is that full observance is not necessarily their goal. Or at least not their only goal.

‘Who is actually fully observant anyway?’ …they might ask. Every Jew sins. Some more. Some less. Even Moshe, the greatest prophet who ever lived – sinned, as the Torah quite explicitly tells us.

Their goal is to connect Jews to their Judaism enough so that they will want to do more. They start small and hope that Jews looking for truth will seek to constantly improve their level of observance – as we all should. The best way for someone to become fully observant is do it incrementally – at their own pace. Doing it all at once is often disastrous. Going from no observance at all to becoming fully observant all at once is a prescription for failure in many cases. The change is too drastic.

This is a lesson all outreach organizations must learn, if they don’t already know it. I believe the successful ones do.

Which brings me to an article by Menachem Wecker in Religion News Service about a study of 2,400 Jewish graduates and their interactions with Chabad. It was led by Mark Rosen, an associate professor at Brandeis University. It  might surprise people to find that so many of the Jews Chabad caters to, are not observant at all. And yet Chabad never harangues them for not making any progress towards further observance. Chabad believes that whatever progress they make – even if it is just instilling pride in their Jewishness where it wasn’t there before – is considered a success. 
Only 15 of the 2,400 respondents said they joined ranks and identify as Chabad. About 88 percent of those who visited Chabad at least once do not identify as Orthodox. 
According to the article, Chabad has 3500 centers in more than 85 countries! That is quite an accomplishment. If the percentages of Jews becoming observant through Chabad is the same as it is with the graduates of Brandeis, that is less than one percent! One might therefore question whether all that effort is worth it.

Well, of course it is. 1% is better than 0%. And that 1% adds up to a lot of Jews.Aside from that - their goal of just instilling pride in fellow Jews about their heritage is alone worth the effort. It is also true that any successful outreach first requires instilling pride in one's heritage. And even if they never become personally observant at all, they may be motivated to better educate their children Jewishly. If they don’t do that - at the very least they will appreciate their kindness and their not being judgmental thus in many cases becoming Chabad supporters for life.

There may be some that are turned off by Chabad and will go the other way. But my guess is that this is a very small percentage of those Chabad comes into contact with.

What many people don’t realize is that when Chabad sees a Jew becoming observant through their efforts,  they consider that a milestone no matter which Hashkafa they choose. This does not mean they don’t prefer that Jew become a Lubavitcher. They do. And they work towards that goal, too.

To that end, their outreach is specifically designed toward Chabad Chasidism. Their outreach includes teaching Jews uneducated about their Judaism - customs specific to Chabad but not necessarily mainstream. Without making that distinction. 

An example of that is their view that every woman in a household (even young girls under the age of 12) should light candles for Shabbos. Signs to that effect can be seen everywhere. However, the prevailing mainstream custom is that only the female head of the household (usually the mother) light candles. Chabad's approach steers their outreach prospects unwittingly to include Chabad customs without their realizing it is only a Chabad custom.

If I have any quibble with them (aside from the Messianism issue which is beyond the scope of this post) it is that. The vast majority of the Jews they have successfully convinced to become observant - become Lubavitchers. Chabad will argue that since they are doing the outreach, they have the right to persuade them to become Lubavitchers too.

I get that. But I just wish they would explain that not all the customs of Lubavitcjh are universal to all Orthodox Hashkafos – and show them all the options. This is what NCSY does in their outreach work. Those who become observant through NCSY can be found in just about all Hashkafic segments of Orthodoxy including Chabad. NCSY does not favor one Hashkafa over another. They favor only the ‘fit’ of an individual to a Hashkafa. In my view this is a better approach.

But you can’t argue with success. Nor can you argue with the kinds of religious goals they set. Nor the fact that they retain a positive relationship with every single Jew with they have had any interaction. Even if they do not become observant at all. Nor with the massive numbers of Jews that have become observant through them which probably outnumbers all the Jews that became observant through other outreach programs combined! On this level we all have a lot to learn from them.