The secret of Chabad revealed
“The day the Rebbe passed away in 1994, there were 1 032 Chabad couples around the world,” says Rabbi Eliezrie, who is executive director of North County Chabad Centre in California, speaker and the president of the Rabbinical Council of Orange County and Long Beach. “Today we have over 4 500 couples.”
Known as shlichim (emissaries), these couples are rabbis and rebbetzins who are sent to locations far afield, to spread Judaism and Chassidut through providing leadership and establishing infrastructure for Jews who generally lack communities or are in danger of assimilation.
“As Chabad was emerging, the world was being transformed, especially the American Jewish community which is very different to the South African narrative and other countries,” he explains.
Rabbi Eliezrie wrote his book to explain this phenomenal growth and demystify the movement. It took him over 10 years to write and involved more than 200 interviews. The Secret of Chabad was published in 2015, has sold over 20 000 copies to date and was a finalist in the National Jewish Book Award in the US.
“I felt that people really didn’t understand, firstly, the scope of what we were doing, and secondly how rapid our growth was. Today we’re the largest Jewish organisation in the world, we’re in 92 countries including the likes of Morocco and Hong Kong.
“I also looked at the struggles and the difficulties in how a Chassidic rabbi takes a group of a few hundred families and turns them into a Jewish paradise, it’s a remarkable story.”
In his book, Rabbi Eliezrie explains what motivates and drives him and his wife and people like them, and looks at the Chabad business model. “In South Africa, it’s more structured, but in America we had to create a totally new infrastructure as there Orthodoxy is limited to certain urban centres – the Jewish community in the US is dominated by the more liberal movements.
The book also looks at how we do it globally and examines the Russian story – what Chabad did in the Russian underground in keeping Judaism alive in the former Soviet Union and how it’s emerged from the shadows today to be a major force of Jewish life in Russia.
Rabbi Eliezrie argues that there’s more mystery than misconceptions surrounding Chabad’s success. “In today’s world, it’s hard to find idolism that’s sustainable,” he explains.
“People are feeling a sense of affinity with people with real ideals. They may not want to live the way that rabbis are living, but they want them as their role models?
Chabad’s growth has also been driven by generational perpetuity. “According to a study we did for the LA Times, 67 per cent of the children of the Chabad shluchim become Chabad shluchim themselves, which doesn’t exist today in any other religious segment, even outside the Jewish world.
“People – at least in America – don’t understand the business model. It’s more of an entrepreneurial partnership model than a board-driven model, which is a very different concept in institutional management.
“All Chabad ‘business’ is local. Every shaliach has to stand on his own two feet, supported by his community; shluchim need to get their own local funding.
“Chabad also has a fundamentally unique worldview that separates it from other parts of the Orthodox world, from the Haredi world, from the religious Zionists, and so on.”
“The Haredi world wants to detach itself from society, as they feel it endangers their way of life, but we’re willing to engage the society while keeping Torah as the prime principle.
“Chabad has really profound things to say about this big question of how to live as a Jew in a modern age. In the Chabad world, there are values in the secular society that we don’t agree with, but we’re willing to engage that society while keeping our principles central.
“One of the most important examples of that is the attitude to the army in Israel. In Chabad, boys after completing yeshiva, are encouraged to go into the army.”
In taking care of the needs of world Jewry, Chabad has a presence in almost every small Jewish community at risk around the world. “We’re taking a real sense of responsibility that we feel for other Jews; we’re putting our lives on the line for them. These are very crucial things that people don’t understand.”
Acknowledging the phenomenal nature of South African Jewish life, where tradition and Orthodoxy is common and kosher restaurants abound, Rabbi Eliezrie explains the difference in America.
“South Africa has a community where 90 per cent of Jewish kids go to a Jewish day school, in America it’s 10-15 per cent. Most Americans are not turned off to Judaism; they’re just not turned on. They know nothing about it; they don’t see the relevance of Judaism in their lives. They therefore don’t feel a sense of identification.
“Since the 1880s when the Jews first came to the US, we’ve seen a process of assimilation. What we have to do is bring them meaning by showing them how Judaism relates to their real lives in the real world.
“Chabad’s a movement of big ideas, it’s not an emotional movement, it’s an intellectual movement. There are profound ideas that are animating the movement and changing the way Jews live their lives as Jews.
“It gives space for people who want to be involved with Judaism and connected to tradition, but they also want to do it at their own pace and to be encouraged.”
Rabbi Eliezrie stresses the great power of South African Jewry. “South Africa has an unusual Jewish community that’s very traditional. Everywhere in North America where South African Jews go, Judaism goes through a renaissance.”
Yet, even though South African Jewry is very strong, Chabad is still important in the country as it strikes this balance. “When you’re looking for rabbinical leadership, in Chabad you find a sense of real commitment to the people, the willingness to engage the world around them and the willingness to love every single Jew as they are, even though they may be different to them.
“There’s quality in leadership. Chabad shluchim are there for life when they come to a country – that resonates with people, they feel they’re really here for them.”
Rabbi Eliezrie argues that Modern Orthodox has an even greater engagement with secular culture than Chabad does; in the US most Modern Orthodox congregations are made up of Orthodox-observant people.
“In Chabad centres outside core urban areas, almost 90 per cent of communities are not Orthodox-observant. We’re willing to create congregations of communities; this is the revolution in American Jewish life today.
“We’re holding the standard of Jewish tradition and we’re growing.”
He also explains the different role of women in Chabad as opposed to Modern Orthodox. “In the Modern Orthodox world they’re struggling with the role of women. In Chabad, women are very empowered. One of the Rebbe’s major principles was that he never sent single people, he always sent a couple to a new location and it was a partnership.”
Ultimately, while they’re built on a common core principle, each Chabad community is unique.
“Each shul where there’s a Chabad rabbi, you’ll find something different,” says Rabbi Eliezrie. “The common denominator is a culture of accepting Jews where they are, not judging them and not trying to put them into a box, yet maintaining a fidelity to Jewish tradition.
“There’s always a sense of welcome and of caring about people, which is the real central foundation of the movement.”