Whenever I am invited to speak about institutional transformation within the Jewish community, invariably among the first questions is one associated with Chabad Lubavitch.
Certainly one can understand this type of inquiry. Indeed, there are a number of elements that reflect the success and impact of Chabad. They have built a billion-dollar international empire, with their own news service, publishing house, and hundreds of Websites. Today, more than 4,000 Chabad shluchim serve communities across the United States and throughout the world.
In analyzing their mission, structure, and program, I have identified ten operational principles that seem to define the core elements of Chabad’s impact and success:
- Begin with One Jew at a Time: the quintessential organizing principle for Chabad is framed around this concept. Their outreach approach is about building personal connections as the basis of their work.
- Meet Clients Where They Are: Unlike most ideological and traditional movements who from the outset establish expected norms of behavior and practice, Chabad does not prejudge its audience but rather seeks to embrace individuals wherever they maybe on their Jewish journey. “Motivated by his profound love for every Jew and spurred by his boundless optimism and self- sacrifice, the Rebbe set into motion a dazzling array of programs, services and institutions to serve every Jew.”(1)
- Construct and Sustain an Image of Tradition and Authority: Chabad’s credibility in part rests with the image of its rabbis as seen as representative of a distinctive tradition.
- Remember It’s All about Branding and Promoting Symbols: Chabad is particularly adept at creating and promoting a series of public symbols that align Jewish practice within the context of a secular setting.
- Market a Core, Shared, and Embracing Message: Chabad is extraordinarily clear about their purpose and intent. According to Shneur Zalman, the founder of Chabad, “the intellect consists of three interconnected processes: Chochma (wisdom), Bina (understanding), and Da’at (knowledge). While other branches of Hasidism focused primarily on the idea that “God desires the heart,” Shneur Zalman argued that God also desires the mind, and that without the mind the heart was useless. With the Chabad philosophy he elevated the mind above the heart, arguing that ‘…understanding is the mother of … fear and love of God. These are born of knowledge and profound contemplation of the greatness of God.’”(2)
- Frame the Message at the Top, but Implement the Agenda on the Ground: If 770 Parkway, their international center, sets the core message, Chabad representatives in the field are key to the operational intent and focus of the movement. As Dennis Prager observed: “Chabad rabbis and their wives have an acute sense of transcendent purpose, probably on a near-daily basis. How else can one leave the Chabad and Orthodox cocoons of Brooklyn for a lifetime in Cambodia, the Congo or Bolivia, to cite three rather challenging examples of where Chabad shluchim have committed themselves to live out their lives.”(3)
- Understand that Happiness is both a State of Being and an Action Plan: They literally “sell” happiness within a Jewish context. Prager writes: “In light of that, the happiness that the vast majority of Chabad rabbis and their wives radiate is perhaps the most powerful asset in the Chabad rabbi’s arsenal. That they maintain this cheerful demeanor given their often-difficult financial and social situation is a credit to them – and to their faith. This is very attractive to the overwhelmingly non-Orthodox Jews with whom they relate.” Chabad, unlike other Hasidic communities, places particular attention on to the emotional attributes of Chesed (“kindness”), Gevurah (“power”), and Tifereth (“beauty”).(4)
- Build a Supportive and Embracing Infrastructure: Chabad’s strengths are represented through its campus services, camps, schools, drug rehabilitation programs, and the myriad of other activities that meet vital service programs and touch the lives of Jews and non-Jews in need of connection, community and care.
- Employ History and Celebrate Leaders: Chabad is particularly conscious and committed to its past and pays special attention to memorializing and honoring its founders and leaders. In turn, this mantra has become an important and sustaining element of its continuity. The development of Chabad-Lubavitch as an outreach organization can be traced to the early 1940’s, when the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn appointed his son-in-law and later successor, Rabbi Menachem Mendel, to direct the educational and social service programs of the movement.
- Claim the Street-Own the Past: While the rest of the Jewish religious and communal world is about preserving and sustaining “place”, Chabad is about “the moveable feast” allowing the street to be its marketplace. Beyond the street, Chabad has also captured the past, confirming unto itself a mantel of religious authority that has become appealing to a vast number of donors who view its practices as “authentically Jewish”. continue...