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Chabad’s Model of Outreach Gains Favor Among Fervently Orthodox

December 11, 2003
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Fervently Orthodox Jewish leaders see a call to arms in the results of the recent Jewish population survey: As American Jews’ last greatest hope, they say, they cannot stand idly by while American Jewry disappears.

In a speech last week at a conference of Agudath Israel of America, Rabbi Avi Shafran, the group’s director of public affairs, said fervently Orthodox Jews must set out on a "rescue mission" of American Jewry.

"We’re the Zaka of North American Jewry," Shafran said, referring to the Israeli rescue organization that deals with victims of terrorist attacks. "The threats to Jewish souls are no less dangerous — in fact, they’re more dangerous — than threats to Jewish bodies."

"We, our community is the last chance for the American Jewish community," he said. "The question here is one of pikuach nefesh," or saving Jewish lives.

Shafran’s call was both a recognition of the success fervently Orthodox Jews have had at preserving their own numbers and their failure in extending that influence to the American Jewish community at large.

The speech also was a sign that Chabad-Lubavitch’s focus on outreach to non-Orthodox Jews is gaining currency among other fervently Orthodox Jews, or haredim.

"I think there’s a lot to learn from Chabad, to be honest," Shafran told JTA in an interview after the conference, which was held in Stamford, Conn. "There are many Orthodox Jews that have complaints about aspects of the Chabad movement and some are valid ones. But the idea of active outreach that Chabad pioneered has, over recent decades, become very much part of the mainstream stance of mainstream Orthodox American Judaism."

Chabad says it welcomes other fervently Orthodox Jews taking up the mantle of outreach.

"By all means, it’s a wonderful development," Chabad spokesman Zalman Shmotkin said. "It’s just becoming increasingly evident how crucial it is for the Jewish people as a whole and each specific Jew to reach out to other Jews."

Agudah is not the only segment of the American Jewish community looking to Chabad as an outreach model. At last month’s Reform convention in Minneapolis, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said Reform Jews had a lot to learn from Chabad’s example.

"It is hard for me to say this but I will say it nonetheless: We must follow the example of Chabad," Yoffie said. "I disagree with Chabad about practically everything and I am appalled by the messianic fervor that has flared up in their midst. But I envy the selflessness of their young men and women who fan out across the world to serve Jewish communities in distress."

Recently, nearly 2,000 Chabad outreach emissaries, or shluchim, came to Brooklyn from all over the world to talk about strategies for bringing non-Orthodox Jews closer to Orthodox religious observance.

The movement has permanent representatives in more than 70 countries, including nations torn by violent conflict and places with almost no Jews or synagogues.

In the United States, Chabad has representatives in all but five of the 50 states, according to Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, director of the International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Emissaries.

Rabbi Abraham Shemtov, chairman of Agudas Chasidei Chabad, the umbrella organization for Lubavitch, said outreach activities are becoming more common in fervently Orthodox neighborhoods.

"I would assume that it’s definitely a recognition that Chabad’s assessment of the situation was accurate," Shemtov said.

Nevertheless, he said, it’s not so important who is doing outreach or who was doing it first, as long as it’s done.

"Chabad has never looked for recognition. Chabad was looking for everyone to do what they had to do," he said. "When the Torah says we are responsible for each other and part of each other, it doesn’t say any ‘but.’ There are no provisions. How practical it is depends on a person’s readiness.

"What to others was a dream, a vision, to the rebbe" — the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson — "was a reality," he said.

Shafran outlined his own vision for the future in his speech to the Agudah audience of about 1,000. He said he dreams of the day when there will be "Telzers in Topeka, Gerers in Green Bay, Mirers in Muskogee," a reference both to various fervently Orthodox sects identified by their cities of origin in Eastern Europe and to American cities with virtually no Orthodox Jews.

"We can do much more than we think," Shafran said, "being open to the existence of other Jews who are not like us."

It remains to be seen whether Agudah’s rank and file actually will rally to the cause, and Shafran said no specific outreach programs were in the works.

Rather, he said, fervently Orthodox Jews should be responsive to inquiries by other Jews about religious observance, invite non-observant Jews home for Shabbat and volunteer to study Torah with non-Orthodox Jews.

But outreach presents a unique problem for fervently Orthodox Jews: How to reach out to the non-Orthodox without exposing oneself to the dangers and temptations of the secular world?

"The vast majority of the haredi community has been concerned about the strengthening of their own core group," Rela Mintz Geffen, president of Baltimore Hebrew University, told JTA. "It seems that they now have enough confidence in the strength of that group, and that that confidence has been reinforced by the NJPS findings in such a way that they can use it as a pretext to go public with a national outreach endeavor."

Geffen was referring to the National Jewish Population Survey 2000-01, which counted 300,000 fewer Jews in the United States than the previous survey, in 1990.

The NJPS also found that 31 percent of the nation’s 5.2 million Jews are wed to non-Jews, only 27 percent of the 4.3 million Jews identified as more "Jewishly connected" said they attend a religious service at least once a month, and only about half of the more connected group said being Jewish was very important.

At the same time, the survey showed that Orthodox Jews likely increased their number as a proportion of U.S. Jewry. The 1990 survey showed 16 percent of synagogue members as Orthodox, and the 2000-01 survey showed 21 percent of synagogue members as Orthodox, an NJPS project official said.

Scholars have cautioned, however, that the two surveys used different methods of counting and that comparisons therefore are suspect.

But that hasn’t stopped Shafran from citing the numbers as evidence of Orthodoxy’s success in America.

The dichotomy of Orthodox growth amid general U.S. Jewish decline is well evident in the NJPS results, Shafran said.

He noted that while the Reform movement also has shown growth, Reform interpretation of Torah "is a mockery of the word halachah," or Jewish law.

Reform Jews twist the Torah to mean "whatever society wants to embrace," Shafran said.

Yoffie, the Reform leader, told JTA that "the challenge for Judaism in the 21st century is how we reconcile our Jewish commitments with the benefits and temptations of the outside world."

He said of Agudah, "Since they have apparently so much contempt for the practices and beliefs" of non-Orthodox Jews, "how exactly they’re going to overcome that and teach Judaism as they understand it — that’s a good question."

Analysts say Agudah’s biggest challenge may be reaching out to Jews whose religious practices they have maligned and who have been alienated by the organization’s rhetoric. Chabad may extend a nonjudgmental hand to non- Orthodox Jews, analysts say, but Agudah regularly issues public statements on controversial issues such as gay marriage, abortion bans and the "Who is a Jew" debate in Israel, raising the ire of many people.

Chaim Waxman, professor of sociology and Jewish studies at Rutgers University, said a turn toward outreach would be a welcome development for Agudah, but it isn’t clear whether fervently Orthodox Jews will be open enough to other Jews to do it effectively.

"I am unaware that it’s a reality, that it’s anything more than Avi Shafran’s — let’s call it — dream," Waxman said.

For a long time, he said, "the haredim have had the fortress approach of ‘we’ll take care of our own,’ " Waxman said.

The way the fervently Orthodox see things, he said, is that "there’s a spiritual plague out there. What do you do if there’s a plague? You quarantine yourself."

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