Take a lesson from Chabad


Charles Bronfman and the other kings, queens, princes, dukes, duchesses, lords and ladies of the American Jewish community need to wake up to the impressive accomplishments of the passionate, strategic, creative and loving serfs and vassals of Chabad who commitedly serve the Jewish people globally, with all their hearts and souls.

It is outrageous that Mr. Bronfman told the attendees of the Reform Movement at its convention two weeks ago to “take back Birthright from Chabad.” Imagine if the tables were turned what kind of indignant outcry there would be by the liberal Jewish world.

Too bad Mr. Bronfman that Chabad runs circles around the Reform Movement and has managed to send thousands of young Jews on your Birthright program.

There is a reason for this. And it’s not that Chabad is doing something wrong. It’s that the Reform Movement and nearly the entire Jewish world aren’t doing something right. And the fault can be attributed to all you funders who claim Jewish royalty.

The Jewish professional world is scared to death of your power and as a result doesn’t take the risks that Chabad does.

Two years ago, I spoke to a packed breakout room at the Rabbinic Assembly of the Reform Movement in Long Beach, California. Following my lecture, leaders of the Movement wanted to talk with me about urgent marketing issues. It took them about three months to organize a breakfast in New York. At the breakfast, I explained to them that in order to market effectively these days they needed to take risk, to think critically, to create big bold ideas of engagement. Every risk and idea I tossed at them during the breakfast was met with the same stone-faced response. “Our lay leaders and funders would never go for that.” Over and over, I saw the looks of near panic on their faces in response to my ideas. The group couldn’t get rid of me fast enough.

That evening I had a meeting with the leaders of Chabad on Campus at Lubavitch headquarters in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Seated around the table were about 15 Chabad rabbis working on campuses across America. I explained my same philosophy to them. Every risky, big idea I threw out was continually met with, “How do we do this? How can we make this happen?” They probed and pushed my brain for more and more. They jumped into thinking about implementation. The meeting began at 7:30 and ended at 1:30 am.

As I walked out in the wee hours of the morning, I contrasted my two Jewish meetings that day. The morning one was boring, frightening, paralyzing and lifeless. The evening one was vibrant, pulsing, exciting, passionate and fun. It was a creative person’s dream. I asked myself, “Who is going to win here? Who is going to succeed? The answer was obvious.

The Jewish community needs to take a lesson from Chabad. They have become the McDonalds of the Jewish world. They are everywhere, with Jewish spiritual retail outlets, attracting and engaging the masses, the grassroots, the people—Amcha. The rabbis live on a shoestring and work their brains to exhaustion raising local money for each of their locations and programs. They move their families to the hinterlands—Taskent, Guangzhou, Caracas—sometimes very dangerous places, to blend in with a Jewish community and build its soul.

Chabad, through chabad.org, has invested and cracked the complex digital challenge of social marketing, having created the most visited Jewish website on the planet. In a boiler room at their Crown Heights worldwide headquarters, sits about twenty-five young Brooklyn hipster Lubavitchers, who know more about the digital universe, than all the professors and students who surround me at the USC’s Annenberg School of Communication where I teach. When I am stumped by a social marketing challenge for my clients or students, I call them and gather some of the best practices and insights on all the evolutions of Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat and Periscope.

Yes, Chabad chases people down with tfilin and they give out lots of tiny Shabbat candles. But they also give out something else. Love. As I have told my wife, “God forbid something should happen to us. The next morning there will be 300 Chabad rabbis at our door.”

I don’t believe in everything Chabad thinks or does. Some of it drives me crazy. I too can argue their orthodoxy, practices and beliefs. But who in the Jewish world isn’t arguing Jewish issues of practice and belief with every other Jew? We don’t dare say in the end, “Take this back from the Reform, Conservative, Sephardic, Persian, Russian or Israeli Jews.”

Mr. Bronfman and every other member of self-declared Jewish royalty:

Chabad doesn’t have a heavy, empowered lay structure. They too have mega donors like you. But their rabbis are respected and revered by their donors. The rabbis of Chabad have the ultimate power in the organization. This is a very different construct from the Jewish world that you know. In that Jewish world, where I spent so many years working as a marketing consultant, I witnessed a constant and overwhelming fear and intimidation of many intelligent, savvy, capable professionals who were loath to make themselves vulnerable to donors who had the ultimate say. As a result that Jewish world doesn’t take enough risks. Professionals are scared of the rebuke of the lay people. They are hesitant to make decisions and take risks and then be at the mercy of their committees and funders. It is an unhealthy environment and a construct that keeps the Jewish world back.

With all the millions of dollars the Jewish community spends on studies each year, they need to study Chabad. And then different from writing about all those studies in the Jewish press and hauling them out to meetings and conferences, the results of this study need to be implemented. Because Chabad’s successes are undeniable.

Mr. Bronfman, no one can intimidate Chabad. They will forge ahead with great success no matter what you say about them.

Gary Wexler is the executive manager of The Third Space Initiative at the University of Southern California’s (USC) Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism. Wexler often writes opinion articles for the Jewish Journal, where this article first appeared.


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