Most Jews, whether Orthodox, non-Orthodox or secular, acknowledge that Chabad is a uniquely successful Jewish enterprise.
Like many others, I am convinced that if mankind ever settles another planet, some Chabad couple will surely be among the first settlers. Having visited Chabad houses on six continents, one of my definitions of “remote” has become “a place without a Chabad House.”
In other words, just about anywhere a Jew may travel, he or she will have a place to go for a Shabbat meal, as my wife and I did a few months ago at the home of the Chabad rabbi in Casablanca, Morocco. It is no longer necessary for Jews to live in a place before a couple sets up a Chabad House there. There are also an increasing number of Chabad houses near or on college campuses, and Chabad is often the primary (Russia, for example) or only representative (Cambodia, for example) of Jews and Judaism in a given community, city or even country.
Although not a member of Chabad, I have been involved with the organization for three decades. Here are five factors I believe account for its success and the lessons the rest of us can learn from them.
1. The self is subordinate to the good of the organization.
A vivid illustration of this point is the photo taken each year of all the Chabad rabbis gathered at the annual shluchim (emissaries) convention in New York City. One sees a photo of hundreds of rabbis who all look alike. It’s a sort of “Where’s Waldo?” moment when one tries to find a Chabad rabbi one knows. In fact, one Chabad rabbi confided to me that he found it hard to find himself in the photo.
It is very rare that people subordinate themselves, their desires, their egos to a cause that isn’t evil, let alone to one that does good. Yet, even Chabad’s critics have to acknowledge that Chabad has done considerable good, and this good could not be done if many young Chabad rabbis — and their wives, who are instrumental and indispensible to the success of a Chabad House — had not made Chabad’s success synonymous with their own success.
I should add that Chabad rabbis’ subservience to Chabad does not mean Chabad extinguishes these rabbis’ individuality. Anyone who gets to know more than a few Chabad rabbis knows just how individualistic they are — though obviously within the confines of Chabad practice and ideology.
An analogy might be the American Army. Wearing the same uniforms, and usually sporting similar haircuts, one might be equally hard pressed to see many differences among American soldiers of the same rank. But they are hardly all alike, and only thanks to the subordination of much of their individuality and much of their ego to the Army’s success can they do the great good that the American military has done in the world. Indeed, many Chabad rabbis do regard themselves as part of an army — the “Rebbe’s army.”
Lesson: Great good is usually achieved only by people placing the greater good above their own and uniting behind a common ideal. The founders of America and the founders of Israel are two such examples. But they are rare.
2. Chabad invests young people with great responsibility.
Again like the Army — and like another religious success story, the Mormons — with their policy of sending teenagers to all parts of the world on mission work, Chabad shluchim marry and take on the immense responsibility of setting up a Chabad House in their early 20s. Unlike much of modern secular life in which many young people remain irresponsible and immature through their 20s and even into their 30s, Chabad rabbis and their wives grow up very fast. So fast that I have often remarked that all Chabad rabbis are 40 — those in their 20s act (and often look) 40, and those in their 60s act (and often look) 40.
Lesson: Give young people responsibility at as young an age as possible. This is one reason staying in school (without also working or taking time off from school) generally keeps a person immature.
3. They have a transcendent mission.
A great problem facing modern men and women is boredom. By this I do not mean a lack of things to do — there are more things to do today than ever before in human history — but as the French call it, ennui, a boredom of the soul. It emanates from having no transcendent purpose in one’s life, a problem that is widespread in the secular West for both Jews and non-Jews. Perhaps the greatest sense of purpose many Jews have is to get their children into a prestigious college. But, of course, this is neither transcendent nor life filling — if your child gets into Stanford, then what? And if your child doesn’t get into Stanford, then what?
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.
Lesson: The human being needs a sense of transcendent purpose. For most people throughout history, religion provided this. Secularism has killed it, and the major secular attempts to provide it (Communism and Nazism) have been highly destructive.
4. They act happy.
In the realm of religion, theological brilliance rarely comes close to a happy personality in its ability to attract (healthy) people to a given faith. The best arguments for a religion are that its adherents are better (more moral, more deep) and happier human beings as a result of their commitment to that religion.
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 (and I have been with dozens of Chabad rabbis away from their public roles), given their often-difficult financial and social situations (not to mention normal human problems), is a credit to them — and to their faith. This is very attractive to the overwhelmingly non-Orthodox Jews with whom they relate.
Lesson: Nothing is more powerful than a happy demeanor in attracting people — to one’s faith or to one’s self (singles take note).
5. They act nonjudgmental.
Finally, I have come to believe — after initial skepticism given the level of Orthodoxy within Chabad — that they mean it when they say they love all Jews regardless of their level of halachic observance. My own experience had led me to believe that most Orthodox Jews do judge other Jews — consciously or not — by their level of observance. And Chabad takes some flak for this from some other Orthodox Jews. For example, few other “black hat” (“ultra-Orthodox”) Jews are as welcoming to Jews who drive on Shabbat to be with them as the Chabad rabbis.
Lesson: If Orthodox Jews judged fellow Jews solely by their ethical behavior and not by their ritual behavior, both Orthodoxy and Jewry would be much better off.
Any one of these reasons would go far in explaining Chabad’s success. All five can move mountains. And their lessons can do the same for the rest us.
Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk-show host, columnist, author and public speaker. He can be heard in Los Angeles on KRLA (AM 870) weekdays 9 a.m. to noon. His Web site is dennisprager.com.