By Rabbi Levi Welton
If you haven’t heard of Chabad, you may be living under a rock.
With over 5,600 emissaries in 100 countries around the world, many consider Chabad to be the most dynamic Jewish organization of the 21st century. Here in North America, Chabad operates more Jewish congregations than any other denomination and that number is rising. As Brandeis University professor Mark Rosen recently said “Anyone interested in understanding Jewish innovation should take a look at Chabad”.
Since the first couple were sent out from Brooklyn to Morocco in 1950, the explosive growth of “Chabad Houses” around the world has been attributed not to the delicious Chassidic cuisine and welcoming atmosphere but to the vision of the Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902 to 1994) to rebuild the Jewish people through education. This is why President Trump signed a declaration last year stating “as an educator, Rabbi Schneerson understands that education is incomplete if it is devoid of moral development.” Or why President Obama made a similar declaration in 2009 stating “through the establishment of educational and social service institutions across the country and the world, Rabbi Schneerson sought to empower young people and inspire individuals of all ages.”
Unlike other education systems where the student must apply to learn from the teacher, the Rebbe’s revolution was to send the teachers to find the students and often at great personal cost. As historian Arthur Hertzberg says “Chabad has the biggest army of people in the Jewish world ready to live on the edge of poverty.” The norm for these “shluchim” (literally; “messengers”) is to leave the comforts of home to commit the rest of their lives to being a “home away from home” for Jews of all backgrounds. As Sue Fishkoff, author of The Rebbe’s Army: Inside the World of Chabad Lubavitch, says “These young, newly married Chabad couples leave home with one-way tickets and–if they’re lucky–a year’s salary. After that, most are expected to make their own way financially, by charging for certain services, such as day school or summer camps, by drumming up donors, and by taking related jobs in the local Jewish community. Chabad headquarters in Brooklyn will supply them with resource materials, adjudicate disputes, and set the general course of the movement’s work internationally, but the individual shliach couple is pretty much on its own.”
Perhaps the success of the Chabad Chassidic sect can be traced back to the final words the Baal Shem Tov, the 18th century founder of the Chassidic movement, heard from his father before being orphaned as a child. “”Yisrolik, fear nothing but G‑d alone. Love every single Jew, without exception, with the full depth of your heart and with the fire of your soul, no matter who he is or how he behaves.” Rabbi Simon Jacobson, founder of the Meaningful Life Center (and one of my favorite authorities on Chabad), highlights the seven successive generations of Chabad Rebbes who developed “an eloquent and comprehensive system bridging the schism between the material and the spiritual – one that offers a dynamic blueprint for Jewish life today that is spiritually relevant to our times.”
Truth be told, although their footprint is worldwide, “Chabadniks” are in essence part of the broader “Charedi” or “ultra-orthodox” Jewish population who believe in a fairly strict observance of the rules and teachings of the Torah. (1) As the “Ultra-orthodox” are often maligned in the media as a cultish patriarchal society that promotes bigotry and racism, it’s no wonder the Chabad.org website warns ”The prefix “ultra” is commonly used by media broadcasters, but it has no practical meaning. It is used to marginalize a group or to portray them as extremists battling with extremists of other religions. If you hear Chabad described in the media as “ultra-Orthodox,” pick up the phone or fire off an email and complain. Tell them Chabad is a Jewish movement, without any labels, and they should describe it as such.”The same convenient marginalization is often attributed to the complex yet beautiful plethora of communities such as Satmar, Belz, Yeshivish, Litvish or any other “ultra-orthodox” Jewish community. I believe this is to the detriment of societal multiculturalism for when we judge those who wear black and white through a black and white lens, we lose the color of a healthy civilization.
Although one could dedicate an entire article to each of these communities, I chose to offer you a taste of the Chabad community in honor of my mother, Dr. Sharonah Welton, who is a proud Chabad-Chassidic woman. Combine that with my being a millennial in New York City and I thought it’d be fun to briefly interview three Chabad thought-leaders who preach a global message. To be clear – when I asked these Rabbis if they’d be willing to be interviewed as a “thought leader of Chabad,” they each responded with “The only thought-leader of Chabad is the Rebbe.” For those who are close to their Chabad Rabbi, you know exactly what I’m talking about. When my mother attended Yeshiva in the late 70’s as a college grad, she encountered one of her favorite thought-leaders of Chabad and the first one on our list – Rabbi Manis Friedman.
THE RELATIONSHIP GURU
Rabbi Manis Friedman
Rabbi Manis Friedman is the co-founder and dean of the Bais Chana Institute of Jewish Studies and a world-renowned public speaker and marriage counselor. His teachings have been cited by many authors including Barbara Holstein’s “Enchanted Self: A Positive Therapy” and Syliva Fishman’s “A Breath of Life: Feminism in the American Jewish Community”. Additionally, from 1984-1990, he served as the simultaneous translator for the live televised talks by the Rebbe and went on to publish “Why Doesn’t Anyone Blush Anymore?” in 1990 and, most recently, “The Joy of Intimacy” with co-author and award-winning filmmaker Ricardo Adler.
RLW: “Both of your books are about relationships. Is there a difference between them?”
RMF: “Well, a lot of my experience comes from teaching the hundreds of women in Bais Chana about relationships and family. I’ll often tell people that it took me about 46 years to write these books with the first one being more about “tznius” or the abstract concepts of modesty that could be summed up in the idea that if you help yourself to the benefits of being married when you are single, you’re likely to help yourself to the benefits of being single when you’re married. What really motivated the new book was the deluge of happily married couple who came complaining to me that there was something essential missing in their marriages. With divorce rates on the rise, it’s scary how imperative it is to redefine intimacy, understand what it is, and get past pop-psychology so that couples don’t feel alone but rather “a man and woman… become one” (Genesis 2:24)
RLW: “What are 3 quick messages about intimacy from your book?”
RMF: “That intimacy is sacred. It’s not soup. Soup is something you enjoy but it’s not sacred. Being intimate with someone is not about the enjoyment between the two of you but about creating that sacred space. Secondly, being intimate is not a thing you do but a state you’re in with a person you’re with. As it states in the Mishna“ Any love that is dependent on something—when the thing ceases, the love also ceases. But a love that is not dependent on anything never ceases.” (Pirkei Avot 5:16) Without intimacy, you’re alone in the world no matter how many likes or followers you have. A third message is not to worship love. Love by itself is not the relationship, it’s the flavor of the relationship. If you’re two seperate people on two seperate paths, love is not the answer. Intimacy is.
RLW: “How does this express the unique spiritual flavor of Chabad?”
RMF: “One of the fundamentals of being a Chabad chossid is to work daily on your humility through meditation and losing your ego in the Other. Cultivating intimacy in your terrestrial relationships is exactly like cultivating intimacy in your celestial relationship. Many of the ideas in The Joy of Intimacy are derivations from the Kabbalistic ingredients for ones spiritual relationship with our Maker. For example, if your spirituality is based on your desire to gain entry into Heaven, then it’s like marrying someone for money. Marrying someone for love would be when you serve your Maker not for what you need but for what you’re needed for. The third Rebbe of Chabad, the Tzemach Tzedek, once shared.” The love expressed in Psalm 73:25 means that one should desire nothing other than God….as was expressed by my master and teacher Alter Rebbe (first Chabad Rebbe) when he was in a state of intense meditation and exclaimed “I want nothing at all! I don’t want Your gan eden (Heaven), I don’t want Your olam haba (Messianic World to Come), I want nothing but You alone.” Now imagine the power of that type of love in the intimate relationships of this generation.
RLW: “Do you think that’s the most important message for our generation?”
RMF: “No, I actually think the most important message for our generation is that the “Aybershter” (the One Above) needs you more than you need Him. I’m afraid that in our “selfie”-generation, we’re drowning in our selfishness and entitlement. People are sick and tired of promotion of self-interest and the constant messaging barrage of what we deserve, what we should have, and what’s good for us. This has even crept into our spirituality where we often hear how God needs nothing and religion if just for our spiritual needs. But the truth is that God needs us and the proof is found in the very first verse of the Torah. “In the beginning, God created the Heavens and the Earth” (Genesis 1:1). God created the world and not us and whenever someone creates a narrative, the logical question to ask is “what do you need?”
I find it fascinating that all the commencement speeches over the past decade included messages like “go out and be your best, succeed beyond your norm, chase all your dreams, etc” but this year almost everyone speaking, from professors, comedians to even a general in the army, is preaching “go out there and fix the world, go make the world better.” It’s like they’re all Chabad and I find it a very positive development from the selfishness that has festered since the 80’s.
The Talmudic sage, Rabbi Elazar Hakapar, said “against your will you were created” and I think this teaches us that life is not a competition between what we need and what our Creator need. Rather, we must stop putting God on the back-burner and start seeing what our gifts, talents and souls can do to make this world a better, more loving and more Godly place.”
THE INREACH RABBI
Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Jacobson
Rabbi YY Jacobson is one of the most mesmerising & sought after speakers in the Jewish world today, lecturing to audiences on six continents and in forty-five states, and serving as teacher and mentor to thousands across the globe. Rabbi Jacobson was the first rabbi ever to be invited by the Pentagon to deliver the religious keynote to the US military Chief of Chaplains and to the National Security Agency. Rabbi Jacobson founded and serves as dean of TheYeshiva.net, teaching, via the web, one of the largest Torah classes in the world and is the author of “A Tale of Two Souls”—a 150 episode audio series on the teachings of the Chassidic classic, the Tanya. “Although many people consider Chabad to be an “outreach organization”, I was intrigued by the tremendous success Rabbi Jacobson has seen doing “in-reach” with the Orthodox & Strictly-Orthodox Jewish communities.
RLW: “On Youtube and other social media channels, I’ve seen how popular you are amongst Jewish communities of vastly different religious affiliations ranging from the unaffiliated to the “black hat” strictly-Orthodox. What is your secret?
YY: “Well, first of all, permit me to correct you by suggesting that “popularity” is not the goal and neither is fitting people in their specific and proverbial boxes of affiliation. Rather, we are all members of the same tribe and same global “mishpocha” (“family”). One commonality which I’ve seen in my travels is how easy it is to be cynical when you see the amount of corruption, abuse, and dishonesty in one’s own community. No matter what their background is, I get how people from all different backgrounds want to shy away from the highly polarized and politicized society in which we find ourselves, preferring to just enjoy life to the best of their ability. But regarding this, the Baal Shem Tov (Founder of Chassidic thought) would teach that cynicism is a form of fear and you’re either part of the problem or part of the solution. The universe is a constant flux of “ratzo” and “shuv” (“give and take”). Plants take sunlight, air and water and convert it in order to give energy and oxygen to the planet. So too, within every community, there’s a “ratzo” and “shuv” that is unique to their situation. I try to empower citizens of Gods’ world to “take” the problem, transcend cynicism, and become ambassadors of love & light.”
RLW: “Is your vision of an “Ambassador of Love” a derivation of the Chabad mandate?”
YY: “Well, it’s important to remember that Chabad is a branch of Chassidic teaching in general which contain many priceless gems of wisdom that can enrich the imagination on a daily basis. Yesterday, I shared an insight of the Alter Rebbe who interprets Job 19:26 “and from my flesh I see Elokim” to mean that we must “see our flesh” until we can perceive the divine inherent in it. Unlike stoics who disregard the body and felt religion must take us away from physicality, Chabad philosophy focuses on finding a holistic model which basically sees the human being at the vortex of the cosmos with the power to reveal the Unity within the physicality. In other words, in the beginning God created the Heavens and the Earth and then created humans to become that bridge between them. It is teachings like this one that propel Chabad “shluchim” to sacrifice their own physicality for someone else’s spirituality for we have been cultivated with the mindset that we can do the impossible; to bring Heaven down to Earth.”
RLW: “This may be random but, when I hear you talk, a part of me wonders if you write poetry?”
YY: “No, I’m not a poet. I love studying the world whether its botany, cosmology, biology, whatever. When I see a bee pollinating a flower and then doing the “bee dance”, I find it marvelously inspiring. The Baal Shem Tov taught that there’s spiritual lessons to be learned from everything you see. Sometimes when I’m counseling parents struggling with a defiant teenager, I’ll show them an apricot pit and Ill tell them how that pit is so hard that one’s teeth can crack when trying to bite it but if you gently place the pit into the warm soil, not only will it open up but a magnificent tree will spring from inside it.”
RLW: “If you had a message for the youth of today, what would it be?”
YY: “There’s two features required for today’s social activist, thinker, professional or whatever is their chosen vocation; absolute Integrity and Relevance. Absolute integrity is a must because people are exhausted from hearing half-truths and camouflaged messages interwoven into the deluge of information we consume daily. Today, if you dont live what you’re teaching and are not honest about your shortcomings, the youth will reject you. Without communicating on that level, we will lose their souls. They may pledge allegiance with their bodies, maybe even write a check once in a while, but all types of hypocrisy are loathed. Relevance is the second requirement because the global marketplace is being dominated by the best storytellers and trendsetters. One must become a “Rabbi” of your business and if the story you’re selling speaks to a certain standard or beautiful dogma but doesn’t address the real dilemmas and curiosities of peoples souls, you’ll lose them. They may respect you from afar but they won’t become your real “students” unless you can illustrate how the wisdom you preach has a message uniquely tailored to them.
RLW: “How do you know what message they need to hear?”
YY: “Just listen. If you can quiet the mind long enough to truly listen to someone else, they’ll tell you all you need to know. Their silence will speak! Even the pauses between their sentences will speak volumes. That’s why the verse states “Hear O’ Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One” (Deuteronomy 6:4) for it is more often through listening that we grasp someone’s truth. The Rebbe Maharash (4th Chabad Rebbe) once said “when a Jew comes to me for yechidus (“private meeting”) I have to dress myself in “his clothing” in order to understand him.” To be able to reach into someones soul and fan the flame of their spiritual excitement, what’s needed is less preaching and more “chassidic listening.”
Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
Rabbi Tzvi Freeman is a senior editor at Chabad.org. He is also the author of two volumes of Bringing Heaven Down to Earth — collections of meditations based on the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe — as well as numerous articles and essays on Jewish mysticism, philosophy and practice. Additionally, he writes Chabad.org’s widely acclaimed Daily Dose of Wisdom, mailed daily to tens of thousands of subscribers. What I found intriguing was what the only text he has written in the “About Me” section of his Facebook page: “I don’t believe in philosophies. I believe in ideas that change people.”
RLW: “How did you get into your non-traditional Rabbinic work?
RTF: “From the time I left Yeshiva, I wanted to be on shlichus. But I ended up in hi-tech. I started writing to the Rebbe—this was in the late 80s—about every peula (“accomplishment”) I had managed to do, and everything else that was going on in my life. I wrote as a shliach, even though I was not out there on a particular shlichus. Eventually, I published Bringing Heaven Down To Earth. Most of it had gone out as emails to my subscription list but I was excited by the amount of change it had impacted in people’s lives so I made it into a book. Eventually, I was able to move over from software design to working full time for Chabad.org.”
RLW: “Do you miss software design?”
RTF: “I’ve always been and always will be a tech-freak. I bought one of Apple’s first PCs. I was even an Apple developer for a while, designed award-winning educational software, taught game design and wrote feature articles for Game Developer Magazine. When email and online forums started popping up—pre-Internet—I was there answering questions on Jewish topics, and sending out a regular emails. When the Internet opened up, that changed everything, but there was a small group of us who had already planted the seeds. The Kabbala Toons are a set of 100 short animated cartoons starring Rabbi Infinity. I figured the deepest ideas have to be brought down to the simplest platform and this would be it. When I look at what’s going viral in 2018, one-minute videos are the rage. Heaven Exposed is a project I wanted to create to synthesize multiple interests of mine into a Kabbalistic Sci-fi/fantasy series that was basically born from a belief that digital technology is a perfect metaphor for explaining abstract ideas in a fun way. It’s all online at Chabad.org.”
RLW: “What do you read, besides for Torah, that gives you inspiration?”
RTF: “I read everything that I can learn from because I’m fascinated by everything in God’s world. My shelves are double-stacked with history, science, psychology, math—it’s all over the place. The truth is, every book is a struggle. Each book forces me to rethink everything I know. You have to read critically—not accept every opinion as a fact. Look in the footnotes. Consider what the author’s biases are. And then come to your own understanding. Then I take that inspiration and focus on what the world needs. These days, it’s mostly “What are people Googling for?” And “What do people need to know?” Sometimes Ill get carried away with something that I just want to do but its the elegance and beauty of matching an end-product with a need that drives me.”
RLW: “What is your favorite online youtube clip?”
RTF: “The one where the Rebbe yells, “Ker a velt heint!” Roughly translated as “Revolution now!”
RLW: “For millenials – or really anyone- that wants to revolutionize the world, what pearl of wisdom would you share with them?”
RTF: “Millenials are living through a world that is torn, almost polarized, by opposing voices—between those who reject the past in their drive toward an unexplored future, and those who reject the present to return us to a dark past. Everywhere you look, you will find this same divide, in multifarious forms, as though through a prism, within almost every major discourse today. It threatens the very foundations of modern civilization, stretching its fibers from two ends at once, with only a narrow thread left in between.Chabad provides a much needed third approach. Chabad is a voice for change and progress in the most optimistic sense, but of the kind that is rooted deeply and firmly in the narratives of the past, those narratives upon which the modern world was built from the start. Chabad says, “We have a heritage of wisdom from the past. But it is all there only so that we can build an amazing future—to make the world the way it was meant to be. That’s your task. Take this wisdom, and put it to good use. Be the generation that brings Heaven down to Earth.”
As Samuel Heilman, sociology and Jewish studies professor at City University of New York and author of Defenders of the Faith: Inside Ultra-Orthodox Jewry, says about Chabad “You can’t measure their influence by the number of guys they have in black hats”.