Thursday, April 21, 2011

The fifty most influential rabbis in America and the rise of Habad

This past week Newsweek and the Daily Beast came out with its list of the fifty most influential Rabbis in America. Sadly, I must admit that I didn’t make the list once again. Maybe I was close but who knows. I’ll try harder for next year’s list.
The list gives criterion for how the reviewers decide who gets onto the list. What I noticed that was different was that more women appeared on the list. That is a good thing. Second, I took a step back to acknowledge the fact that Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, the titular head of Habad in Crown Heights, Brooklyn was rated number one this year for the most influential rabbi in America. For years Rabbi Krinsky was the second in command to Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, the famed and revered Lubavitch Rabbi that led Habad and touched many souls. His imprint is still felt upon Habad. Rabbi Krinsky does not pretend to have that kind of charisma but has continued to build the international organization of Habad throughout the world. The fact that a Hasidic rabbi in America garners the award for the most influential rabbi should give us all pause for reflection.
His number one status represents a great symbolic achievement for Habad. Who would have imagined decades ago that the most influential rabbi in America would have been a black hat rabbi from Crown Heights, Brooklyn? It is not just about Rabbi Krinisky. The underlying point is that this media ordained award demonstrates that the entire Habad movement is an equal player as any of the major branches of Judaism.
Having served congregations in communities where Habad rabbis also served, I can attest to the challenges of working with them. Their approach is not necessarily community based or collaborative. They do not generally join the rabbinical groups where rabbis from the other branches meet and discuss issues in the community. They refrain from being participants with other Jewish organizations in community based events. They choose to do their own thing and many times get a powerful constituency to follow and support them. Many of their successes are funded by Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Jews let alone unaffiliated Jews. That constituency is really what they specialize in attracting. They are great at reaching out to the people on the fringes who just do not feel comfortable in more mainstream organizations. Sometimes it is about money and other times they see in the Habad movement rabbinical couples who run their synagogues with such passion and commitment  which in turn draws a dedicated cadre into their community.
Trust me when I say that many of the major branches cry foul at the various strategies Habad employs to get publicity or, for example, convince political leaders to let them put their gigantic Hanukah menorahs on public property and light them at Hanukah. This always stirs anger from the mainstream Jewish community regarding the principle of prayer on public spaces. Yet they do it regardless.
On college campuses many of the Habad centers have garnered more student activity than the Hillel centers. A Hillel rabbi from my daughter’s campus said referring to the Habad rabbi on campus, “They are eating us up alive.” They have consistently good food for Shabbat. They invite everyone to the home of the rabbi and rebbetzin and they make people feel welcome into their community.
My own congregants have told me stories of how their children have become frum (pious and observant) and chosen an observant lifestyle. That does not always mean they chose Habad but it often happens that way. Habad does not look to attract the interfaith but they strive to reengage disaffected Jews on the streets and even in the prisons. They are outreach oriented in an equally powerful  but different way than what Reform Judaism, for example, does by growing its outreach movement.
Rabbi Krinsky’s recognition as the number one most influential rabbi in America means that as much as we resent some of their tactics, Habad is part of the pantheon of major American branches of Judaism. In fact as much as we do not like to admit it, I think we could learn a lot by them. Their reach is worldwide and their rabbis’ willingness to go to the ends of the earth and put their livelihood on the line in far outreaching countries and communities should be a model for any young rabbi looking to make a difference in the world.
What is your view?
Have a continued great week of Passover.

1 comment:

Rabbi Arthur Segal said...

Shalom Chaver shel le R' Brad:

There is a major irony with Chabad.

The Ba'al Shem Tov developed his movement to put mindless ritual aside in favor of loving kindness and kavenah, spiritual intention. The aim of a Jew was not for studying ritual and halacha, but to develop a cleaving, a devekut , with the Divine, and one's fellows.This came thru deep prayer and mediation.

He believed in panentheism. God exists and interpenetrates every part of nature, and timelessly extends beyond as well. Hence according to Chasidism, the Infinite Ein Sof is incorporeal, having no body, and is both transcendent and immanent.

The story is told of the unschooled boy who played a niggun on his flute , from his heart, as his prayer, and it was accepted by Heaven, more than all of the frum congregants dovening and shucking rapidly and routinely in Ivrit.

Just as the Talmud teaches us the dream-parable of Moses walking into Rabbi Akiva's academy circa 125 CE, and being so lost trying to understand Rabbinic Talmudic Judaism vis a vis his Hebraism, that R' Avika placed Moses in the back row with the new talmidim , so too could one write a Midrash today of what would occur if the BeShT walked into a Chabad house on a Shabbat.

While I find it unsettling that different sects, and various synagogues look at each other as competition, Chabad does draw Jews, as superficially they appear to be more welcoming, than the average temple. Chabad would never ask anyone to pay for a kiddush lunch. That bill comes due later on.

Hope you had a spiritual, renewing, and kasher Pesach.

Your Chaver:

Rabbi Arthur Segal