If there is one thing that drives me crazy in the American Jewish press, and to some extent about the non-Jewish press when it writes about Jews, it is the veneration of all things new and edgy, and the denigration of all things considered old and stodgy. Check out any article about Limmud or the Independent Minyan movement, and you’ll see all sorts of fawning quotes and the bandying about of words like “innovative” and “exciting” and “progressive.” Then check out an article about the Reform or Conservative Movements, or about Federations and you’ll get quotes about how these institutions have outlived their welcome and the operative words will be things like “shrinking” and “aging” and “slowly dying like a huge, old elephant that tripped over itself and is unable to rise.” The only thing those two types of stories have in common is that Professor Jonathan Sarna will be inevitably quoted at the end of both.
Given that basic framework, I have always found it interesting that Chabad—and Chabad-type movements—manage to fall on the Limmud, Independent Minyan side of this divide and not on the old-stodgy-dying side. Two recent articles caught my eye in this regard.
The first is from the The New York Times and tells the unbelievably amazing story of a rabbi and his wife who have attracted young people to their home by having fancy food and plenty of alcohol. It is remarkable that if you give people good food, drinks and basically ask nothing of them, they will come. The article tries to claim that this sort of outreach is new:
When the Soho Synagogue started in 2005, with its loft parties and signature cocktails, there was little else like it.
But of course, anyone who has been on a college campus in the last two decades or so can tell you that this strategy is just the basic Chabad campus strategy taken to the streets of New York (and now L.A. and other cities.) “Suprisingly” hip rabbi, welcoming wife, food and alcohol: that’s basically the formula. Sometimes is works better, sometimes worse, but it doesn’t really vary that much. And of course, in article like this you can’t not have the obligatory dig at other expressions of Judaism:
They started small, with Mrs. Scheiner baking challah and offering it to people in their building on Chambers Street. Within a few months, they had their first guest for Shabbat dinner. They listened as nonreligious Jews told stories about stifling Hebrew schools and uninspiring worship services that led to their alienation from the faith. The couple asked them how they could create something appealing and different.
Man, if only ANYONE else in the Jewish world had though to try to be welcoming and hip and interesting instead of exclusive and stodgy and boring! I know that in my synagogue, we do our best to alienate as many people as possible, because it’s really, really hard to come up with other ideas. And then there’s this:
But so far, Rabbi Scheiner said, the secular Jews they appeal to seem to be accepting their mix of traditional and modern. “We are not saying, why do you have a phone in your pocket, why after services are you going to Balthazar or why are you dating a non-Jewish person?” he said. “It’s not my place. We are here to inspire them and open up their eyes and enable them to reconnect and to grow.”
This makes me crazy on so many levels. First: the article does not even begin to interrogate the implicit claim here that these young people have felt “judged” in all the other Jewish settings they have been in. I would suspect that have not. I would suspect that they are secular not because someone yelled at them once for having a cell phone or for “going to Balthazar” but for a hundred other reasons having nothing to with people calling them out for dating non-Jews. Second, this “outreach” as the article obliquely acknowledges, has a bare minimum of Jewish content. It’s attractive BECAUSE there’s very little religious about it at all. Which is totally fine, by the way. But until you show me that these sorts of get-togethers actually move people towards a more connected Jewish life, let’s not compare apples and oranges. I’d wager that any Jewish institution in the country could rent some high profile spaces, give out free food and drinks and pack a room full of young Jews. (This just happened here in New Orleans, in fact.) But so what? What’s the next step? And the next? Is the goal to a fill a room? Is the goal to get press as a destination for lots of young, disaffected Jews? If that is the goal, then I dare say we are setting the bar a weensy bit too low. Getting people in the room is one thing; taking them somewhere serious and life-affecting once they get there is something else. But the press loves a room full of swanky young Jews, especially if the cast of characters includes, “an Orthodox Jewish rabbi, dressed unexpectedly in a tight black shirt and ripped jeans.” Please.
The second article comes from the The Jewish Daily Forward. It follows the classic everything-Chabad-does-is-freer-and-more-loving model. It’s about Chabad run preschools, and it makes great hay out of the fact these schools are so welcoming and (relatively) inexpensive. Again, however, there is no thought give to why these schools can afford to run at such a lower cost: they employ young women who view it as part of their religious mission to serve as teachers in these schools. (I am not denigrating that sense of mission, it is beautiful, but surely that should be part of this story?) The article does note that many faith-based schools do not need to be licensed, which is surely part of the equation, but low-cost labor is another element allowing for lower fees. But I guess I could get over that oversight, if the article’s author had not felt the need to include the (seemingly required) dig at everyone else:
The struggling Reform and Conservative movements might take a lesson from Chabad. If they want to reach parents like my friends and me, for whom Jewish preschool could lead to more involvement and a greater connection to the Jewish community, they should offer more Jewish child care and preschool programs. It’s not rocket science.
You’re right, it’s not rocket science, it’s economics. And “struggling” Reform and Conservative synagogues do not have access to the supply of low-wage labor that Chabad-run schools can tap into. My goodness, does writing about Chabad success require the author to be condescending to everyone else? The author may be surprised to learn that there are many Conservative and Reform synagogues that have very well-attended preschools, but that most of them, as is ethical and appropriate, pay their child care workers at the going market rate for their area. So yes, they will tend to be more expensive. It’s not rocket science. If you are going to call out the Movements for not having enough preschool education, maybe giving some, you know, facts and figures would help.
Finally, I love the completely-undefended assumption that the Conservative and Reform Movements are “struggling”. Maybe they are, and maybe not, but surely that sort of thing needs to be argued, rather than assumed. The line is completely out of place in the article, except that—given the chance—why not take a shot at those old, stodgy, dying elephants? Everyone else seems to be.