It’s the deity, stupid

By Jay Michaelson
From the Jerusalem Post

Ask anyone in the Jewish institutional community, and they will reply that demographics is not their primary concern; it’s their only concern. With study after study portending the imminent demise of the Jewish people, philanthropists and the institutions they support are scrambling to somehow avert extinction. Ironically, though, many efforts have been undermined precisely by the desperation which inspires them.

Increasingly, their “target audiences” – marginally-affiliated Jews 18 to 45, the ones most apt to leave the fold – know the game. They smell the con, and sense that the slogans and high-concept Web designs are mere ploys to get them to marry another Jew and reproduce. Where to look for different models of Jewish outreach, which might address the demographers’ panic while remaining authentic enough to actually work?

Statistically, the two most successful Jewish outreach organizations today are Chabad-Lubavitch and the Kabbalah Center. Many “professional Jews” don’t want to face this fact, since it flies in the face of their assumptions – not least the assumption that unaffiliated Jews want to be “just like us.” It’s frustrating, too, that these weird guys in beards are doing a better job reaching the unaffiliated than smart Ivy grads with master’s degrees in public relations. So, in the face of these two organizations’ remarkable success, we hear jokes. Kabbalah – isn’t that about Madonna, and magic strings? And, you know, of all the world’s religions, the closest one to Judaism is Chabad.

But if Jewish organizations are serious about creating engaging and sustainable communities, maybe it’s worth looking at the success of these two mystical institutions to see why they seem to be working so well. So what do we find?

Immediately, one sees that Chabad and the Kabbalah Center are focused not on “community” or “continuity” or any of the other synonyms for tribe, but on spirit. And they both talk about God, a word which many professional Jews hesitate to utter. We may disparage the messianism of Lubavitch and the commercialism of the Kabbalah Center, but their rhetoric is straightforward: This is about God, spirituality, even enlightenment. If you’re interested, come to a class. [more]

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |