Chabad Decentralized

Chabad Decentralized

By Dovi Seldowitz

In the social sciences, sociology in particular, a key issue in research methodology is the researcher, his or her perspective and evaluation of the research subject. One important question is whether or not the researcher ought to be an “insider” or an “outsider?” Both insider and outsider perspectives yield claims over the superior research method; the outsider may claim to be unbiased while the insider claims deeper understanding of the cultural nuances.[1] In the case of Chabad, these approaches are strongly contrasted with regards to the decentralization of the movement. The outsider may claim no bias when studying Chabad leadership, but they are likely to miss one of the key elements of Chabad’s organizational structure, it’s profound structural decentralization.

Decentralization in a Chasidic movement is not a very intuitive notion as Chasidic groups are, by definition, cultures whose center is a single rebbe and the dynastic family. So where exactly does this idea come from? Is Chabad, in fact, structurally and organizationally decentralized?

Mostly, the answer lies in the movement’s response to the death of its rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson in 1994. At the time of the Rebbe’s death, a number of outsiders (and perhaps many insiders as well) expected that the Chabad movement, like most Chasidic movements would appoint a new rebbe in Rabbi Menachem Mendel’s place. Some allowance in time was given due the tumultuous nature of the Rebbe’s death. But ultimately Chabad would find someone, perhaps a great Chasidic thinker steeped in the Chabad intellectual tradition, or a charismatic, practical leader.[2] But instead, Chabad remained faithful to the Rebbe’s legacy, neither appointing a new rebbe in his stead, nor abandoning the Rebbe’s directives concerning global Jewish outreach. Certain changes did take place, but they occurred quietly, behind the scenes. One such change was the progression towards greater decentralization of local Chabad communities and thousands of outreach centers around the world. Essentially all activities continued on as before, yet the crucial component of a centralized leadership was replaced with a decentralized model.

In the case of Chabad, decentralization has worked; Chabad outreach has grown exponentially since 1994.[3] But how exactly does this decentralized model work? How does it affect the mission and activities of Chabad?

The decentralization of Chabad rests on two key principles, the latitude given to the individual emissary (shliach/shlucha) involved in Jewish outreach, and the financial independence of each emissary couple. Chabad shluchim may choose what type of religious and social services they wish to provide to Jews in their area, and nothing would prevent them should they wish to invent a new form of programming. This individual freedom does not run entirely without input from fellow shluchim who offer advice on best practices and new initiatives, and significant effort is placed on the coordination of activities, most notably around the annual shluchim/shluchos conventions.[4]

For Chabad emissaries, this independence comes at a cost as the decentralized model means they cannot rely on the central Chabad organizations for their salary or to help balance their budget and must raise the funds through their own efforts. At times this can translate into real financial struggles to provide for the needs of the emissary’s family.[5] And due to the decentralized nature of the movement, there is no uniformity in the relations between Chabad and other Jewish movements and groups. The relationships between individual Chabad shluchim and local Reform or Conservative rabbis, for example, vary from friendly to otherwise.[6]

Chabad’s decentralization appears to be a matter that was foreseen and even anticipated by the Rebbe who established the precedent of the financial independence of individual Chabad centers.[7] Yet, as shluchim find greater and greater self-expression in their work does this element become more apparent. But to understand the decentralization of the Chabad movement, the outsider needs to tune in to the nuances of Chabad outreach. All sorts of programs have been newly formed, some are quite innovative. And while other Chabad centers may adopt these new initiatives, it is very much a “bottom-up” process. To study the Chabad movement, especially it’s organizations, institutions and leadership, one cannot afford to rely solely on the perspectives of a remote outside observer, for the greater the distance between researcher and subject, the more likely they are to miss the nuances that point to the spectacle of a decentralized Chasidic movement.

[1] See for example, Merton, Robert K. “Insiders and outsiders: A chapter in the sociology of knowledge.” American Journal of Sociology (1972): 9-47. Merton describes the two perspectives evolving into doctrinal forms, where social scientists of a particular race, ethnicity or group maintain that only they may understand the social life and culture of their group.
[2] See for example, Chaim Dalfin, “Interview with Chaim Potok,” Conversations with the Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson: Interviews with 14 Leading Figures about the Rebbe, JEC Publishing Company, 1996.
[3] See, Arnold Dashefsky and Ira Sheskin, American Jewish Year Book 2014, Springer, 2014, pp. 207-208.
[4] See, Jack Wertheimer,
“Why the Lubavitch Movement Thrives in the Absence of a Living Rebbe,” Jewish Action, Orthodox Union, June 16, 2014.
[5] See for example, “Confessions of a Chabad Rabbi: Wearing My Mind on My Sleeve…”, Accessed December 3, 2014.
[6] See for example, Eric H. Yoffie, “Chabad’s dangerous message of love without commitment,” Haaretz. April 21, 2013.
[7] See, Pinchas Giller, Kabbalah: A Guide for the Perplexed, A&C Black, 2011, page 208.


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