The Multicultural Chabad: Trends of Ethnic Diversity in a Chasidic Movement

The Multicultural Chabad: Trends of Ethnic Diversity in a Chasidic Movement

By Dovi Seldowitz

Ethnicity amongst Jews may be crudely conceived as a simple divide between East and West. Eastern Jews consist of both Sephardic and various Oriental groups (referred to generally as “Mizrachim”) of the Mediterranean region and parts of Asia. The Jews of the West are the Ashkenazim originating from Russia and most European countries.[1] Chabad, a movement that began in White Russia and whose early followers may be presumed to be all Ashkenazi, has in the last century begun to blur the old lines of Jewish ethnicity in a mix of activist efforts, integrating Jews of various backgrounds under the banner of the movement.

Ethnic diversity in Chabad is fairly unique among the Chasidic movements, other groups may include non-Ashkenazi adherents, but Chabad appears to have the highest proportion of such members. Chabad Sephardi and Mizrachi Jews include those hailing from North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia. Chabad influence is felt in various particular communities such as the Yemenite community in Israel, the Moroccan diaspora in France and Bukharian Jews in New York.

Outreach attempts by Chabad to directly reinforce attachments to Judaism amongst Sephardi and Mizrachi Jews are not recent stories. The very first Chabad emissary sent out by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson was to Morocco, in 1950 (the Moroccan effort was actually first initiated by the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, shortly before his passing).[2] Chabad activities in Bukharian communities began even earlier with the emissaries of the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Sholom Ber Schneersohn, prior to World War One.[3]

For sociologists and other social scientists studying Chabad, a significant but limited amount of scholarly material exists on the state of ethnicity in Chabad; only a single study examines Chabad’s ethnic diversity using quantitative measures.[4] Other sources examine the interactions between Chabad and a particular Sephardi or Mizrachi group.[5] Chabad’s attitude toward Jews of various ethnic backgrounds is quite inclusive; Chabad’s outreach and its Chasidic philosophy has lead to the integration of Ashkenazi and non-Ashkenazi families in daily life in the Chabad community. These families have been joined together by sharing a common ideology, participating in the same communal events, educating their children in the same schools and allowing them to join in marriage. What has yet to be explored is the existence of a cross-acculturation, how traditional Sephardi and Mizrachi life and culture may have influenced or been incorporated and adopted by Chabad communities.

The Chabad movement has long sought to strengthen the identities of Jews in Sephardi and Mizrachi communities. This multicultural trend in Chabad has been the result of emphasizing the movement’s Chasidic philosophy and ideology over its geographic roots. Chabad communities themselves have become ethnically diverse on account of the movement’s outreach efforts which led to the integration of Ashkenazi and non-Ashkenazi Chasidim. This initiative that began some hundred years ago has translated today into the multicultural heritage of many Chabad Chasidim today.

Footnotes:
[1] This crude geographic measure is obviously limited as many Ashkenazi Jews migrated to Israel (and other Middle Eastern countries) centuries ago, and non-Ashkenazim have lived in various parts of Europe alongside their Ashkenazi brethren. This measure also omits African-Jewish groups.
[2] See, “1950: Leadership,” The Life and Times of the Rebbe, TheRebbe.org (Chabad.org).
[3] See, Naftali Loewenthal, “Lubavitch Hasidim,” The YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe, YIVO Institute for Jewish Research (yivoencyclopedia.org), August 27, 2010.
[4] See, Charles Shahar, Main Report: A Comprehensive Study of the Ultra Orthodox Community of Greater Montreal (2003), Montreal, Canada: Federation CJA (Montreal), (2003): pp. 7–33. Shahar’s study found that one in four Chabad households in Montreal included at least one Sephardi parent.
[5] See, Moshe Shokeid, Children of Circumstances: Israeli Emigrants in New York, Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1988, pp. 139-160; Laurence D. Loeb, “HaBaD and Habban: 770’s Impact on a Yemenite Jewish Community in Israel,” New World Hasidim: Ethnographic Studies of Hasidic Jews in America, ed. J.S. Belcove-Shalin, SUNY Press, (1995): 69-85.

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