Yiddish in the Free Market: Multilingualism in Chabad

Yiddish in the Free Market: Multilingualism in Chabad

By Dovi Seldowitz

Chasidic communities are noted for their steadfast commitment to speaking and writing in Yiddish; by contrast, the mostly secular movements to preserve Yiddish as a spoken language have been on the decline since the founding of the State of Israel. Chabad is similar in this regard, Yiddish is still spoken by many Chabad Chasidim today, yet, Chabad, as an international movement, has also acquired a number of non-Yiddish speaking Chasidim and has published a number of works in these various languages. In this sense, Yiddish is just one of the many languages (albeit a rather central one) of Chabad today.

The Chabad movement was founded in White Russia where Yiddish was the main spoken language of the Jews in that region, however, like the other Jewish communities at that time, most scholarly texts, including Chasidic ones, were written in Hebrew. This began to change with the emigration of Chabad Chasidim to the United States, Israel and other countries. Subsequent generations learned the languages of their host countries, however, Yiddish remained the de facto (and most preferred) language of Chasidim.[1]

One of the earliest social scientific studies on the Chabad movement was on the bilingualism of the Crown Heights Chabad community published in the late 1960s.[2] Though the Chabad community at that time included immigrant Russian speakers (and Chabad Chasidim could read and understand Hebrew), the dominant spoken languages were Yiddish (of the immigrant parents and for educational and religious uses) and English (of the second generation and for general use). So strong was the usage of both Yiddish and English that the author of the study concluded that Chabad would continue to remain a bilingual community for subsequent generations.

The dominance of Yiddish in Chabad waned as the movement’s outreach success grew. A number of non-Yiddish speakers joined Chabad as adults (including ba’alei tshuva) who required translations of existing Chabad literature. Chabad published a number of works in multiple languages including English, Spanish, French among others. A significant number of Jews living in Israel from non-Ashkenazic backgrounds, speaking only Hebrew, begun to associate themselves with Chabad. At the same time, the English-only population within the Chabad community grew, further challenged the centrality of Yiddish in the public sphere leading some of the educational institutions in Crown Heights subsequently switched the language of instruction from Yiddish to English.[3] At other schools, including some Chabad flagship institutions, Yiddish is still favored as the language for instruction.[4]

Today, Yiddish remains a central language in Chabad, though it is not spoken to the same extent as in earlier generations. Chabad now stands out from other Chasidic communities for its multilingualism. This multilingualism is bound to increase as Chabad continues its outreach efforts. And while Yiddish will always be treasured in the hearts and minds of Chabad Chasidim, its usage might hinge on the success of its proponents in advancing Yiddish as in the community.


[1] Yiddish is also the language of the majority of the Rebbe’s published talks (sichot), although many of these talks have been translated, it is most commonly read as a study text in the Yiddish original (even by non-Yiddish speakers).

[2] See, George Jochnowitz, “Bilingualism and dialect mixture among Lubavitcher Hasidic children.” American Speech (1968): 182-200.

[3] See, “The Change: Chumash AND [Not IN] Yiddish,” CrownHeights.info, September 22, 2011.

[4] See, R. C. Berman, “Yiddish Still Spoken (And Taught) Here,” Lubavitch.com, April 2, 2008.


Chabad Synagogues Increase in MetroWest NJ #ChabadSociology #ChabadStatistics

MetroW NJThe 2012 MetroWest Jewish Population Update Study“, conducted by Ira Sheskin, updated the information from the 1998 MetroWest Jewish Population Study.

The study surveyed Jewish life in Essex, Morris, Sussex and northern Union Counties in the state of New Jersey.

Presented in the study’s report was the number of synagogues and affiliated households.

Chabad-affiliated synagogues were not specifically highlighted in the findings but were grouped within the Orthodox synagogue count.

After examining the report, it became clear that roughly half of the Orthodox synagogues are in fact Chabad. This was also true for the nuber of affliated households. See table below.

Synagogues 1998 Household Count 2008 Household Count 2012 Household Count
All Orthodox 33 1,031 3,217 3,378
Chabad 16 61 1,402 1,558
Chabad Percentage 48% 6% 44% 46%


And when comparing Chabad to all synagogues in that area, Chabad appears to make up 20% of all synagogues, but only 8% of affiliated households. See table below.

Synagogues 1998 Household Count 2008 Household Count 2012 Household Count
All Denominations 82 12,108 19,247 18,781
Chabad 16 61 1,402 1,558
Chabad Percentage 20% 1% 7% 8%


Methodology Note: We’ve identified this list of Chabad synagogues by a) having “Chabad” (or “Lubavitch”) in it’s name, and b) by visiting the synagogue website (e.g. on the “about” page). The other Orthodox synagogues either identified as “Modern Orthodox” or gave no indication as to being affiliated with Chabad.

Below is a complete list of Chabad synagogue totals, as listed in the report.

Synagogue City County 1998 2008 2012 2008-2012
Bris Avrohom/Congregation Shomrei Torah
Ohel Yosef Yitzchok
Hillside Union NA NA NA NA
Chabad at Short Hills/Ahavat Torah Short Hills Essex NA NA NA NA
Chabad Center of Northwest New Jersey Rockaway Morris NA 250 250 0
Chabad Jewish Center in Basking Ridge/
Chabad of Somerset, Hunterdon & Union
Basking Ridge Somerset NA 75 150 75
Chabad of Montville Township Montville Morris 0 50 75 25
Chabad of Mountain Lake-Boonton
Denville Morris NA 30 30 0
Chabad of Northwest NJ-Western Region Flanders Morris NA 50 50 0
Chabad of Randolph Randolph Morris 0 60 40 -20
Chabad of Sussex County Sparta Sussex 0 70 100 30
Chabad of Union County Fanwood Union 0 15 30 15
Chai Center of Millburn/Short Hills Short Hills Essex NA 80 90 10
Congregation Levi Yitzchok/
Rabbinical College of America
Morristown Morris NA 100 100 0
Congregation Shaya Ahavat Torah/
Chabad Center of SE Morris County
Parsippany Morris 25 35 30 -5
Lubavitch Center Shul West Orange Essex 36 52 68 16
Maplewood Jewish Center / Congregation
Beth Ephraim
Maplewood Essex NA 35 45 10
Union County Torah Center Westfield Union NA 500 500 0
Total: 16 61 1402 1558 156


General Note: Many synagogues were unable to provide estimates for 1998 membership. Changes reflect only those synagogues for which 2008 and 2012 information is available. Italicized numbers are used to indicate reasonable estimates where data are not available.


Sheskin, Ira M. (2013). The 2012 MetroWest Jewish Population Update Study. Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ. http://databank.bjpa.org/Studies/downloadFile.cfm?FileID=2383

Chabad and Hillel Learn from Each Other #ChabadSociology #ChabadandHillel

Hillel-LogoIn the spirit of the upcoming Jewish New Year, we’d like to point to a finding that should warm your heart.

Chabad on Campus and Hillel are two Jewish organizations that serve the needs of Jewish students at universities all across the United States.

In may ways, they are engaged in a fierce competition. They compete for student involvement and public support. Their approaches are different, but they are playing on the same turf.

But one student found that Chabad and Hillel learn from each other.

In her Master’s Thesis, Heath Watenmaker at HUC points to some of the ways the organizations influence one another. According to Watenmaker: “Largely in response to Chabad’s presence on campus, Hillel has actively tried to incorporate more of a family feel into their Shabbat experience… Perhaps as an adaptation to Hillel’s ability to successfully reach large groups of students with highly social events, Chabad now holds events like paintballing… and they have monthly social gatherings.”

While this does not account for the experience at all campuses, this is a development that is wonderful to see.


Watenmaker, Heath A. Building Bridges, Creating Community: How Hillel and Chabad Reach out to Students on Campus. HUC-JIR School of Jewish Nonprofit Management (formerly School of Jewish Communal Service) Masters Theses. Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion School of Jewish Communal Service. May 2006: http://www.bjpa.org/Publications/details.cfm?PublicationID=5126

A Pretty Cool (beta) Project is Underway at NYU – #MODIYA #NYU #ChabadSociology

modiyaMODIYA is a pretty cool project that is underway at NYU.

While still in its early stages, this project has managed to dig up the weirdest of things for their collection of Jewish Media artifacts.

Try a Hip-Hop group named Chutzpah.

While I’m not entirely sure what immediate benefits this will bring, I don’t doubt that this collection may one day be useful to some people.

Chabad Statistics: Let’s Examine the Estimates #ChabadSociology #ChabadStatistics


Let’s revisit a previous post on Chabad statistics.

I’ve pointed out that the figures posted on Wikipedia.org and elsewhere does not appear to be based on any actual survey or poll, it’s all just a hunch.

But let’s examine this a little closer. What have the authors of the Chabad Wikipedia article found for us?

Here’s what they wrote:

“The movement has over 200,000 adherents,[13][14][15][16] and up to one million Jews attend Chabad services at least once a year.[17][18] .”

Here are their sources:

13. The perfect matzo a matter of timing, Associated Press April. 12, 2006
14. “Wertheimer, Jack. A People Divided: Judaism in Contemporary America. New York: Basic Books (A Division of Harper Collins) (1993); pg. xiv–xv”. Adherents.com. Retrieved 2010-05-12.
15. Occhiogrosso, Peter. The Joy of Sects: A Spirited Guide to the World’s Religious Traditions. New York: Doubleday (1996), Chapter: Judaism; pg. 250.
16. Andryszewski, Tricia. Communities of the Faithful: American Religious Movements Outside the Mainstream. Bookfield, Connecticut: Millbrook Press (1997); pg. 95.
17.Slater, Elinor and Robert, Great Jewish Men, Jonathan David Publishers 1996 (ISBN 08246 03818). Page 279.
18.Sharon Chisvin (5 August 2007). “Chabad Lubavitch centre set for River Heights area”. Winnipeg Free Press. Archived from the original on 27 September 2007.

For starters,  Associated Press (note 13) and Winnipeg Free Press (note 18) are both news sites, so you are relying on the reporter’s estimate. Not exactly scientific. In fact, the Winnipeg article claims there are over a million Lubavitchers globally, again with no source.

The source in note 14 actually points out to the lack of quantitative evidence. Here’s what the author actually wrote.

“The magazine of the New York Times ran a celebratory cover story of the Lubavitcher rebbe… Without adducing any quantitative evidence, the article claimed that the rebbe was “lionized by his nearly 200,000 followers” and declared his movement “a missionary juggernaut”. “

The sources in notes 15 and 16 state the 200,000 claim without providing sources And note 17 is a compilation of biographical sketches of “Great Jewish Men”, not the greatest primary source for Chabad demography.

What’s the bottom line here? There does not seem to be any serious demographic estimate of Chabad-Lubavitch.

Don’t Go Away!!! Stanford Scholar Asks to Collect Online Orthodox Material #ChabadSociology #OnlineResearch

Searching Chabad-Lubavitch on Google Scholar

Heidi Lerner, a Judaica cataloguer at Stanford University, has highlighted the scholarly value of preserving Jewish Orthodx materials being posted online.

“The research value of these materials to the study of Orthodox Judaism is quite considerable. Scholars have acknowledged the importance of  institutional collections of physical ephemera, notably the National Library of Israel (the new official name of the Jewish National and University Library in Jerusalem); the Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary’s broadside, poster, and “pashkevilim” (public wall posters used for communication in Haredi society) collections; and Harvard College Library Judaica Division’s collection of audio and videotaped sermons. The increasing concentration of such materials on the Web will necessitate new efforts at preservation.”

But doing that is not easy, as Lerner notes.

“The transient nature of these online sources and the difficulties in finding them are ongoing areas of concern that researchers and scholars need to address. There have been many third-party attempts to organize them on portals, individuals’ collections of links, scholars’ Web pages, etc. However, these do not provide systematic indexing or archiving, or any guarantee of longevity.”

I have seen a few attempts to try to organize Chabad-related resources, and I hope that they don’t just disappear…

Read more of Lerner’s article here.


Lerner, Heidi. Researching Orthodox Judaism Online. AJS Perspectives: The Magazine of the Association for Jewish Studies. Association for Jewish Studies (AJS). Spring 2008: 36-38

Campus Shabbat Experience @ Chabad – Sociologists Research & Make Recommendations #ChabadSociology #ChabadonCampus

Jewish Sociologists collaborating with the Chabad on Campus International Foundation examined the phenomenon of Shabbat dinner events held on American college campuses by the Chabad-Lubavitch movement.

The researchers identified factors which make the program so successful, and make recommendations for how other Jewish programs can tap into the needs and desires that motivate young American Jewish college students to attend these events.

Chabad Mizou
Photo by MendyDesign

Their recommendations to Chabad were for them to:

1. Expand its work in this area.

2. Continue its willingness to think “out of the box.”

3. Expand the kinds of educators it has engaged in this work and increase the educational training of Chabad rabbis so that they can incorporate more pedagogic tools in their repertoires.

4. Take unique ideas that have chemistry and enable them to grow without turning them into routine.

You can view the full report here.


Cohen, Steven M. Chazan, Barry. Reimer, Joseph. Bryfman, David. Home Away From Home — A Research Study of the Shabbos Experience on Five University Campuses: An Informal Educational Model for Working with Young Jewish Adults. Chabad on Campus International Foundation. August 2006:http://www.bjpa.org/Publications/details.cfm?PublicationID=3623