Lifelong Conservative Jew David Sussman walked into a Westport Inn meeting hall in 2001 and took his first steps on a new Jewish path. Inside the Westport, Connecticut, inn was a tiny community of followers of the Hasidic Chabad Lubavitch synagogue. Sussman, then 33, was one of 12 community members in the room, six of whom were the Rabbi Yehuda Kantor’s family. “The services were not the draw at all. It was just about trying to ignite a spark inside the community that was not lit,” Sussman said. Little did he know that Chabad and other Jewish organizations inclusive of all denominations would spearhead a phenomenon in Westport and across the country.
Fifteen years after that first meeting, Sussman, 47, is the unofficial “president” of a community that now has standing-room-only services on Jewish high holidays. Chabad Lubavitch of Westport now hosts Camp Gan Izzy with 250–275 kids from every denomination of Judaism. It has raised the money and finally has a permanent home in Westport for its diverse community of Jews from all over Fairfield County. Sussman said, “We’ve lit a spark in the community.”
Sussman and family’s transition from The Conservative Synagogue of Westport to Chabad was part of a national migration. In recent years, Kantor, 43, said “Chabad attendance has increased worldwide.” In contrast, Pew Research Center’s 2013 study demonstrated that the Conservative movement is on the decline: whereas 43 percent of American Jews claimed to be Conservative in 1990, only 18 percent did in 2013. Pew Research also found that 22 percent of American Jews described themselves as having “no religion” or any affiliation with the Orthodox, Conservative or Reform movements. However, those who retain their Jewish identity are more connected to the Jewish community than ever before. “I believe it’s a national trend,” said Michael Kassen, Westport resident and American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) chairman of the board.
Chabad of Westport is one branch of a worldwide organization that its website calls the “most dynamic force in Jewish life today.” First organized 250 years ago, Chabad today has more than 3,500 institutions in 81 countries. The organization has a traditional approach that stems from its mystical Hasidic roots, but welcomes all affiliations of Judaism — be that Orthodox, Conservative, Reform or otherwise. “One peculiar strength of Chabad is its dynamic outreach efforts for non-observant Jews. Chabad has been uniquely successful in that realm,” said Eugene Sheppard, associate professor of Modern Jewish History and Thought at Brandeis University. Hillel International, an organization on college campuses, works like Chabad in its non-denominational approach to Jewish life. It has a mission of “enriching the lives of Jewish students so that they may enrich the Jewish people and the world.” Hillel reports that since its establishment in 1923, it has developed into the “largest Jewish student organization in the world.” It extends to more than 550 colleges and universities. “Hillel has had a lot of challenges, but it’s stronger than it was 15 years ago,” said Kassen, 62. In 2014 alone, 18 universities in 15 states sought affiliation with Hillel International.
How could Chabad and Hillel grow in a country where 32 percent of ancestrally Jewish millennials claim to have no religion? The organizations promote an attractive new brand of American Jewry based on community and personal experience.
“You don’t have to be affiliated this way, or theologically think that way. You have to really have the same thing that all of us have in common: being Jewish,” Kantor said about Chabad’s philosophy. “How can people with such different backgrounds find such a commonality with a rabbi that is observant? The answer is transcendence. Judaism doesn’t go by the color of your hair. It transcends, it goes down to your soul.” Marshall Einhorn, executive director of Brown RISD Hillel in Providence, Rhode Island, agreed: “On our campus and in our Hillel, we see Jews of all stripes come through the door and participate in different ways. The beauty of Shabbat happens every week. We see students from different backgrounds come, that are more religious-based or not.”
Pew Research’s study demonstrated that the old brand of denominational Judaism is losing its appeal. The decline in the Conservative movement and the rise of Chabad and Hillel will usher in a new era of American Judaism. Sheppard sees these “transformative” changes in American Jewish life, but he said “there’s nothing new.” The fall of some movements in American Judaism has always led to the natural rise of new ones. “This is a repeating dynamic that’s happened several times in modern Jewish history. If it wasn’t happening, I would be particularly concerned,” said Sheppard, 47. The “Chabad empire,” as Sheppard calls it, is but one part of the next wave in American Jewish history.
“I think that Chabad has a lot of appeal, irrespective of if one starts out as Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, (or) unaffiliated,” said Kassen. He said the low financial commitment, combined with the dedication and amiability of rabbis and their families, increases the interest. Kassen continued, “Their attitude is if you go to Shabbat and say the Kiddush and say the blessing over the candles, it’s a mitzvah (good deed). Maybe you don’t do every mitzvah, but at least that’s a good start. I think a lot of people have the attitude that generic Conservative and Orthodox shuls are going to look down on me, whereas (at) Chabad, I think the prevailing ethos is they make people feel good about what they do.”
Hillel is the same way. “At Chabad or at Hillel, where there is not a membership structure and people are drawn to attend out of their own interest not necessarily for other reasons, you get people who are interested and who are exploring,” said Einhorn, 38. Chabad and Hillel are the biggest institutions welcoming all affiliations of Judaism, but smaller shuls across the United States are also leading the charge toward inclusive Judaism. One such synagogue is New York City’s Romemu, which seeks to infuse Eastern spiritual practices with traditional Orthodox ones. “I think Romemu is really at the forefront. They are inclusive of gay, lesbian, transgender — they are inclusive of different religions. There are people I know who are not Jewish, who are not in relationships with Jews, who go to Romemu because it’s spiritually uplifting,” said Peter Bregman, Romemu board member and CEO of Bregman Partners.
Romemu has been the latest stop for Bregman, 47, and family on a long and winding spiritual path. Bregman grew up attending a Modern Orthodox synagogue, “studied Buddhism,” is now married to a Christian minister, and was rejected by “pretty much every” rabbinical school due to their intermarriage. “I think I became uncomfortable with spirituality and religion that was dependent upon everybody believing and looking and acting in the same way,” he said. Romemu’s inclusiveness, he said, is something he hopes the entire American Jewish community will emulate. Community has become the hallmark of the new American Judaism as a result of these synagogues’ inclusiveness. Sussman said, “It’s an open environment. I think the Chabad movement uses the community as a tool, as a vehicle. Obviously when you feel connected to the community you’re more apt to participate.”
Within the community, the organizations offer participants different ways to connect to one another and God. Romemu, for example, hosts Shabbat services, as well as meditation, yoga, other classes and even bike rides. Chabad of Westport offers weekly Saturday services, Friday evening services, Tuesday night Torah study, trips to Israel and scotch tastings among other events. Brown RISD Hillel has Shabbat dinners, community barbecues, lectures, trips, discussions and more.
Both Chabad and Hillel know what glues the community together: the kids. They may not work directly in tandem, but Chabad and Hillel have developed a system of Jewish education from kindergarten through college graduation. Chabad camps and Hebrew schools help create Jewish identities in K-12 children, and Hillel — as well as Chabad on college campuses — enables them to develop and share their identities at the university level and beyond. “You get to the heart of the kid, then you have something that’s sustainable,” said Sussman.
David Sussman’s son, Jake, has taken that exact Chabad-Hillel path. He attended Hebrew school at Chabad of Westport and then proceeded to re-charter the Hillel at Roger Williams University in Bristol, Rhode Island. “In sixth grade and ninth grade I was victim to anti-Semitism first hand. With the Chabad Hebrew School giving me the only sense of my Jewish identity it kept me strong through those times,” said the younger Sussman, 20. “After the implementation of the RWU Hillel, we since have had a massive presence of about 30 people. The Chabad Hebrew School has given me the base knowledge of all my Jewish studies so I can discover myself as a Jew and teach others the importance of Judaism.” David Sussman acknowledges that “it’s easy to fall away from Judaism.” Chabad and Hillel, as well as smaller shuls like Romemu, have made it their responsibility to resuscitate and reinvigorate the American Jewish community so no one falls away from the faith. Kassen said it is inevitable that the “just Jewish” attitude will spread, but so will Chabad and Hillel. “They’re still growing, and it’s a really, really amazing story.”
Kassen concluded: “As a country and an American Jewish people, we’re in uncharted territory.”
This story "The Growing Allure of Chabad and Hillel" was written by Michael Bass.