The glossy brochures arrive, promoting programs about Jerusalem, Jewish history, basic Hebrew language, Kabbalah and meditation, musical tot Shabbat services, activities for teens, a mother-daughter challah bake, even a Shavuot ice cream and cheesecake party. Then there are courses on communication, exploring communication skills — including digital platforms — to improve personal relationships and public discourse, as well as a Jewish business network.
Welcome to the new Chabad, clearly presenting a more sophisticated face than the “mitzvah mobiles” that encouraged Jews to daven, lay tefillin or wave a lulav and esrog.
The change is particularly apparent in Westchester, where Chabad’s presence has multiplied. “In the last two decades, Westchester has seen a growth from one Chabad center to 10,” said Elliot Forchheimer, executive director of the Westchester Jewish Council. There are centers in the Rivertowns, based in Dobbs Ferry; as well as in New Rochelle, Bedford Hills, Scarsdale, Mamaroneck, Ossining, Pelham, Yonkers and Yorktown Heights, which effectively cover most of the Jewish communities in the county.
Chabad initially had targeted the unaffiliated Jewish population and young families who sought alternatives to traditional Hebrew school and bar/bat mitzvah preparation. But recent Chabad efforts have edged into the territory of adult learning and synagogue social programs. A recent event, “Spa for the Soul,” offered local Jewish women workshops on relaxation, beauty and yoga from a Jewish perspective.
“There’s been a tremendous amount of growth in adult education,” said Rabbi Benjy Silverman of the Rivertowns Chabad, who has been in Dobbs Ferry for the past 15 years. “Our focus has always been on bringing people wherever they are. The Jewish community is growing in the Rivertowns.”
Now, said Rabbi Silverman, “we’re trying to add a different focus, more community events. More people are asking for classes on Jewish mysticism. We run a weekly class on Kabbalah. Two years ago, we added more lectures and adult education. We want to create Jewish offerings to enhance lives where they are.”
That message resonates with Lois Schuman, who’s been a member of the Rivertowns Chabad for the past six years.
“Rabbi Benjy [Silverman] and Hindy are welcoming and non-judgmental,” she said. “At any level of observance, they meet you where you are. There’s no pressure. It’s very spiritual.”
Schuman and her family had previously been long-time members at the local Conservative synagogue, but were more “eager to attend” the Chabad services. “It is a community,” said Schuman, who sponsors the menorah lighting in the village of Ardsley. “This is much more meaningful.”
It’s unclear how many other former synagogue members, like Schuman, have chosen Chabad over a more traditional congregation. While it’s difficult to get numbers on how many of the county’s 136,000 Jewish residents attend Chabad or are members, Chabad’s ease of entry to its programming is a definite attraction.
Schools are a particular area of potential competition. “Chabad offers a one-day-a-week Hebrew school that’s not very demanding,” said Rabbi Steven Kane of Briarcliff Manor’s Conservative Congregation Sons of Israel. “There are very few people who have left our school and gone to Chabad — but we don’t know who’s not joining to begin with.”
Still, said the Westchester Jewish Council’s Forchheimer, “With over 50 percent of Westchester Jewry not involved with synagogues or Chabad, there remain plenty of Jews to go around to be served through the variety of dynamic offerings of our Westchester Jewish community.”
There’s no denying, though, that local rabbis are paying attention to what Chabad is doing.
“Chabad challenges us to be better at what we do,” said Rabbi Jay Stein of Greenburgh Hebrew Center in Dobbs Ferry. Over the past three years, 50 new families have become members of the Conservative synagogue. “The Jewish community is always jockeying for the souls of Jews. Chabad used to target the unaffiliated. Now it’s a free-for-all,” he said.
He added that because “we live in an age of fee-for-service, with people less committed to community, they [Chabad] do challenge us with programming to do some less expensively. They’re offering different products than we are.”
Chabad’s growth has had some impact on local synagogues, area rabbis said.
“Chabad has had some effect, not direct,” said CSI’s Rabbi Kane. “People are not joining shuls in general. Chabad pushes the envelope because they don’t charge dues. We are often looking at the same people, but with different rules. It’s like one team roots for the Yankees and the other, the Mets.”