In the 2019 documentary The Rabbi Goes West, Rabbi Chaim Bruk can be seen going door to door, hammer in hand, trying to ensure that every Jewish home in his state has a mezuzah on its door. It’s a moving scene: This Chabadnik raised among Hasidim in Brooklyn was now living in rural Bozeman, Montana, a lone beacon of Old World Orthodoxy in an area more used to Reform temples—and very few of them at that.
When the documentary’s secular Jewish filmmakers, Gerald Peary and his wife, Amy Geller, read an article in 2014 about the “Montana Mezuzah Campaign,” they were intrigued by the idea of this Hasid trying to make a mark in Big Sky Country. So they came to Bruk’s town and began filming Jewish life.
They found, however, that some of the local Reform rabbis weren’t as amused as they were by the mezuzah hopping. Ed Stafman, rabbi of a local Reform temple, told the filmmakers that he expects his congregants to call on him, “rather than he [Bruk] just shows up at their house uninvited.” Allen Secher, a retired Reform rabbi who arrived before Bruk, met him 15 years ago, when Bruk came as a yeshiva student to do outreach, before moving there permanently in 2007 with his wife, Chavie, and their family, which has grown to five adopted children. Secher calls Bruk a “missionary.”
But Bruk insists that if he’s on a mission, it’s only to Jews—he’s not looking to convert anybody. So what’s wrong with that?
The tension playing out in Montana is emblematic of a much larger question: How is America’s largest Jewish movement, Reform, responding to its most ambitious—and, some would say, successful—Chabad? Will Reform learn from Chabad or just continue to react to it?
The question has at its heart a central irony, which is that Reform itself also was once a kind of outreach movement, trying to hold Jews in the fold when they seemed to be assimilating out of its existence. Chabad’s exponential growth of emissaries after the Holocaust in more than 100 countries began when the Lubavitcher rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, assumed leadership in America 70 years ago following the passing of his father-in-law, the previous rebbe, both part of a familial Hasidic dynasty beginning in Russia. Schneerson began a worldwide movement of bringing Jews closer to their heritage, even unaffiliated ones lacking any formal Jewish education.
According to historian Michael A. Meyer, when Reform was established in 19th-century Germany, it was an outreach movement to Enlightenment-influenced Jews, who had ceased attending synagogue services. “It never directed itself to traditional Jews, but tried to bring Jews back to synagogue by creating services that would appeal to them,” said Meyer, who teaches at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati. “We were always trying to bring in non-Orthodox Jews that would otherwise be lost to the Jewish people.”
In the United States, however, “outreach was not a major portion of Reform thinking,” Meyer said. But “following the Holocaust, Reform Jews became concerned of the survival of a diminishing people.”
Reform rabbinic leaders Leo Baeck and Alexander Schindler made efforts to bring both alienated Jews and Christians into the Jewish fold. The whole project was always at least a little controversial. “For most of Jewish history, proselytizing was not considered Jewish,” Meyer admitted. “We’re not saying my religion is better than yours, but we’re making knowledge available to those looking for answers not within their own religion.”
Today, Reform’s outreach program is principally directed toward interfaith couples, with the intention of getting them to join the synagogue and raise their children as Jews. Chabad, by contrast, focuses on offering traditional Judaism, as practiced by Chabad Hasidim, to all Jews.
And the Hasidic way is not pluralistic, like Reform—which leads to tensions. They don’t see Reform as following the fundamental ideas of Judaism given at Sinai. “Reform respects the legitimacy of Orthodoxy, and I don’t think the Orthodox in the same way recognize the Jewish legitimacy of Reform,” Meyer said. “I think it’s because in their view there’s only one form of Judaism: the revelation of Torah in its literal sense. Reform has different theologies and views on biblical criticism.”
In the winter of 2017, neo-Nazis threatened Jews in the Montana town of Whitefish with hateful messages. Reform and Chabad rabbis approached it with conflicting views.
“My reaction to the neo-Nazi activity in Whitefish was to call Rabbi [Francine] Roston’’—she is the Conservative rabbi in Whitefish—“and say, ‘I support you and tell me how I can help,’” Stafman says in the film. “Rabbi Chaim used it as an opportunity to fundraise.”
Bruk started a project to give every Jew in the community a Chabad edition of the Hebrew Bible. “That’s not really what we needed,” Roston asserted in the film. She feared the Chabad media attention of their visit to the governor with the Chumash project would continue coverage of the threats.
In the documentary, Bruk defends the effort. “We turn to Torah because … we want God’s guidance in times of tumultuous situations,” he says. He questioned what bothers the non-Orthodox rabbis about Jews getting a Chumash. “Generally, our response to anti-Semitic expression is to try to uplift and inspire,” Motti Seligson, a Chabad spokesman, told Tablet. “If there are concrete issues that need to be addressed, then address them, but don’t let hate and darkness define you. Instead, do more good, bring more light, be more proud as a Jew and act on that. Reveal more Godliness in this world.”
In the film, the theological divisions are obvious. Bruk debates with Stafman over gender politics, the divinity of the Torah, and his right-wing views on Israeli politics. Off-screen, it’s a different story.
“If we’re going to debate philosophy, why do it if we’re not going to get anywhere?” Bruk said to Tablet. “But we have a great relationship with Reform rabbis.”
He said local Reform rabbis, including Stafman and Secher, have gathered at Bruk’s home “to discuss issues pertaining to Jewish life in Montana or beyond.”
According to Bruk, “the goal remains the same as the day we arrived in Montana: reaching every Jew. Some leaders will possibly be upset, but as a whole we do our very best to reach out to every Jewish person with love, without stepping on anyone’s toes in the process.”
But again, the Reform rabbis put the matter a bit differently.
“I’ve made outreach efforts with Rabbi Chaim to do programs together, and there’s always a reason why it can’t be,” Stafman says in the documentary.
“I can’t get to an event if it’s on Shabbos and not kosher,” Bruk explained. “We tried over the years with all clergy of Montana, Jewish and non-Jewish. It’s complicated, because how we deal with Jewish outreach is different, but the focus is not negative, the point is to share with Jews what’s beautiful with Judaism and get them to celebrate it.”
While Chabad is more aggressive about reaching out to lapsed Jews, it’s actually Reform that is more “missionary,” today, if by that we mean efforts to convert non-Jews. One example is the work of Rabbi Lisa Rubin, who directs the Center for Exploring Judaism at Central Synagogue in New York City. Her center currently serves about 150 curious parties every year.
“In our specific case, our very founding of the center was to increase outreach to Jews and non-Jews,” Rubin told Tablet. “We are very proud to have close to an 80% conversion rate, and 99% of Jews who come through our program feel a renewed connection to Judaism. That’s outreach at its best—bringing Jews back into the fold by embracing their choice of partner. The center is for everyone wanting to live more Jewishly. That’s Central’s response to the close-to 80% intermarriage rate outside the Orthodox community.”
According to Meyer, the historian, Reform has responded to the growth of interfaith marriages in part by developing a more coherent approach to conversion. Although in its classical period Reform had fewer ritual aspects to conversions, Meyer said today it’s far more traditional, with higher percentages including mikveh and circumcision. And those who are already circumcised often undergo a symbolic form referred to as tipat dam, a drop of blood.
“There isn’t a mission, we don’t go out [and proselytize or do outreach],” Meyer said. “But we created religious services that are attractive to people and serve their needs. Hopefully if someone in their family finds that meaningful they’ll tell others. We’re not going house to house, but we attempt to create services that are spiritual, meaningful and if leaders of the congregation are welcoming that will draw people in—of their own free will.”
Chabad now has more than 1,000 synagogues and centers in the United States, more than any other Jewish movement. In the past, leaders of the Reform movement, which has seen sharp drops in recent years, openly criticized Chabad. But Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, has expressed respect toward Chabad. As one article put it, on the occasion of Jacobs’ attendance at a Chabad conference six years ago—the first time a Reform leader attended the conference—“Chabad has been an object of both envy and criticism for Reform leaders.”
In his installation sermon from 2012, Jacobs said that Reform Jews could “learn important lessons from Chabad about creating nonjudgmental opportunities to experience Jewish practice and build sacred relationships.” He also vowed that his movement would no longer permit Chabad to operate on campus and the internet without competition. Since then, Chabad’s presence on college campuses has kept growing, and many of its participants are Reform Jews. According to a 2016 study of Chabad’s impact on university campuses, Reform students who have a high participation rate see their Judaism continue to grow significantly after college.
“Students’ involvement with Chabad on campus has a very strong impact on their Jewish lives after college,” lead author Mark I. Rosen, Ph.D., associate professor at Brandeis University, said in an interview with Jewish Voices. “The impact is across the board, and is actually strongest for those who were raised Reform or unaffiliated.”
The study compared students with a high or low participation rate at Chabad on campus, following the post-college effects, rating the level of growth between both groups of students (adjusting for other influences, like day school education.) “What we’re seeing here is that you do not have to be assimilated to reach other assimilated Jews,” study author Steven M. Cohen said. “In fact, Chabad shows that it’s actually better to be engaged and Jewishly learned to succeed.”
Many Hillel rabbis identify as Reform, but the URJ doesn’t have its own campus centers. The movement has, however, been expanding its engagement with college students and deepening connections to Reform Jewish life on campuses across North America. “This is part of the URJ’s work to motivate more young Jews to embrace Jewish living as a path to meaning, purpose, and joy through the experience of community, spiritual growth, and lifelong friendships,” Jacobs said.
Yet young Reform Jews still flock to Chabad on campus, and fill bus seats on Chabad’s Birthright trips to Israel. Four years ago, Birthright Israel co-founder Charles Bronfman called on the Reform movement to displace Chabad as the largest trip provider. Bronfman noted that 75% of participants on Birthright identify as Reform, nondenominational, or “just Jewish.”
Speaking to thousands of participants at the biennial conference of the URJ in Orlando, Bronfman said: “Who is the largest trip provider? Chabad. And who performs the most conversions? Chabad. And who provides the largest number of post-trip programs? Chabad. It seems to me it should be you, not Chabad.” But his plea failed. Two years later, the URJ was removed from Birthright as a trip provider, because it couldn’t meet the minimum quota. Jacobs blamed Birthright’s split with Reform on Mosaic United, a partnership between Israel and global Jewry. “Millions of Israeli tax dollars are being spent now on strengthening ultra-Orthodox institutions on campuses that bring Birthright travelers to Israel,” Jacobs told Haaretz. But Mosaic’s campus initiative’s main beneficiaries have included Chabad, Olami (affiliated with the Haredi group Aish HaTorah), and Hillel—the three largest providers of Jewish life on campus around the world and each have received roughly one-third of the funding.
Bruk, the Montana Lubavitcher, believes in the indispensability of Chabad. “There’s no Yiddishkeit today without having a Chabad touch,” Bruk told Tablet. He said a cantor from a Reform temple once drove three hours to Bozeman to attend Chabad services. “It used to be, ‘That’s your allegiance, and you don’t step anywhere else.’ But now even if you maintain membership [at Reform], they are involved in local Chabad activities.”
Since Jacobs’ warm reception at the Chabad kinus, he’s had the chance to work with Chabad leaders, and he speaks of them warmly, if a bit cautiously. “I admire Chabad, but we’re also good at what we call audacious hospitality, because we learn from everyone,” he told Tablet. “It’s important to be open and not judgmental. We do outreach all over North America with social justice and Jewish immersive experiences like summer camp, and the key issue is to do our holy work with respect.”
Sara Trappler Spielman is a freelance writer in Brooklyn.