From the Margins to the Mainstream

Thirty years after the Rebbe’s death, is Chabad the most influential Jewish denomination today?
By | Jul 08, 2024
Featured, Summer 2024
A large crowd of men standing very close together. Their faces have a variety of expreessions but all are wearing black jackets and hats.

When the seventh and final rebbe of the Chabad movement, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, died at age 92 in 1994 without an heir, many prognosticators declared the movement would collapse or at least fade from view. By the time of Schneerson’s death, many in Chabad had come to believe he was the Messiah, an idea that has continued to linger after his death and has, at times, threatened to tear apart the movement.

But 30 years later, Chabad is thriving. When the Rebbe died there were around 1,200 shluchim, Chabad emissary couples doing kiruv (outreach) work around the world. In 2000 there were around 3,500 shluchim; now that number is about 5,000, according to, with 2,000 posted in the United States. Every week, an average of two new Chabad couples go on what’s known as shlichus, adding to their number in a steady rhythm.

In many countries around the world Chabad has cemented itself as the only Jewish game in town. Even more interesting is its success in the United States, where Jews have a robust set of options to choose from. Two out of five American Jewish adults have engaged with Chabad in some way, according to the Pew Research Center’s study, “Jewish Americans in 2020.”

While the depth of engagement varies, Chabad has created an expansive infrastructure that includes its own preschools, youth movements and Birthright trips to Israel. Its adult education operation, the Jewish Learning Institute, offers courses at more than 600 locations around the world. It has an educational website,, that draws some 50 million unique visitors yearly.

“There’s no question Chabad has moved from the periphery to being a central player and even an alternative to denominational Judaism,” says Adam Ferziger, professor of Jewish history and contemporary Jewry at Bar-Ilan University and author of Beyond Sectarianism: The Realignment of American Orthodox Judaism.

One could even argue that Chabad has become a mainstream denomination—and a very powerful one, albeit one where the majority of the congregants do not share, or even aspire to share, the beliefs and practices of the clergy.

Hasidism has been a disruptor in the Jewish world since it was founded by Rabbi Yisroel ben Eliezer, known as the Baal Shem Tov, in the second half of the 18th century in what is now Poland, Ukraine and Belarus. Appealing to the masses of largely unlettered Jews in that region, it taught that God could be approached through love and prayer, not just book learning.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (Photo credit: Reb Mendel)

When the Baal Shem Tov’s successor, Rabbi Dov Ber, died in 1772, his closest followers branched off and created their own movements, each headed by a rebbe who maintained a mystical connection to his followers, the Hasidim. One of those was Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the founding rebbe of Chabad, which was also called Lubavitch after the Russian town where it developed. (Chabad is an acronym for chochmah, binah, da’at, or wisdom, understanding and knowledge, the first three sefirot, or emanations, of the kabbalistic tree of life.)

The sixth Lubavitcher rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn (1880-1950) moved Lubavitch headquarters to Brooklyn in 1940, enabling it to become one of the Hasidic courts to survive the Holocaust. From the start, Hasidim had sought to spread their form of Judaism among fellow Jews in Eastern Europe. In the United States, however, many Hasidic sects turned inward; Lubavitch was alone in continuing the practice of outreach and expanding it to focus on nonobservant Jews. Yosef Yitzchak, who had established an underground network of Jewish schools in Russia during Stalinist times, founded Jewish schools and educational programs in the United States.

When Yosef Yitzhak died, his son-in-law Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson became the seventh rebbe, and he made outreach to affiliated and unaffiliated Jews his top priority. “Post-Holocaust, many Jews—understandably—felt they would be better off keeping a low profile, but the Rebbe through his mitzvah campaigns put Judaism out on public display,” says Baila Olidort, editor-in-chief of Lubavitch International Magazine. An example of this was Chabad’s campaign of public menorah lightings during Hanukkah, launched in 1974. Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University, believes this campaign was a key part of the movement’s success. “It literally brought them into the public square,” he says, noting that Chabad fought—and won—key Supreme Court cases in the 1980s for the right to locate their menorahs on public land.

Interestingly, many of the early cases opposing public menorahs were brought by Jews unhappy with Chabad’s “in your face” brand of Judaism. Today, Jews of all stripes turn out for their public lightings. “Chabad took over Hanukkah,” says Sarna. “They transformed what had previously been more private, and people got to know them.”

Chabad took the same style of outreach worldwide. Schneerson sent his first shaliach (emissary) couple from Brooklyn to Morocco in 1950, a year before he was officially named the new rebbe. It was the beginning of the international Jewish outreach campaign for which Chabad is now known.

In the early decades, shluchim grew up in tight-knit Lubavitch communities, notably in Brooklyn, Montreal and Israel. As young married couples, they would leave their home communities and set up shop outside the Hasidic world in far-flung locations across the globe, opening their homes for worship and classes (until they could afford to buy a building). They raised their children in these communities and devoted their lives to Chabad outreach efforts.

The movement flourished under Schneerson, a charismatic figure whose personal magnetism and teachings drew notable figures such as Elie Wiesel, Bob Dylan and Herman Wouk into Chabad’s orbit. When he died in 1994, it caused a cataclysm in the movement. By that time, many, if not most, Lubavitchers believed he was leading the world to the promised Messianic age; some believed he himself was the Messiah. In the years following his death, the internal struggle intensified between what became known as the Messianists (those who were sure he was the Messiah) and the non-Messianists (including those who weren’t sure or weren’t public about it). The official position of the Chabad leadership has always been non-Messianist, and those in charge at Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, the umbrella organization for the shluchim network as well as Chabad’s educational departments, have been successful in restraining Messianism among the shluchim.

Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, Rabbi Sholom Dovber Schneersohn, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn (Photo credit: Wikimedia commons / Boris Schatz / Shmulie Grossbaum/

Messianist factions do still exist, as seen by the ongoing proliferation of posters declaring that the Rebbe is the Messiah plastered around New York City and Israel. More recently an even more extreme faction came to public attention when they were discovered illegally digging under 770 Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, the movement’s global headquarters. The Messianic Chabad group from Israel were attempting to expand the synagogue sanctuary, which they viewed as too crowded.

Most American Jews do not view Chabad as a Hasidic sect, but as an outreach movement. Yet, there are an estimated 90,000 to 95,000 followers of the Rebbe who live in strictly Lubavitch communities in places such as Crown Heights, NY, Pittsburgh, PA, and Detroit, MI. They are not engaged in outreach and instead work in business, high-tech, retail and other professions.

As Chabad has grown, the boundaries between the shluchim and Lubavitch communities have become more porous, according to Yossi Deren, the rabbi at the Chabad of Greenwich, CT. Like American Jews in general, who for decades have been leaving the urban Northeast, young Lubavitchers are abandoning the crowded conditions of Crown Heights and other large communities for places such as Atlanta and Cleveland. They tend to settle first near the existing Chabad centers, creating new Lubavitch communities in what were strictly outreach areas.

Lubavitchers are also moving to rural areas. For example, the tiny town of Kingston, PA, population 13,349, has two or three Chabad shuls, not outreach centers, solely for the newly arrived Lubavitchers. “You don’t see the silos you saw 25, 30 years ago,” Deren says. “It’s no longer, ‘I’ve grown up on shlichus’ or ‘I’ve grown up in a Lubavitch community.’ It’s all mixed up.”

These days many American Jews first encounter Chabad in college. There are currently around 200 Chabad houses on U.S. campuses, and while each one is different, they usually offer Shabbat dinners and Jewish learning programs, attempting to be a social hub for students in search of a community. While not all Jewish students choose to go to a Chabad, most are at least familiar with it.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, standing, with his future father-in-law, the sixth Lubavitcher rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn. (Photo credit:

This wasn’t always the case. When Rabbi Aaron and Rivkah Slonim arrived at SUNY Binghamton 40 years ago to set up a Chabad house, they were not welcomed. There were fewer than ten Chabad houses on American campuses at the time, and most Jews were not familiar with this Hasidic movement that had appeared in their midst. “People looked at us as if we were there to brainwash their kids, like we were parasites that had come to prey on the institutions that were already here,” says Rivkah Slonim.

Three students showed up for the Slonims’ first Friday night dinner in 1984. By the end of that year, the number had grown to 45. Today, it’s about 450. Hundreds more attend a wide range of programming, classes and social activities, online and in person—Aaron Slonim estimates that half of the university’s 4,000 Jewish students come through their doors every year.

Most of these students are not observant. “If you go to a Chabad house you see plenty of people the Chabad rabbi would not allow to marry their children,” says Jonathan Sarna. “But they’re all welcome.” For the Rebbe, getting Jews, any Jews, to do more mitzvot was a way to hasten the arrival of the Messiah. “Part of the Messianic ideology is when there are more mitzvot than averot [sins], then the Messiah will come,” says Queens College sociologist Samuel Heilman, who has written extensively on Chabad.

While the number of Reform, Conservative and non-Chabad Orthodox synagogues has declined over the past 20 years, the number of Chabad synagogues has tripled.

The Slonims’ mission is not, as Rivkah Slonim puts it, “to put black hats on people…We’re not here trying to make Hasidim. We never were,” she says. “Our mission is to connect Jews to Hashem and each other. A few may become Hasidim. But a larger number connect with the Rebbe’s teachings, the Rebbe’s ideas.”

Numerous studies have shown that most of those attending Chabad events and sending their kids to Chabad schools are not Orthodox. That is true even among the most active Chabad participants. (Of the 16 percent of American Jews who told Pew they “often” or “sometimes” take part in Chabad activities, 76 percent do not identify as Orthodox.)

College students lighting Shabbat candles at an event hosted by Chabad in Crown Heights. (Photo credit: Chabad on Campus)

“Ninety percent of our clientele are not observant, that hasn’t changed,” says Maryashie Deren, who runs the Chabad of Greenwich with her husband Yossi. “But the difference is, when we meet someone, they are familiar with Chabad. And they really want it for their families.” Indeed, Chabad preschools are booming. “These parents feel comfortable walking into a Chabad house,” says Holly Cohen. “After their time on campus, it feels organic.” Cohen is the founding director of Tamim Academy schools, a group of Chabad-affiliated day schools founded in 2020.

Although not officially under the umbrella of Chabad’s educational arm Merkos, Tamim Academy schools work only with Chabad centers, says Cohen, who explains she was inspired by a video of the Rebbe urging Jews to send their children to Jewish schools. Today there are 12 Tamim Academy schools around the country, with another four planned for this fall. Each of them operates in a Chabad center that already has a preschool, providing a ready-made audience and infrastructure.

These schools are part of a cradle-to-marriage pipeline Chabad has been actively building: an educational effort that begins with preschool, then day school along with youth clubs, then Chabad on campus and Birthright. The alumni of these programs grow up and have their own kids, and want them to have the same positive experiences they had.

Chabad centers and schools require money, and Chabad is famous for its fundraising prowess. New Chabad centers do not receive funding from headquarters. In the early days, new centers would receive funding for only one year. While there is a fund available to shluchim who work with specific populations, notably children and teens, the typical Chabad center raises the bulk of its funding from local supporters. Local donors are cultivated through intimate events, dinners, even weekly challah deliveries.

Shluchim just starting out can also appeal to a number of wealthy supporters around the world. Some are Lubavitchers themselves, living in Lubavitch communities, who have made money and use it to support the shluchim. “There are probably such people in all established Lubavitch communities—many, many more than 30 years ago,” says Zalman Newfield, a professor of sociology and Jewish studies at Hunter College who grew up Chabad in Crown Heights.

A room in Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, the central educational arm of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement. (Photo credit: Bentzi Sasson)

There are also mega-donors from outside the Chabad world. One of the largest is philanthropist George Rohr, who, in addition to the massive funding he gives to shluchim around the world, offers a three-year grant for shluchim setting up new Chabad centers.

The COVID pandemic was a big growth period for Chabad. Chabad’s digital presence, already strong, stood it in good stead as the country took to Zoom instead of in-person programs. logged 54 million unique visitors in 2020, according to its own records. When the country shut down in March 2020, synagogues, JCCs and other Jewish institutions were hit hard, forced to lay off staff and curtail programs. However, many Chabads across the country reacted by launching capital campaigns, attempting to raise $100 million in total in the first 19 months of the pandemic. Not all came to fruition, but the impulse to grow bigger was in line with what the Rebbe taught: Do more. Always do more.

The growth, in fact, has been phenomenal. While the number of Reform, Conservative and non-Chabad Orthodox synagogues has declined over the past 20 years, Chabad synagogues in this country have tripled. In fact, between 2001 and 2020, the number of Chabad synagogues grew from 346 to 1,036, says demographer Ira Sheskin, a University of Miami geography professor who has headed more than 50 major studies of Jewish communities.

Moshiach is Here billboard. (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Sheskin charted Chabad’s explosive growth in “United States Jewish Population, 2022,” a report coauthored with Jewish Studies Professor Arnold Dashefsky from the University of Connecticut. He has also done his own analysis of the Pew data, reporting that during those same years, the number of non-Chabad Orthodox synagogues decreased from 1,156 to 775, a decline of 33 percent; Conservative synagogues have gone from 865 to 558, a decline of 35 percent; Reform synagogues dropped from 976 to 816. (For comparison with smaller denominations, there are around 100 Reconstructionist synagogues and 43 Renewal synagogues in the United States.)

Chabad’s biggest expansion has been in the South, particularly Florida, and on the West Coast. An astonishing 43 percent of synagogues in California, Oregon and Washington State are now Chabad.

Observers say this growth stems from a number of factors but note that its decentralized structure, in which Chabad shuls and outposts multiply as families expand, is a key contributor.

Chabad outreach is often a family affair. Rabbi Yossi and Maryashie Deren from Greenwich, CT, both grew up on shlichus and come from a long line of shluchim. Yossi’s parents, Yisrael and Vivi Deren, direct nearby Chabad of Fairfield County, which covers most of the state. Yossi’s grandparents were shluchim in Nashville, TN, and his great-grandparents were shluchim in Pittsburgh, sent there by the sixth Rebbe in the 1940s. With their own children now entering the same field, the Derens boast five generations of shluchim. They illustrate another growing trend in Chabad over the past 30 years: More and more children of shluchim become shluchim themselves.

Many join their parents in the same communities where they grew up, filling positions created by new programs and expanding operations. Yossi and Maryashie’s son Levi started out two years ago as their director of social action and now runs two Chabad operations nearby. At the beginning of this year, their daughter Chaya moved with her husband Baruch to Old Greenwich, where they are set to open a new Chabad center.

The world headquarters of the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic movement at 770 Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. (Photo credit: Alamy Stock Photo)

New centers must always be approved by their “head of state,” generally the first Chabad rabbi in any given region, as well as Merkos in Brooklyn. As time has passed, these heads of state have grown old; some have died. They have been replaced by committees of Chabad rabbis rather than by individuals, continuing the movement’s march away from personal control to more self-sustaining bureaucratic structures. Sociologist Newfield calls it “Chabad, Inc.” Rabbi David Eliezrie, a shaliach in Orange County, CA, who sits on several of the movement’s national boards, calls it evolution. He explains that committees now run Chabad operations in Chicago, for example, and one is being set up for the state of Florida. There are also unsanctioned shaliach outposts, referred to in Chabad slang as “mushrooms,” but they are more likely to be found in India than in North America.

Shluchim today receive much more practical help from headquarters than they did 30 years ago. Rivkah Slonim notes there are now professional development courses where shluchim are taught how to fundraise, keep books and manage staff.

Nothing like that existed when she and her husband started out—they had to learn on the job.

Chabad’s relationships with Reform and Conservative clergy have also improved over the years. “In most places it’s a fairly positive relationship,” says Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, the umbrella group for Reform synagogues in North America. Jacobs recalls that when he was a pulpit rabbi, more than 15 years ago, his local Chabad rabbi asked to bring a Jewish holiday program to his synagogue. “I said, sure, if I can teach in your Chabad center,” Jacobs recalls. His offer was refused.

Today, as more Jews become active with Chabad while also maintaining their membership in a Reform synagogue, rabbis on both sides are better at finding ways to work together. Jacobs tells of a woman whose mother died and had requested her funeral be led by both her Chabad rabbi and her Reform rabbi. As a compromise the Reform rabbi led the service, and the Chabad rabbi said a few words. “He didn’t take over in that ‘Haredi’ way,” Jacobs says, meaning that the Chabad rabbi did not steamroll over the female non-Orthodox rabbi. Individual Chabad rabbis have also found workarounds to participate in weddings where one or both individuals tying the knot do not meet the Orthodox standard of being considered halachically Jewish.

Jacobs notes that he still gets calls from colleagues who report tensions, mostly stemming from what they perceive as a lack of respect. In smaller communities there are sometimes disagreements over shluchim actively recruiting Reform congregants or Chabad presenting itself to the media as the “real Jews” in the community. In addition, “they offer a gateway to Judaism that’s cheaper,” says Heilman, including free services. “They often will undermine the community and community institutions.”

When the Rebbe was actively supervising the creation of new Chabad centers, he was adamant about not situating them close to other Orthodox synagogues, to avoid competition. (It was fine to locate them close to Reform and Conservative synagogues, the thinking being that most of those members were not observant.) Today, because there are so many new Chabad centers being set up all the time, not only are they close to Orthodox shuls, in urban areas they can be within walking distance of each other.

And as Chabad has grown and become more visible, it has taken on more issues of Jewish concern, such as security and school vouchers. Its increased political power and success in reaching out to American political leaders has also enhanced its position in the organized Jewish world. “Jewish organizations, including the Federation and other major Jewish organizations, have taken notice of the fact that they are a powerful bloc,” says Newfield. “They are meeting with governors and senators, U.S. presidents and other global politicians. The Jewish organizations are very keen on being connected to rabbis who have that kind of access, and so they’ve invited them to their organizations and actively embrace them, notwithstanding whatever distinct theological beliefs they maintain.”

“Chabad used to be in open war with the Federation,” says Sarna. “Now there’s a sense that ‘We’ll get a lot farther if we play nice.’” Eliezrie, the shaliach in Orange County, for example, sits on his local Federation board in greater Southern California, as well as on the Governors Board of the Jewish Agency for Israel. “That absolutely would not have happened 30 years ago,” Eliezrie says.

Chabad’s connections to the politically powerful are not accidental. Although there is no official playbook for new shluchim, it was always understood that when a new couple arrives in town, they should reach out to the local media and elected officials to build good relationships—and they do. New shluchim call reporters in advance of Jewish holidays to offer interviews. They invite the mayor to (symbolically) light the public Hanukkah menorah.

This has also occurred on the national level, with Chabad’s Washington rabbi and executive vice-president of American Friends of Lubavitch Levi Shemtov and his wife Nechama regularly hosting dignitaries from around the world as well as influential DC policy makers. Chabad is a regular presence at White House Jewish events, hosts the national menorah lighting and kashers the White House kitchen when needed.

Given the movement’s untrammeled success, many denominations now draw from Chabad’s playbook. Chabad pioneered the concept of not charging dues for worship services, even at the High Holidays, instead appealing to wealthy local donors to support the operation on behalf of the entire community. “If you ask them, who are your members, they say we don’t have members,” says Ron Wolfson, education professor at American Jewish University and the author of numerous books on making synagogues more welcoming. “They say, ‘We come and ask you to support this because it is of value.’” “Dues optional” is now a growing trend among non-Chabad synagogues. Orthodox Jews, including groups such as Aish HaTorah, have also mimicked Chabad when it comes to kiruv and inspiring nonreligious Jews to become more observant. “Many parts of Jewish life are being ‘Chabadized,’” says Sarna. “People copy success.”

Much of its success is due in large part to Chabad’s willingness to be loudly and publicly Jewish, says Wolfson This unabashed embrace “resonates because of what’s going on today—do we run or do we stay and be proud in the face of antisemitism and anti-Zionism?,” he says. “They were the first to do this work.”

But where does Chabad fall on the topological map of American Jewish religion? It’s complicated. Chabad is often listed as a category distinct from Orthodox Judaism in community surveys and studies. It has a distinct theology, its own customs and interpretations of certain Jewish laws. Plus, positions Chabad takes do not necessarily line up easily on a spectrum of progressive to stringent observance. “Within Orthodoxy, they’re much more flexible than other Hasidic movements. And in many ways, even more than Yeshiva University,” says Bar Ilan’s Ferziger, referring to the flagship Modern Orthodox school and seminary in New York City. “You can call them the more open-minded Haredim.”

The role of women is a good example. As in other Orthodox groups, women don’t count in a minyan or lead prayer services, but they do take on strong leadership roles in building community. “The model established by the Rebbe was that men and women—as married couples—would serve as Chabad shluchim. He felt that women were indispensable to the project and he expected them to be full partners with the men in executing his vision,” says Lubavitch International’s Olidort. Ferziger adds that for Chabad, “it’s about who’s going to be the best and the most effective.”

The place of the final rebbe is an open question in Chabad theology. “The Rebbe is still central to Lubavitch life and thought, as well as to the thinking and behavior of the shluchim,” says sociologist Newfield. “The idea that the Rebbe is memutza hamechaber, the intermediary that connects the follower to God, is a fundamental belief in Chabad Hasidism.”

Newfield was 11 when the Rebbe died. He recalls hearing Schneerson speak at 770 Eastern Parkway. “I remember seeing him, hearing his voice,” Newfield says. “Now you have a generation of young Lubavitchers who have never met the Rebbe. A generation of young shluchim spending their life trying to help secular Jews connect to a person they’ve never met. That’s a tremendous challenge.”

Even if they never heard him live, it is likely they are familiar with his voice. Schneerson was a prolific writer and speaker for more than 50 years, addressing a wide range of Jewish and non-Jewish topics. Chabad’s educational and media arms have located, digitized, edited and captioned in English thousands of hours of the Rebbe’s talks; some 10,000 videos are available on And “people are still finding sichot,” transcriptions of the Rebbe’s Shabbat lectures that were written down afterward by Hasidim who had committed them to memory, says Rabbi Zalman Shmotkin, executive director of “He might as well be an active presence. They’re continually seeing him and hearing him,” says Sarna.

Chabad might be its own denomination or something else altogether; it doesn’t really matter. Denomination—a word Jonathan Sarna eschews, arguing that it places a Protestant framework on Judaism—is not the lens through which Chabad views itself. “For Chabad, all Jews are Chabad,” says Joshua Shanes, professor of religious studies at Charleston College, who for a time identified as Chabad. In choosing to appeal to all Jews instead of just a subset, Chabad has become an undeniable force in American Judaism. Rabbi David Eliezrie explains, “We are mainstream
Judaism today.”


One thought on “From the Margins to the Mainstream

  1. hag says:

    too bad its not Jewish !

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