Admittedly, I am a big fan of Chabad. Sure, there are aspects of Chabad’s approach to the Jewish community with which I disagree. But I have always applauded the willingness of its emissaries to go where people are—all over the globe. I have also always appreciated Chabad’s approach to Public Space Judaism, particularly during the Hanukkah season. If there is any doubt as to what time of year it is, just ask Chabad. Otherwise, why would there be so many humongous menorahs (hanukiyot) in commercial malls, grocery stores, and government centers across the United States?
Unwittingly or not, the Jewish community has defaulted the public celebration of Hanukkah to Chabad. Perhaps some of it is a result of the discomfort among some American Jews of Chabad’s “mash-up” of church and state, to borrow a concept from the world of popular music. And that is why nearly every photo of a government official lighting an “official” menorah includes a local Chabad rabbi.
But Chabad shouldn’t be the only visible Jewish presence in the public arena.
If those of us who are not part of the Chabad community, irrespective of where on the religious continuum we may fall, want those in the Jewish community to gain meaning from Jewish ritual and practice, if we want them to celebrate Jewish holidays (especially where they live, that is, outside of Jewish communal institutions), then we have to be willing to provide those opportunities. Chabad might be the most well known, but going to where people are instead of waiting for them to come to us is one of the foundations upon which JOI is built.
For example, in the weeks leading up to Passover, communities implement our program Passover in the Matzah Aisle, which takes place in supermarkets and grocery stores across North America. Outreach staff and trained volunteer leaders set up an educational booth and engage individuals and families – especially unaffiliated – to provide them with low barrier Passover information and free samples of traditional Passover food. In the 10 years since starting the program, we have helped reach thousands who would otherwise have no connection to Jewish life.
These are the kinds of innovative programs we need to see more of in the Jewish community. All denominations and branches of Judaism should be represented during Jewish holidays. It isn’t too late to think about next December and what we can do to reclaim the public celebration of Hanukkah. We have to start with everything between now and next year or we will be in default then, too. If we don’t act now, it will be too late.
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