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Wednesday, August 03, 2016

The Growing Allure of Chabad and Hillel 

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.

Fourteen 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. This past year 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.


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