The Revolutions of Chabad and AJWS!

This is the story of two Jewish organizations. Neither receives the proper credit they deserve for the global diaspora revolutions they are inspiring.

Chabad-Lubavitch is politically right-wing, religiously ultra-Orthodox, and prizes Jewish ritual above all else, working to raise the profile and increase observance of mitzvot. The American Jewish World Service (AJWS) is politically left-wing, not religious, and prizes universalism, working to alleviate poverty around the world. 

At first blush, these organizations appear to have nothing in common: They serve different populations, in radically different ways, and sit at different tables at family functions.

A closer look, however, reveals that Chabad and AJWS have much in common. Their guiding principles and drive are of a piece.

Chabad and AJWS both

  • Are driven by the messianic (one perhaps more explicitly than the other) idealism for a better tomorrow
  • Think globally and value inclusion and cultural sensitivity
  • Believe Judaism belongs firmly in the public sphere, where the core Jewish values of each are stated with confidence and passion
  • Understand the importance of food (Chabad through Shabbat hosting) and AJWS through advocacy for the farm bill and by fighting hunger
  • Are ideological absolutists, prioritize action over learning without neglecting learning, and have been led by very charismatic leaders who have inspired armies of followers

Chabad, which boomed under the brilliant Lubavitcher Rebbe, has been around for a few hundred years and currently has a budget and impact exponentially greater than AJWS. AJWS, led by the great Ruth Messinger, has been around for only a few decades but has already made a significant impact on Jewish global service. 

I do not know where I would be in life had I not become involved with these two groups. Chabad has provided me a spiritual home in dozens of cities around the world, and helped me grow in mitzvah observance during my Jewish journey in college. While I do not agree with many of Chabad’s political and ideological positions, I recognize that it is the strongest and fastest growing Jewish movement and I leave their houses inspired by how they give. No other religious group can rival Chabad’s ability to cultivate the energy to build outreach satellites around the world.

At the same time, there is no telling what kind of activist I would be today without AJWS. Rather than join the Peace Corps, AJWS provided me a Jewish home in the global south where I could serve as an observant Jew. Through opportunities as both participant and staff member on its programs, this organization rocket launched me onto a path of Jewish social justice leadership. These service-learning experiences throughout Asia, Africa, Europe, and Central America in turn opened my heart to suffering around the world, my mind to strategic thinking, and my soul to an identity as a global Jew. Currently, AJWS is circulating a Jewish Petition for a Just Farm Bill (with more than 16,000 signatures) in an effort to achieve a more just Farm Bill, which covers foreign aid as well as domestic food policy. There is no Jewish organization as thoughtful and successful at addressing global social justice work as AJWS.

Some criticize these organizations for being too narrow of focus. “Why does Chabad only help Jews?” “Why does AJWS only help non-Jews?” I believe that we have a need for organizations that focus in these ways in order that they can achieve excellence. No group is better than Chabad at teaching ahavat Yisrael (love for the fellow Jew), and none is better than AJWS at teaching ahavat ha’briot (love for all people). Together, they can inspire all of us to higher levels.

My dream is to see a Jewish community that is fully observant in the mitzvot (as Chabad teaches) and leads the world in social justice (as AJWS teaches). When I applied for my first grant to found Uri L’Tzedek (the Orthodox social justice movement) in the spring of 2007, I was very aware that it was the great leadership and success of Chabad and AJWS that had enabled and inspired this innovation. Whether or not we agree with all of the approaches of Chabad or AJWS, they are the ones impacting global Jewish life, and if we do not join them, we are just spectators. They are succeeding for a very important reason—they see the big picture of our Jewish responsibility! Jewish values must be actualized—we can learn from the approaches of Chabad and AJWS how to go beyond our comfort zones to change the world.

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Director of Jewish Life & the Senior Jewish Educator at the UCLA Hillel and a 6th year doctoral candidate at Columbia University in Moral Psychology & Epistemology. Rav Shmuly’s book “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century” is now available for pre-order on Amazon.