Monday, August 10, 2009

Hershey Novack, St. Louis' Chabad Rabbi on Campus

The St. Lou Jew sat down with Rabbi Hershey Novack to discuss talk about Chabad and the life of a Shaliach. All I knew about Chabad before coming to St. Louis was that they are very religious and like to drink. To see how my preconditions held up, read on!

Rabbi Hershey Novack is pretty ubiquitous in St. Louis. I first met him around my Birthright trip to Israel (he has since lead trips for over 500 students), during which we debated theology, philosophy, and why Ashkenazi Hebrew makes my skin crawl. While Chabad's (Rohr center for Jewish Life) programmatic offerings tend to center on the undergraduate and graduate student populations at Washington University, he has also been involved outside of this realm, supplying a Sukkah to Moishe House, and doing a L'Chaim or two for Simchat Torah at Bais Abe.

Born in Chicago, Hershey grew up in LA, as spent time as a Yeshiva student in something like 15 countries teaching and learning, meeting broad range of Jewish people of all ages. Hershey was married to Chana in NYC 1 week before 9/11/01.

The St. Lou Jew: How did you end up with this gig?

Hershey Novack: It was last day of Shevah Brachot, there was this black pall of ash above NY, and I wanted to do something so I found an outlet with the American Red Cross as a chaplain. I worked at the family center where all these organizations set up shop for victims’ families and later at Ground Zero. The campus rabbi piece was at the encouragement of my wife. We looked at a number of opportunities, and St. Louis was the best fit. I Came to STL in Fall 02. I was 24 or 25 at the time. It was an incredible entrepreneurial experience.

SLJ: How did you come to Chabad in the first place?
HN: My parents did not grow up Chabad, although my some of my grandparents did and rejected it. I grew up and studied in the Chabad educational system.

SLJ: So what is Chabad?
HN: Chabad is a branch of the Chasidic movement, which was founded by Rabbi Israel Ball Shemtov about 300 years ago. “Chabad” is a philosophical approach to Jewish belief and practice. It is an acronym for chochma, binah, daat which means the spark, the articulation, and the physical action.

Most recognizably in the modern era, Chabad is an organization within the global Jewish community, with full-time reps (we call them Shluchim) in something like 80 countries, almost 50 states, and serving 150 campuses. I’m frankly unaware of another organization that parallels Chabad in scope, which can make it hard for people to grasp what Chabad is today. On one foot, it’s like combining a Chasidic intellectual movement with an Israeli youth movement, adding a serious social services component. Couple this with a philosophy based on the inherent sacred value of every individual and offer it pretty much wherever Jews are.

Typically, Chabad’s don’t have membership dues, because if you are Jewish you automatically belong. This is the parish model as opposed to the membership model.

SLJ: What do you see as your goals in the community?
HN: There is an inheritance to every generation of Jews and I want to connect people to that. At any given moment, I want to make Judaism one hair more relevant for each individual person. I would love to see people move Judaism up in importance in their lives. We live in an individualistic age. Just as our faces are different, so are our opinions. We've never had these many choices as Jews in terms of how to live our lives, and I think there is a greater responsibility that comes with that. I think that we Jews have an incredible message for 2009. We can provide meaning and substance to people's lives, and we need to do this in an accessible way.

SLJ: What are your boundaries as a movement?
HN: We have the opportunity to connect people with their heritage as opposed to a way of limiting or putting up walls. In terms of the identity of Chabad, we obviously believe there was a revelation at Mount Sinai and we measure our actions by the code of Jewish law. In terms of participants we are blessed with an incredibly rich and diverse community; there is no litmus test at the door. At Chabad you can meet students from virtually every part of the campus, democrats, republicans and anarchists, Zionists and people who are convinced that Hamas is just. Seriously. I think that part of the reason for this diversity is because we look past the labels and hyphens.

SLJ: There are a number of people who have some vague negative feelings towards Chabad. Where do you think that comes from?
HN: The best way to dispel myths is with light and love, and I invite readers of this blog to contact me directly with any and all questions. I can be found all the usual ways, FB, email etc.
Probably the biggest misconception about Chabad is that people perceive Chabad as an all or nothing type of movement. You are either in or out. I don't think our beliefs or practices are an all or nothing system. I actually found reference to this notion in Maimonides’ letters which is cool. Some people could interpret outreach (or “engagement”) as intrusive. Which is obviously not anyone’s goal. We strive to see each person as an individual and calibrate our actions accordingly.
There are also two opposing sets of misconceptions – some people say that Chabad is for uninvolved or unaffiliated Jews only, while others think that is for religious people. Similarly, some think that the goal is to make people orthodox, while others say that it is not orthodox enough. As I see it, when it comes to our core Jewish identity we are exactly the same. If I would have my way, I would like to remove the label of “Orthodox Jew” and similarly conservative and reform Jew from our collective Jewish psyche. I suppose these are useful tools to distinguish philosophies and practices, synagogues and summer camps, however, they do not accurately reflect our core connection and our shared sense of Jewishness. Instead they divide. This plays out for us that we have a challenge in getting people through the door the first time. We have a data set about people who participate in Chabad, and that the likelihood of repeat participation is very high, our challenge is lowering the barrier for the first encounter.

SLJ: What is the largest issue we face as Jews today?
HN: I think so much of what is alleged to ail the Jewish community (declining affiliation, philanthropic shrinkage, etc) are really symptoms of a larger problem which boil down to the lack of education, Jewish specifically. It sounds cliché but more Jewish Americans know the name of Jesus' mother than Moses'. It is scary when People of the Book couldn’t even identify the names of these books in a police lineup. Instead of fixing symptoms, we need to fix Jewish education across the board—formal, informal, experiential—and I think that women and men of Chabad play a vital role in this. It is our responsibility to acknowledge the difficulties and try to work through them. The great sages have grappled with our tradition throughout the ages and now it’s our turn. Let’s do it together.

If you have questions for Hershey about Chabad, how to get a free meal, what the place of women is in the movement, or why Chabadnikim have pictures of the Rebbe on the wall, he can be reached at @

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