Chabad Tracks the Trekkers: Jewish Education in India

Apr. 03, 2009

Source: Journal of Jewish Education, Volume 75, Issue 2, pages 173 – 193


Fundamentalists and modernists seem, at times, to work in contrapuntal interdependency. While the fundamentalist's rhetoric markets its image as celebrating the renewal of an authentic past identity in modernity, modernists state the need for and possibility of adapting a cherished past to modern assumptions. Yet, it seems as if it is the fundamentalists who are the ones to embrace a highly modern narrative and that it is the modernists who oppose it.


In this article, the authors investigate this paradox by portraying the educational efforts of the Chabad Movement to introduce young Israeli trekkers in Southeast Asia, from secular, Zionist backgrounds, into a religious lifestyle.



This study is based on ethnographic fieldwork conducted by Maoz in India and Thailand in 2005. The fieldwork included participant observation in seven Chabad houses, field notes, informal conversations and semistructured in-depth interviews with 25 Chabad schlichim (male = 19, female = 6; average age = 26.68) and 21 Israeli backpackers. The researcher functioned as a participant-as-observer, with an inclination to participate in the researched activities, thus gaining an insider's perspective on the phenomenon. This proved to be a great advantage in studying the backpackers' experience, as it served to facilitate communication with the Chabad shlichim thereby affording deeper insights into their methods and intentions.


The data was analyzed according to conventional qualitative methods. The researchers carefully analyzed the data, looking for patterns and thematic issues of relevance, which were then coded to allow for further analysis.


The authors show Chabad's strategies to be what, in modernist jargon, would be considered progressive informal educational activities, the very ones from which modernists seem to be retreating with the advance of Jewish day school educational technologies in the Diaspora.


They suggest that the Chabad movement demonstrates an understanding of the covert symbolic power of formal educational approaches and that it resists them by enacting a radical epistemological change in all that guides their educational activity.


Among the authors' conclusions:


"We strongly believe that educators and scholars can learn a great deal from Chabad's approach, which will benefit modernist Jewish education. Jewish educators can start by trying to create educational settings that address their preferred cultural products in action, in dialogue, and in context and not in the abstract.


Jewish educators could try to overcome their traditional alignments with philosophical idealistic inquiry, concerned with the nature of reality and problems of virtue in educational contexts that guides them to envision traditional textual literacy as the heart of cultural Jewish production. They could try instead to engage learners in interpretative active practices which might make texts relevant to their present contexts. Jewish educators could try and shift their educational focus from the individual to the social arena."

Updated: Jun. 08, 2009