A Journey of Understanding

Social Sciences9 min. read

Cultural immersion sheds light on little-understood Jewish movement

By Kardelen Koldas '15
June 18, 2020

For her senior thesis, Chasity McFadden ’20 traveled way outside her comfort zone—literally. The QuestBridge Scholar from Tennessee embedded herself in the Ultra-Orthodox Jewish community of Chabad in two locations, in Maine and New York, learning about—and from—a culture very different from her own.

The seed for the project was planted in the fall of her junior year in Jerusalem, Israel, where McFadden took a class on Hasidism taught by a Hasidic professor. “It was about spirituality in a way that traditional Judaism is not,” she said. “I found it really intriguing.” 

McFadden considered numerous Hasidic groups in the U.S. for her work. But she ultimately decided on Chabad because of its mission to bring traditional religious Judaism to the Jewish world. “They’re very open to questions. They’re very friendly. They attempt to meet the secular world halfway,” she said. Because of that, there was room for her, an outsider, to enter the community that she thought wouldn’t be possible in other Hasidic movements. “I wanted to make sure that my research was as authentic as possible and able to touch the community in a real, meaningful way.” 

She combined her curiosity for the Hasidic community with her economics and Jewish studies double majors in an honors thesis investigating how Chabad households decide where to live. She wondered why this mission-driven community, wanting to spread its religious practices, lived in just a few concentrated areas in the U.S. She looked for data on this but came up empty-handed, which forced her to gather it herself. 

She persisted in collecting data and met her goal of writing a data-driven thesis in the absence of prior information. That’s something she deserves a lot of praise for, said Assistant Professor of Economics Lindsey Novak, one of McFadden’s advisors. In the process, Novak observed that McFadden stretched herself as an economist by learning to write well about theory—a challenge even for those with a Ph.D.—and also as a Jewish studies scholar. “She really persevered through something that was pretty challenging, figuring out where to go next.”  

McFadden first lived with a Chabad family in Portland, Maine, sharing their culture and Jewish holidays for four days last fall. 

“It was important for me to understand what the dynamics really were in a Chabad world,” said McFadden, who learned about the community’s larger customs from this family. “What my job as a woman was, what I could ask, what I couldn’t ask, who I could talk to, who I couldn’t talk to, what places were limited to me, and what was open—there are a lot of questions to go into places like these.”  

“Once you get past that initial fear of othering people, … the world gets much, much bigger. And suddenly, you’re learning people’s wild stories, listening to where they’re from, where they’ve traveled to, and how they see the world. And it’s amazing and beautiful, and once you realize that, the fear doesn’t really exist.”

Chasity McFadden ’20

After Portland, she embedded herself in the Chabad community in Crown Heights, where close to half of American Chabadniks live, over Jan Plan, going between houses for meals, activities, and discussions. She conversed with outspoken women about politics, listened to religious talks, heard men give lectures, and met with the young and the old.

“Most people were actually really receptive and really excited that I cared about the Chabad world enough to study it,” she said. “Some days it was really beautiful, and some days it was really challenging” being in an environment with different customs and practices. Some members, however, pushed back, questioning her motives. She had to carefully explain her research, her experience living in Jerusalem, and her work as a Jewish studies major.  

She asked them questions such as what their responsibilities were within the Chabad community and what was important when choosing the location of their house. But throughout, she let Chabadniks tell their stories and have a voice. “It gave them space to really express what was important to them, and it gave me a more holistic view of who they are,” she said. “I started seeing a trend of what’s most important.” In addition to Portland and Crown Heights, she also interviewed other members of this Ultra-Orthodox community in Las Vegas, Nev., via phone. 

Consequently, she determined three parameters impacting the Chabad’s residential decisions: accessing Chabad-specific amenities, such as finding kosher food or a religious bath mikveh, contributing to their religious mission, and socializing with other Chabadniks. 

Her interviews with 19 Chabadniks from these three different-sized communities, coupled with economic analysis, revealed that while they typically articulate the importance of mission and make that a key part of their identity, most live in Crown Heights or Las Vegas because of the availability of amenities and social aspects.  

“Only a small percentage of the community devote their lives to something that’s valuable to the community as a whole,” said David Freidenreich, Pulver Family Associate Professor of Jewish Studies and McFadden’s other advisor. “That’s something that very few American Jews would recognize. And I think Chasity’s work highlights that important dimension, that these people are human like the rest of us—they want to live a good life, they want to prioritize family, they want to prioritize ready access to resources.” 

Her findings help others, including those in the non-Hasidic Jewish community, better understand Chabad, said Freidenreich.  

“I think the value of what Chasity has done is that she explains to the outside world how members of this community make fundamental life decisions,” he said. While the non-Hasidic Jewish community might have certain ideas about Chabad, it’s not a very well understood movement in the Jewish world, he explained. “As a result, she actually did that community a great service.”

While McFadden’s work presented a different side of this understudied community, it also enabled her to grow—something that both her advisors and McFadden herself noticed.  

“This project is one of the most difficult but rewarding experiences I had at Colby,” said McFadden, who learned how to explain derivatives to her Jewish studies advisor and Jewish prayer practices to her economics advisor. The ability to talk to a wide range of people, she said, played a crucial role in her job interview at Bloomberg, where she now works. “I’m sure I will continue chasing religious diversity, figure out where I belong in the world, and learn more from new communities.”

 She suggested others do the same.

“I highly recommend anyone—student or not—to put themselves in a community that’s not theirs and allow themselves to just sit and listen and not tell other people how they’re supposed to live, or what it means, or why their opinions are different—just really listen,” said McFadden. “If the world, as a whole, would sit back and listen, we would get along much, much better than we do.”

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