Philip Wexler, a renowned professor and sociologist who devoted his long career to studying the role of education and spiritual practices in the construction of identity, and whose final work—Social Vision: The Lubavitcher Rebbe’s Transformative Paradigm for the World— detailed and reassessed social dimensions of the Rebbe’s vision and legacy, passed away on March 25 (Nissan 3). He was 79 years old.

Over the course of his decades-long academic career, Wexler was appointed to prestigious professorships and leadership positions at universities in the United States, Israel, Germany, and Australia. He was also the founder and executive director of the Institute of Jewish Spirituality and Society (IJSS), whose mission is to advance both scholarship and social transformation, breaking down barriers between spheres of knowledge and practice, and bringing Jewish spiritual knowledge to bear on the toughest challenges of contemporary society.

“The foundation that my father built for the IJSS, and the ideas that he promulgated, will always live brightly inside of us all,” said his son, Michael. “His quest for 're-enchantment' both in his personal journey and professional work is one that we look forward to continuing, both as a testament to his vision and in service of the world.”

Raised in Brooklyn, N.Y., by Max (Mordechai) Wexler and Mindy Wexler, Philip attended New York public schools before graduating from New York University and earning his Ph.D. from Princeton University. As a post-doctoral student, he was awarded fellowships by the Woodrow Wilson Institute and the National Institute of Mental Health. His teaching career began as a lecturer in sociology at Queens College, City University of New York, and he was later an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Sharp Analysis and Prescient Social Concerns

 Wexler in 1989 as newly appointed dean of the School of Education at the University of Rochester - Photo: Rochester Review
Wexler in 1989 as newly appointed dean of the School of Education at the University of Rochester
Photo: Rochester Review

Wexler joined the faculty of the University of Rochester in 1979 as a professor and became dean of the School of Education ten years later. Already then, his focus on the practical applications of scholarship was clear. He redesigned the school of education’s academic portfolio to align with community needs, and deepened relationships with local school systems through collaborative partnerships. His successor as dean, Prof. Raffaella Borasi, noted that his leadership brought fiscal stability to the school while also redefining its identity and creating “stronger synergy between teaching and research.”

During his time at the University of Rochester, Wexler was also named Distinguished Best Practice Professor at the University of Newcastle in Australia.

In 1989, Wexler’s ability to bring sharp analysis to bear on social reality led him to express prescient concern that students were not being equipped to deal with the “electronic information network” or “to understand and control the symbolic [virtual] environments in their lives.” In other words, he foresaw the rise of the internet age and understood the dangers of social media before social media even existed.

Similarly, in a 1992 New York Times feature on education, he warned that the most important thing missing from schools “is a sense of community.” Teachers need to “pay attention to kids as whole people” and take care of “their needs as members of society” rather than only “looking at them as thinking machines.” His research on Chabad’s social teachings led him to discover that the Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M Schneerson, of righteous memory, had often expressed similar sentiments and advocated for new educational practices and approaches.

While serving as dean at the University of Rochester, Wexler met Rabbi Nechemia Vogel, director of Chabad-Lubavitch in Rochester, and began attending the rabbi’s class in Tanya, the foundational work of Chabad philosophy.

“We did quite a bit of learning together and became good friends,” Vogel told “He was a brilliant man, very accomplished and prominent in his field, yet he was always kind and gentle and had a humility about himself that was truly remarkable.

“We had many lengthy discussions about Chassidic philosophy and about the Rebbe in particular,” Vogel recalled. “Despite the fact that he already knew so much, whenever he encountered something he hadn't learned yet, he was eager to delve into it, to immerse. Once when we were studying a particularly deep teaching of the Rebbe, he stopped and looked up at the picture of the Rebbe on my wall, and said: ‘You know, I wish I could have met him.’ Through his deep analytical thinking into the Rebbe’s teachings, he developed his own connection, which later grew into Social Vision, which so excellently expresses much of the Rebbe’s message to the world.”

Mid-Career Pivot to Jewish Studies and Jerusalem

In the early 2000s, Wexler was at the height of a successful career. Intellectually, however, he was restless. He felt that the modern academy was now so specialized that sociology was at risk of simply repeating old ideas without finding new solutions.

Wexler felt compelled to make a mid-career pivot and start out on a new path. It had much to do, he intimated, with a growing coherence about his own identity as a Jew and a descendant of rabbis, as well as with his discovery of the socio-mystical teachings of Chassidism. But it was also informed by his deep reading of the founding fathers of sociology, Max Weber and Émile Durkheim, who grounded their study of society in the study of religion.

In 2001, Wexler went on leave from the University of Rochester and took up a fellowship at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. Soon afterward, he was appointed professor of sociology of education and then Unterberg Chair in Jewish Social and Educational History, at Hebrew University. He also directed the School of Education at Hebrew University. Between 2008-09, he convened a year-long international working group at the Institute of Advanced Studies in Jerusalem.

One of his closest collaborators in Jerusalem was Prof. Jonathan Garb, Gershom Scholem Professor in Kabbalah at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who later became a founding member of the IJSS advisory board. “Philip Wexler was one of the most original and dynamic scholars whom I have known, despite living in a city full of renowned scholars,” Garb said. “When I met him 25 years ago, I saw that he was doing things no one else could do.”

Wexler, Garb recalls, “read the classics of sociology (that we studied in tandem), like pages of Talmud. In a world moving away from theory, he brought these classics, the work of the Frankfurt School and other worlds back to life.”

Garb further noted that Wexler “was also a great academic leader” with a unique ability to bring together diverse groups of scholars and create broad international conversations that crossed conventional disciplinary boundaries. “His confidence and vision moved academic mountains,” Garb said, “Through him, I met the best of Chabad scholarship, the leading sociologists … [and] the wonderful religious studies people at Rice University.”

“His dramatic contribution was to regard the Jewish sources, and especially Chasidism, not as objects to which fashionable theories are applied, but as subjects, whose voice must be heard, so that they can teach us new theory,” said Garb.

Wexler at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 2014
Wexler at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 2014

The Institute of Jewish Spirituality and Society

Beginning in 2012, Wexler began to organize a number of exploratory conferences aimed at overcoming what he called “the secular sacred divide” and achieving “discursive parity” between Chassidic thought and academic research, especially in the realm of sociology. To achieve this he partnered with Rabbi Menachem Schmidt, President of Chabad on Campus International Foundation, who shared his interest in creating dynamic intellectual exchanges that would highlight the social dimension of Chabad thought and practice.

During the same period, Wexler also served as a visiting professor at Brandeis University in the United States and at the Bergische University of Wuppertal in Germany.

Schmidt also introduced Wexler to Eli Rubin, a writer and editor at, who became deeply engaged in Wexler’s intellectual and institutional project. Later, he would become Wexler’s co-author of Social Vision.

Rubin recalls that the relationship developed over several years. “With time,” remarked Rubin, “and through many conversations and study sessions together, it began to feel like we were thinking together. He was fashioning a new set of conceptual tools through which to study and understand Chassidism as an intellectual and social movement, and specifically to understand how the Rebbe used ideas, words, to galvanize activism and thereby engineer a transformative renaissance of Jewish life.” Wexler, Rubin explains, understood that this renaissance has a universal dimension carrying the potential for global “reenchantment.”

Wexler’s series of interdisciplinary and intercommunal programs led to the establishment of the Institute of Jewish Spirituality and Society, which was officially launched in 2017 at a conference held in Briarcliff Manor, New York.

In a manifesto-like speech delivered on that occasion, Wexler said that the Institute emerged from the convergence of two movements. First, “an actualized drive to bring the ideas of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, and the longer lineage to which he belongs, into the public space of intellectual discourse and interchange.” This movement, from within Chabad, corresponded to a second movement from “within the social sciences to expand its horizons of discourse and to mine unsuspected stores of conceptual treasures.”

In his typically incisive style, Wexler argued that this convergence was a symptom of wider historical and cultural changes. Secularization, he argued, had led to “a world with an absence of love and lacking overall meaning.”

Why, however, should humanities scholars, social scientists and practitioners turn to Chassidic teachings in particular for an antidote to these troubles?

Wexler’s answer was that Chassidism provides a unique sort of mystical orientation, which doesn’t lead to an ascetic flight from the world but to a mystical repair of the world. As he wrote elsewhere, “Hasidism does not bifurcate the paranormal from ordinary life in the world, but rather integrates the paranormal within the normal.”

Such an approach, Wexler said, can lead to a whole different set of “basic premises” which inform new approaches to immensely practical social issues, transforming human behaviors in such realms as “education, aging, and tolerance” for the better. He also brought this lens to bear on questions about social justice and ecological ethics.

This approach was developed and applied in much more detail in several of Wexler’s books, especially in Mystical Sociology: Toward Cosmic Social Theory (Peter Lang, 2013) and in his final work, Social Vision: The Lubavitcher Rebbe's Transformative Paradigm for the World (Herder and Herder, 2019).

“An Extraordinary Portrait of a Visionary Leader”

The cover of “Social Vision: The Lubavitcher Rebbe’s Transformative Paradigm for the World”
The cover of “Social Vision: The Lubavitcher Rebbe’s Transformative Paradigm for the World”

Wexler opens Social Vision with the question that perhaps began his fascination with the Chassidic world and desire to study it.

“Mainstream culture, mainstream politics and mainstream intellectual discourse all seem increasingly and inexorably commercialized, reduced either to tokenism, or to frivolity, if not to endless futility and to the weighty grind of work, work, work.

“Is there a way to repair society?” he asks.

Wexler goes on to explain that he sought a path by which humanity could escape the iron cage of the capitalist order, and on the way, explain why religion had not only survived the scientific revolution but was even thriving.

Through his long acquaintance with the Chabad Chassidic world, Wexler became inspired by its combination of social activism and success with a robust intellectual tradition, in his words: “Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson was a religious leader and theorist, but also an engineer of social change, engagement, and societal participation—indeed, a brilliant tactician who re-created and mobilized a transformative social movement.”

Wexler was especially impressed that the Rebbe addressed the most pressing social and political problems of our own age from an explicitly Chassidic and mystical perspective and did not simply assent to agendas emanating from sources external to his own tradition. “Chabad,” he wrote, “shows us how education can be at once social and critical, but also religious, spiritual, and mystical, producing enhanced measures of agency and social connectedness.”

Rubin remembers when he and Wexler had been deep in the midst of researching Social Vision. They had been planning the book and doing a lot of reading and talking but still didn’t have a clear roadmap. “One afternoon we watched a video recording of a farbrengen of the Rebbe. It was several hours of talks on different topics, interspersed with singing. It was almost an immersive experience as if we were embedded in the crowd, and able to get a real sense of the social dynamic that the Rebbe was orchestrating. For Philip, it seemed as if the whole book came together through that ‘participation’ in the farbrengen. Afterward, we went outside and sat at a table overlooking Keuka Lake in Upstate New York. There and then, he dictated the entire outline of the book to me, chapter by chapter, while I scribbled away furiously on a yellow pad.”

Wexler and other scholars in 2017.
Wexler and other scholars in 2017.

Social Vision would go on to earn extraordinary praise from a wide variety of academic sources. William B. Parsons, Professor of Religion and Culture at Rice University, called the book “the needed prescription for our times.” Jonathan D. Sarna, Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University, said Wexler “illuminates the Rebbe’s distinctive views on American society, the role of the individual and the community, the purpose of education, and much more.” Ellen Koskoff, Emerita Professor of Ethnomusicology at the Eastman School of Music said Social Vision was “an extraordinary portrait of a visionary leader whose message continues to be both relevant and imperative for us today.”

As someone whose own career bridged very different spheres of study, Wexler had a unique ability to bring diverse groups of people together, encouraging them to step out of their intellectual comfort zones and engage in generative discussions that moved from theoretical analysis to practical application. He wrote and edited more than 15 books and dozens of scholarly articles. He also served as a mentor to hundreds of students and colleagues, many of whom went on to forge distinguished scholarly careers of their own.

Above all, he held his family near and dear to his heart.

In addition to his wife, Ilene, he is survived by four children: Michael, Ari, Helen and Ava; as well as by four grandchildren. He was predeceased by his sister, Helen Wexler.