First published July 12, 2007 on the Jerusalem Post blogcentral
Chabad is one of the great wonders of the Jewish world. Following World War II, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson assumed the leadership of the movement, the headquarters of which had previously moved to New York. In little more than half a century, Rabbi Schneerson took this small Chasidic group, which was little understood in America and which had lost most of its members in the Holocaust, and created a vast network of educational and religious institutions that today touch the lives of tens of thousands of Jews.
Chabad has always been deeply controversial. In the ultra-Orthodox world, some have deplored the willingness of Chabad to immerse itself in the affairs of secular society. In the modern Orthodox world, some have criticized the messianic elements of Chabads theology. I will leave these matters for others to discuss. But what might a liberal Jew think about Chabad?
Chabads monumental contribution to Jewish life has been its willingness to serve Jewish populations not served by others. In North America, Chabads representatives minister to Jewish prisoners long neglected by the Jewish establishment and reach out to college students in dozens of isolated communities. Throughout the world, in virtually every city where a Jewish community of even modest size is to be found, Chabad shelichim emissaries conduct religious services, visit hospitals, teach children, organize Jewish holiday celebrations, and offer Shabbat meals to lonely Jewish students and tourists.
The work is done by Chabad couples usually young couples who commit themselves to this effort with tremendous devotion and at great personal sacrifice. Whatever disagreements I may have with Chabad, I can only marvel at the dedication of their shelichim (emissaries) and regret that no other Jewish movement Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform has been able to produce a corps of similarly devoted young men and women who are prepared to serve the Jewish people in this way.
And what are my disagreements? I offer two.
In Russia, Chabad leaders have established an alliance with the increasingly autocratic President, Vladimir Putin. Such alliances have their purposes, but not when they are used to deny recognition and funding to other Jewish groups, Orthodox as well as Reform. Looking back at the history of eastern European Jewry, we all view with distaste those chapters that involve Jewish groups drawing close to ruling despots so that they might provide information on other Jews with whom they disagree. We do not need a modern version of that history in the Russian Federation today.
In North America, the issues are very different. Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox synagogues routinely require families wanting a Bar or Bat Mitzvah for a son or daughter to meet certain requirements. Generally, the child must attend a religious school for at least a year, if not more, and the parents are also asked to commit themselves to study and worship at the congregation. The premise is that in the absence of Torah learning and familial commitment and involvement, the Bar Mitzvah will be without meaning an event celebrated primarily because of parental guilt or as an excuse for a party.
Chabad, however, is often the address for those who wish to avoid serious requirements for the child or family. It is the place that you go when you do not want to join a synagogue or subject your child to a meaningful course of study. The rationale offered is that no child should be denied a Bar Mitzvah, and even with little serious training, the child and family who are probably unaffiliated may later be drawn into Jewish life. Perhaps.
More likely, the lesson that is absorbed is that Judaism is not a serious endeavor and that even the most significant milestones require only a modicum of work and preparation. Let me be clear: no family should ever be denied membership in a synagogue because of inability to pay. But we should protest when Chabad, or anyone else, becomes a voice of Jewish minimalism that lowers educational standards in our communities.