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July 23, 2014 | 25th Tamuz 5774

Reform Reflections: The Good and Bad of Chabad

by Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie

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 Chabad’s theology. I will leave these matters for others to discuss. But what might a liberal Jew think about Chabad?

Chabad’s monumental contribution to Jewish life has been its willingness to serve Jewish populations not served by others. In North America, Chabad’s 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.

Comments

Aviv Imanuel

September 19, 2010
04:33 AM

We agree to disagree

I just read this article, somehow late. Let me assure you, I have been snubbed by not one, but two Reform Congregations because apparently my financial constraints. One of them conveniently lost my application for membership, and when I submitted it again, never heard a word from them. On the second Congregation, I wish you could see how the President looks at me and my son, he made us feel like if we were scum. On the other hand, I have been very welcomed at the local and rather humble Chabbad House. They have let me felt accepted and as an equal. Let me ask you a question, strictly as a human being, with whom you would feel better, the one that snubbed you, or the one who have welcomed you with open arms and have not demanded anything from me, other than take one mitzvot at a time? For me the answer is obvious. But as I said, we agree to disagree on this issue.

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?????? ?? ?????

May 13, 2011
04:28 PM

Very well written

I am glad that the URJ supports a strong education and participation standard for bnei mitzvah ceremonies. Chabad does have a certain zeal that I wish American Jewry would pick up on.

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  Reply

Uriel

May 20, 2011
08:51 PM

RE: We agree to disagree


Originally posted by Anonymous User:
I just read this article, somehow late. Let me assure you, I have been snubbed by not one, but two Reform Congregations because apparently my financial constraints. One of them conveniently lost my application for membership, and when I submitted it again, never heard a word from them. On the second Congregation, I wish you could see how the President looks at me and my son, he made us feel like if we were scum. On the other hand, I have been very welcomed at the local and rather humble Chabbad House. They have let me felt accepted and as an equal. Let me ask you a question, strictly as a human being, with whom you would feel better, the one that snubbed you, or the one who have welcomed you with open arms and have not demanded anything from me, other than take one mitzvot at a time? For me the answer is obvious. But as I said, we agree to disagree on this issue.



Yes! Plus Chabad actually follows mitzvot and torah! as opposed to nearly all reform synagogues...

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