Text size

NEW YORK - The belief that the Lubavitch rabbi who died 10 years ago is the messiah, no longer holds water for most of the movement's Hasids in America. The messianic stream slightly damaged the image of the Chabad movement there at the time, but now only distant echoes remain.

On the other hand, since the rabbi's death, Chabad has succeeded in making impressive inroads into many Jewish communities, especially in small American towns. But the success of Chabad - so welcome at the movement headquarters in Brooklyn - has thrown Reform and Conservative rabbis into consternation because it is coming at the expense of their congregations.

As Chabad's presence spreads over the map of America - recently a Chabad emissary arrived in the Idaho capital of Boise - the non-Orthodox streams of Jewry feel greater frustration. They charge that Chabad emissaries take advantage of the naivete of established Reform and Conservative congregations with their aggressive campaigns. In particular they feel anger at well-to-do Jews in both streams who contribute to establishing and setting up Chabad houses.

"Curiously, many if not most of those who attend Chabad classes and activities and support them financially are Reform and Conservative Jews - people whose beliefs and lifestyles are far removed from Lubavitch Hasidism and who, for the most part, are little interested in the concept of `messiah' that so motivated the `shlihim,'" wrote journalist Sue Fischkoff in a recent issue of "Reform Judaism."

In her book "The Rebbe's Army: Inside the World of Chabad-Lubavitch," published a few months ago, Fischkoff writes: "Reform leaders are quick to point out that, in giving money to Chabad, Reform Jews are in fact enriching an organization that has worked against their own movement in Israel and around the world. In Israel particularly, Chabad has advocated a change in the Law of Return to exclude non-Orthodox Jewish converts."

Fischkoff cites the case of a Reform rabbi in a small New England town with a congregation of 300 families. A few years ago, the rabbi recounts, a Chabad emissary arrived and somehow managed to get a list of the congregants. He began bombarding them with the movement's publications and told a local newspaper he had come to settle there because there was no Jewish religious presence there. The Reform rabbi pointed out that his congregation had been in existence 25 years.

`Authentic' Jews

According to Fischkoff, there are several reasons why the non-Orthodox Jews are attracted to Chabad. Some of them feel this is "authentic" Judaism and it has a mystical air about some of its expressions. In addition, the emissaries of Chabad are always available; they visit local families and the sick and they form ties with youngsters, particularly those who live alone. One of the main attractions, she writes, is that the Chabad houses are open to all and provide free religious services.

According to Chabad headquarters in Brooklyn, the movement has 926 emissaries throughout the U.S. Most are married couples and the wife is also an emissary helping her husband, the Chabad activists say. There are Chabad houses in 700 cities and towns in the U.S. and on 67 university and college campuses.

Most of the houses were set up in the first five years after the rabbi's death, Fischkoff says. The momentum came from the rabbi himself and he was the one who chose the emissaries and the places to which they should be sent, she says. "The years 1994-2000 were when the Chabad movement spread through America," she says.

Fischkoff, who has visited many of the houses, estimates the upkeep of a Chabad house to be some $50,000 per year. Those houses that also operate a mikve (ritual bath) require a larger budget.

The leader of the Conservative Movement, Dr. Ismar Schorsch, expresses regret that the Chabad emissaries do not try working among Jews who are not members of a congregation and are not involved in the community. The normally quiet-spoken Schorsch has difficulty maintaining his composure on this issue, saying the Chabad emissaries prefer people who are already members of a congregation.

He said he welcomes the sending of emissaries to places like the Ukraine, but when they open Chabad houses next to existing non-Orthodox synagogues, "their purpose is to weaken our religious institutions."

Schorsch cites Great Neck, NY, where the Conservative movement has old, established synagogues. He cannot understand why Chabad has chosen to work there and says that if well-to-do Jews there are contributing to the Lubavitch movement, they are shooting themselves in the foot.

Rabbi Eric Yoffe, president of the World Reform Movement, is less categorical. He says the emissaries do important work in places where there is no one else. His own daughter, he says, keeps kosher and observes the Sabbath and when she travels locally or abroad, she always finds a Chabad house. However, he also comes out against those who are active in places where there are veteran synagogues. "Who do these emissaries attract? Those who don't want to pay dues in a Reform or Conservative synagogue," he says.

Doorstep minimalism

Yoffe describes Chabad as being narrow-minded, "selling a minimalist form of Judiasm door to door." He says that, while in a Reform synagogue the preparation for a bar mitzvah can take up to three years, with the participation of the family, "the Chabad emissaries will organize a bar mitzvah for a boy they met half an hour earlier." Reform rabbis will visit Chabad houses, he says, but Chabad rabbis will never be seen in a Reform synagogue.

The head of the Reform movement's Artzah organization, Rabbi Amiel Hirsch, is not troubled by the phenomenon and says it will not change the face of American Judaism. "Those who visit the Chabad houses will not turn into Chabadniks," he says. "The vast majority of American Jews are not Orthodox and will not become Orthodox," he says.

Asked about the claims that Chabad emissaries work among members of Reform and Conservative congregations, Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, head of Lubavitch World Headquarters, says: "The Rebbe taught us that we must not distinguish between Jew and Jew and that it is forbidden to give a Jew a tag. The emissaries do not differentiate between secular and religious Jews, between those who belong to a religious framework or not."

Another prominent Chabad rabbi in New York, Zalman Shmotkin, says the emissaries are carrying out the instructions of the late Rebbe to spread the movement's beliefs far and wide. They have to get to know the Jews in the area where they work before they set up the Chabad house there, he says.

One Reform rabbi in Omaha, Nebraska, has a more complex relationship with Chabad. Rabbi Craig Marantz, assistant rabbi of Temple Israel, which has a membership of 800 families, says he has visited the local Chabad house and seen "about 20 or 30" Reform Jews there. He believe they like the intimate atmosphere.

There are 6,000 Jews in Nebraska, he says, "and in a small community like Omaha, we cannot have quarrels between the different streams. We must be united." Marantz says he and the Chabad emissary even visited Israel together and the two streams hold a joint lesson in religious affairs.