In last Winter’s column, I reflected on Chabad’s admirable hospitality (see “The Art of Welcoming,” Winter 2006). Indeed, 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 travelers. 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 with such personal sacrifice.
Unfortunately, other Chabad practices are less admirable. Here are two examples.
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. 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 can work against 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 that want their child to have a bar/bat mitzvah to meet certain requirements—the son or daughter must attend religious school for a year or more, and the parents must commit themselves to study and congregational worship. The reason is clear: absent Torah learning and familial involvement, the bar mitzvah will be without meaning, an excuse for a party. Chabad centers, however, generally provide a bar mitzah service with few, if any, requirements. Chabad says that no child should be denied a bar mitzvah, and the family—which is usually unaffiliated—may be drawn later into Jewish life. Perhaps. More likely, the lesson is that Judaism is not a serious endeavor and that even the most significant milestones require only a modicum of commitment.
Surely 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 purveyor of Jewish minimalism, lowering educational standards for our children and community.
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
President, Union for Reform Judaism