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Sunday, January 15, 2006

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Chabad, Inc.

For the first time in a long time, the JPost has an article critical of Chabad. Rabbi Marvin Schick writes that "Chabad, the Lubavitch movement, is the Walmart of Jewish life, a mega-phenomenon that keeps growing at a remarkable rate by entering new and underserved areas, and by exploiting the vulnerability of existing service providers".

What Rabbi Schick seems to have missed is that Chabad is not a Jewish outreach or service organization, nor is its purpose to further Jewish life. Chabad is a franchise. I have often felt this way but was convinced when I heard that Chabad opened branches in two bustling Jewish communities: Laos and St. Thomas of the US Virgin Islands. My guess is that their late Rebbe is turning over in his grave at the fact that in order to maintain growth, as is necessary in any corporation worth its name, they need to tend to the jungles of southeast Asia and the nude beaches of the Virgin Islands. Or maybe not.

Yes, yes, there are Chabadniks who do "good" and who truly believe in bringing Judaism to Jews who have none. But for the most part, Chabad is a marketing organization whose goal is to perpetuate itself. Judaism is not even the product – Chabadism is. That means expanding to places where there is no Judaism or Jews but where a buck might be made by (literally) catering to guilt-ridden Orthodox tourists or Israeli kids who miss their savta. It also means pillaging existing orthodox shuls and communities by setting up competing shuls where there is barely room for one.

Rabbi Schick is correct in nearly all of his criticisms – he just has to realize that he is not dealing with a Jewish movement per se, like the Musarniks or Hasidim of Eastern Europe - but a multinational corporation that franchises to places where it can run a profit – sometimes by entering virgin territory, sometimes by overwhelming mom and pop shuls.


You probably know much more about Chabad than I do, and are certainly entitled to your viewpoint. But last night, I attended a class at the Chabad Center in North Austin. While there are JCCs and Jewish organizations in every town offering courses on Jewish culture, Jews in the movies, Jewish basket-weaving and all the rest, when you want to learn Torah, in these "small towns", the Chabad House or Center is the place to go. I wasn't there to learn "Chabadism" and that's not what was taught. We studied two chapters in Malachim that related to the 10th of Tevet. We learned some commentaries and medrashim. Who else is going to offer that in a city far, far away from Orthodox Jewish centers of life?
mirty | Homepage | 01.11.06 - 7:52 pm | #

I think your analysis is correct. I live in a suburb of New York, and my 10th-grade son received an invitation to "Shabbat 300," sponsored by the local Chabad house. The goal - have 300 kids come to a Shabbat dinner. The cost - $100 per kid, plus the opportunity to make a $180 "additional donation." Minimum take, if 300 kids actually come - $30,000. Oh, and let's not forget to whom the invitations are going. All the student "committee members" attend school in affluent districts - no middle class schools included!
Anonymous | 01.12.06 - 12:57 am | #

Rabbi Schick should not have insulted Wal-Mart.
alans | 01.12.06 - 1:12 am | #

I totally agree with and have also used in the past your metaphors of multi-national corporation and franchise when it comes to Chabad.
The whole point of opening branches in various islands, SE Asia and the like, though, is davka to target places with no Jewish community, but where Jews (more often than not, Israelis) find themselves on buisness vacation etc. so that they can be the only show in town.
This approach was justified by Chabad's "relief effort" during the Tsunami last year. As the only Jews around, they dealt with a lot of stuff. Cynically speaking, it was the best thing to happen to them, and they have been riding it all the way to the bank.
An MO Rabbi | 01.12.06 - 4:58 am | #

Mirty,
I was speaking more of Chabad as an organization. Individually, there may be many who start Chabad houses for reasons doing more for Judaism than ulterior motives. This is more true of those in completely non-orthodox towns and cities where there are committed Jews.
For many (most?) though - I think I speak the truth - and the words of 'an MO rabbi' seem on target.
anon - interesting, i never heard of that one before, alans - agreed.
oosj | 01.12.06 - 1:55 pm | #

Gravatar Well, that may be. But it hurts me to see the entire movement painted with such a broad brush.

The attitude that some Orthodox rabbis have seems to be that unless you keep mitzvot and minhagim according to our rules, then you are not welcome to learn or daven with us. At least Chabad welcomes all Jews. Is that so wrong? Some see it as permissiveness. But to me, turning away someone who wants to learn borders on sinas chinam.

When I arrive at a Chabad center to learn, they don't turn me away because I don't cover my hair or dress according to their understanding of tzinius. I have read that some Orthodox schools won't even allow the mothers of students to enter the building unless their hair is covered. Is that a better approach to keeping Judaism alive?

If Orthodox rabbis pride themsevles on how many people they turn away, then how can they turn around and kvetch that too many Orthodox young adults go "off the derech" and don't come back?
mirty | Homepage | 01.12.06 - 4:53 pm | #

Gravatar Mirty has raised some excellent points. Part of the reason Chabad has been so successful is because it is open to all Jews, regardless of level of observance and lifestyle. The Chabadniks in my community truly want to help all Jews learn to live more Jewishly.

While the criticisms leveled against Chabad may have merit, Chabad has become the mega-organization it has because it has filled a gap left by other Jewish organizations.
Tamara | Homepage | 01.12.06 - 5:20 pm | #

One thing that has to be remembered is that the Chabad emissaries get no salary. They live on what they raise. I have no idea as to what percentage they are allowed to take for themselves, after they have paid the running expenses of the local Chabad house.
George | 01.12.06 - 6:12 pm | #

Gravatar Very interesting. It seems that your frustration with Chabad is much like mine (as a Christian) toward many Christians. Maybe Chabad learned it's marketing approach from Christianity. It's frustratng for me but I believe they are only misguided, well intentioned people.
wes | Homepage | 01.12.06 - 9:42 pm | #

wes, its not the only thing they learned from christianity.
mirty and tamara - i agree with alot of your criticisms of american orthodoxy and their approach to the non-orthodox. many of the practices disgust me. i grew up orthodox in non-orthodox neighborhoods and fully understand what it means to be different.
my claim is that chabad goes one step further. they are very welcoming to all jews who might be chabad. they have no use for other orthodox jews who will never be chabad. so they seperate themselves out from the community. in your communities, do chabad ever participate in community wide events where they are not the main sponsor? i haven't seen that in my experience.
what is interesting about chabad is that they are completely neglected by the haredim which they claim to be part of .
also - i often wonder how succesful they really are, and how they measure success from a religious-spiritual perspective.
oosj | 01.12.06 - 10:14 pm | #

Gravatar I tend to agree with Mirty. Any time I have gone to Chabad, I feel A-okay. I don't feel like anyone's judging me. I am impressed with the outreach, re: tefillin and lighting candles. It is a small thing, but it does raise consciousness, and you don't have to be a Chabadnik to partake. Beyond that, I don't know.

I do know, that a friend of mine could not find belonging at our shul in LA. She moved to San Diego and found a Chabad outlet that fit her social and spiritual needs perfectly (she has a 30 year old autistic daughter, and that does make a difference); she is also very poor.

So you may be right, that it is a business. I am sorry to hear that, and all of my encounters with Lubavitch haven't necessarily been really good (when it's an idiot bokher, I realise). But largely, I haven't heard bad things in LA about Chabad.

Speaking for the rank and file, for people who may not have a lot of choices, I am grateful for Chabad's presence. One of my first experiences with them was having a place to go for High Holy Days, and I loved it! I may be venturing there for the Holy Days as well, and it feels damn good to know that I have a place to go to.

If, indeed, Chabad is "pillaging" from other shuls, then what does that say about those shuls?
Barefoot Jewess | Homepage | 01.13.06 - 2:44 am | #

Gravatar Woops, it should have said "this year as well".
Barefoot Jewess | Homepage | 01.13.06 - 2:45 am | #

Gravatar I'm currently living in a mid-western college town. Before Chabad arrived we could drive to Reform or Reconstructionist synagogues. Hillel has a part-time orthodox Rabbi "available". Chabad gives us somewhere to walk when we feel the need for community. I'd love a "modern orthodox" ommunity in this town but until they consider us worthy it's Chabad for me.
rod | 01.15.06 - 10:53 pm | #

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