Sunday, December 30, 2007

A Lifestyles Exclusive: Lev Leviev The Benefactor


NEW YORK, USA - For many, the name Lev Leviev is synonymous with the most beautiful and rare colored diamonds in the world. Lifestyles Magazine was granted an exlusive look recently at the man behind the image. What we saw was that Leviev, 51, is an active philanthropist, donating more than $50 million annually with a special and passionate commitment to Jewish causes and heritage, which has provided the spiritual compass in his life. "A lot of very rich men wait too long to give their money away," Leviev told The New York Times Magazine recently. "Bill Gates is a young man, and he's already giving to help the world, That's the right way to do it."
Leviev's philanthropy is an extension of who he is and what he can do, representing the art of the possible. Growing up as an impoverished immigrant in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, Leviev attended a yeshiva but only stayed for a few months; he readily admits that it wasn't in his destiny to become a rabbi like his father. He wanted to start a business. Soon after leaving yeshiva, he traveled to the headquarters of the Lubavitcher Rebbe in Brooklyn, New York, for guidance on whether to leave home and set out toward his goal.
"I spoke to the rebbe in Hebrew. I asked him, 'Should I go or not?' recalled Leviev in the Times. "He answered me in a kind of antique Russian. He said: 'Go. Go to Russia and do business, but don't forget to help the Jews. Remember your family tradition.”
More than three decades later, Leviev - a member of the Lubavitch community-has followed that advice.
As the chairman of the Leviev Croup of Companies, he heads a fast-growing multibillion-dollar global group of companies that encompasses diamonds, real estate, construction and infrastructure, energy, industries, financial services, tourism and leisure, telecommunications, fashion, and high-tech. He is ranked among the wealthiest men in the world and he is admired as the leading Israeli entrepreneur. But Leviev is also making a name for himself for his generosity.
Like his business ventures, Leviev's philanthropy is global. He is the president of the FJC (the Federation of Jewish Communities of the CIS (Common-wealth of Independent States)), which supports Jewish communities in Russia and the CIS, Israel, Germany, and the United States, funding Jewish schools, synagogues, orphanages, as well as an international group of 10,000 employees and collaborators around the world. Leviev's philanthropic activities have also touched U.S. cultural institutions, such as the Musei of the City of New York, and U.S. char ties, such as the annual Angel Ball (which raises money for cancer research;, the Carousel of Hop Ball (one of the most prominent and influential charitable even of its kind), and Oxfam America.
Guiding Leviev's charity is a belief that philanthropy should build communities. In Queens New York, which is home to thousands of immigrants, Leviev has brought this community closer by founding educations ventures, inter alia, a school for 1,000 students. "All I want is for people in these places to know they are Jewish and to learn about their history," Leviev said in 2003. In the Ukrainian village of Zhitomir, Leviev rebuilt the area's only synagogue, restoring pride for the residents. And in Dresden, he established a school to educate nonreligious Jewish emigres about Judaism.
As one of his earlier philanthropic missions, Leviev established the Ohr Avner Foundation in 1992 in memory of his father Rabbi Avner Leviev, a leader ir the Bukharan Jewish community in Uzbekistan and Israel. The foundation, which has started over 100 schools, universities, kindergartens, and camps in former Soviet states and Easts European countries, is the largest supporter of the Jewish communities in the region.
Supporting the cultivation of Jewish culture has also been the aim of his work as president of the FJC. The group formed after the breakup of the Soviet Union to restore Jewish life and culture to Eastern Europe and represents 500 Jewish communities in the former Soviet republics and Eastern European countries. Like Ohr Avner, FJC funds schools, public kitchens, and orphanages in these communities. The schools, in particular, have helped to revive the Jewish community in an area where anti-jewish restrictions were prevalent prior to the fall of communism.
Leviev is also a generous giver to the Chabad-Lubavitch community, supporting the work of their shluchim (missionaries) who are sometimes sent to the farthest corners of the globe to establish communities where there is little or no Jewish life.
Lev Leviev’s career as a leader in the diamond industry started when his family escaped the yoke of Communism in Uzbekistan and moved to Israel in 1971. Leviev, then 15, took a job as an apprentice diamond cutter through a family friend. Although it was an industry tradition never to teach anyone all 11 steps of the diamond-cutting trade, Leviev was driven to learn and persuaded colleagues to teach him each step. Within six years of starting as a diamond cutter, he achieved his goal of working for himself. He set up his own diamond-cutting business and grew it to a dozen small factories. His success over the next decade caught the attention of De Beers, which invited Leviev to be among its 150 sight-holders—an elite group of individuals who have access to De Beers's diamond supply. Though considered a privilege to join the group, Leviev had bigger ambitions. In 1989, he seized an opportunity to purchase state-owned mines in Russia, It was the first of many mines he has purchased over his career.
With his own stones from his mines, he was no longer dependent on De Beers. Leviev streamlined the diamond process under his company— from "mines to misses" as he has been known to say. In 1995, he broke off from the De Beers Group and has since expanded his holdings in the industry. Leviev owns mines in Russia, Angola, Namibia, and other countries, and has the distinction of being the largest diamond cutter and polisher in the world, supplying several of the world's luxury jewelry brands with thousands of diamonds. In his own words, Leviev has said that "nothing is stable unless you own your own mines." When he spoke to Women's Wear Daily recently in a feature story announcing the new Leviev diamond boutique on Madison Avenue, he noted the importance of the diamond structure he has created; "We feel that our complete control from production to retail, entailing an unsurpassed inventory, coupled with extremely high levels of design, workmanship, and service, will place us in a unique position to market directly to serious diamond buyers."
The "crown jewel" of Leviev's work in the diamond industry has been Leviev diamonds. The brand has been chosen by celebrities like Drew Barrymore, Salma Hayek, as well as by cognoscenti. As a rigorous supporter of the U.N.-mandated Kimberly Process, which ensures that rough diamonds are not obtained from war-torn regions, Leviev has also upheld the industry's top standards. When the first Leviev store opened on Old Bond Street in London last spring, it caused a sensation. Newspapers called the store a blazing "fireworks display of colored diamonds." This fall it opened its 6,200-square-foot New York store with more than 4,000 carats of diamonds ranging from the purest whites to the deepest blues, and the most precious of all colored diamonds, green and red. According to Thierry Chaunu, the president and chief operating officer of Leviev, as in London, it contains more carats than all the other jewelers on Madison combined. "It's like building an extraordinary art collection," says Chaunu. "Just as you can't have just one beautiful painting, you can't have just one beautiful diamond, especially when it comes to colored diamonds."
The stores have been designed to have the feeling of a private salon, with a soft pink, cream, and platinum decor accented by crystal chandeliers. Other Leviev store openings in cities such as Dubai, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Paris, and Beverly Hills will follow, but at a pace consistent with the brand's hyper-exclusivity.
All of this has made the public focus on Leviev and his diamonds. But Leviev continues to focus on the work his groups have done to improve communities and help them realize their Jewish heritage and faith "I am a believer; I believe in G-d. I believe that we, as people, have to do good acts." Indeed, in the Jewish community, there is a tradition that whatever charily one gives will be rewarded in multiples.
Leviev prefers to keep a low profile even as he is so active, attending global roundtables, like the World Economic Forum last year in Davos. He grants few interviews and though he circulates among world leaders like Russian president Vladimir Putin - whom he calls a "true friend"- he stays close to his home in Israel, where he lives in a modest house with his wife, Olga, and nearby their nine children and several grandchildren. Leviev likes to be the force behind change rather than the face of it. But there are times when Leviev can't escape the appreciation. He has been described as being in "a class by himself" when it comes to supporting the Jewish community. In 2004, when the government in Baku, Azerbaijan, threatened to close down all private schools – including a local Jewish school - because a growing number of madrassas were becoming influential in the area, Leviev flew to the city to speak with the Azerbaijani president and convinced him to keep the school open. It's actions such as this that have made Leviev a hero in many communities. When he returns to communities in the Ukraine, Kazakhstan, or anywhere else to visit philanthropical projects he funds, he receives a warm welcome. Last month, Leviev traveled to New York City to receive the Partners for Democracy
Award from the America-Israel Friendship League. The award recognizes individuals who have worked to develop the U.S.Israeli relationship.
Leviev works to transform the communities he reaches out to like the many stones he has transformed into jewels. He has stayed true to his faith and to the advice given him by the Luabavitcher Rebbe as he develops his businesses and expands his philanthropy. "In the Holy Book, King Solomon said a man is born to work hard, to maximize himself, and to achieve something," Leviev told the London Times last year. "I believe that if I can work hard, as the Holy Book says, and do good things for others with my money, that's my mission in life."

Cash crisis tears apart Lubavitch

The Lubavitch movement in Britain has been plunged £1.5 million into the red, forcing it to close an expensive West End of London club for young Jews which had been open less than a year.

The funding crisis has left teachers at Lubavitch schools unpaid since April and caused splits in the leadership of the movement that pioneered Orthodox outreach in this country.

Rabbi Faivish Vogel, principal fundraiser of the organisation, is understood to have tendered his resignation last Friday, following the departure in November of his sons Rabbis Yosef and Mendy Vogel, who ran the Gaon Club off Bond Street, a prime Central London location.

Supporters of Lubavitch were told in a letter that “by far the largest proportion” of donations secured by the movement’s fundraising arm in recent years had been spent on the club, including “almost all” of this year’s £750,000 yield.

As a result, the movement had amassed large debts “in unpaid teachers’ salaries, bank loans and unpaid PAYE”, wrote Rabbi Shlomo Levin, recently appointed as a trustee of the Lubavitch Foundation to help plug the financial black hole.

Rabbi Levin confirmed to the JC this week that the movement’s debts now amounted to £1.5 million, although donors had stepped in to pay the teachers’ wages. If further funds could not be raised to cover the shortfall, the movement would probably have to “sell off an asset”, he said. “It’s early days yet.”

Differences between the Vogels and the Lubavitch Foundation culminated in a hearing at the London Beth Din, which issued a ruling two weeks ago. Rabbis Yosef and Mendy Vogel were barred from conducting outreach activities for six months without permission of the dayanim and from using the names “Lubavitch” or “Gaon Club”.

According to the rabbinical court judgment, a “rift” opened between Rabbi Faivish Vogel and his then fellow-trustees of the Lubavitch Foundation, Rabbis Nachman Sudak and Yitzchok Sufrin, who reported complaints from Lubavitch donors “alarmed by the lavish expenditure on The Gaon Club in its glitzy new premises”.

But Rabbis Yosef and Mendy Vogel felt undermined by “backstabbing emanating from the very highest echelons of the Lubavitch establishment” and a “whispering campaign” accusing them of “excessive expenditure and accounting irregularities”.

They maintained they had been “scrupulously honest” and had been “forced out of an organisation which they loyally served”. The Beth Din is due to hear a claim from the brothers that Lubavitch had “constructively dismissed” them.

The Gaon Club began some years ago as a series of ad hoc events, mainly for young professionals and business people, before moving in January into its elegant new home, the floor of an Adam building equipped with plasma TV screens and internet terminals. The premises, according to the Beth Din papers, had been offered rent-free by a businessman, Colin Gershinson.

Rabbi Sudak, the foundation’s principal, said: “The activities of the Gaon Club are laudable, but contrary to our expectations did not raise the necessary funds to support the ongoing Lubavitch commitment to schools and other activities.”

The Lubavitch network, which comprises schools, Chabad Houses and other outreach ventures, runs to an annual budget of £6.5 million. Rabbi Levin wrote that it was “obligated to close the Gaon Club in its present form”.

Rabbi Yosef Vogel said a statement would be issued in due course.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Van crash kills Sydney Chabadniks

The bodies of a Lubavitch couple killed in a car crash Dec. 20 were buried in Sydney on Monday.
More than 700 mourners joined 19 immediate family members for the burial of Zev and Rochel Simons, who were killed when their van veered across the median strip on a major highway and plowed into a truck. Their deaths have stunned Sydney’s Orthodox community.
The couple, who have 10 children, were traveling to Melbourne for a wedding. None of the children were with them at the time.
The 39-year-old driver of the truck was thrown from his vehicle and died at the scene.
The truck was carrying 50,000 liters of gas, prompting emergency personnel to close the highway for more than 12 hours for fear of an explosion.
Zev Simons was a former director of Jewish studies at the Yeshiva Primary School. Rochel Simons was a teacher at Kesser Torah College and also worked at the local mikvah, or ritual bath.
Kesser Torah College’s president and principal sent a letter on Friday to the school community grieving over the “terrible tragedy took the lives of two of our beloved. We are all in varying stages of shock,” they wrote. “At KTC, we are trying to digest the monumental proportions of this heartbreaking loss.”
The couple's son-in-law, Rabbi Yossi Cunin, the co-director of Chabad of the Hills in Beverly Hills, Calif., told the Web site: “They gave their lives to the community.”

Chabad messianists lose court ruling

The leadership of Chabad-Lubavitch has won the right to eject a messianist congregation from the movement’s main synagogue. New York State’s Supreme Court ruled Thursday in favor of Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch and Agudas Chassidei Chabad, two of Chabad’s three main bodies, giving them the right to eject Congregation Lubavitch Inc. from the synagogue located in the basement of 770 and 784-788 Eastern Parkway, in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. The sites represent the worldwide headquarters of Chabad-Lubavitch.Although the defendants have the right to appeal within 60 days, the ruling gives legal backing to the 15-year struggle to stifle the movement's messianist wing.
The suit involves a conflict that began in 2004, when Merkos and Agudas sued individuals connected with the messianist congregation for defacing a plaque Merkos installed outside the synagogue that used the term “of blessed memory" to refer to the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Chasidic movement's longtime rebbe. The phrase offeneded those associated with Congregation Lubavitch Inc. who believe that Schneerson was the messiah, and thus is not technically dead.
In that first case, the court ruled in favor of Chabad’s leadership, declaring in June 2006 that Merkos and Agudas are the rightful owners of the entire property. The current suit was brought by Merkos and Agudas in order to give them the authority to physically remove the opposing congregation, and its four gabbais, or trustees, from the premises.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

"Watch," she whispered, "he'll talk about the Holocaust."

A Tangle Of TensionsMood In Litchfield Grows UglyAs Religion, Historical IntegrityCollide Over Synagogue Plan
[Editor's Note: Historical Integrity???]
Courant Staff Writer
December 20, 2007
When Rabbi Joseph Eisenbach stood to address the Litchfield Historic District Commission this week at the final public hearing on his congregation's plans to put a synagogue near the town green, a woman in the audience turned to the person sitting next to her."Watch," she whispered, "he'll talk about the Holocaust." The rabbi did not mention the Holocaust, but some people — including the woman who suggested he would — didn't stick around to find that out. They left the minute Eisenbach said, "When my family moved into this town, people from around the state told us we were crazy. Litchfield, they said, has a history of hate and bigotry toward Jews.""This is ridiculous," said one audience member. "I'm not staying to listen to this," said another. And about 10 people scraped back their folding chairs and left. As a result, they didn't hear Eisenbach's next statement, which was, "Well, we proved them wrong … we found most of the people in this town to be loving and caring, unbiased, sweet, really a community as good as it gets." Maybe.But the angry scene at Monday's public hearing is emblematic of an unraveling that has taken place in the last two months over the proposal from the orthodox Chabad Lubavitch of Litchfield County to convert a 135-year-old home on West Street into a synagogue and community center.Simmering tensions over religious tolerance and historical integrity are converging as the commission nears tonight's vote on the application. The historically tough commission's beef with the plans center around the size of an addition and some of the changes that would be made to the original structure, such as the construction of a clock tower. The Deming House, as it is called, was once a private home, but was renovated and gutted of much of its historical integrity in the 1980s so it could be used as a commercial property.The Chabad's plans call for a 21,000-square-foot building that would include, among other things, the synagogue, a swimming pool, living space for the rabbi's family and an apartment for staff. It would also function as a community center for the Chabad, which provides education, special events, children's programs and worship services.
Special Protection?
The dispute, in one sense, is about whether the intended religious use of the building affords the application special protection under the First Amendment that trumps the historic district's regulations. Those arguing from the Chabad's side, including the Anti-Defamation League and the American Civil Liberties Union, both of which joined the fray this month, say it does. "Denying this application, because the mass or the size of the addition is, in your opinion, too large, substitutes your opinion for that of Rabbi Eisenbach as to what is necessary to fulfill the Chabad's religious mission," the group's lawyer, Peter C. Herbst, told the commission Monday. "The federal and state constitutions prohibit you, the government, from imposing that secular judgment upon a place of worship." On the other side is a group of residents opposed to the project who hired their own lawyer and an architectural historian to fight the plans. They have argued that the Chabad is "hiding behind" the U.S. Constitution and federal laws. They say the historic district commission should base its decision solely on the merits of the application and whether it conforms to the regulations. "Do not be distracted by the building's purported use," said Patricia Sullivan, a lawyer for the opponents. The dispute has gone way beyond the legal arguments of the case, however. It's gotten downright nasty. Since the application was filed, the chairwoman of the commission — who was quoted widely as having questioned whether a Star of David was appropriate for the town center — recused herself from the proceedings. But that didn't stop an online blogger from depicting her on his website dressed in a Nazi uniform, which prompted some angry residents to cry foul and demand that First Selectman Leo Paul Jr. enter the fray, which he declined to do. As the veiled accusations of anti-Semitism have grown on one side, charges of bullying and zealotry have been levied against the Chabad by residents who feel they have been unfairly painted in the media.It didn't help when residents turned up at Monday's public hearing and found on each chair copies of letters from the ADL and ACLU supporting the Chabad, along with a reprint of a 1943 article from the "Nation" magazine. The article, by author Willson Whitman about traveling to Litchfield on Christmas Eve, states point blank that Jews were not allowed to own property in town. It was "just a sort of general agreement — yes, you could call it a Christian unity among Litchfield people on that point. No, they didn't realize it was Hitler's party line," a local minister told the author in 1943. Needless to say, that didn't calm down anybody at the public hearing in 2007."You know, I'm a simple person, and this confuses me," said Laurel McKewen, who looked more distressed than confused.Resident Zeus Goldberg, who is Jewish, stayed to listen to the rabbi speak Monday. Goldberg didn't comment on the Nation article, but had some pointed criticisms for the Chabad team. "By now, it is abundantly clear that the application by the Chabad Lubavitch group … has turned from its original purpose into an enormous public relations struggle and pseudo-religious freedom issue that will benefit no one, drag on for years and be tremendously costly to all parties involved," Goldberg said. Like others at the hearing, Goldberg opposes the size of the project because he believes it will not "merge" with the historic district. According to Goldberg and Eisenbach, both of whom attended a subsequent meeting of the commission Tuesday night, the panel appears ready to deny the application as is and wants the addition scaled down dramatically before it can be approved. Commission members proposed a motion Tuesday that would give the Chabad an opportunity to revise the plan and bring it back to the commission, Goldberg said. That motion is expected to be approved tonight. "Sadly, we're expecting a denial," Eisenbach said.Historical IntegrityA denial wouldn't be all that surprising, given that Litchfield has a well-deserved reputation for closely guarding its pristine historic character.Highlights of that effort include a 1996 showdown over whether a menorah could be placed on the picturesque town green, a crackdown on a the unfortunate bed and breakfast owner who wanted to put window boxes on the front of her house and a pitched battle over whether to allow a chain store — in this case, a respectable, tweed-filled Talbot's — to take up residence on the green.But the commission's view on this project has also led to accusations of inconsistency. Other religious institutions in the historic district are larger than the proposed synagogue, and its next door neighbor, the United Methodist Church, would be roughly the same size. There is also controversy over whether the Chabad should be allowed to build a clock toweron the roof of the house — a change that was opposed by James Sexton, the architectural historian hired by opponents, because, he said, it would alter the historic character of the original house and because it doesn't comply with the federal Secretary of the Interior's Standards for Rehabilitation. Sexton was even more critical of the proposed addition, because it would be 18 feet wider and more than twice as long as the original home — another violation of federal standards, he said. Experts for the Chabad, however, recited a list of buildings in the historic district that wouldn't comply with this standard, including the town library and a proposed renovation of town hall, which is currently 7,884-square-feet and would jump to 20,000-square-feet under current plans. The town hall is located almost directly across the street from the proposed synagogue."I have to ask why, when the Historic District Commission is dealing with a constitutionally protected use such as the Chabad, rather than a nursing home … or town hall, which are not afforded similar protection under the Constitution, why would a different and more-difficult-to-meet standard be applied?" asked Herbst, the Chabad's lawyer.The commission might be forced to answer that question in court in the coming months if the project is denied — just as Goldberg predicted. "As a resident in this town and almost a Yankee rabbi, and someone who cares dearly for every resident, and every aspect of this community, I ask you not to make the mistake of denying us our certificate," Eisenberg said Monday night. "It will sadly make Litchfield look like something it really is not, and it will not bring closure to this historic chapter in our community's history."

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

An unexpected partnership

On November 29, a deal was signed in Deerfield Beach, Florida, which saved Temple Beth Israel, the giant Conservative congregation, from extinction. And the lifesavers were none other than Chabad Lubavitch. How an ultra-Orthodox group came to form a partnership with a Conservative shul is an compelling story for our time.

Founded in 1977, Temple Beth Israel had about 2,000 member families in the early 1980s, when my parents and in-laws were living in Century Village, a huge retirement community. Beth Israel was so popular that there was a waiting list for those wanting to join. Whenever we visited, my father-in-law would take my wife and me, and one, two or three of our sons with him for Shabbat services, where the presence of youngsters brought wide attention from the hundreds of bubbies and zeidies. My sons were puzzled by the majestic and bilingual services, so different from the wrap-'em-up Shabbat prayers we knew in Israel.

Right up the street was the storefront Young Israel Orthodox congregation, where a few dozen families staunchly rejected Beth Israel's family seating and microphone. Sometimes I would daven in Young Israel, where the services (apart from the Ashkenazi accents) were much closer to the Israeli model.

Way back then, Century Village was, as my father would say, "99.9% Jewish, and I know the one Italian family."

But the only constant is change. In 2007, the only one of our parents left in Century Village is my mother. The demographics have changed completely. For more than a decade, the new people moving in have been either Orthodox Jews or gentiles.

On a recent trip, I couldn't help but notice this in the clubhouse gym and pools. In the past, these locations looked and sounded like a Jackie Mason skit: old Jews shvitzing, kvetching, bumping into each other and shouting in dialect, "Hey Morty, I see you're still alive this morning."

"Sophie, where didya go eat yesterday?" "Stop yer splashin'. Lady, yer grandson's gettin' my hair wet."

Today, you're more likely to see large gold crucifixes hanging around necks.

Young Israel outgrew its storefront and built a huge synagogue rivaling the Conservative one, filled with worshipers every Shabbat. Members of the Young Israel now populate the condos in walking distance to their shul.

MEANWHILE, over in Temple Beth Israel, a few dozen people gather for Shabbat services. Membership has plummeted to some 200 families. There isn't enough income to employ a rabbi, and there was talk that even the salary of Cantor Charles Segelbaum, the acting spiritual leader for the past three years, would have to be cut.

"Our days appeared to be numbered," says the London-born Segelbaum."The few dues-paying members weren't providing us with enough income to continue functioning as a congregation."

Then, a few months ago, Ken Barnett, Beth Israel's new board chairman, had an inspired idea. Alerted to the nearby Chabad Lubavitch group of North Broward and South Palm Beach Counties, which was looking for a permanent place to pray, he thought that perhaps they could be the answer to Beth Israel's prayers. The Chabadniks had no place to daven but they were giving classes and what they call "Lunch & Learn" sessions.

Barnett made a shiduch between the Chabadniks and the Conservatives, between those with a big building and a shrinking congregation - and those with a growing population and no building.

"We were invited to a members' meeting at Temple Beth Israel," explains Rabbi Yossi Goldblatt, the leader of the Chabad group. "I told the members that we don't want to make any changes in how they do things. I said we can give classes, lectures and other activities that will bring people into the building, and life back to the congregation. I was received very well, and with a lot of interest."

However, some members were suspicious that once "inside," the Chabad group would try to change the nature of Beth Israel, which prides itself as being "Conservative, traditional and egalitarian," having mixed seating and calling women to the bima for the Torah reading. Eventually, they were convinced that Chabad would do nothing to interfere with the Conservative way of prayer services.

Ken Barnett adds that Beth Israel's members, who include Holocaust survivors and other immigrants from Europe, may have a special positive feeling for the Chabadniks, with their old world dress and customs. This, he believes, may have also helped to soften their opposition to the partnership.

Within a short while, a deal was hammered out. In return for yearly cash payments which would give Beth Israel a comfortable operating budget, the Chabadniks would receive use of the building and other Beth Israel assets. At this stage, they will use the small chapel for daily and Shabbat services - after installing a mehitza. The Conservatives will continue to use the main sanctuary for their Shabbat services, while sharing the chapel with Chabad for the daily minyan. No one has objected to the mehitza - and since women do not regularly attend the daily minyan, its presence is largely irrelevant.

The cash inflow from Chabad is allowing Beth Israel to hire a rabbi and an executive director, after being without either for several years.

When the congregation met to vote for the partnership agreement, over 90% were in favor.

Cantor Segelbaum expects that as the Conservative congregation continues to shrink and the Chabadniks grow, the latter will eventually take over the huge sanctuary, and the Conservatives will move to the little chapel.

"What can you do?" he shrugs. "That's reality. But I figure that this arrangement will give us at least another five years of life."

Ken Barnett believes that these years will be filled with nachas for his congregants, "thanks to the financial support and sensitivity of our Chabad partner."

As Rabbi Goldblatt put its: "It's a deal that's good for the Jews."

The writer does advertising and direct mail in Jerusalem. He has been visiting Century Village in Deerfield Beach, where his mother now lives, for over 25 years.

Jewish House fundraiser draws 250

JEWISH House raised more than $200,000 at its annual fundraiser, which was attended by 250 people at The Westin in Sydney last Wednesday night.

Jewish House, a 24-hour crisis centre for people with stress-related conditions including, anxiety and depression, will use the money to continue the upkeep of its accommodation and counselling facility.

Co-president Roger Clifford said he was proud to see the community supporting his organisation and was pleased with how much money was raised.

“I think anyone can see, by the number of people that attended, that there is a tremendous support base for the Jewish House in the community,” Clifford told The AJN after the function.

“The reason the community supports us is because they recognise the unique work that we do and see it as something that is absolutely vital for the Jewish community.”

Executive director and rabbi at Jewish House Elozer Gestetner echoed Clifford’s comments.

“It was very gratifying to see the support we received. I’m proud to be able, as a rabbi, to lend my support and assistance to those needing emergency help”

Rabbi Kastel to leave the Great

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Russian army gets 1st chief rabbi since 1917 revolution

For the first time since the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, a chief rabbinical chaplain is servicing the spiritual and religious needs of Jewish soldiers in Russia's armed forces and various security services.
Rabbi Aharon Gurevich, 34, was appointed after being asked to fill the role by the chief rabbi of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement in Russia, Rabbi Berel Lazar, who had received official permission from the Russian government to establish a military rabbinate.
Upon accepting the post, Gurevich was granted the rank of colonel by Russian authorities and was given permission to visit military bases freely. While his status as a military rabbi has yet to be fixed by law, Gurevich has effectively been functioning as chief rabbi of the Russian Army since the beginning of the year.
In a recent interview with The Jerusalem Post, the soft-spoken and cordial 34-year-old Moscow native was full of praise for the cooperation he has received at all levels of Russia's military establishment.
"I work closely with the General Staff and its education department, and a number of army and police generals have shown great interest in my initiative to teach about the basics of Judaism in Russian military academies," Gurevich says.
Earlier this year, he was invited to deliver a lecture at a special seminar for top police commanders from across the country.
As a member of the Russian Defense Ministry's Public Council, Gurevich advises the military and the police forces on various matters relating to Jewish life.
"I visit military commands on a regular basis and determine the estimated number of Jews in the locale, speak with their commanders and explain the need for a spiritual component in the motivation to serve," he says.
Shortly after his appointment, Gurevich visited Israel to consult with the IDF's military rabbinate, as well as the chief rabbi of the Israel Police, to learn more about the role and functions his office should fulfill.
Thus far, Gurevich has succeeded in arranging for High Holiday services to be held on Russian military bases throughout the country, organized the distribution of ritual objects and newsletters among Jewish servicemen and provided pastoral counseling to soldiers, some of whom had previously been reluctant to openly admit their Jewish heritage.
"There are an estimated 40,000 Jews serving in the various Russian security forces, including some generals. But the Communist past left a permanent mark on their consciousness, and many do not speak about their Judaism among their colleagues out of concern for their careers," Gurevich notes, adding that "a lot depends on their position and the location of their service.
"But I am often approached unexpectedly by senior officers and regular soldiers who had hidden their Jewish origins until now, and I try as best I can to help them feel Jewish," he says.
While there is currently no option toarrange for the regular supply of kosher food throughout the Russian military, Gurevich makes sure to send care packages containing kosher food to Jewish soldiers prior to holidays and festivals.
"Before Passover," he says, "we distributed over 1,000 kilograms of matza and other kosher-for-Passover products."
Gurevich views education as a main component of his mission, and he has gone to great lengths to raise awareness about Judaism throughout the Russian military, among both Jews and non-Jews alike. To this end, he has worked closely with Russian officers to arrange for classes and periodic day-long seminars on Judaism and Jewish culture at Russian military academies.
On the first day of Hanukka, he notes proudly, a military newspaper published by the Russian Defense Ministry printed a lengthy article explaining the history and meaning of the holiday.
When necessary, Gurevich also intervenes with commanders on behalf of Jewish soldiers. "For example, there are soldiers who prefer not to shave during the counting of the Omer period between Passover and Shavuot, or those who run into issues of Shabbat observance, so I speak to their officers and explain the situation," he says.
Born into a secular home, Gurevich was initially drawn closer to Judaism through his reading of Jewish literature, as well as the knowledge that distant relatives had made aliya prior to World War II and settled on a kibbutz near Tiberias.
He says he was also influenced by the general atmosphere of the 1980s, when opposition to the Soviet regime simmered among many Jewish youth in the capital.
"Toward the end of the '80s, we started to receive more books and materials from abroad on Jewish national history and tradition on a regular basis," he recalls. "This would all come to play a role in influencing my growing interest and later embrace of Jewish observance."
At the age of 16, Gurevich was surprised when he was accepted into Moscow University's Faculty of History, particularly since he had told his interviewers that he was interested in studying the history of the Jewish people.
"In those years, it was still considered bold or even defiant to say such a thing," he recalls somewhat mischievously.
Alongside his university studies, Gurevich enrolled at Moscow's Yeshiva Tomchei Temimim. Upon completing his degree, he continued his religious studies at a hassidic yeshiva in Jerusalem and later received his rabbinical ordination. After a two-year stint as a rabbi in Frankfurt, Germany, he returned to Russia eight years ago to become involved in Jewish outreach work.
While issues such as anti-Semitism and the reluctance of many Russian Jews to identify Jewishly present Gurevich with some formidable challenges, he is nonetheless keenly optimistic about his work.
"The creation of a Russian military rabbinate has helped many Jewish soldiers to feel a greater sense of pride about their identity," he insists. "As much as possible, I travel around the country, going from base to base to awaken within them a stronger sense of connection. There is still a lot of work to be done."

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Jewish support for Putin as premier

A chief rabbi of Russia came out in support of Vladimir Putin as prime minister.

Rabbi Berel Lazar of the Chabad-led Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia called the possibility a “great present” in an interview with the Interfax news service.

Anointed presidential successor Dmitry Medvedev went on state television Tuesday to ask Putin to head his government following elections in March.

“When president, Vladimir Putin has showed that he is equal to any task,” Lazar told Interfax. “If Putin considers the scenario offered by Dmitry Medvedev realistic, it will surely be a great present if the government is headed by the most efficient statesmen in Russia.”

Lazar's remarks stand in contrast to a statement he made Monday about the role of religion in politics. Following an endorsement of Medvedev by Putin that virtually guaranteed him the presidency, Lazar told Interfax that it is not "the matter of religious figures to agitate for any candidate."

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Celebrate Festival Of Lights With Radio Hanukkah

24-hours of Hanukkah programming
Plays throughout the 8 nights of Hanukkah

Tune in to XM-108MIAMI (CBS4) ―
Amid hundreds of all-Christmas radio stations, one has gone Hanukkah for the second year in a row. XM Satellite Radio has created Radio Hanukkah which can be tuned in to XM-108. XM's Hanukkah-themed station is touted as the first radio station of its kind and one celebrated by the satellite network's Jewish clientele, who've long known December's airwaves to be filled only with the holly-jolly, bell-clinging sounds of Christmas. XM-108 will run throughout the Festival of Lights, which begins Tuesday at sundown, not only with Hanukkah songs, like "I Have a Little Dreidel," but also candlelight blessings, Jewish-themed specials, comedy, and Israeli music. There's even some Jewish-themed programming for the kids. If you don't have XM Radio, you can sign up for a free trial at You can also download the Radio Hanukkah schedule. Radio Hanukkah will wrap up at midnight December 12th.

Monday, December 03, 2007

World's Largest Chanukah Menorah on Fifth Avenue

Menorah Designed by Yaakov Agam

NEW YORK, Dec. 3 /PRNewswire/ --
The World's Largest Chanukah Menorah will be erected at New York's most fashionable plaza, Fifth Avenue and 59th Street, by Central Park, between the Plaza and the Pierre Hotels. The Menorah will be lighted on all evenings of Chanukah. The first candle of Chanukah is lighted on Tuesday, Dec. 4th and the last (eight) candles of Chanukah will be lighted on Tuesday evening, December 11th, at 5:30 pm.
The Menorah certified by the McGinnis Book of Records as the World's Largest, sponsored by the Lubavitch Youth Organization was specially designed by world renowned artist Yaakov Agam. Yaakov Agam's design was inspired by a hand drawing by the Rambam (Maimonides) of the original Menorah in the Holy Temple of Jerusalem.
The 32-foot high, gold colored, 4,000 pound steel structure will be lighted nightly with genuine oil lamps. Specially designed glass chimneys will protect the Chanukah lights from the Central Park winds.
"The Menorah stands as a symbol of freedom and democracy, strength and inspiration delivering a timely and poignant message to each person on an individual basis." said Rabbi Shmuel M. Butman, Director of the Lubavitch Youth Organization, who will light the Menorah nightly together with special dignitaries.
Due to the height of the Menorah, it will be lit nightly with the help of a Con Edison "cherry-picker" crane that will lift the lighters to the "Menorah Heights."
The lighting of the World's Largest Chanukah Menorah is always the central event of Chanukah for the millions of residents of New York and visitors to the Big Apple. It is also a favorite with the International media who put the World's Largest Chanukah Menorah in the center of their "Chanukah story," bringing the World's Largest Menorah into the homes of hundreds of millions of people throughout the world.
On Sunday evening, December 9th, special Chanukah celebrations will take place at the World's Largest Chanukah Menorah. The celebration will include live music, singing and dancing, "Chanukah Gelt" for the children and hot "Latkes" (potato pancakes), the traditional food of Chanukah, will be distributed to everyone. "We want people to 'taste' the tradition," said Rabbi Butman.
A campaign for millions
New York's most popular radio stations, WCBS and WINS, will carry a steady Chanukah call to millions of people to "Come light the Menorah." The message of Rabbi Butman is for every one to light the Menorah in their own home, "It's exciting, it's triumphant. It's many voices as one cheering light over darkness, joy over sorrow, freedom over oppression."
"The prominence of the Menorah carries an additional message," adds Rabbi Butman. "The Rebbe teaches that soon there will be another light, an eternal light, the eternal light of Moshiach, the eternal light of the Great Redemption."
The lighting schedule for the Worlds Largest Chanukah Menorah is as follows: Tuesday, December 4 - 5:30 PM
Wednesday, December 5 - 5:30 PM
Thursday, December 6 - 5:30 PM
Friday, December 7 - 3:45 PM
Shabbos (Saturday) evening, December 8 - 8:00 PM
Sunday, December 9 - 5:30 PM
Monday, December 10 - 8:00 PM
Tuesday, December 11 - 5:30 PM
For more information call 917 287 7770

Friday, November 30, 2007

Festival of sights

Menorahs can be whimsical and unusual

By Melanie M. Sidwell Longmont Times-Call

LONGMONT — During Hanukkah, an eight-candle menorah called a “hanukkiah” represents the eight nights of the Jewish minor holiday, with a ninth candle lighting the others.
But what a hanukkiah is made of is really up to the imagination: Potatoes. Mah-jongg tiles. Mirrors. Popsicle sticks. Jewel-encrusted metal.
“It’s not what the menorah is made of that’s important, but that you’re honoring Hanukkah, the festival of lights,” said Sharon Schaffner, an artist and member of the Boulder Arts & Crafts Cooperative on Pearl Street, which is presenting its annual Judaica Show through Jan. 2.
“It’s become a fashion statement,” she said of the variety of materials menorahs come in.
The Judaica Show features Jewish objects, such as dreidels and hanukkiahs made of glass, pottery and metal and even whimsical ones shaped like a moose, a whale and domestic pets.
The Longmont Shabbat Group, a local unaffiliated Jewish organization, holds an annual community menorah lighting during which guests bring their own hanukkiahs from home to light.
Susan Scruggs said the the most unusual one she had seen “was something my dad’s family used to do during the Depression, when his family couldn’t afford candles.”
“The kids would each make a fist and put a match between each finger, lighting the matches and saying the prayers very fast as the matches burned,” Scruggs said. “It is also a portable menorah, because all you have to have is a book of matches. I once did this when I was on a business trip because I was traveling light and couldn’t take my menorah and candles with me.”
Yakov Borenstein — a rabbi with Chabad of Longmont, an “unorthodox Orthodox synagogue” — is planning to use bowling pins as a makeshift menorah during a “Chanukah Bowl” at Centennial Lanes on Dec. 9.
“People ask me all the time, ‘What does a menorah have to be made of?’ But a holy thing like this can be made of anything,” he said.
Borenstein recounted a time when he was stranded somewhere during the start of Hanukkah, so he and his companions used what they had: some empty plastic soda bottles and string.
Hanukkiahs “tell our own stories of light,” said Cherie Karo Schwartz, a Denver author and Jewish storyteller who spoke during the opening of the Judaica Show recently.
“The variety of menorahs show that at any given moment, there is light to be found,” she said. “Each person’s style shows how we bring light to the world.”

Melanie M. Sidwell can be reached at 303-684-5274 or

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Walk a stride for relief

Chabad club members raise money to help Israel terrorism victims

By: Lindsey Howshaw

Posted: 11/20/07
The goal of yesterday's Israel Walk, sponsored by the Chabad Jewish Student Center, was simple but heartfelt: raise awareness for orphaned families in Israel. The first of what is slated to become an annual walk to honor families affected by terrorism yielded $2,000, as participants walked the UA Mall yesterday from 10 a.m. to noon. But the walk's
I feel very strongly about keeping Israel safe.-Steven Strauss,Chabad club leaderroots ran deeper than the event, as 30 members of Chabad were each paired with a family in Israel, for which he or she raised money. "Each student has their own story of what happened to the family they're sponsoring," said Rabbi Yossi Winner. Most of the family members are widows and orphans left after the head of the household was killed by a terrorist act, he said."I feel very strongly about keeping Israel safe," said Steven Strauss, a Chabad leader and a pre-business sophomore. Strauss sponsored a young boy and his mother who live in Mevo Dotan, a northern settlement of the West Bank. According to the e-mail Strauss received about his family, Yevgeni, the father, was murdered by terrorists, leaving wife Tanya to raise their son, Yigal. Chabad members receive little information about their families other than their names and living situation, Strauss said. Many of the families live in impoverished conditions, making direct communication difficult. "Here we are all the way in Tucson, Arizona, far away from Israel, more than 14 hours away by plane, and we're supporting these families," Winner said. Alex Hecht, a
When you see how many people in Israel have been impacted, it makes you feel good to be able to help people out. I have a good life, and the least I can do is raise money for a family in need.-Steven Strauss,Chabad club leadermember of Chabad and an undeclared freshman, also sympathized with the families' struggles. "It's a financial and emotional burden once a family member dies," Hecht said. Though the Chabad association has been around since only 2005, it has played a significant role in the lives of UA students, said co-director Naomi Winner. "Our motto really is that we're a home away from home," she said. Naomi and husband Yossi hold weekly Shabbat dinners at the Chabad house, 1025 N. Euclid Ave. They estimate that 80 to 100 students attend the Friday night events. "Besides having dinners or hosting parties, the students wanted to do something meaningful," Naomi Winner said, adding that this motivation led to the creation of the walk. In addition to the walk, yesterday's event also included music by a live DJ, falafel giveaways and a matzo-ball-soup-eating contest. Students could also shoot hoops at the basketball station or provide donations for surviving families. The first 50 attendees received free Chabad T-shirts and were able to watch the walk. "When you see how many people in Israel have been impacted, it makes you feel good to be able to help people out," Strauss said. "I have a good life, and the least I can do is raise money for a family in need."
© Copyright 2007 Arizona Daily Wildcat

Having faith: Ranch's Rabbi Mendy Bukiet lends a hand to others

Ryan T. Boyd

Rabbi Mendy Bukiet has spent all of his 30 years helping Jews. That's what his father and grandfather, who were also rabbis, taught him.
Whether that entails going to their hospital bedsides or providing food to the needy or strengthening their spirits through the religion, that has been Mendy's mission.
This type of thinking was instilled in him during his younger days in the Jewish community in Brooklyn's Crown Heights neighborhood, and still dwells in him as rabbi of the Chabad of Bradenton and Lakewood Ranch.
Rabbi Mendy and his wife, Chana, moved to the area three years ago to reach out to the Jewish community of East Manatee after an uncle's urging.
He never thought he would have to reach out even more to his family.
Five years ago, the Bukiets oldest son, Chaim Meir, 5, was born a healthy child. Two years later, the family's second son, Mordechaie, 3, was born.
But it was when the couple's third son, Zalman, 2, was born with Down syndrome that Mendy gained even more knowledge of his religion.
"Jewish religion brings out the concept that special needs children are just not unique," Mendy said, "but they are extremely special. It means that most times they have a closer connection with Godliness. A special needs child can actually strengthen a person's belief in Godliness, and everything else, especially, when you see how much faith they have.
"Children with Down syndrome they have a lot of faith with the parents," he added. "They have a lot of love and a lot of happiness. Even at times of hardship they are able to smile and they really enjoy life. We can learn a lot from these type of children."
Normally, a baby inherits 46 chromosomes: 23 from the mother and 23 from the father. In cases of Down syndrome, a child gets an extra chromosome, and the extra gene causes physical and mental disabilities.
The disease affects one in every 800 babies born.
The first leader of the rabbi movement was named Zalman and it means to bring light. That's how Mendy has interpreted Zalman's arrival.
"We take it as a blessing, and as a gift," he said. "We hope that we can do good with him, and give him the best life he can have. Ultimately, this just brought into focus everything in life. Everything that we have in our lives is a gift from God."
East county synagogue
The Bukiets started the first synagogue in their house, then moved to a school, then to a rental building.
Now the synagogue is on the first floor of the First Priority Bank building, off Palmbrush Trail in Lakewood Ranch.
The Bukiets moved here knowing only five people and the congregation has grown to about 350 families that attend the Chabad at various times of the year. The Chabad offers a weekly service along with various classes for men, women and children throughout the week.
"We grow with the community," Rabbi Mendy said.
Marianne Zoll has grown with the Bukiets and the Chabad as a regular goer of the Chabad for the past 18 months.
Zoll said she's enjoyed Rabbi Mendy's common-man approach to the congregation, and he's made a powerful rapport with his congregation
"He's invited me to his house for Shabbat," Zoll said. "That's not something a rabbi normally does. He's like a regular person. I have his cell phone number, and I know he's not my family, but I know he'll be here if I need him. I believe if he gets 1,000 people in his congregation he'll still be the same way. He is just very honest and very giving, and so is his wife."
Rabbi Mendy spends a lot hours at the synagogue, but he still finds time to transport his oldest two children back and forth to a Jewish day school in Tampa five days a week, make his calls or visit people who are sick or people in need of a spiritual uplift, and open the synagogue in the evenings. Through all of the running, Mendy still makes time to have Zalman to his doctors appointments when scheduled.
Recently, Rabbi Mendy spent most of the day at a hospital in Tampa as Zalman had tubes inserted into his ears to improve his hearing.
"It has been difficult with running a Chabad center," Rabbi Mendy said, "and doing everything he needs to give him the best life he can have. It has been a little bit trying at times, but life is trying, and that is our goal to overcome them, and to make the best out of it. I don't look at the Chabad center as my job. It's my life. My family is not my job. It's my life. There for when there is something special in your life you have the energy to make it work. You have the energy make it be the best it can be."
Others in his congregation has noticed Rabbi Mendy's dedication.
"It's his knowledge, and he's inspiring and he makes you feel good," said Ricki Rubin. "He makes you feel good about being alive, and understand how to live the right way."
Zalman's situation only inspired the Bukiets to produce another gift. About nine weeks ago, Chana gave birth to the couple's fourth child, a healthy boy named, Shaya. Deficiencies or not, to the Bukiets the only thing that matters is that all four of their children are full of energy and having fun.
"Family comes first always," Rabbi Mendy said. "There's a balance that has to be kept so my wife don't suffer and my kids don't suffer. And we do our best to keep that balance."
Mendy Bukiet
Age: 30
Local residence: Lakewood Ranch
Occupation: rabbi of the Chabad of Bradenton and Lakewood Ranch
Birthplace: Miami
Family: wife, Chana; Chaim Meir, 5; Mordechaie, 3; Zalman, 2; and newborn Shaya
Jana Morreale sections editor
P.O. Box 921
Bradenton, FL. 34206
You can also e-mail the information to jmorreale@, or fax it to her attention at 745-7097.
Rabbi Mendy Bukiet balances family and faith
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A Shameful Appointment

The appointment of Dr. David Berger as head of the Yeshiva College Jewish Studies Department was addressed in Joel Shteir's article and Dr. David Berger's response in a previous issue of The Commentator. Dr. Berger, as we know, is the author of The Rebbe, The Messiah, and the Scandal of Orthodox Indifference, a screed against Lubavitch Chassidim. Shteir wrote that Dr. Berger's appointment was in conflict with "cultural open-mindedness" and "acceptance."

This is not an issue of closed or open-mindedness. The real issue is that Dr. Berger is a promoter of division whose radical views should not be legitimized by our university. Yeshiva University has brought upon itself shame and disgrace by appointing an advocate of baseless hatred.

Dr. Berger begins by claiming we are trying to "intimidate and silence him." That he should attempt to paint himself as a victim is absurd. As an academic, he is free to express his opinions, but that does not mean that those opinions deserve respect or that Yeshiva University should reward an advocate of such views with a department chairmanship. Freedom of speech is a two-way street. When you voice your offensive vision, don't call it "intimidation" when people respond to it. Dr. Berger was even given the last word in The Commentator a few weeks ago.

I have been to Chabad Houses in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Israel and China and never once met anyone who says the Rebbe is "pure divinity." That is pure poppycock. I have furthermore been to many Chabad Houses where the Rebbe is not thought to be the Messiah. Undoubtedly there are those who espouse that view, but to vilify an entire Chassidic sect with roots to the Ba'al Shem Tov is nothing less than abhorrent. No organization has done more good for Judaism around the world, literally bringing Torah and Mitzvot to Jews no matter where they are physically or religiously. Chabad is not "hijacking [our] religion." It is driving Judaism around the world and inviting so many to return to it. Dr. Berger ignores the unparalleled and multi-faceted good done by Chabad; to see in Chabad an "existential threat to the Jewish religion" not only ignores the obvious opposite reality, but enters Dr. Berger into the realm of fringe fanaticism that he himself decries.

Dr. Berger argues that there is a need to ask questions of a Lubavitch Chassid who serves as a "rabbi, a dayyan, a Jewish Studies principal, and, in the context of avodah zorah, a shochet, a sofer, and a wine producer." In the context of avodah zorah? No such context exists! His own article is written in the context of unsubstantiated mistruths about a "very substantial number" of phantom Chassidim who view the Rebbe as the equivalent of Jesus.

The interrogation of Lubavitchers is unwarranted. Implementing this policy would accomplish nothing but harm many innocent people and devastate the unity of the Observant Jewish Community at a time when we desperately need to work together.
Dr. Berger has no right to demand that so many Lubavitch Chassidim be denied "automatic Orthodox legitimacy," when Lubavitchers are far more stringent than many of us in many facets of halacha and they include scholars in Jewish law and philosophy every bit as accomplished as Dr. Berger.

Bringing the issue closer to home, he further states in his article that he does not see "the need to ask questions of Lubavitch students" at YU, but only because we don't ask questions of those not "fully committed" to Orthodoxy. His condescending comparison between Lubavitch and nonobservant students is both naive and offensive. He further equates Lubavitch Chassidim to Conservative Jewry when he says that he does not advocate anything "more draconian than the policies maintained by moderate Modern Orthodox Jews toward traditional Conservative Jews," as if the two groups are remotely comparable. Ignoring semantics for all practical purposes, this proposal is very close to a threat of excommunication. Dr. Berger's words are a profound personal insult to those committed Orthodox Jewish students affiliated with Chabad Lubavitch - an insult that demands an apology.

In light of the comments made by Dr. Berger in his article, one can only imagine the "analytical and non-polemical" classroom discussion in his messianism course at the Revel Graduate School. It is beyond imagination to think that his extremist analysis of Chabad does not make its way into the classroom, and is not accorded special deference, as the professor's point of view.

As members of the "orphaned generation," we students of Yeshiva University should applaud "all those who have thus far been silent"- those who have refused to join Dr. Berger's foolish anti-Lubavitch crusade, and who refuse to recognize him as the arbiter of Orthodox legitimacy.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Row In Rostov

Allegations fly between chief rabbis after 13 Chabad students are arrested in southern Russia.
by Walter Ruby
Special To The Jewish Week
Following the recent arrest of 13 visiting students in a Chabad-sponsored yeshiva in the southern Russian city of Rostov, charges flew among various Lubavitch factions.The chief rabbi of Kfar Chabad in Israel accused the chi ef rabbi of Russia of conspiring to close the yeshiva and thereby causing the arrest of the students. And the Russian chief rabbi shot back, charging “slander.”But after a Nov. 8 meeting in Crown Heights attended by both Rabbi Berel Lazar, chief Rabbi of Russia, and Rabbi Yosef Aronov, chairman of Chabad in Israel and head of the yeshiva in Rostov, a strained peace seemed to be holding. A statement specifying that the two will put aside their differences and work together for the reopening of the Yeshivat Tomchei Temimim appeared to have ended the controversy, although perhaps not all of the bad blood.The school was was closed by order of authorities in Rostov after they arrested the yeshiva students on Nov. 1, citing visa and registration issues.The students — most of whom were Americans — were held for two days in filthy and overcrowded conditions in a prison in Rostov, without access to kosher food for the first 24 hours of their imprisonment.They were released after the intervention of high-level diplomats at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. The yeshiva in Rostov is of special importance to the Chabad movement because it occupies the site where Sholom Dovber Schneerson, the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe, lived during his final years.The controversy over the yeshiva is a potential embarrassment for Rabbi Lazar. For the past seven years he has been the most powerful Jewish leader in Russia and the only one to enjoy a close relationship with President Vladimir Putin. But last month, Rabbi Lazar was not invited to take part in a meeting Putin held with a delegation from the European Jewish Congress that included his archrival, Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, the chief rabbi of Moscow. An exchange of angry letters reveals the animosity the incident has engendered between leader of the Russian and Israeli factions of Chabad.In his letter to Rabbi Lazar, written when it became clear the yeshiva was about to be closed, Rabbi Mordecai Ashkenazi, chief rabbi of Israel’s main Chabad enclave and a close associate of Aronov, did not assert that Rabbi Lazar was no longer influential enough with the Russian authorities to protect the yeshiva.Rather, Rabbi Ashkenazi claimed that Rabbi Lazar actively encouraged the authorities to close it, presumably because it operated under the aegis of the Israeli Chabad rabbinate, and not under his own Moscow-based Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia.After the Ashkenazi letter, which accused Lazar of mesirah (informing on Jews to non-Jewish authorities) became public, Rabbi Lazar fired back with a letter of his own. In it he accused Rabbis Ashkenazi and Aronov of “slander” and lashon hara, stating that the reason for the closing of the yeshiva and arrest of the students was that Aronov “never legally registered the yeshiva’s students. And where they did register, they did it under the name of a straw organization, using faked registration, a severe breach of Russian law.” Rabbi Lazar also claimed that he sought to intervene with Russian authorities on behalf of the arrested students, but was unsuccessful.Informed of the gravity of the situation Rabbi Levi Shemtov, director of Chabad in Washington and Mark Levin, executive director of the Washington-based NCSJ (formerly the National Conference on Soviet Jewry), worked the phones late in the afternoon of Friday, Nov. 2, contacting U.S. government officials. The following morning two high-level U.S. Embassy officials flew from Moscow to Rostov and managed to convince local authorities to free the students, who were immediately expelled across the border to Ukraine. According to Levin, “It seems to me that the most significant part of the story is that we were able on short notice to reach out to those in a position to help to free the students and thereby managed to prevent what could have been a tragedy.”At the Nov. 8 meeting of the top leadership of Agudas Chassidei Chabad (the umbrella organization of the international Chabad-Lubavitch movement in Crown Heights), Rabbi Abraham Shemtov, chairman of the Executive Committee, said in the official statement that after reviewing the events surrounding the Rostov yeshiva controversy, the committee “became convinced that the insinuations and accusations [by Ashkenazi and Lazar] were erroneous and were a result of misunderstanding and confusion.” Rabbi Shemtov commended both Rabbis Lazar and Aronov “for their efforts to solve the problem of this crisis.” And he added, “We remain optimistic about Rabbi Lazar’s commitment to work with Russian authorities and ensure resumption of the activities of the Rostov Yeshiva.”Privately, however, high-level sources within Chabad acknowledged that it is likely to take months before the Russian authorities give the necessary authorizations to reopen the yeshiva.The sources confirmed that the results of the Executive Committee meeting in Crown Heights amounted to a reassertion of authority by the Chabad leadership in Brooklyn over the movement’s seemingly autonomous and often-combative Russian and Israeli branches.According to Rabbi Levi Shemtov, “Agudath Chassidei Chabad is the ultimate policy authority within the movement and the fact that it was involved helped to mitigate the situation.”

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Chabad emissaries gather for celebration and reunion

Ben Harris

Part professional development, part reunion and part celebration, the annual gathering of Chabad emissaries enables the shluchim to revel in a few days spent far from the isolation many endure.

Published: 11/13/2007

While leaders of the Jewish federation world prepared to descend on Nashville for their annual General Assembly this week, Rabbi Yitzchok Tiechtel, a Chabad emissary in the Tennessee capital, packed his bags and headed north for another major Jewish gathering.The International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Shluchim, more commonly known as the Kinus, brought together Tiechtel and some 3,000 colleagues -- Chabad emissaries, or shluchim, serving Jewish communities in the farthest reaches of the globe.
Part professional development, part reunion and part celebration, the six-day conference here allowed the shluchim to revel in a few days spent far from the isolation many endure in posts spread across 72 countries and six continents. Though Chabad has labored to increase its partnership with the federation system in recent years, it was hard to escape the impression of two alternative centers of Jewry reflected in the concurrent conferences in Nashville and New York.
Tiechtel, who returned to Nashville on Monday to attend part of the G.A., brushed off the suggestion."What we do only adds to what they do," he said. "I don't see it as a competition."Indeed, most Chabad shluchim operate in areas where fellow Jews, let alone Jewish competition, are scarce.
Inspired by the teachings of the late Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, Chabad shluchim have made lifetime commitments to bring Jewish life to areas where often they are the only established Jewish presence for hundreds of miles.
They regard themselves as the rebbe's soldiers, a motif invoked again and again to describe the sacrifice and commitment of shluchim and their families, who spend their lives far from the centers of world Jewry."We are not climbing a career ladder," Rabbi Nechemia Vogel, the London-born founder of the Chabad House in Rochester, N.Y., said in his keynote address. "We are the rebbe's shluchim. We stay at our posts." For Tiechtel, it was also a chance to reconnect with his siblings, six of whom serve as shluchim in cities as far flung as Berlin, Coconut Grove, Fla., and Tempe, Ariz.
At the Kinus banquet on Sunday evening, the Tiechtels practically filled their own table. The evening before, they had a chance for a more private reunion at a Japanese restaurant in Brooklyn. "We didn't have a chance to do that in many years," said Dovid Tiechtel, who runs the Chabad center at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.The Kinus, which began in 1983 with about 60 rabbis meeting in a room at Chabad world headquarters in Brooklyn, has evolved into a major multimedia extravaganza broadcast live around the world.
This year it was held in a cavernous hall along the Hudson River in Manhattan, just yards from where the sixth Lubavitcher rebbe, Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, arrived in America 68 years ago. At a time when much communal angst is focused on how to attract an unaffiliated and disinterested younger generation -- topics that are high on the agenda for the leaders in Nashville -- Chabad’s growth continues unabated.
Twenty new centers have been established this year in California and Florida alone, with five in France and four in Argentina, according to Chabad's campus initiative added 17 new centers in the United States and elsewhere. A total of 278 new shluchim have joined the ranks.
Nearly 5,000 people attended the Sunday banquet, including 1,900 lay leaders and family of the shluchim, requiring 20 more tables than last year.
One of the evening’s highlights, the annual roll call, listed each of the 72 countries where Chabad has a permanent presence, and the number of shluchim families that live there: 187 in France, 117 in Russia, eight in China, two in Congo, and one each from Georgia, Bolivia, Norway and Puerto Rico.On the sidelines of the Kinus, a children’s summit was held for the sons of the visiting shluchim, with 467 kids attending. The daughters and female emissaries have their own separate gatherings.
The Kinus also provided a chance to offer good wishes to departing shluchim like Osher Litzman, a 25-year-old Israeli who with his wife and infant daughter are departing for Seoul in the coming days.
They will remain in South Korea, Litzman says, "until the Messiah comes," adding quickly, "We hope he is coming today."Like generations of Chabad shluchim before him, Litzman is headed for a country where he knows no one and doesn’t speak the language, though the couple are studying Korean online. They expect to have their Chabad center up and running in time to host a Passover seder.
Asked how he intends to pay for everything, Litzman tilts his eyes skyward and smiles. In fact, support for Chabad's sprawling global operation is of a more earthly kind, coming from a cadre of benefactors that includes men such as Lev Leviev, the Uzbekistan-born mogul who immigrated to Israel as a teenager and is believed to be Israel's richest man. Forbes magazine, which lists Leviev as the 210th richest person in the world, estimates his net worth at $4.1 billion. Addressing the banquet in Russian-accented Hebrew, Leviev -- known as Reb Levi in Chabad circles -- said the shluchim were like soldiers operating "behind enemy lines." Leviev also related a well-known story about a meeting with Schneerson in Brooklyn in which the rebbe encouraged him to do business in Russia, a decision that was instrumental to his business success. More than a decade after his death in 1994 following a stroke, the rebbe's legacy still looms large in Chabad. A banner with his portrait towered over the hall and videos of him exhorting his followers in Yiddish played throughout the evening.
Shluchim regard themselves as the rebbe's personal emissaries and hold their conference each year on the first day of the Hebrew month of Kislev, the anniversary of the rebbe's recovery from a heart attack in 1977. "There's not a community in the world that's not touched by the rebbe's shluchim," said conference vice chairman Rabbi Moshe Kotlarksy. "So we can say Am Yisrael Chai. Am Yisrael Chai."

Shlomo Matusof, rabbi in Morocco


Rabbi Shlomo Matusof, a leader of Chabad-Lubavitch educational activities in Morocco for decades, died Saturday during a visit to New York, according to the Jewish movement's website.

Rabbi Matusof, who was 91, died of liver failure, a Chabad spokesman said. He was buried Sunday in Queens.
Rabbi Matusof and his sons were among thousands attending the five-day International Conference of Chabad Lubavitch Emissaries in Brooklyn. The annual conference features workshops and discussions.
The Russian native spent time in Germany and France before he was assigned in late 1950 to go to Morocco by Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the website said.
Rabbi Matusof leaves his wife, seven rabbi sons, and two daughters.
© Copyright 2007 Globe Newspaper Company.
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Diamond Billionaire Takes New York

Lev Leviev, the Israeli diamond billionaire, had a busy schedule during his visit to New York this week.

On Sunday, he flew to New York to appear in front of 4,300 black-hatted Chabad-Lubavitch rabbis. The Uzbekistan-born Leviev, who made his fortune cracking the De Beers diamond cartel, is the most powerful lay leader of the Chabad movement’s rapidly growing branch in the former Soviet Union, and he was given a standing ovation by the gender-segregated crowd.
Two days later, Leviev was still wearing his yarmulke, but this time around he appeared in front of women in low-cut dresses who had come for the opening of LEVIEV, the magnate’s flagship American diamond retailer on Madison Avenue.
Asked by the Forward about moving between such different worlds, Leviev said: “It is nice to put these worlds together, to make money and then convert the money into the spiritual. That is why I make money.”
Leviev was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and immigrated with his family to Israel in 1971. He learned the diamond trade and, after coming up with an innovative method for processing diamonds, started his own diamond-polishing plant.
At the Chabad event, he spoke at length, in Hebrew, about the profound influence Chabad has had on both his personal and business philosophy. The late Chabad leader Menachem Schneerson blessed him, he said, when Leviev was a young man with no money to his name.
“I did better in every business venture since,” Leviev said.
His rise has not been without controversy. Leviev has been accused of profiting from diamond mines in apartheid-era South Africa, Angola and Burma. His closeness to Russian President Vladimir Putin has also raised some eyebrows.
This came to the fore at the store opening, when a group of protesters showed up behind the velvet rope that barred the entrance to the store. The protesters were most vocal in criticizing Leviev’s involvement in developing the Palestinian territories. But they also denounced his trade with the Angolan government, widely regarded as repressive, and his real estate holdings in New York City, which have come under fire from tenants’ rights groups.
Leviev “is destroying marginal communities in New York City the same way he’s destroying Palestinian communities in the Middle East,” said protester Ethan Heitner, who identified himself as a Jewish member of the group Adalah-NY.
A source close to Leviev said that the protesters were scapegoating the diamond merchant simply because he is an Israeli citizen. The controversies went unmentioned at the Chabad event — and they were also omitted from a lengthy recent story about Leviev in The New York Times Magazine.
“When you read The New York Times article, say a shehechianu, because this is the first time The New York Times has written an article without saying a negative thing in it,” said Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky in his introductory remarks to Leviev’s speech at the Chabad banquet.
The banquet was the final event of a four-day long international Chabad conference that brought together lay leaders and shluchim (emissaries) who work in places as far-flung as Laos, Congo and Armenia.
Earlier in the weekend, attendees discussed new Chabad initiatives, which include not only the movement’s foray into online education but also a program that will give students the tools to decipher the Talmud. Leviev is president and chief donor of the Chabad-led Federation of Jewish Communities of the CIS, the most powerful Jewish organization in Russia.
“It was most gratifying to finally have the opportunity to publicly recognize Mr. Leviev for catalyzing Jewish renaissance in the former Soviet Union, as well as for his trailblazing work in other parts of the world,” Kotlarsky said in an e-mail to the Forward. “The philanthropic philosophy that he lives by, which he presented at the banquet, was deeply inspirational to both rabbi and layman alike.”
While a few Hasidic men attended the store opening several days later, the crowd was dominated by celebrities like Isabella Rossellini and Susan Sarandon. In a nod to both sets of guests, the organizers served nonkosher hors d’oeuvres but warned the Jewish attendees.
In one effort to synthesize his two worlds, Leviev employed a running metaphor during his speech at the Chabad banquet. “Every Jew is a diamond,” he said.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Chabad Gathering: No Jew Left Behind

Rebbe’s emissaries come back from 72 countries and 47 states.

by Jonathan Mark
Associate Editor

There is an old joke that Orthodox Jews tell: “What is the closest religion to Judaism?” Chabad-Lubavitch is the punchline. Everyone “gets it.” Everyone thinks they know about Chabad’s messianism, that a few Chabadniks believe that the rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who died in 1994, is still alive.In fairness, the rebbe’s messianism or divinity is not advocated in any of Chabad’s official literature; it’s even reprimanded. But fairness has nothing to do with it.This past weekend, just about all the shluchim, nearly 3,000 of the rebbe’s emissaries to 72 countries and 47 states, along with 1,900 of their philanthropic backers, returned to New York for their annual convention. The rebbe was spoken of in past tense, the messiah in future tense.David Berger, chair of Jewish studies at Yeshiva University, recently wrote in the YU newspaper that because of its messianic pretensions, Chabad is “an existential threat to the Jewish religion.” He says Chabadniks ought to be treated with the same halachic mistrust that “Modern Orthodox Jews [have for] traditional Conservative Jews.”But Conservative Jews also are dismissive of Chabad. Andy Silow-Carroll, editor of the New Jersey Jewish News, reported that earlier this year, at the Jewish Theological Seminary, “someone mentioned ‘Chabad,’ and the roomful of rabbis and professors broke out into knowing titters. Dr. Alan Cooper, the JTS provost, rode the titters into a wave of laughter when he repeated the old line: ‘Chabad is the religion closest to Judaism.’”This year’s conference was held in Crown Heights, with the plenary banquet in Pier 94, a vast, several blocks-long former docking hanger on the Hudson River. One shaliach, Rabbi Shlomo Matusof, 91, flew in from Morocco. In 1950, Matusof, a war refugee and former prisoner in Stalin’s gulag, was about to board a ship to join his rebbe in Crown Heights but the rebbe asked him to go to Morocco instead. In the wake of Israel’s independence two years before, Jews in the Arab world were about to experience an upheaval. Matusof built 70 Moroccan Jewish institutions in the last 57 years. He stayed, even when most Moroccan Jews left, tending to the few who didn’t.As God would have it, Rabbi Matusof passed away Saturday night, in the Crown Heights he once thought would be home.Rabbi Levi Shemtov, the rebbe’s emissary to the Bronx, said that Sunday morning they announced Rabbi Matusof’s funeral would be at 11 a.m. After all these years, New York would be his resting place, at the Old Montefiore Cemetery in Queens, a few yards from his rebbe. Instead of a small funeral in Morocco, the old shaliach “had more than 2,500 shluchim at his funeral,” said Rabbi Shemtov.At Pier 94, Rabbi Shemtov remembered, “In 1985-86, 12 of us American boys were sent by the rebbe to be with Rabbi Matusof in Morocco. The dedication that we saw for Yiddishkeit, the love for Jews — now almost everyone of us is out somewhere in the world for Chabad. I like to think that we picked up some of his dedication.”Odd juxtapositions are the charm of these affairs. From the Bronx it was a few tables to Beijing, where Rabbi Shimon Freundlich, who was sent in 2001, is posted.Everyone knows Jews love Chinese food, often unkosher, and Rabbi Freundlich is the closest thing to those Jews, but with a twist. After opening a shul and a Jewish school, he opened a 75-seat Chinese restaurant in China — kosher, of course. They deliver anywhere in Beijing.No group ever displayed more antagonism to Chabad than Satmar. Yet Rabbi Freundlich was joined at the banquet by 20 Satmar chasidim grateful to have a chasidic port of call in China. To YU’s Berger, Chabad is “an existential threat to Judaism,” but when the uber-halachic Satmar businessmen come to Beijing, they happily daven and eat with Rabbi Freundlich. Satmars even contributed more than $150,000 to Freundlich’s new Beijing mikveh. The banquet is a place to renew old friendships. “We met last year,” says Congo’s Rabbi Shlomo Bentolila to a familiar face, “and here we are!”On holidays, the Congo Chabad sends circuit rabbis to Jews in Kenya, Nigeria, Lagos, Namibia, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Angola, Rwanda and Zimbabwe. “There is no Jew in Africa who is out of reach,” said the shaliach. “We intend to offer something to every Jewish child, expatriate, or businessman, every Jew we can find.”In Kinshasa, “We have a shul, 40-50 people on a Shabbos. We have a kosher bakery, and 25 kids in our afternoon school.” From the podium, Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky called the “roll call” of every country and state, beginning with Chabad of Cyberspace, the Web site with links to numerous topics and 900 individualized sites for every Chabad in the world.Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, who 50 years ago first joined the rebbe’s secretariat and remains as the pivotal administrator of Chabad International, recalled that in 1984, when these gatherings started, there were only 60 shluchim, and only from the United States. It was always like a family reunion for the rebbe, said Rabbi Krinsky. After the roll call the room erupted into dancing, though there must be a better word to describe the prancing, leaping, pounding and stomping that had thousands of glasses on every table bouncing, rippling the wines, rippling the waters. Lev Leviev, the mega-philanthropist, was dancing with chasidim, hands on shoulders.Leviev had earlier addressed the gathering in Hebrew, recalling how the rebbe advised him in business, and praising shluchim who operate “behind enemy lines.” Nothing he said was as powerful as the joy in his dancing feet and smiling face.Hey, over there, were Tuvia Teldon and Anschel Pearl, shluchim on Long Island. And over there, hey, it’s Menachem Hartman, the 26-year-old shliach to Vietnam.On Shabbat in Ho Chi Minh City (old Saigon), Rabbi Hartman may be “the closest thing to Judaism,” or maybe there is no truer Judaism than his, in which no Jew is left behind. Surely, those who mock Chabad could get in on the action and find a young rabbi to devote the rest of his life to, say, the Beth Conservative Temple of Hanoi, or the Young Israel of Phnom Penh. While everyone’s joking, Chabad has also opened a Chabad House in Laos.Is there a future for Jews in Ho Chi Minh City?“For sure,” said Rabbi Hartman, beaming. “B’ezrat Hashem, we’ll be opening a kindergarten. Vietnam is the next tiger in Asia!”I was going to ask him what he thought about the jokes people tell about Chabad but I didn’t have the heart. Maybe on a sweltering Vietnamese night he might get to feeling lonely, and when that night comes I didn’t want him to know that Jews in New York were cracking jokes at his expense.This young shaliach would soon be on a plane, heading off to where most of us would never dare. He was the rebbe’s representative. He was pure, the closest thing to Heaven.

Chabad Youth Organization director arrested

Police are probing allegations of embezzlement and money laundering at the NPO.
Noam Sharvit 14 Nov 07 20:04
Officers from Israel Police Central Region Fraud Unit and Israel Tax Authority investigators have arrested the director of Chabad Youth Organization in Israel, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Ahronov, the nonprofit organization's (NPO) accountant, and one of its authorized signatories, on suspicion of embezzlement amounting to tens of millions shekels and tax fraud running into hundreds of millions of shekels. The four men are suspected of theft, fraudulent receiving, and money laundering, in which leading businessmen are also thought to be involved.
Ahronov was arrested this morning on return from a fund raising campaign abroad, as detectives raided the NPO's offices in Kfar Chabad. At web posting, the four men were due to appear at the Ramla Magistrates Court for a remand hearing.

Chabad Youth Organization director arrested

Police are probing allegations of embezzlement and money laundering at the NPO.
Noam Sharvit 14 Nov 07 20:04
Officers from Israel Police Central Region Fraud Unit and Israel Tax Authority investigators have arrested the director of Chabad Youth Organization in Israel, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Ahronov, the nonprofit organization's (NPO) accountant, and one of its authorized signatories, on suspicion of embezzlement amounting to tens of millions shekels and tax fraud running into hundreds of millions of shekels. The four men are suspected of theft, fraudulent receiving, and money laundering, in which leading businessmen are also thought to be involved.
Ahronov was arrested this morning on return from a fund raising campaign abroad, as detectives raided the NPO's offices in Kfar Chabad. At web posting, the four men were due to appear at the Ramla Magistrates Court for a remand hearing.

Fill the evangelical vacuum

The rise of [Rudy Giuliani], with his refusal to follow Mitt Romney in pandering to evangelical morals, bespeaks an American weariness of these over-hashed issues and a thirst for a more holistic set of values. But now that the repudiation of evangelical morality has left a gaping hole, who and what are to fill the vacuum? Enter the world's oldest monotheistic faith and the earth's most family- oriented community.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe, by contrast, was the first Jewish personality with a worldwide following to talk about bringing unadulterated biblical values to a mainstream non- Jewish audience. The Rebbe hammered the point repeatedly during his internationally televised speeches. Yet, it remains the one aspect of his visionary program that Chabad, after his death, has all but ignored.
Indeed, last weekend's International Conference of Chabad's Worldwide emissaries, which offered panels on subject as diverse as campus activities to life insurance policies, did not provide for a single discussion on bringing Judaism to mainstream, non-Jewish culture.
Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner. Further reproduction or distribution is prohibited without permission.

The Chabad challenge

A few months back I attended the inauguration ceremonies for Arnold Eisen, the new chancellor of the Conservative movement's Jewish Theological Seminary. In a symposium preceding the main event, a distinguished panel of scholars discussed the future of the movement and American Judaism. Someone mentioned Chabad, and the roomful of rabbis and professors broke out into knowing titters.
Dr. Alan Cooper, the JTS provost, rode the titters into a wave of laughter when he repeated the old line: "Chabad is the religion closest to Judaism." There's nothing new about Chabad-bashing - the Chabad-Lubavitch Hassidic movement is mocked by fellow Orthodox for their messianism, by non-Orthodox groups for their aggressive proselytizing, by late-night comedians for the wacky mitzva tanks that roll through Manhattan streets. And there's nothing funny about Chabad's cozy relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and their cynical use of religion and politics to dominate the Jewish revival in Eastern Europe.But considering the ubiquity of Chabad, and the warm reception they get among many marginally affiliated Jews, the movement becomes a living Yogi Berra line: No one takes them seriously - they're too popular.
Husband-and-wife pairs of shlichim, or emissaries, are dispatched from the Rabbinical College of America in Morristown to establish Chabad centers wherever there is a rumor of Jewish life. As far as their late rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, was concerned, Bangkok is Boston is Basking Ridge, if it means bringing even a touch of yiddishkeit to the Jewish margins.
Shlichim have begun operating Hebrew schools that are increasingly popular among Jewish families who might have no other Jewish affiliations. Chabad's successful outreach activities include well-run summer camps, unintimidating bar and bat mitzva ceremonies, and dozens of informal community events around the holidays. Still laughing?
A few weeks after the Eisen inaugural I was invited by some Conservative rabbinical leaders to discuss challenges facing their movement and synagogues in general. I focused on Chabad. And I described the movement as a challenge in the positive sense: a challenge to others to explore what Chabad does well and how their model can be replicated in non-Chabad synagogues and institutions.
SO WHAT'S Chabad's secret? They offer ease of entry. People taking baby steps into Jewish life are intimidated by institutions that seem to demand a deep commitment at the outset. Although individual Chabadniks are committed to "Torah-true" Judaism, the shlichim celebrate individual mitzvot, individual acts of belonging. One is fine, two is great, three's a mechaieh. No one joins Chabad on the installment plan. In fact, people tend not to "join" Chabad at all. Chabad houses tend not to have memberships. Chabadniks will say that the message is that individuals are valued for their participation, not their contribution to the building fund.
Chabad is pluralist. I know, I know - theologically Chabad has about as much respect for non-Orthodox, indeed, non-Chabad streams as Ann Coulter has for liberals. But shlichim operate their centers on a come-one, come-all basis, putting up fewer barriers of behavior and biology than even some Reform synagogues.
Chabad is friendly. Oy, is it friendly. I always compare the Morristown college to the old IBM in the way it is able to churn out ambassadors who so fully and consistently reflect the mission and values of the institution. I often can't tell various shlichim apart - not because I am a dolt or a bigot, but because so many are so similarly warm and good-natured.
Finally, Chabadniks are p.r. whizzes. They were early adopters of all the latest technologies, have an enviable dominance of the Jewish web, and manage to keep their branding cutting-edge.
When I presented these ideas to the Conservative rabbis, they bristled. Not because they don't see value in an open, pluralist, easy-entry, cleverly marketed Judaism. Rather, they recognized the structural differences that separate them from Chabad. One of these is accountability to a kehilla, a community. The American synagogue is a self-governed partnership among stakeholders and rabbis - employers and employees. It's a delicate dance, but in the tension between a rabbi's authority and the congregation's diverse needs, most synagogues reach an accommodation that reflects the values of their membership and movement.
You can't fire your Chabad rabbi. As a result, their flexibility and creativity often comes with a whiff of condescension.
And one rabbi's flexibility is another's lack of standards. Rabbi Eric Yoffie, head of the Union for Reform Judaism, recently wrote a column criticizing Chabad for offering to perform bar and bat mitzvot with few if any requirements. At typical synagogues, such requirements include religious school attendance, a commitment to study and worship, and a level of synagogue skills. Chabad "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," wrote Yoffie.
The challenge for non-Chabad rabbis, then, is to bring some of the Chabad spirit into their programming without sacrificing their own and their movements' standards or identity or the expectations of their longtime and most committed members.
Which will lead to another debate, one that may well define Judaism in the coming decades: Are denominations necessary - are synagogues necessary - or has Chabad pioneered a model of American Judaism that transcends them?
The writer is editor in chief of the New Jersey Jewish News.