Monday, October 29, 2007

Camp offers shelter, peace amid fire chaos

Refusing to leave his retreat, rabbi devotes himself to serving crews battling the Slide blaze.

By Ashley Powers, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer October 29, 2007

The pairing of the rabbi and the firefighters was a natural one.He had beds. They had been sleeping on asphalt. He had food and showers. They were grateful.
Rabbi Yosef Brod should have rushed down the mountain a week ago, when the Slide fire was burning toward Camp Gan Israel, the 75-acre Jewish camp he runs in the San Bernardino Mountains. The fire charred nearly 13,000 acres and wiped out 201 homes as it spread.But Brod, a rabbi with the Chasidic Lubovitch, or Chabad, sect, stayed. "Have a nice day," he told his employees as they evacuated. "Drive carefully."Over the weekend, about a dozen fire engines were parked by the giant Hanukkah candelabra at the camp. One firefighter chatted on a cellphone while another shivered in his boxers. A third asked Brod what the symbols on the cabin doors meant -- they were prayer scrolls called mezuzot that are meant to keep their occupants safe.State prison officials also came by, looking to house inmate mop-up crews in the camp's bunks.Brod says he kept the camp open because he believed that God would shelter the pine-shaded site, which the Chabad organization bought for summer and winter camps and weekend retreats. So Brod called his wife after the evacuations were ordered last Monday and said he wouldn't be driving home to West Hollywood."She knew I'm so devoted to this place I wouldn't leave," he said. One of his employees stayed, too, and told Brod that, if need be, he would carry the camp director down the mountain.By midweek, flames were licking the camp's northern edge, and a firefighting helicopter tapped the camp's pool for water. Brod ran a hose from a fire hydrant to the pool to keep it full.He already prays three times a day, but that afternoon, "We prayed with a little more intensity," Brod said.The blaze halted about 100 yards from the camp's wood-shingle main lodge and spared the property's cellphone towers, basketball court and 16 other buildings.The blaze had pushed a clutch of soot-dusted firefighters onto the narrow road that curves into the camp. Brod fed them. He offered mattresses and soap.Down the road from the camp, firefighters had been dozing in pop-up tents, on cots and huddled between engines in a parking lot of the Snow Valley Mountain Resort in Running Springs, where the command center had been set up.The news of better digs spread quickly.So many firefighters streamed into Camp Gan Israel that Brod called other rabbis for help.He found one fire crew sleeping on the grass just outside of camp, and offered them real beds."That's kind of a big deal, to have a bunch of sweaty firemen stomping through your place," said Ontario Fire Capt. Art Andres. "And this is a place where people pay good money to find rest or peace or something."A compact man with black-rimmed glasses, a salt-and-pepper beard and a black yarmulke, Brod held a prayer service for a Jewish firefighter.On Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, Brod couldn't work until after sunset. So firefighters signed themselves in, writing on a yellow legal pad that they had come from departments in Chino, Upland, Rancho Cucamonga, Tuolumne and other places. They ate a traditional stew that had been prepared before sunset the night before, when the Sabbath began.As the men and women ate each night, Brod shared his interpretation of the week's events. "One match destroys a thousand homes just like that," he told firefighters. "If we have the power to destroy the world, we have the power to make it better."The firefighters sat in quiet with their thoughts.Brod slouched on a folding chair in the camp's restaurant-size kitchen as he recounted the week's events. A button had popped open on his shirt, but he didn't notice.His two cellphones interrupted. A friend in Maryland was checking to see if he was OK. The other caller offered to bring oranges and coffee. Meanwhile, firefighters played billiards and table tennis.After dinner, Brod went outside and climbed into his white Ford Expedition to check on his guests. He darted past cabins with nearly all the windows lighted, and slowed only to chat with firefighters. Their eyes were weary and their voices hoarse."So you own this whole place?" croaked one firefighter."God owns the world," the rabbi replied.

Scenes From an Inferno

Another story also caught my interest, this time from The Los Angeles Times:
The pairing of the rabbi and the firefighters was a natural one.He had beds. They had been sleeping on asphalt. He had food and showers. They were grateful. Rabbi Yosef Brod should have rushed down the mountain a week ago, when the Slide fire was burning toward Camp Gan Israel, the 75-acre Jewish camp he runs in the San Bernardino Mountains. The fire charred nearly 13,000 acres and wiped out 201 homes as it spread.But Brod, a rabbi with the Chasidic Lubovitch, or Chabad, sect, stayed. "Have a nice day," he told his employees as they evacuated. "Drive carefully."Over the weekend, about a dozen fire engines were parked by the giant Hanukkah candelabra at the camp. One firefighter chatted on a cellphone while another shivered in his boxers. A third asked Brod what the symbols on the cabin doors meant -- they were prayer scrolls called mezuzot that are meant to keep their occupants safe.State prison officials also came by, looking to house inmate mop-up crews in the camp's bunks.Brod says he kept the camp open because he believed that God would shelter the pine-shaded site, which the Chabad organization bought for summer and winter camps and weekend retreats. So Brod called his wife after the evacuations were ordered last Monday and said he wouldn't be driving home to West Hollywood.The rest of the story describes how Rabbi Brod provided food and shelter to firefighters, few of them presumably Jewish, while they tried to get the flames under control. Chabad is an organization of rigorously orthodox Jews, devoted in part to getting wayward non-Orthodox Jews to observe the many demands of the orthodox version of the faith. Yet he feels not just comfortable but obligated to help out the fellow members of his American family in their hour of need.From where I sit very far away this is an extraordinary scene. It is almost impossible to imagine a Lubavitch Rabbi so truly incorporated into the society around him if the society is in Western Europe, or Russia, or elsewhere with a significant Orthodox Jewish community and a significant history of dark anti-Semitism. He is integrated but not assimilated, free to observe his demanding faith while helping out those who have completely different traditions. And they in turn are glad to take, driven by curiosity about his practices rather than resentment or conspiracist suspicion, accepting as normal that this exotic man is truly one of them – as American as they are, even if some of his habits are a little unusual. The episode is in some ways so ordinary, yet so revealing if you read between the lines.This is an amazing country, despite the best efforts of our government and intellectuals. Do not let anyone tell you otherwise.

Dear Reader: The Good and Bad of Chabad

by Eric H. Yoffie

In last Winter’s column, I reflected on Chabad’s admirable hospitality (see “The Art of Welcoming,” Winter 2006). Indeed, throughout the world, in virtually every city where a Jewish community of even modest size is to be found, Chabad shelichim (emissaries) conduct religious services, visit hospitals, teach children, organize Jewish holiday celebrations, and offer Shabbat meals to lonely Jewish students and travelers. No other Jewish movement—Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform—has been able to produce a corps of similarly devoted young men and women who are prepared to serve the Jewish people with such personal sacrifice.
Unfortunately, other Chabad practices are less admirable. Here are two examples.
In Russia, Chabad leaders have established an alliance with the increasingly autocratic President Vladimir Putin. Such alliances have their purposes, but not when they are used to deny recognition and funding to other Jewish groups. Looking back at the history of eastern European Jewry, we all view with distaste those chapters that involve Jewish groups drawing close to ruling despots so that they can work against other Jews with whom they disagree. We do not need a modern version of that history in the Russian Federation today.
In North America, the issues are very different. Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox synagogues routinely require families that want their child to have a bar/bat mitzvah to meet certain requirements—the son or daughter must attend religious school for a year or more, and the parents must commit themselves to study and congregational worship. The reason is clear: absent Torah learning and familial involvement, the bar mitzvah will be without meaning, an excuse for a party. Chabad centers, however, generally provide a bar mitzah service with few, if any, requirements. Chabad says that no child should be denied a bar mitzvah, and the family—which is usually unaffiliated—may be drawn later into Jewish life. Perhaps. More likely, the lesson is that Judaism is not a serious endeavor and that even the most significant milestones require only a modicum of commitment.
Surely no family should ever be denied membership in a synagogue because of inability to pay. But we should protest when Chabad, or anyone else, becomes a purveyor of Jewish minimalism, lowering educational standards for our children and community.
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie President, Union for Reform Judaism

Sunday, October 28, 2007

A rabbi joins firefighters

What do firemen and rabbis have in common? They both put out fires.
The wildfires make me wonder what God is up to. What message can he be conveying and what lesson can be learned? One thing I know for sure is that it is the clergyman's job to do and not ask. As one rabbi put it, "We only work here, we don't make the catastrophes."
Amid the sorrow and hardship the world continues to turn. The World Series begins and the Boston Red Sox win the first game. It was the most exciting game in the 104-year history of the World Series. China embarks on a 10-year moon exploration program and launches its first lunar probe. A powerful earthquake rocks western Indonesia, sending panicked residents fleeing from their homes and briefly triggering a tsunami warning. In Cape Canaveral, the shuttle Discovery and its crew of seven went into orbit to do extensive work on the space station.
While here in California the only comforting words from Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff while addressing a crowd was, "Take a moment to hug and kiss your loved ones. Everything else can be replaced." How condescending and inconsiderate are his sentiments? Imagine telling 500,000 people to kiss and make up, as if the trauma will just disappear along with the smoke and fire. Chertoff's statement is childish and totally out of character.
Meanwhile, in hard-hit Running Springs, the clergy have stepped up to the plate. There the fire erupted with a fierce vengeance, burning homes and businesses and leaving chaos, destruction and despair. Residents were evacuated and the brave firemen and sheriffs deputies are busy coordinating firefighting crews to save as much as possible. We wonder where they can find a place to rest their weary bodies, or for that matter, where can they get hot coffee or fresh food? Last but not least, where does the water come from to fight the fires?
At Kiryas Schneerson in Running Springs, Rabbi Yosef Brod made a decision. He was going to stay at the center , named after the Chabad leader, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson . Kiryas Schneerson has become a salvation and sanctuary for the brave firefighters and officers. Kiryas Schneerson was surrounded by fire and yet the rabbi persists, serving meals and drinks. He mans a 24-hour generator, fills the swimming pool with well water, and signals the helicopters to pick up and replenish their water supply. Kiryas Schneerson has become a sanctuary for survival, a temporary home for firefighters. It would seem that this marriage of firemen and clergy would not work, as firemen work for the physical and the clergy for the spiritual, but miraculously the center remains open and offers a place to eat and rest. The harmony of physical and spiritual meet and coalesce, members of all religions working together to save homes.
More rabbis drove up the mountain to help and support Rabbi Brod in his most extraordinary and brave work. Tragedies bring misery and at times bring out the best in people. At this time of overwhelming tragedies we must reach out and touch somebody by extending time, effort and spiritual support. The best thing we can do is be positive and charitable.
We salute all the brave people involved but most of all, we pray for the welfare of all our citizens of this wonderful state.
The motto of our country is "In God we trust." It is the job of clergymen to help that trust be realized.
Rabbi Eli Hecht is vice-president of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He is the director of Chabad of South Bay in Lomita, which houses a synagogue, day school, nursery school and chaplaincy programs.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

In Medved's Bed

I don’t know which four big lies about Israel and the Middle East radio talk-show host Michael Medved discussed when he appeared in Bala Cynwyd on October 23, 2007. I did not attend. But the “The” in the title of his talk, The 4 Big Lies About Israel and the Middle East, suggests that Medved managed to sift through the legion of lies floating around the subject and identified the absolutely, no-doubt-about-it biggest four.

That classic expression of Medvedian know-it-all arrogance comes as no surprise to anyone who listens to his show or reads his books and columns. After all, this is the man who revealed to a stunned nation that Happy Feet, the Oscar-winning, 2006 animated feature about dancing penguins, had a sinister pro-gay subtext. But what may surprise those who attended his talk, which was sponsored by Chabad Lubavitch of the Main Line and supported by Kehillah of Lower Merion and the Jewish Federation’s Center for Israel and Overseas, is Medved’s thoughts on America’s enslavement of blacks. Basically, he doesn’t think it was such a terrible thing.

In a column published on the Townhall website back in September, Medved argued, among other things, that there is no reason to believe that today’s African-Americans would be better off if their ancestors had remained behind in Africa, that the U.S. did not become a wealthy nation through the abuse of slave labor, that the U.S. merits special credit for the rapid abolition of slavery – and that’s just half of it. By the time he lists all six of his reasons why slavery has gotten a bum rap, he reveals a level of ignorance about U.S. history and the economics of the slave trade that is simply astounding. Not to mention morally repugnant. Author and screenwriter Trey Ellis addresses this repugnancy from an African-American perspective in his must read column.

Morally repugnant was how one of the sponsors of Medved’s talk characterized his slavery piece after I brought it to that person’s attention, two weeks before Medved was scheduled to speak. Alas, in the opinion of some sponsors, the train had left the station. One said, you “can’t pull the plug whenever a hired speaker says something that we disagree with after we have committed to the engagement.” Really? I think you can. Of course, it involves the challenging task of letting your inner moral compass, your sense of moral outrage guide your actions, but that is apparently too much to ask of some in our community.

A week later, on October 15, Medved invited infamous anti-Semite Ann Coulter to his radio show, giving her a chance to defend the morally repugnant views she expressed on Deutsch’s television show. Medved treated her with kid gloves. He never forcefully challenged her hateful views of Jews or her warped understanding of the Hebrew Bible, which she refers to as the Old Testament. For example, she continually reiterates that she and other Christians accept the OT, but Medved is either too ignorant or deferential to point out that what many Christians actually accept is a distorted, misinterpreted and mistranslated version of the Hebrew Bible specifically designed to validate Jesus as the messiah and, in the process, invalidate the fundamental covenantal precepts of Judaism. Incredibly, Medved appears to express more solidarity with a fellow right-wing blabbermouth than he does with the Jewish people. Unfortunately, this revelation did not move the sponsors of Medved’s talk to take action either.

But can’t we look the other way? After all, Medved is such a staunch supporter of Israel. And Israel needs all the help it can get, right? Wrong. Surely we can do better. Surely we can find knowledgeable, passionate and inspiring speakers to educate us about the Middle East who don’t come with Medved’s despicable baggage. Surely we and the State of Israel are not in such miserable and desperate straits that we need to climb into bed with people like Michael Medved for comfort.

Bad times require angels, and often they are us

Similar acts of selflessness have been witnessed across the Southland.

At Camp Gan Israel in Running Springs, four Hasidic rabbis have been serving firefighters kosher meals while the blazes rage in the San Bernardino Mountains.

"This is a holy place," Josef Broed, a rabbi in the Orthodox Jewish movement called Chabad, told the Associated Press.

"God is going to watch over our place, and we will survive."

Faith community reaches out to fire victims

A Chabad synagogue near the fire line in northern San Diego County saw its rabbi commandeer a lunch truck from Los Angeles to feed the stadium masses. “All kosher, for Jews and non-Jews!” said Rabbi Levi Raskin of Chabad Rancho Santa Fe, which so far has escaped the fires.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

On the catwalk with Chabad

At this summer's Brooklyn Best outdoor fashion show, organized by Borough President Marty Markowitz to feature the dress and culture of all of Brooklyn's local ethnicities, nobody had volunteered to represent the hassidim.
That's where Mendy Pellin of Crown Heights came in to offer his modeling services.
And sure enough, when the fashion show rolled around, Pellin was there, sashaying down the catwalk dressed in full Chabad garb - with black suit and hat - as if he'd just come back from Fashion Week in Paris.
"I was doing the real catwalk walk and posing like a supermodel, and the place was just going crazy. They totally didn't expect that," the Chabadnik said.
Lanky, with a goofy grin, glasses and bushy black beard, Pellin, 25, definitely looks the part of the average Crown Heights Lubavitcher.
But to fans around the world, he's a celebrity star of the on-line comedy news show ChabadTube that's been seen by 500,000 viewers from Brooklyn's Crown Heights neighborhood to Cairo.The show, currently in production for its third season, is an assortment of news - both real and fake, Jewish and not - from Crown Heights, the US and Israel, with a dollop of satire mixed in. One episode featured a tour of the new mikve (ritual bath) under construction in Crown Heights, in which Pellin kicks back in the empty pool with a six-pack of Budweiser beer.
The Budweiser stunt ruffled a few feathers among the top Crown Heights brass, and his supermodel skit was likewise not received well by many in the community.
"I got tons of flak. Hundreds of people wrote in, asking me how I could do such a thing. Some people didn't understand the whole concept of modeling, they said, you should have had a sefer [holy book] open, you should have been learning. Something to represent us accurately."
But ChabadTube, like any fake news show, isn't about accuracy, it was created with the aim of making people like him more personable to the outside world.
"Everyone stereotypes the Hassid as a smelly, sweaty, generously-sized individual who tucks his shirt into his underwear, with lots of dandruff and yellow teeth," Pellin said in an interview at Crown Heights Bunch O Bagels. "I wanted to give a human face to the Hassid, and show something other than the smelly part."
The passion for news - fake or otherwise - was ignited in Pellin by his late grandmother, an activist in the Reform community.
"She subscribed us to Time, magazine, and I always read it, cover-to-cover. Still do," Pellin said.
"So because of her, news was always a part of me, even though I couldn't really talk to most of my classmates about the news or politics. A lot of things they just didn't know about," he said.
In a community where the secular media is frowned upon and most people don't own televisions, Pellin said that his show, which equally mocks local, national and international current events, was actually the main source of news for his Crown Heights audience.
"I get e-mails from people responding to stories I'm mocking on my show now that are a couple of weeks old already, saying, 'I can't believe this happened!' because they're just finding out about it now, from me. People definitely see the news on my site and it's the first time they're seeing it," he said.
For this reason, Pellin decided that he didn't want to only cover Crown Heights or the Jewish world. His grandmother's love of current affairs inspired him to expose others to the outside world.
"Crown Heights people should be caught up with what's happening in the world. My show gives them, at the least, some main things, to try to get people talking, and I want them to get it in an entertaining medium."
Although television isn't accepted in Crown Heights, the Internet is, which is how Pellin's show became a kosher hit.
But Pellin remembered when the Internet was first coming out, and his principal told him that he couldn't return to school until he got a note saying that he no longer had Internet in the house anymore.
The times have changed, and surfing on-line is now acceptable in the community as long as you use a 'kosher filter' that weeds out unsavory content. "My show makes it through the kosher filter for some reason. I beat the filter," he said, smiling triumphantly.
So once Pellin found his passion, the next step was leaving his "boring job" in the cellphone industry.
"I figured that now, when I'm young, is the time to do that, because when you're older and you're forced to pay for colonoscopies, then you have to just take a job that makes money," he said. "But since I'm young, I have room to screw up."
When Pellin filmed the first episode of ChabadTube, he didn't think he would be in it for very long. "I didn't think people were actually going to watch it besides my friends," he said. But before long, he had around 30,000 viewers per episode, and had become the darling of Crown Heights.
"I thought the Chabad establishment would be pretty much against the show when I started out because it pushes the envelope," Pellin said. "I thought they would say, 'You can't put our dirty laundry in public.' But they love it."
"Even the big mohel [ritual circumciser] of Crown Heights with his long white beard came over to me and said, 'Nu, when's your next show coming out?' And I said, 'You watch it, too?' I didn't think any of these people had a sense of humor, but apparently they do." For news ideas, Pellin reads news sites from Al-Jazeera to the Drudge Report.
"I keep an open mind. I look at all sources. In traditional TV news, they have to deliver a story in a certain way that people will watch it, in a way that has urgency, that it affects you, that hits home, that's scary. Instead of that, I try to make it entertaining by adding in little spice here and there, and satire, and hope that most people get it."
But not everyone gets it. Pellin acknowledged that even his new wife does not understand all the jokes in his show. "She has the attitude of, 'If it makes you happy, do it. I don't get a lot of it, but if it makes you happy, go for it.'"
As for his international fan base, Pellin would like to think that he represents the human side of Chabad. "People who aren't from here don't understand where we're coming from. But when you get to know most of the people in this community, you'll see that they're very sensible people with many of the same desires of the outside, secular world."
"People make these blanket statements from a lack of knowledge and a fear of a culture that looks different than your own. So if I get to be the poster boy, I can help others see the softer side of Sears, the softer side of Chabad."
At this point, a fellow diner approached the table. "I just want to tell you I'm a really big fan," he said.
"I'm not really that famous," Pellin said, after the fan walked away. "I paid him to do that."

Tzvee's Take

I have recast the Forward's headline for one of this week's stories in accord with my more accurate view of what is transpiring.Professor David Berger published an attack on Lubavitch in a full blown religious polemic. Instead of reconsidering, recalling and retracting his vitriol, he now is republishing his book as a paperback. And he now is receiving full support from Yeshiva University as head of Jewish Studies at the school.My case against Berger simply put is -- who appointed him head of the holy office of the grand inquisition? His book is stage one of a true Jihad. Who asked him to issue a fatwa against Lubavitch messianists?The answer now appears to be - Yeshiva University promotes and supports his outrageous crusade.Berger calls for the removal of the LMs from all Jewish communal positions worldwide. What is next Dr. Berger? Indeed.
Yeshiva U. Brings On Critic of ChabadMarissa Brostoff Wed. Oct 24, 2007Rabbi David Berger, a historian who is a sharp critic of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, has been appointed head of Jewish studies at Yeshiva University’s undergraduate college in a move that has ruffled some feathers on the campus.Writing in the college’s student paper, the Commentator, Josh Shteir, a senior at the school and a co-president of the Chabad Club on campus, argued that Berger’s “intolerance” of Chabad is unacceptable at Y.U. The university is affiliated with the Modern Orthodox movement but welcomes Orthodox Jews who practice differently.“How am I, a student at Y.U., as well as someone with a strong connection to the Lubavitch movement, supposed to understand this appointment and its apparent conflict with the cultural open-mindedness espoused by the University?” he wrote in a missive directed at university administrators.Y.U. announced last fall that it would hire Berger, who had been a history professor at Brooklyn College for 37 years and had taught part time at Y.U. for almost as long, as a full-time faculty member. He was appointed to the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies and later to the Jewish studies department at Yeshiva College, Y.U.’s undergraduate division. Then, as now, some students publicly objected.Yosef Levine, alumni president of Y.U.’s Chabad group and a 1999 graduate of its business school, said that he campaigned against Berger’s appointment last year because Berger was inappropriately hostile regarding the subject of Chabad.According to Levine, the trouble began about two years ago when Berger, who occasionally led Sabbath services at Y.U., “dove into ruthless soliloquizing against Chabad” at a post-service “shmooze,” disturbing even non-Chabad students and leading several to walk out.The debate is centered on Berger’s well-known critiques of the block of Chabad adherents who believe that Menachem Schneerson, the late Chabad leader, is the messiah. Berger, who is Modern Orthodox himself, claims that this belief is tantamount to heresy. In his 2001 book, “The Rebbe, The Messiah, and the Scandal of Orthodox Indifference,” Berger argued that Judaism rejects the idea that the messiah can be a deceased person. That belief, he wrote, has differentiated Judaism from Christianity for 2,000 years. He censures the Chabad movement and the Orthodox establishment at large for what he sees as their lack of outrage in response to the messianic elements in the Lubavitch community.Berger responded to Shteir’s article with an opinion piece of his own, in which he claimed that Shteir was taking part in a Chabad campaign to silence critics. “[My position on Chabad] is not closed-minded, unless Mr. Shteir believes that open-mindedness requires the abolition of all theological boundaries defining the Jewish religion,” Berger wrote.Both articles delve into complex hermeneutics, as do many of the dozens of reader responses posted on the Commentator Web site.In an interview with the Forward, Berger said he was unconcerned about the controversy, which he called “a tempest in a teapot.” He suggested that Y.U. is big enough for both Chabad students and their critics.“Yeshiva College [does not ask student applicants] about personal beliefs, and I don’t think Lubavitcher students should be asked either,” he said.Chabad officials agreed with Berger that the controversy should not be overplayed.“While we don’t agree with Berger, this is not a Lubavitcher issue — it’s a Y.U. issue,” a spokesman for the group said.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007



Chabad House, at 6115 Montezuma Road near San Diego State University is offering emergency shelter.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Fla. governor: Kotel prayer saved state

Florida's governor said a prayer he made at the Western Wall spared his state from hurricanes.

Charlie Crist , speaking Sunday at a prayer breakfast at the state's Republican Party convention in Orlando, related how he had placed a note in the Western Wall asking God to protect Florida from hurricanes, according to, a Chabad news service.

"So far, so good," Crist said.

Crist, who governs the state with the nation's third-highest Jewish population, traveled to Israel in May to promote economic ties. He was criticized recently by the Florida chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union for hanging a mezuzah outside his office in Tallahassee.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Ukranian president, Jewish leaders to meet

Ukrainian President Viktor Yuschenko will meet local Jewish leaders to discuss recent anti-Semitic attacks.

Yuschenko on Monday also will meet with representatives of the Ukrainian community and law enforcement generals about a spate of anti-Semitic attacks in Ukraine and the lackluster reaction by law enforcement agencies. There have no been no arrests or successful prosecutions, a member of Yuschenko's administration told JTA.

Yuschenko is expected to make a statement about combating the rise of ethnic hatred and anti-Semitic attacks in his country.

In late September three separate attacks on observant Jews took place in Zhitomir, Sevastopol and Cherkassy. On Oct. 5, the Chabad house in the city of Uzhgorod was set ablaze and robbed.

Torah scrolls evacuated as fire threatens Chabad of Malibu

A wildfire fueled by 50 mph Santa Ana winds and rising temperatures burned about 1,000 acres in the Malibu Hills area on Sunday, claiming several area businesses and landmarks, including Castle Kashan and Malibu Presbyterian Church, as well as threatening Pepperdine University.

Area homeowners were under mandatory evacuation, and Chabad of Malibu at 22933 Pacific Coast Highway removed its four Torah scrolls as shifting winds caused the fast-moving fire to crisscross a ridgeline above the synagogue in Sweetwater Canyon.

Fire officials put the start of the Canyon Fire started at 4:55 a.m., but several residents say they smelled smoke a few hours earlier. Three homes, the church and three business at Malibu Colony Shopping Center were destroyed, according to Los Angeles Fire Department officials.

Other areas reporting fires Sunday include Porter Ranch, Chatsworth, Santa Rosa Valley, Placerita Canyon, Castaic and Fontana. The National Weather Service has issued red-flag warnings for Los Angeles and Ventura counties until 4 p.m. Tuesday.

The fire in the canyon above Chabad of Malibu had yet to be contained as of Sunday afternoon. Strong winds destroyed a Chabad of Malibu sign, but no other harm had come to the synagogue or its adjacent kosher restaurant, recently renamed B.B.C. By the Sea (at left in photo.)

Rabbi Levi Cunin, spiritual leader of Chabad of Malibu, said he smelled smoke and called the fire department shortly after 12:30 a.m. Sunday.

"The first thing I did was get my wife and kids out," said Cunin, 36. "A lot of our people who come to Chabad -- many of them live in the area -- and they had to evacuate."

In addition to assisting congregants and neighbors, Cunin also ensured that Chabad of Malibu's four Torahs were safe; each was strapped into the backseat of his sedan.

"Living here in Malibu, knowing how quickly fires [can spread], it's better to be safe than sorry," he said. "We took out the Torah, the chumashim, the siddurs, we took them all out."

Just north of Pepperdine, the Malibu Jewish Center and Synagogue was abandoned save for a few residents watching the fire from the shul's parking lot.

Dawn Cunnion, who has lived at Malibu Country Estates for about 10 years, was evacuated at 6:30 a.m. Her home was visible from the parking lot.

"We're keeping an eye on it. We found a shady place ... where we could get out quickly. From this vantage point at least we've got a perspective as to what's going on," she said.

Cunnion said she's been through several fires, but this is her first mandatory evacuation.

"The one across the street ... was pretty scary too," she said, referring to a fire in January that destroyed four homes, including one that belonged to Suzanne Somers. "We had winds, but not these kinds of winds."

Residents have been evacuated to Zuma Beach and Agoura Hills High School.

As at Malibu Jewish Center was Michael Brown, 46, who found himself trapped in Malibu when MTA cancelled Line 534, which serves Pacific Coast Highway. The Los Angeles resident had spent the weekend at a campground across the street from the Reconstructionist congregation adjacent to the Pepperdine campus.

"They shut down the buses, and I needed some water ... so I seen the synagogue. I thought, well I'll get some water, charge up my laptop and be stranded at the beach," said Brown, who took shelter from the wind outside the locked sanctuary as he used an outlet for his computer.

About 15 miles north of Pepperdine at Camp JCA Shalom, religious educator Casey Krebs said there are no plans to evacuate.

"They said if we want, we could get things ready," she said. "We're just waiting and seeing what's happening. We smelled the smoke a lot last night, but we don't really smell it today."

Chabad of Nova gets OK to go ahead with zoning suit

COOPER CITY - An orthodox Jewish congregation that claims Cooper City's zoning laws discriminate against religious institutions can move forward with several counts of its lawsuit, a federal judge ruled.
Chabad of Nova Inc., filed an eight-count complaint against Cooper City in May claiming that the city's zoning laws are illegally designed to protect the city's tax base by banning all tax-exempt houses of worship from commercial districts.
The city filed a motion to dismiss the suit in June, but United States District Judge Cecilia Altonaga ruled against dismissing at least three of the eight counts on Monday.

In one of the counts upheld, the Chabad claim Cooper City violates the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act because they permit day care centers, a non-religious assembly, to operate in the business district but prohibits religious assemblies.
Fort Lauderdale attorney Franklin Zemel, who is representing the Chabad of Nova, said, "We're very pleased with the results.''
But Fort Lauderdale attorney Michael Burke, who is representing Cooper City in this case, said the judge's ruling was a mixed since some of the counts were dismissed and some the city will have to answer.
According to the lawsuit, the city has discriminated against houses of worship for 30 years by relegating them to the western, agriculturally-zoned borders in order to protect its tax base. Houses of worship do not pay property taxes.
Zemel said Rabbi Shmuel Posner opened a Chabad Outreach Center in the Timberlake shopping plaza last year, but was booted out by Cooper City because of its codes. Posner has temporarily moved the outreach center to 8276 Griffin Road in Davie.
Last October, Cooper City relaxed its ordinance by including houses of worship in office parks and recreational facilities, but the commercial district ban remained.
Despite the changes, Zemel said the city is still violating federal law because new religious congregations tend to start by renting in a commercial district and they don't have that option in Cooper City.

Two different religious symbols should be embraced, not feared

Dogs and Rabbis

A religious symbol can make you feel warm and fuzzy or scared and threatened - depending on your associations with it.

I came across two people last week who aim to help others overcome their fears of a pair of disparate symbols: the Muslim head scarf and the Hasidic rabbi's beard.

The first is a college student who is inviting discussion of the hijab worn by some Muslim women.

The endeavor, first reported by Religious News Service, was launched by a junior at the University of Missouri who has proclaimed this Friday as National Pink Hijab Day. The hijab unsettles some people who associate it with extremist Islam.

A pink hijab helps soften the image, said the student, Hend El-Buri, and often leads to discussions about why Muslim women cover their heads. It's not at all about extremism, El-Buri insists. It's about modesty.

"Muslim women want to be judged by their character and intelligence and wit rather than their physical beauty and their bodies," she said. "The hijab gives women a really, really strong sense of identity."

National Pink Hijab Day is aimed at fostering interaction and also is raising money for breast cancer research. This is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and hijab day participants are being asked to donate at least $5 to Susan G. Komen for the Cure, a nonprofit organization dedicated to breast cancer research.

"This is a good way to see that Muslim women care about the same issues," El-Buri said.

El-Buri, who is 20 and grew up in Columbia, Mo., began wearing the hijab in middle school. She found back then that wearing pink attracted friendly questions. She decided to take the concept nationwide with the help of Facebook, the social networking Web site.

The response has been overwhelming. More than 7,000 people have signed up to participate - including Muslim men who said that they would wear pink kufi caps. Many Muslims who do not wear the hijab or the kufi, as well as many non-Muslims, have pledged to wear pink ties or pink ribbons that day as a sign of solidarity.

El-Buri has also prepared a downloadable poster on Facebook that says: "Do you have questions about my hijab? Ask me on Oct. 26!"

The other idea, involving the rabbis, emerges from a question-and-answer column with the provocative headline of "Dogs and Rabbis" on, the Web site of the Lubavitch Hasidic group.

"Why are religious Jews scared of dogs?" a questioner asks. "Whenever I walk mine past an observant family, all the kids hide behind their mother's skirt in terror. Is there some curse on dogs?"

The columnist, Rabbi Aron Moss, a Hasidic rabbi from Sydney, saw a parallel. "While many observant Jews are scared of dogs," he wrote, "many unobservant Jews are terrified of rabbis."

"There's something in common between dogs and rabbis that makes us both objects of trepidation. And it's not the facial hair."

Moss went on to speculate that it's simply the fear of the unknown. Orthodox families tend not to have dogs, he said. "Perhaps it's a cultural thing, but other than the odd goldfish, pets are rare in observant communities."

But that's no reason for fear, he added. "Both dogs and rabbis are loved by those who know them, and instill fear in those who don't.

Encourage your kids to play with friendly dogs, the rabbi said. And stop and say hello to a rabbi, he suggested. They don't bite.

Limmud Diary Part 1: Jews reconnect to heritage at Russian Limmud parley

Limmud FSU 2007 is winding down into its final day. It's been an exhilarating ride so far: three days of what the experts call "informal education" - classes, discussions, interactive art - all centering on Jewish issues and identity.

Limmud isn't exactly about making more Jews, or more Orthodox Jews, or more Jewish marriages. The agenda is hard to formulate because it is a method, not an ideology. Young secular Russians rub elbows with (and even dance alongside) Chabad hassidim, local Jewish intellectuals and Israeli educators in a four-day creative free-for-all of Jewish learning.

Limmud is also frustrating. For almost four full days, as many as 10 sessions can take place simultaneously each hour, reaching upwards of 40 a day. The most dedicated participant can only experience perhaps one-sixth of a Limmud.

Disappointing, but strangely exhilarating.

You walk out of a laughter-filled session on the educational wisdom of the Talmudic sages with the charismatic Avraham Infeld, and you're wondering what other gems you missed. The better the session, the more you wish you could see the others.

This is my first Limmud and my reaction is no different from what I've heard from other participants in other countries. Local Limmud conferences are now held around the globe, including in Canada, Turkey, South Africa, Germany, France, the US, Israel and of course England, where the first one was held in 1981.

But a Russian Limmud, which has successfully attracted 700 participants and fielded 100 volunteers, is something else altogether.

The devastated former Soviet Union Jewish communities, religiously choked under Soviet rule and emptied of most of its population and all its activists when the Iron Curtain collapsed, should not be making a comeback.

Yet young Jews across Russia and Eastern Europe have slowly, tentatively - but with growing gusto and richness - begun to explore the meaning of their Jewish past, often a past that is even for their parents a distant memory.

While Eastern European Jewish billionaire "oligarchs" and American Jewish organizations and philanthropists are part of this phenomenon, supporting educational initiatives, organizations and institutions from Warsaw to Tashkent, they have been responding to the bottom-up awakening that has spread in the FSU in the past few years, unexpectedly taking root like a delicate green growth after desert floods.

The image is not overly lyrical. Russia, and the FSU more generally, is still essentially a spiritual wasteland. Jewish identity here has been defined ethnically rather than religiously even more strongly than in Israel, and most of the young activists at Moscow this weekend were adamant that their newfound excitement with Judaism is "cultural, of course not religious."

The cultural awakening, however, isn't without a religious dimension and the tension inherent in growing religious awareness.

"These days, secular Jewish identity here is in crisis," says educator and presenter Moti Chlenov. "We don't know what to fill it with. In the early 1990s, expressing yourself as a Jew meant going to Israel. Judaism is central to Jewish identity, but still most Russian Jews are secular and really like it."

For Chlenov, Limmud, a British creation that has shown tremendous traction in widely disparate Jewish communities, is just what Russian Jewry needs to work through some of this tension. "Limmud is an attempt to create a meaningful mark on Jewish life that isn't secular, but is outside a religious context."

He corrects himself: "Limmud is even smarter than that," he adds as a pair of elderly Orthodox men walk by. "Religious people have a place here."

Rabbi fights town's zoning laws

TRENTON -- A rabbi who sued Freehold Township because he claimed it was persecuting him over prayer services in his house now says the town is trying to meddle with his religious freedom by defining his home as a place of worship.

Rabbi Avraham Bernstein is expanding his federal lawsuit against the town, saying that a new law it passed defines his house as a place of worship, something area zoning laws do not allow.

For violating zoning laws, Bernstein could face several hundreds of dollars in fines, according to the township's attorney, Duane Davison.

Bernstein has amended his federal lawsuit, arguing that the new ordinance, adopted in late September, is too vague under federal religious protections law and is meant to further empower the town to retaliate against the rabbi for holding prayer services at his house.

"This is a small group of Jews meeting in somebody's home. That's it. If there are a hundred cars pulling up it might be some concern. But these people walk. It's their Sabbath. They can't drive," said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute, a Charlottesville, Va.-based civil liberties group representing the rabbi.

At issue is whether Bernstein, a rabbi with the ultraorthodox Lubavitch Chabad, is allowed to host a minyon -- the necessary 10 men to pray under orthodox Jewish law -- at his home on Shabbat, which lasts from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.

The Monmouth County township says he is violating local zoning ordinances because he is using his home as a house of worship, according to the lawsuit.

The town claims that it tried to work with the rabbi for years, but eventually had to respond to neighbors' complaints about large meetings, according to Davison.

"We defended him for years, but as the activity got more intense at the house, we decided maybe the neighbors had something to talk about," Davison said.

Bernstein, whose home is located across the street from the township municipal building, received a zoning violation in February 2007 and a summons in April. In May, he filed a lawsuit in state court.

He filed another suit in federal court in August, which included the claim that the town was retaliating against him because it "secretly set up a video camera" aimed at Bernstein's home.

But according to Davison, the camera was about 350 feet away and was needed to establish that about 35 to 50 people -- not the smaller groups claimed by Bernstein -- were visiting the home.

Last month, the Freehold Township Committee amended the zoning law to include a definition of a house of worship as "any structure of building that is used as the regular site for traditional services, meetings and/or gatherings of an organized religious body or community."

Celebrating 'winter' year after controversial tree removal

After unceremoniously removing all of its Christmas trees in the middle of the night last year, the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport this season will dispense with any religious symbols and just celebrate "winter."

A panel that formed after the Port of Seattle Commission removed the airport's 17 red-ribboned trees, decided the new decorations will feature a grove of birches in Dacron snow, hung with crystals and mirrors to reflect low-energy lights, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported.

The port drew international attention last year when its five elected commissioners reacted to a lawsuit threat by a rabbi who wanted to erect a menorah alongside the largest of Christmas trees.

As WND reported, Rabbi Elazar Bogomilsky said, contrary to widespread news reports, that he never intended to have the trees removed. The Jewish leader said he was horrified by the decision, which spurred anti-Semitism and angry accusations. The port returned the trees about a week later after Bogomilsky told officials his organization, the Northwest Friends of Chabad-Lubavitch, a Hasidic Orthodox group, was not going to sue.

This year, however, the port is taking no chances.

"What I was hoping for was something that was cheerful and evocative of the holiday spirit, and as much to do with nature and evergreen trees as they could," Commissioner Pat Davis told the Seattle paper "We wanted to move forward without something that would get us back into any sort of controversy, and I think it is very creative. I hope the public likes it – it will take a while to get used to."

The $300,000 airport display – now being assembled in a warehouse – will include foam migrating birds above the birch trees, which will be dusted periodically with non-toxic snowfall to the sound of wind chimes.

The port said it rejected the menorah last year because it didn't want other religious groups pressing to have their own symbols' included.

The port commission this year convened a 12-member holiday decorations advisory committee of religious, academic, legal and business leaders. The panel agreed in July to have decorations that would "reflect the Pacific Northwest environment and our diverse community, and convey universal values, such as peace and harmony."

The installation at airport is expected to begin Nov. 9.

Rogers Officials Ask For Services To Stop


ROGERS -- A religious service in a residential neighborhood is causing traffic and parking, problems for neighbors.

City Attorney Ben Lipscomb on Friday sent a letter to Rabbi Mendel Greisman asking he quit holding services in his residence until a conditional-use permit from the city is obtained.

Greisman owns a house at 5402 W. Redbud St. in the Hunter's Run subdivision. The house is listed as the address for the Chabad of Northwest Arkansas, according to the Arkansas County Data Web site at

Churches are allowed in residential zones in Rogers, but only with a conditional-use permit, which Greisman doesn't have. Griesman also hasn't filed for a permit.

Lipscomb said Greisman maintains he is simply host of a Bible study, which most would characterize as different from a church or worship service.

However, Lipscomb said the photos from the Chabad's Web site look like a worship center, and there are reports of between 30 and 40 cars parked in the neighborhood by people attending the Chabad.

"If it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck and has webbed feet like a duck, then it's a duck," Lipscomb said.

Greisman did not return a message left at the residence on Friday.

Lipscomb said he realizes there is a need for Greisman's congregation to meet, but the city also has ordinances that must be followed.

Dan Brown, chairman of the Rogers Planning Commission, told a woman during a meeting on Tuesday that the commission has never denied a conditional use permit for a church. Brown was speaking with regard to another issue.

The issue of the chabad came to Lipscomb's attention when someone called the Rogers Planning and Transportation Department to complain about zoning violations.

Kevin Butler, 5407 W. Redbud St., filed on behalf of the Hunter's Run Property Owner's Association a complaint with Lipscomb's office citing, "Zoning violations, excessive vehicle traffic with parking congestion and excessive pedestrian traffic ... as a result of the opening of the 'Chabad House.'"

Hunter's Run is a subdivision with only 18 houses along two stretches of road that together total less than 1,500 feet. Upon entering Hunter's Run, Redbud Street takes a 90-degree turn to the south then takes another sharp curve to the west.

Cars are parked along this entrance, making it nearly impossible for a fire truck to get through if a house at the back of the neighborhood were on fire, Butler said.

Butler said the subdivision has covenants regarding acceptable traffic and parking situations and operating a business in a residence, although Butler said the covenants say nothing about a religious service.

Lipscomb did not set a deadline for Greisman's compliance.

"I didn't feel like we needed to be heavy-handed. We just want them to follow the city's zoning laws and obtain a conditional use permit," he said.

"If that doesn't happen in a reasonable amount of time, we will revisit the issue," Lipscomb said.



Chabad chassidism is a system of religious philosophy teaching understanding and recognition of the creator through the application of the three intellectual qualities of chochmah (wisdom), binah (understanding) and daat (knowledge). The initials of these three Hebrew words form the word "chabad."

Source: The Chabad at the University of Kansas,

Web Watch

Chabad Of Northwest Arkansas

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Chabad to open Jewish outreach center

Oct 18, 2007 —
Rabbi Elazar Green believes the most important building in the Jewish faith isn't the synagogue. It's the home.
"It's where people can come and experience and live Judaism," he said.
A home is what Green's organization recently purchased in Spring Garden Township on the edge of the York College campus.
After some remodeling and a good scrub down, the four-bedroom house now peeling with white paint will become York County's first Chabad House - an outreach center to Jews and home to an emissary family of Chabad-Lubavitch, a branch of Hasidic Judaism with mystical roots.
Including 30-year-old Green and wife Shira, Pennsylvania is home to 59 shluchim, young Lubavitch couples who have left their homes and relocated to communities with little or no orthodox presence.
Their mission in part is to encourage Jews to live more religiously observant lives and to spread the teachings of their revered rebbe. They belong to a growing, highly organized network of 4,000 Lubavitch rabbis and their families who serve lifetime assignments in more than 70 countries, according to figures on, the movement's Web site. That number of emissaries has doubled in the last decade.
They're acting on Chabad's belief that its highest calling is to help other Jews.
Green and his family moved to Lancaster three years ago and started the Chabad Jewish Enrichment Center, which sponsors hands-on, educational activities designed to teach about Jewish culture, tradition and history. Next month, the topic of a new course is Israel and why Jews should care about it.
Green established a location in Lancaster but looked for a house in York for three years. He and his board of directors wanted something big enough to host Bible studies, counseling and other events but also centrally located for the Jewish community in York County and students at the college, he said.
In August, a friend discovered the half-acre property on the corner of Colonial Avenue and Grantley Road.
That friend, Elliott Weinstein (also a member of the local Chabad board), lent the Chabad center $200,000 to cover the purchase. Green plans to raise the funds to pay Weinstein back, he said.
Among the largest branches of Hasidic Judaism, the Chabad-Lubavitch movement began in Russia in the 18th century. Since coming to the U.S. in the 1940s, the Lubavitch have used various American institutions, such as day schools, summer camps, adult classes and holiday celebrations to reach Jews unschooled in the faith.
Sue Fishkoff, author of "The Rebbe's Army: Inside the World of Chabad-Lubavitch," cites some critics who say Chabad pushes the outreach too far with an "in-your-face" type of Judaism. She also notes tension with many rabbis in the U.S. because Chabad doesn't recognize non-orthodox denominations.
Still, Lubavitch are known for their dedication and idealism, Fishkoff writes.
Green grew up in Pittsburgh, the son of educators who also serve as emissaries. Friendly, energetic and talkative, he said he knew as a child he'd someday become an emissary for the movement.
A few years ago, Green's uncle, Rabbi Shaya Sackett of Congregation Degel Israel in Lancaster, invited him to teach at a yeshiva (Jewish school) he founded there.
Green accepted. At the same time, he approached a rabbi in Philadelphia who leads shluchim in this region and asked about starting a Chabad center in Lancaster and York. The rabbi agreed.
For the most part, the Jews who attend the Chabad programs in York and Lancaster are unaffiliated with a congregation, Green said.
After it's fixed up, the Chabad home in Spring Garden Township will house Green and his family part time. Eventually, they'll hire another emissary family to live in the house and focus full time on outreach in York County, Green said.
Besides planning the Enrichment Center's programs, much of Green's job is fundraising - something that's gotten relatively easier as the community learns more about what he does, Green said. Chabad houses are funded by donations and not membership dues.
Green plans to partner for some activities with the Jewish-student group Hillel at York College. He also might erect a 10-foot-high menorah on the Chabad house lawn come Hanukkah time to alert Jewish students to the home's presence. Last month, some students attended a Sukkot party at the house, said Dena Leavey, 20, president of Hillel.
"It just brings another option to Jewish students on campus," she said of Chabad.
"People do want to learn more about Judaism, which is something Rabbi Green provides with his programs."
Leavey and Green estimate York College has about 100 Jewish students, some of whom regularly daven Shabbos at Temple Beth Israel, the Reform congregation in York Township that offers transportation to the synagogue and host-families to Jewish students, Leavey said.
Green isn't trying to make anybody adopt orthodox observances. He wants to reach the unaffiliated and nonpracticing.
He said, "Everybody's welcome (at Chabad) - no matter their affiliation or level of observation."
Reach Melissa Nann Burke at 771-2024 or
One of the largest branches of Hasidic Judaism, the Chabad movement originated in Russia in the 18th century.
In 1940, the head of the movement (the Rebbe), Rabbi Joseph Isaac Schneersohn, emigrated from Poland to the United States.
Under his successor and son-in-law, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitch used American institutions such as day schools, summer camps, adult classes and holiday celebrations to reach out to U.S. Jews the group felt had not been exposed to “authentic” Judaism.
Since, the Chabad organization has developed a vast international presence with 4,000 full-time emissary families directing more than 3,300 institutions worldwide to spread their teachings. Lubavitchers emphasize outreach to nonpracticing Jews.
Schneerson died in 1994, and a new leader has not been appointed. Some groups regard Schneerson as the Messiah and await his return. Others aren't so sure. Still others believe he never died and is living in a way that ordinary people cannot perceive.
The branch is also called Chabad-Lubavitch - Lubavitch referring to the name of a small town in northern Russia where the movement was based for more than a century. The organization Chabad is now based in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y.
Journalists and scholars estimate that there are 100,000 to 200,000 Lubavitchers worldwide.
Source: and

Chabad is an acronym for the Hebrew words of chachmah (wisdom), binah (comprehension) and da'at (knowledge).

Chabad Jewish Enrichment Center of Lancaster & York,
Chabad Lubavitch,

What: A six-week course, "The Land & the Spirit: Why We All Care About Israel," from the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute
When: 7 to 8:30 p.m. Thursdays, starting Nov. 1
Where: York Jewish Community Center, 2000 Hollywood Drive in York Township
Cost: $90, including textbook
For details: Register at 843-0918

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

A Thank You

My mother-in-law, Hayya Basha bat Menahem Manis, passed away Thursday afternoon. The levaya was Friday morning at Old Montefiore Cemetery in Queens, where the Lubavitcher Rebbe זצ''ל is buried. Since few people were expected, and in accord with my wife's family's modest tastes, a simple graveside service was planned. It was raining heavily. I was expecting difficulty getting a minyan. Since we do not have a car, the funeral director sent a limousine to transport us from our home to the cemetery. I asked the limo driver to stop at the ohel, the small building housing a beit midrash, that one passes through to see the Rebbe's grave, to see if we could scrounge up enough men to make a minyan. He agreed, but not enough people were there; the place is usually packed. I returned to the waiting limo, almost giving up hope of having a minyan for my father-in-law to say Kaddish, when an Israeli hasid came running up with his cell phone, gave me the number and asked me to call when we got to the graveside. Then the limo driver informed us that he would not be able to transport the hasidim from the ohel to the grave, as company policy allowed him to go only from home to grave and back. The Hasidim, doing us a favor, would have to arrange their own transportation. We stopped at the cemetery office to fill out the necessary paperwork, and the funeral director informed us we would not be able to wait for additional people once we got to the grave. Figuring I had nothing to lose, I called the hasid's cell phone from the office and told him we would be at the graveside (Block 80, they would have to get a map in the office to figure out where that was) in a few minutes. When we arrived, the non-Jewish cemetery workers wheeled the casket from the hearse to the grave and lowered it down. This caused me much mental anguish (click here) but we only had four men, including the officiating rabbi and my elderly father-in-law. I and my son began to shovel earth into the grave. Suddenly six hasidim materialized. They had walked from the ohel to the cemetery office to the grave. Not only did they complete the minyan (along with my shul's interim rabbi who went out of his way to be there), they actually took shovels in their hands and helped us fill in the grave! They, along with me and my son, did not stop until the tzurrat ha-kever was completed. Neither the cemetery workers nor their bulldozers had any part. My father-in-law said Kaddish, and only then did the hasidim leave the scene, on foot in a pouring rain.The hashkafa problems we have with Habad are well known and need not be belabored here. But when you need them, they are there. The Rebbe's name was Menahem; כשמו כן הוא . The name fits. The Rebbe comforted me before my Bar Mitzvah (click here) and his hasidim comforted me, as they comfort countless others, last Friday. Tizku l'mitzvot - what you do will hasten the arrival of Mashiach, whoever he is.

Monday, October 15, 2007

This Old Synagogue

October 11, 2007

Plans to renovate an 1870s Victorian near the landmark Litchfield town green to house the town's first synagogue have raised architectural objections from a historic district commissioner and constitutional questions from the congregation's lawyer.We suggest the Connecticut Commission on Culture & Tourism as a referee.The chairwoman of the historic district commission says, among other things, that the Jerusalem stone suggested for the siding is not native to the area and the Star of David proposed for the clock tower may not comply with the district.But the rabbi for Chabad Lubavitch of Litchfield County points out that the Methodist Church one door down has two Stars of David. His lawyer speaks of "certain constitutional protections" that houses of worship enjoy.Though no one suggests religious bias in this dust-up, a mediator could erase any question while negotiating a solution that satisfies both architectural purists and the Constitution.The Historic Preservation Council, part of the Connecticut Commission on Culture & Tourism, provides technical assistance to historic districts. The council may be reluctant to get involved in a local dispute, but it could at least counsel the town and congregation on federal standards for historic properties. That beats a battle.
Copyright © 2007, The Hartford Courant

Have prayers and Packers, too

Orthodox Jews worship at Lambeau tailgate


Posted: Oct. 14, 2007

Green Bay -
If you're going to have a kosher tailgate at Lambeau Field, you might as well go all the way.
That means you light up the coals of the kosher grill and bring out the kosher hot dogs, beef, chicken and brats.
And you recite morning prayers in Hebrew, even if a rock band is on a nearby stage blaring "Brown Sugar."
So Sunday, Rabbi Shais Taub of the Chabad Lubavitch of Wisconsin led a group of 10 Orthodox Jews on a pilgrimage from Milwaukee deep into Packerland.
They tailgated across the street from Lambeau, in a grass-covered parking lot, next door to Kroll's West, where butter burgers - definitely not kosher - are a specialty.
And they prayed, with some of the men and their sons donning a prayer shawl called a tallit and phylacteries, two small leather boxes containing verses of Scripture.
They stood out amid the familiar green-and-gold sea. And they showed that people can find or express their faith at a house of worship or a house of sports.
Such a place, for morning prayers.
"What's the point?" Taub said. "Number one, Judaism is not relegated to the synagogue or the study hall. When you're a Jew, you're a Jew everywhere. If a group of Jews want to go to a Packer game, we do it like Jews."
"Number two, Jewish pride," he added. "Some Jews should see this and say, 'You know what, there is nothing to hide.' I can be openly and boldly Jewish and do that anywhere on earth and go where I want to go."
The men faced east toward Jerusalem, which also happened to the direction toward Lambeau Field. They prayed, rocking forward and back. Their voices mixed with the more familiar sounds of pre-game rituals at Lambeau.
Nearby, a few fans wore blank expressions on their faces, unsure of what was going on. A couple of people snapped photos. And nobody noticed that among the group was former Packers offensive lineman Alan Veingrad, who is now known as Shlomo Veingrad.
Veingrad still stands 6 feet 5, but he has dropped plenty of weight since his playing days. He now has a bushy, gray beard and beneath a Packers cap, he makes sure to wear a yarmulke.
"I think it's important to be proud of being Jewish," said Veingrad, who played for the Packers in the late 1980s and won a Super Bowl ring with the Dallas Cowboys in the 1990s.
Veingrad, now 44, lives in Florida and works as an account executive for a private lending company. He also gives speeches, detailing his quest for a more fulfilling and rewarding life. He became more observant in 2003.
"It's a beautiful thing that you can express your religion," he said.
And that's what the tailgate was all about - religion, food, friendship and, yes, even football.
After praying, Veingrad and a friend poured whiskey into a couple of small cups, said l'chaim and drank the sweet, smoky liquid.
And everyone ate.
Ten of the men and their sons had tickets for the Packers game against Washington. The kids wanted to go into the stadium while the fathers wanted to linger outside at the tailgate.
Not all of the men went into the stadium. Taub didn't have a ticket - it was tough enough to score 10 seats. And the grill guys, Sam Stern and his son, Nathan Stern, remained outside to clean up.
"We're here being Jews," Sam Stern said. "We're enjoying the Packers and enjoying the day."

Sunday, October 14, 2007

The Scandal of YU's Offensive Appointment

(hat tip: Guravitzer via
By: Joel Shteir

Posted: 10/8/07
This article does not argue whether it is possible, correct or appropriate for the Lubavitcher Rebbe to be considered the Messiah. Therefore, I am going to refrain from mentioning my personal feelings on the matter. Rather, the focus here is going to be on the recent appointment of the new head of Yeshiva College's Jewish Studies Department who, based on several books, essays and lectures, excludes a major Jewish group from Orthodoxy. This new head of YCJS, Dr. David Berger, who authored the book, "The Rebbe, The Messiah, and the Scandal of Orthodox Indifference", David Berger sees himself at the forefront of a mission he intends to spread through the entire Orthodox community. He feels that a majority of Lubavitchers believe their Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who passed away in 1994, to be a god as well as Messiah, and are therefore outside the realm of acceptable Judaism, and must be excommunicated. At Yeshiva University, there is a small group of Lubavitchers, maybe fifteen or so, in addition to the many more students- numbering over forty- who have some connection with the Chabad-Lubavitch community. It would appear that Dr. Berger would want each one of these people to take some sort of oath declaring they do not believe the Rebbe is the Messiah to be considered accepted within Orthodoxy. My question to the Yeshiva Administrators is as follows: how am I, a student at YU, as well as someone with a strong connection to the Lubavitch movement, supposed to understand this appointment and its apparent conflict with the cultural open-mindedness espoused by the University? Let me also relate my hesitation in writing this article. A school's newspaper is usually not the venue to discuss such a delicate and personal matter, but seeing how Dr. Berger has already made his war on Chabad public, I felt publishing it worthwhile- even necessary. When he joined us for Shabbat a few weeks ago, President Joel candidly remarked that he does not see a place for Jews who do not observe "Torah u-mitzvot" on this undergraduate campus. Indeed, Yeshiva would be hesitant to accept a Conservative or Reform Jew to Yeshiva College or Sy Syms because his values run opposite those of the University and its student body. Yet, Dr. Berger, who now holds arguably one of the more important positions in YC and is also making headway into Revel Graduate School, would have me expelled if the power were in his hands for refusing to comply with his inquisition.How am I supposed to view this institution in which Orthodox Jews from all over the world are supposed to be able to come together to be "enabled and ennobled," while YU has appointed someone who has written that he himself is "an advocate of tolerance urging intolerance, a believer in inclusiveness preaching exclusion, an adherent of unity fomenting division?" In the same inaugural Shabbat when the President made his comments, RIETS Rosh Yeshiva Rabbi Meir Goldwicht said that there is no other yeshiva in the world that has so many different types of talmidim and so many different types of kippot, this being a positive thing. He encouraged each student to study Torah with someone they did not know already. At a place where such closeness is encouraged, where everyone from every background is supposed to be accepted with open arms into the YU community, how can I not feel threatened by the recent appointment in the College?While Dr. Berger may not be teaching a course on why Lubavitchers should be excommunicated, the issue may very well come up in one of his courses, as he holds such a strong belief in the matter. Would he refuse to speak, or as his track record has shown, use the opportunity to spread his views? While I shudder to make this comparison, I feel it is necessary to compare the possibility of Dr. Berger teaching exclusion of Chabad here to the teaching of Israel being an apartheid state in other universities by anti-Israel professors.Yes, there is literature and data to defend the Lubavitch movement. Chaim Rapoport, in his book, The Messiah Problem: Berger, the Angel and the Scandal of Reckless Indiscrimination does a fair job of refuting many of Dr. Berger's claims. My claim is not within the context of the data itself; it concerns the appointment of a closed-minded scholar to an open-minded Yeshiva.I do not want to start a fight, but rather, urge the need for acceptance. Dr. Berger could potentially offer much to the YU community, but only if he does away with his public calls for excommunication of Chabad and instead renounce his inflammatory writings.
Joel Shteir (SSSB '08) is co-President of the YU Chabad Club

Jamaican woman takes first few steps on path to Judaism in Brooklyn

On a blisteringly hot morning in early fall at the world synagogue headquarters of the Lubavitch hassidic movement, both the men's seating downstairs and the women's section upstairs were packed to the brim.
Women swayed back and forth in prayer, one hand holding a prayer book while the other pushed baby carriages. Men sat at desks and debated millennia-old legal questions posed in the Talmud. They, too, rocked back and forth.
Suddenly all activity came to a stop. The blast of a shofar had interrupted the activity, as it does every day at 770 Eastern Parkwayin Crown Heights, Brooklyn, in the month of Elul. The jolting sound is meant to call Jews to repent for their sins. The Hebrew letters of the word Elul are believed to stand for a passage in the Song of Songs about a Jew's relationship with God: "I am my Beloved's and my Beloved is mine."
At that moment Latoya Johnson, a graceful 28-year-old black woman from Jamaica, entered the women's section and sat down on a bench, smiling brightly at fellow worshipers. She was there to take her first steps towards becoming a Jew.
"The desire to talk to God was what drew me to Judaism," she said. "That is why I'm here."
Typically, the American convert to Judaism has joined the faith in order to marry another Jew. Not a proselytizing religion, Judaism does not see many gentiles wishing to convert for purely spiritual reasons. And it is a rare occasion indeed to see a West Indian immigrant seeking to be a part of the Lubavitch community that has had such a tense history with the substantial West Indian community in Crown Heights.
After immigrating to New York at 18, she enrolled in Brooklyn College where she interacted with Jews for the first time. Intrigued by people so different from her, she began to ask questions.
"I was so curious; I didn't know what Judaism was," she said in an interview. "They were trying to explain to me that it's not only a religion - it's also their lifestyle. I thought that was interesting. I wondered about the way they dress and why they wear certain things.
"I asked them to tell me more about their religion, and one thing that struck me was that Jews don't believe in Jesus. And I said, 'Why not?' The Jewish students said it's because Jesus was just a Jew himself - he was not a God. He was just a student in the yeshiva," she said. "At that point I said to myself, 'Hmm, that's interesting.'"
Johnson, raised in a Seventh Day Adventist community, then approached various pastors, hoping for guidance about what she had heard from her Jewish classmates - that Jesus was not God. She said the pastors brushed her off, saying that Jesus was God and the Jew would tell you he's not because they don't believe.
"One of the things that began to bother me about our tradition, our culture, is that you don't question anything when it pertains to God,"she said.
"But month after month, I realized that I'm really missing something in my soul," she said.
At a certain point, she stopped attending church altogether, and prayed to God - but not Jesus - at home.
"I just didn't have any connections when I was at church. I didn't feel I needed to go there. But I did know that I need to talk with God," she said.
All her life, she felt she had a special calling. "I always knew I had to do something different. I had to be someone. I felt like I was put here for a special reason. I had to be connected somewhere with God in a way that was close and direct. Christianity wasn't offering me that," she said.
"Jews are said to be the Chosen Ones, and I felt that I'm a chosen one in some way. I don't know how, but I felt I had some connection with God. I feel like I was chosen by God somehow. I knew that my soul needed to do something because I was closely connected to God."
She has yet to be accepted by a rabbi to begin the conversion process, but she is optimistic. "Everything happens for a reason, and I believe this is my path," she said.
She has spent much of her life in search of that path. The Seventh Day Adventist community in which she was raised wasn't entirely Christian.
Although they observed the Sabbath, her family did not worship Jesus. "My family worshiped Claudius Henry, a Rastafarian leader," she said."I distinctly remember getting 'washed' for Claudius Henry when I was 4 years old." At 10 she was sent to live in another part of Jamaica with an aunt who belonged to the Church of God movement and began worshipping there.
"I even got baptized at Church of God at age 14. I remembered at the time I really loved God. I was really into God and was into doing the right thing," she recalled.
Four years later, she immigrated to Canarsie, New York, with her mother, who had decided to join a Pentecostal church. "I remember it was 1997 and I went to church with her for one year, and I realized in her church it was all about fashion - who had the best job, the best car," she says. She finally gave up and told her mother that her church was full of hypocrites. After her discussions with her Jewish classmates at Brooklyn College, she began to observe Jewish dietary laws and has kept Shabbat for the last three years.
"This challenge was put in front of me for a reason," she said of the road still ahead of her. Perhaps one day in the future, in another year during the month of Elul, she will be present in synagogue to hear the shofar blasts, this time as a Jew, so the ancient words from the Song of Songs will ring true for her: "I am my Beloved's and my Beloved is mine."

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

how i became a post denominational mystic

(excerpt from a thoughtful blogpost):
I am, however, jumping the gun here. I will return to this mystical component momentarily, but I first want to explain the “post-denominational” bit. I initially discovered the term “Post-Denominational” a few years ago in an article in The Jerusalem Post. To my delight, it described an unusual phenomenon occurring in Israel. Secular Israelis who previously wanted nothing to do with Judaism were suddenly flocking in substantial numbers to study Torah and Talmud. Unlike the various outreach movements that have been active in recruiting new baalei tshuvah, those who return to the faith, these Israelis had no interest in becoming religious. Their sole motive was reclamation of their heritage which had been circumstantially hijacked and monopolised by orthodoxy.Simultaneously, a growing number of Orthodox Israelis had begun to explore the fascinating world of science and philosophy. Online forums such as the Israeli website Hyde Park gave these religious Jews the opportunity to exchange views in an open environment, many of them taking advantage of the Internet’s anonymity to express opinions they dared not utter on the streets of Bnei Brak or Mea Shearim. Furthermore, what was coined the Habakuk movement (after the prophet Chabakuk, but truly an acronym for Chabad, Breslav and Rav Kook), an eclectic, mystical revival indigenous to Israel, spanned the denominational spectrum in its constituency.Up until I read that article, whenever asked about my denominational status, for a while already I had begun to reply: “unorthodox”. While that adjective is possibly suitable for my personality, it is less than adequate in describing my religious affiliation. Post-denominational works much better. So I began using that.When I did a more recent Google search on the topic, I found the word post-denominational used critically towards Lubavitch in a JP article from July 2006 written by Marvin Schick, president of the Jacob Joseph Yeshiva, NY. Decrying the abandonment of halacha in the movement’s efforts to include Jews of all backgrounds, Schick writes: “As it grows, Chabad's options are in a sense limited by certain realities, primarily the wholesale Judaic abandonment that we are witness to, and which is accelerating. Increasingly, the movement operates in a framework of post-denominational Judaism.”In the past I have been critical of certain aspects of Lubavitch, particularly of its extreme messianic element. In this regard, however, I have to vigorously defend them.In 1981 I was employed as an English teacher in the Lubavitch Primary School in Safed. Nearly half of the school’s pupils were from families in Kiryat Chabad; the rest came from non-observant Israeli homes in the area. I recall how the Chabad families wrote the Rebbe ז"צל to request that they form their own school without the negative influences their children were encountering from their secular classmates. The Rebbe ז"צל refused; the positive influence inherent in the interaction between religious and secular children outweighed the potential negatives.During our recent 18-month stay in the Byron Bay area, I had the good fortune to befriend the Chabad shaliach (emissary) for the Gold Coast & Northern Rivers area. Rabbi Mosheh Serebryanski epitomises the concept of Jewish unity as expressed by the Jewish sages quoted above and emphatically reiterated by the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Byron Bay, of course, has a culture all of its own, and the many Israelis living there are both secular and alternative. Though there are many who consider “kiruv” (bringing Jews closer to their heritage) a means to provide quantitative fodder for orthodox culture, Reb Mosheh comprehended a deeper, antithetical significance: the ability to identify and come close to the spark of innate goodness in every soul. Whatever the Jewish occasion, the gatherings he organised never failed to manifest a certain character unique to the Byron Bay sub-culture. No doubt Schick would object to the occasional erosion of halacha which could occur under such circumstances nor would he fully appreciate the concomitant and contagious sense of simchah (joy).Two and a half centuries ago the Baal Shem Tov began a movement that was truly revolutionary in its day. It was a Jewish rebellion against a soulless rabbinate, an ivory-towered world of dry legalism insensitive to the peoples’ needs and suffering. Hasidism in essence shifted the Jewish focus from the head to the heart, allowing a larger number of Jews to connect to God, the Torah and commandments through heartfelt devotion and simple intent. In its early days the movement was actually excommunicated for what the rabbinic establishment viewed as breaches of Jewish law. Today, ironically, most of the Hasidic movement has itself crystallised into an exclusive establishment. Only Chabad stands out in bearing that original torch of inclusiveness, willing to guide the flocks in Byron Bay, Kathmandu, Dharamsala, Saigon, Bangkok and countless other remote places. Chabad has assimilated the Baal Shem Tov’s famous dictum, which Marvin Schick would no doubt find anathematic: “One can’t expect to save a person from sinking in quicksand without getting one’s hands dirty".

Rachel Seiffert's top 10 books about troubled families

Rachel Seiffert is the author of the Booker-shortlisted novel The Dark Room and an acclaimed collection of short stories, Field Study. She was named one of Granta's Best of Young British writers, and one of 25 'women writers to watch' in the Orange Futures promotion. Her most recent novel, Afterwards, is published by Vintage on October 11.Buy Rachel Seiffert books at the Guardian bookshop
All of my books so far have dealt with families, most of them less than ideal. Families are endlessly fascinating: the basic unit of most human societies, we often want to escape our own, create a new, better version, or maybe crave an earlier, lost time when the unit we were in made us happy in a way it just doesn't anymore ... The following books mine this rich seam of humour and pain. All of humanity is here, in miniature (but in no particular order.)

1. My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok
Asher is a gifted artist, born into a Hasidic family in 1940s Brooklyn. His father, Aryeh, works tirelessly for the Rebbe, often travelling into the Soviet Union to aid Jews persecuted by Stalin; while his wife supports this work, she also fears terribly for his safety. Father and son love one another deeply, but their worlds are incompatible. It's a very moving book about how we cannot help but hurt one another.Buy it at the Guardian bookshop

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Alaska - Part XIV

Saturday - Shabbat

Vay'hi erev vay'hi boker - Yom hashishi. Vay'chulu hashamayim v'haaretz....

Okay, maybe it wasn't that dramatic, but we did at least see a good part of the land and sky that was totally new to us.

On the Sabbath we ceased from our "labors" of driving around, kayaking, hiking and cooking, and instead visitied somewhere somewhat familiar and somewhat foreign - Chabad Anchorage.

(Please follow link for the full entry)

Monday, October 08, 2007

Sukkot in Lubavitch Crown Heights: A Time for Dancing and Singing

Celebration Covers Six Blocks; Men, Women Dance Separately

By Sharon Udasin
Special to Brooklyn Daily Eagle
CROWN HEIGHTS — Sparkling confetti and children’s plastic glow-toys dazzled the air on Kingston Avenue Sunday night as black-clad men danced in jumbled circles till 6:30 a.m., during their weeklong celebrations that follow the Jewish holiday Sukkot.
The festivities began Saturday evening and continued through last night, according to the 71st Precinct. During Chol Hamoed — the days between the onset of Sukkot and the holiday Simchat Torah — Jews of all denominations gather together to celebrate in Crown Heights, said Ben Lifshitz, the creator of a community news source,
The festive dancing and singing commemorates certain festivities from the Biblical era, when the Israelites were able to miraculously find water during their 40 years of wandering in the desert, Lifshitz said.
“The dancing is a derivative,” he added. “The actual event is that they drew the water.” The “sukkot” themselves, or booths, also commemorate that historical period, in which the ancient Israelites lived in temporary booths as they struggled to reach the promised land.
A band called the Piamenta Brothers guided the revelers, playing everything from traditional Jewish folk music to “La Marseillaise.”
“I come every night because it’s interesting for me — you see people dancing; it’s fun,” said Moshe Friedman, 19, from the Babov sect of Hasidim in Borough Park.
The festival mainly proceeds without disorder, and the visible police presence simply maintains order and security, Lifshitz said. However, he pointed out the significant decrease in police officers from previous years, explaining that many officers were temporarily reassigned to cover the United Nations area in Manhattan.
“There’s a large presence of us,” Lifshitz said, confident that crime will not disturb the celebrations. “You get a bunch of troublemakers coming in, but other than that it’s usually peace and quiet,” confirmed Nossy Slater, 26, a volunteer for the Shomrim Crown Heights Rescue Patrol.
(please follow link for the rest of the story)

In Historic District, Synagogue Plans Are Criticized


LITCHFIELD, Conn. — In the center of this quaint New England town, where the green is surrounded by antique shops, boutiques and restaurants, not much changes without the blessing of the Historic District Commission.
In the past, the commission has gone so far as to order the removal of flower boxes from the front of homes. And it is entangled in a lawsuit initiated by a homeowner who replaced a 19th-century door with a window.
But little has rattled this community like plans by Chabad Lubavitch of Litchfield County, an Orthodox Jewish organization, to turn a Victorian house into the town’s first synagogue.
Rabbi Joseph Eisenbach, the spiritual leader of the Chabad, presented his plans — which include replacing the slate foundation with stone and building a steeple to display the Star of David — to the commission last month, and was met with stiff opposition.
According to minutes of the meeting, the commission’s chairwoman, Wendy Kuhne, “noted her own objections to the stone, which is not indigenous to the district, feels the clock tower is not appropriate, and the Star of David may not comply with the district.” She also said the proposed stained glass was “an inaccurate feature based on the history of the building.”
Rabbi Eisenbach said he was surprised by the objections. “Every synagogue in the world has Jerusalem stone in it,” he said. He also said that a Methodist church two doors down has a steeple and a cross as well as stained glass windows featuring the Star of David from an old synagogue in New Haven.
Rabbi Eisenbach’s lawyer, Peter Herbst Sr., said he hoped there would be more understanding about Chabad Lubavitch’s position regarding the religious elements, “which are protected under the Constitution.”
Mrs. Kuhne declined to comment on Thursday, saying that she was restrained legally from commenting on matters before the commission and that all questions should be referred to its lawyer, H. James Stedronsky.
Mr. Stedronsky said it was the commission’s job to decide what architectural changes were appropriate for the buildings in the historic district, which encompasses about one square mile in the center of town. He said the commission was not allowed to consider the use of the property.
But based on Mrs. Kuhne’s statements and the commission’s reaction, Rabbi Eisenbach said he was concerned that “some of the basic elements of our Jewish architecture and traditions are being denied.”
Mr. Herbst said on Thursday that he was confident that Rabbi Eisenbach and the commission would find a place for “architectural elements essential to the religion.”
According to town records, Chabad Lubavitch bought the property, built in 1872, for $375,000 in 2005. The organization already has a community center here.
Despite the dispute, Rabbi Eisenbach said, the town had been “very welcoming” and that “you can’t always abide by what the media makes the town look like.” On Wednesday, as he talked to a reporter outside the Victorian house at 85 West Street, Diane McAlpin, one of six burgesses that help govern the borough, approached him to complain that he was giving the town a bad image by publicizing the struggle.
Mrs. McAlpin then said Chabad Lubavitch, a tax-exempt organization, could not get the commission to approve its renovation plan because of liens on the property.
“Nobody has an issue with what’s going to happen here,” Mrs. McAlpin said. “This town embraces everything.”
After speaking with Mrs. McAlpin, Rabbi Eisenbach went to Town Hall, where he learned that there was an outstanding tax bill. Nancy Southard, the town tax collector, said the taxes were from the previous owner of the property. Instead of pursuing the matter legally, Rabbi Eisenbach wrote a check to the town for more than $10,000.
As he left Town Hall, he described Mrs. McAlpin’s visit as a blessing because he wanted to make sure everything was in order before the next commission meeting on Oct. 18.
This was not Rabbi Eisenbach’s first tangle with the town’s arbiters of community taste. In 1996 he asked the commission to allow him to place a nine-foot-tall menorah on the town green for Hanukkah, but according to published reports, several local officials complained it would destroy the purity of the green, and others questioned why outsiders had chosen Litchfield for the display.
The town ultimately approved the placement of the menorah. But Rabbi Eisenbach said he ended up taking it down because he felt it had been vandalized when borough officials extinguished the flames. The officials said they extinguished the menorah because it had been left unattended.
In the latest dust-up, not everyone is concerned about the plans for a synagogue. “It doesn’t bother me,” said Mark Murphy, the owner of Murphy’s Pharmacy on West Street. “It’s a free world.”