Friday, November 30, 2007

Festival of sights

Menorahs can be whimsical and unusual

By Melanie M. Sidwell Longmont Times-Call

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

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

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Walk a stride for relief

Chabad club members raise money to help Israel terrorism victims

By: Lindsey Howshaw

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

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

Ryan T. Boyd

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 16, 2007

Row In Rostov

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

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Chabad emissaries gather for celebration and reunion

Ben Harris

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

Published: 11/13/2007

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

Shlomo Matusof, rabbi in Morocco


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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Chabad Gathering: No Jew Left Behind

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

by Jonathan Mark
Associate Editor

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

Chabad Youth Organization director arrested

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

Chabad Youth Organization director arrested

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

Fill the evangelical vacuum

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

The Chabad challenge

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

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Chabad kinus concludes

Billionaire philanthropist Lev Leviev addressed the International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Shluchim.
Speaking in Hebrew before some 4,500 Chabad rabbis and their supporters in New York Sunday evening, Leviev, a Chabad benefactor, celebrated the shluchim, or emissaries, who he said work "behind enemy lines" building Jewish communities in the farthest reaches of the globe. The six-day conference concluded Monday. The annual gathering brought together nearly 3,000 Chabad emissaries from 72 countries for a series of workshops and seminars, where they shared their collective knowledge and experience and offered mutual encouragement to emissaries who often work in isolated communities with little or no Jewish infrastructure.
The international roll call, a high-point of the Sunday evening banquet, highlighted the extent of the organization's reach. Rabbis stood as the names of the countries where they operate were announced, a globe-spanning catalog from New Zealand to the Congo to Alaska. Good wishes were offered to rabbis opening new Chabad outposts this year in South Korea, northern Cyprus, Serbia and the Dominican Republic. Inspired by the teachings of the late rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, Chabad emissaries have made lifetime commitments to open Chabad centers in areas where often they are the only established Jewish presence for hundreds of miles. In recent years they have made increasing inroads onto American college campuses and are the leading force for the revitalization of Jewish life in the former Soviet Union.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Mentor on a Mission

Stephanie Wargin

By early April, calmness had replaced the strain in Orah Chaya Bitton’s voice. She no longer needed to look over her shoulder as she spoke of the conflict that would eventually force her out of her job. After six years dedicated to rescuing teenage girls before they abandoned their Hasidic community in Crown Heights, she now, albeit involuntarily, was unemployed and working from home as an independent consultant and researcher.
There was a tangible difference in her personality since I first met Bitton in December 2003, when she was still the director of the Youth Action Movement’s girls’ program. We had sat in the Lighthouse, a storefront community center on Albany Avenue on the edge of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in Crown Heights, as she painstakingly explained her methods for dealing with a growing population of disaffected and rebellious Hasidic youth. She wanted to go beyond the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council’s mandate when it established YAM in 1998; she wanted to attack the causes of the problem, not just the symptoms. She appeared restless and agitated as she detailed what YAM was and what she thought it should be.
“Things were done in a haphazard kind of way,” she explained, checking over her shoulder that YAM’s director, Yosef Kanofsky, could not overhear the conversation from the next room. The community wanted YAM to collect all the local troublemakers in the Lighthouse for spiritual counseling and tutoring. Kanofsky mentored the boys and Bitton the girls, who had been caught skipping school, using drugs or alcohol, or hanging out with members of the opposite sex. But Bitton felt it was not enough. On her own, she started to develop a plan to counteract the causes of teen rebellion, and over the years, she started to pull back from direct interaction with the girls to focus on creating long-term strategies that she felt could really make a difference.
“I felt like a fire was burning and nobody was addressing it,” she said. “Nobody acknowledged that there were things that were inherently alienating within the system that needed to be upgraded.”
By the end of 2003, she had built a network of 20 volunteer mentors and planned to work with local Jewish high schools to extend their internal mentoring programs. But in early February, Dan Botnick, the Executive Director of the CHJCC, fired Bitton after a long, drawn out power struggle between Bitton and Kanofsky. Bitton’s vision for YAM included creative projects, dabbling in art, music, and poetry, an outgrowth of a childhood spent listening to her former French rock star father’s foray into spiritual Hasidic music. During her tenure, the Lighthouse hosted open-mic nights and roundtable discussions. Female participants painted images of their perspectives on Judaism, which still hang on the walls of the center. Kanofksy and Botnick, on the other hand, chose to focus the organization’s limited resources on intervention.
“If there’s a fire, how do you put it out?” Botnick told me during a phone interview. “Do you start by restructuring the fire department from the top down, or do you do it by getting a bunch of guys to put out the fire? It might be shortsighted in some ways, but it’s the most practical solution under the circumstances.”
Now, those teenage girls with serious doubts about their faith, those who are in danger of harming themselves or abandoning a Hasidic community that they feel has neglected them, have nowhere to turn. YAM still exists, but as anyone familiar with the Hasidic lifestyle knows, most young girls will never seek help from a man outside their own family. Bitton had been the one person those girls could trust after their families, their schools, and the community had failed them.
Bitton’s exit, however, is only temporary and partial. She still advises a core group of mentors, as well as a few girls with whom she’s built a strong relationship. The 26-year-old activist has no desire to abandon her cause. But with less of a burden on herself, she has more time to create a system of “experiential learning,” a multifaceted approach to instilling Hasidic philosophy in young women who have been unable to connect with their faith, and who will sometimes choose to leave the fold entirely after years of struggle and confusion. Bitton is determined to help these girls not only retain their Jewish identities, but also to love the faith as she does.
Bitton’s love of Hasidus, a Jewish philosophy that originated in the Ukraine in the 18th century, is immediately apparent. When she talks about the teachings, or about the founder of Hasidus, the Bal Shem Tov, she literally beams, her dark eyes taking on a preternatural glow. She belongs specifically to the Chabad-Lubavitch sect of Hasidim, based in Crown Heights, best known for its last spiritual leader, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. Even after his death in 1994, many of his followers continued to believe that he is the Messiah. They also believe that by doing good deeds, or mitzvahs, they can usher in the age of the Messiah. Critics of the community point to that fact, as well as the zealotry of its members, as evidence that Lubavitch is a cult. One 23-year-old woman, who left the community after deciding the teachings were “bullshit,” derided the Lubavitch ideals that are indoctrinated in children from birth. “Ask any kid in Crown Heights what they want. And they answer ‘to bring Moshiach [Messiah].’ But how many kids in the eight block area of Crown Heights are born with that mission?”
Bitton doesn’t see it that way, although she’s had her own struggles with faith and Hasidic culture. When I visited her in April at her family’s apartment on Eastern Parkway, she explained where her ideas and motivations for helping others originated. We sat on her twin bed in the room she shares with her younger sister, a ninth grader at the Lubavitch Bais Rivkah High School from which Bitton graduated as valedictorian. From the other four bedrooms of the apartment emanated the sounds of a busy family - five of her six younger sisters finishing their homework, two of her five younger brothers designing T-shirts for a start-up clothing company, her father mixing music for his third Hasidic rock album, her mother running in and out of rooms to ask her children questions in French.
Bitton is short, with shoulder-length black hair and olive skin. She is the most observant of the grown children. The oldest boys shaved their beards and never completed yeshiva training to become rabbis, choosing instead, like their sisters (other than Bitton), to lead a more secular lifestyle. Her parents, though observant themselves, do not prevent their children from choosing their own paths. As young adults, the parents also made their own life choices. Both were born to secular Jewish families (her father in Morocco, her mother in France) and they met and married in Israel in the mid 1970s. They chose to become Hasidic Jews, moved to Crown Heights, and started a family.
As we sat in the bare-walled bedroom, Bitton flipped through a brown leather photo album that covers the ten-year career of Les Variations, her father’s rock band in the 1960s and 70s. She stopped at a picture of four hippies sitting against a wall and pointed to the man in the middle. He had a mess of curly brown hair, a thick beard, and wore white bell-bottoms and a black polka-dotted shirt. Around his neck hung a large Star of David, its metal glowing in the camera’s flash. “This is the point where he started his teshuva path,” she said, referring to the phrase Ba’al Teshuva, the label applied to formerly secular Jews who choose to become observant followers of Torah law and tradition. “I would flip through this when I was younger, and then you get to this part where it says on one page - Back to the Roots. And then you turn the page and you see a picture of the Rebbe.” She flipped to a black and white photo of Rabbi Schneerson looking typically serious. “And then you start to see this religious Jew performing. He had this whole costume.” Every picture following the Rebbe’s shows her father on stage with a long beard, wearing a kippah (skullcap) and a white fringed garment trimmed in blue.
“So I used to mull over the intensity of such an extreme transformation, the ability to channel such passionate energy and creativity through spiritual means in this Jewish religious context,” she said. “And that was really a major springboard for my approach to everything. Here I was being raised in a community that was primarily comprised of lifers [people born into Hasidism], people coming from a different vantage point, things are looked at in black and white. There’s the secular and there’s the holy, and they don’t mix. And here my father was doing riffs and grooves and really translating his rock into Jewish experience.”
As a child, Bitton thought if she could figure out why her parents chose the Hasidic lifestyle, she could consciously make that choice herself, rather than rely on the abstractions taught to her in school. Usually, it was her father’s decision that consumed her thoughts - he had been living the rock star lifestyle, touring with The Who and Aerosmith around the United States and Europe. “I came to the conclusion that the shabbos [Sabbath observance] that I keep is not the shabbos that he traded all that in for,” she said, referring to the rituals and laws followed by observant Jews every weekend. “There’s something more. And that was a big part of my spiritual journey and my looking for more than I was getting at school. The Hasidus they were teaching me at school was not the Hasidus that he tasted. I just knew that there was a gap between what he aspired to when he chose his path and what practically was taught to me. It was just diluted along the way.”
Bitton did well academically, but found it hard to assimilate into Lubavitch culture in Crown Heights, mostly because she found the teachings too abstract, the education stuck in a behavioral approach. The teachers taught girls how to follow Jewish law, and enough Jewish history and philosophy to become good Jewish mothers. But she felt, and others I spoke with agreed, that the education was not academically challenging. In effect, it emphasized what to do, not what to know. This is the culture she is trying to change by creating new methods for teaching Hasidus.
She compared her vision with that of Heeb Magazine, the hip publication for and about the young generation of American Jews. Heeb, she said, offers “a very hip, cutting edge, cool spin on Jewish identity, but very wrapped around Jewish culture, as opposed to Jewish thought or content or practice. I’m trying to create a similar dynamic, where you can really fuse creativity and contemporary innovation but merge it deeply with tradition.” Although Heeb is clearly not an Orthodox publication, Bitton said she would use that model within the boundaries of Jewish thought and practice. And rather than focus only on those girls deemed “at-risk,” this new method would be available to all girls in the community. This, she said, will help them connect to their Jewish and Hasidic identity before it’s too late, before their questions become too overwhelming and they rebel out of frustration and anger.
The “experiential learning” system she envisions produces concrete results in several forms - a Web site, a magazine, art exhibitions, and short films. The method is the framework in which girls learn by directly experiencing the teachings, whether in a workshop or classroom setting, or something more freeform. Much of this is similar to other projects she organized while at YAM, which while on a smaller scale, saved several at-risk girls in the community.
Last summer, for instance, Bitton collaborated with Ana Joanes, head of Reel Youth, an organization not affiliated with Hasidism. Five high school girls participated in a two-month digital film school set up at the Lighthouse. Joanes took the lead, teaching writing and editing workshops and showing the girls how to storyboard their ideas. By the end of the program, each girl had written, shot, and edited a short fictional film based on her own life experience. One, by Chaya Sara Steinhertz, then a 16-year-old dropout recently readmitted to high school, was especially poignant.
Steinhertz, a bright-eyed, quietly confident girl, had reached the tail end of a turbulent childhood that summer, and her film revealed her frustration, as well as her moment of coming to terms with life. She had bounced through schools until dropping out the year before, a list of rebellious acts staining her reputation. She dressed immodestly by Lubavitch standards, preferring pants and short skirts to the ankle-length skirts she was supposed to wear. She listened to Tom Petty and Pink Floyd, rather than strictly Jewish music. Worst of all, she hung out with boys, which is taboo in a culture that separates the genders in every activity from an early age.
Bitton counseled her the entire way, and Steinhertz conceded that she would have dropped out before the eighth grade had it not been for Bitton’s intervention. Later, when Steinhertz decided she wanted to try high school again, Bitton visited Bais Rivkah to plead her case. They granted Steinhertz a meeting, and subsequently, one more chance.
“She met me when I was this angry little girl,” Steinhertz recalled. “She was the only person to reach me.” It angered her when the school principal blamed Steinhertz’s declining grades and bad behavior on her parents, rather than on the school itself. “She was like, oh, you’re this sweet innocent little girl. Let me help you. Let’s send you to a different school where you can be away from your home where I can see you’re not happy,” Steinhertz said, mocking the principal in a soft, whispery voice. The young girl knew her parents were trying to help her, but with eight other children to worry about, they had little time to rein in one unruly daughter. Bitton stepped in to fill the void, laying the foundation for a strong relationship. One observer called Bitton Steinhertz’s godmother.
When Bitton speaks of the intrinsic problems of the community, this is what she means. Parents and teachers notice a young girl acting outside the norm - dressing differently, talking to boys, asking too many questions in class, sometimes using drugs or drinking alcohol. They then try to fix the troublemaker, or, if she seems unreachable, they ostracize her.
Waiting for the symptoms to appear is wrong, Bitton said. Instead, the community should fix the causes, to prevent rebellion before it begins. To do this, a myriad of issues need to be addressed, most notably an inability to help the girls relate to the source of their faith, culture and community - Hasidic philosophy.
But before Bitton can roll out any future programs, she first must face a major obstacle, which according to Botnick, contributed to her firing from YAM. Bitton had drafted a few documents detailing her vision for YAM, one of which was a strategy for saving at-risk youth by addressing community problems that led to teen rebelliousness. Filled with lofty ideals and grand plans, the document is all thought and no action. It mentions the problems facing the youth, the lack of support structure to help them, and it contains eloquent but abstract passages on bridging the “ideal” and the “actual” through what Bitton termed an “inreach/outreach modality.” Bitton’s intelligence and insight impressed Botnick. But, he said, this was not what YAM needed. “The things she writes about the program internally, they’re convoluted and verbose and it’s hard to get something substantive out of it at the end of the day,” he said. “Her grandiose proposal is not doable.”
Bitton recently decided she wants to further her education to back up her ideas and vision. She plans to attend college this fall at Empire State College, which she chose for its flexibility and focus on independent study.
“My goal is basically to substantiate some of the educational principles that I’ve derived from Hasidic philosophy and do a lot of writing and research,” she said. “That will compel me to take the element of my work that was dismissed where I was working, to take it a lot more seriously.” She’s excited for school, where she’ll have a mentor forcing her to explain her ideas more completely while she studies educational philosophies to make her plans more concrete.
Suddenly, she said, she feels free, especially after the first difficult weeks of dealing with the anger and disappointment of being fired.
“I teetered on this line where I could see how people become jaded,” Bitton said. “I tasted that reality where people would shut themselves out of the community and say, look at how I extended myself so sincerely, and I really gave of myself whole heartedly, and I got this? I’ll never do anything for anybody again.”
She gestured towards the bookshelves lining one bedroom wall, now stuffed with boxes, books, and documents, “five years worth of blood, sweat and tears,” that she’d brought home from the Lighthouse. “I decided to walk away emotionally, to not be invested, to not hold onto it,” she said. “There was so much that I felt I had gotten locked into inadvertently just because I was working for this type of organization and I was working within their demands.”
Bitton, at once stress-free and eager to begin a new phase in her career, seemed ready to move on. “On the one hand,” Bitton said, a pained look crossing her face, “I felt extremely violated. And on the other hand, I felt extremely freed.” She paused and broke into a wide smile that matched her father’s young images in the photo album. “I felt like I finally had my own destiny back in my own hands.”

Chabad fires back at Yoffie

A Chabad educator took Rabbi Eric Yoffie to task for saying the movement is promoting Jewish minimalism.In an essay published last week on the Web site, Chana Silberstein defended her organization's willingness to grant any child a bar/bat mitzvah, a policy the Reform leader has criticized as enabling a party without any deeper significance."What Yoffie fails to consider is that Chabad’s willingness to offer all children a bar-mitzvah stems not from lowering of religious standards, but from a refusal to make children the pawns in a game of institutional extortion," wrote Silberstein, the educational director at the Chabad of Cornell University. Silberstein claimed that requiring synagogue membership and Hebrew school enrollment -- common requisites for bar mitzvah in Reform congregations -- has nothing to do with standards and everything to do with increasing revenue. She also noted that one becomes a bar mitzvah automatically on becoming an adult, and telling parents that standards must be met for their children to be considered Jewish adults is a "self-serving falsehood."