Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Jewish movement undercuts synagogues

Chabad targets Jews who won't pay hundreds of dollars to mark holy days

Jennifer Green
The Ottawa Citizen

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Synagogues in Ottawa will charge families hundreds, even thousands of dollars, for Yom Kippur services tonight -- except for a Jewish outreach group whose services are free.

It's just another way the Chabad movement is getting under the skin of the Jewish establishment across North America. A U.S. expert says it's the fastest growing movement in modern Judaism, and in some communities, it is reordering daily life.

Among North American Jews, annual membership fees and tickets to high holy days services are nothing new. In Ottawa, the Orthodox synagogue Machzikei Hadas charges about $1,000 for a family membership, which covers Holy Days services. Other synagogues charge $100 or more for a single ticket to the service, and $250 and up for a family. Some charge more for seats closer to the front.

The rationale is that synagogues must pay for buildings and staff, and cover high holy days security, usually $10,000 or more at each temple.

No synagogue would turn away someone who could not afford the service, "but we don't advertise that, or nobody would pay," says Rabbi Reuven Bulka of Machzikei Hadas.

Chabad (pronounced haBAD) has a different approach. It bends over backwards to make temple fun, friendly and ... usually free. It targets Jews who may have drifted away from their faith, or students who are far from home and distracted by worldly pleasures on campus.

Rabbi Chaim Boyarsky, who leads the Chabad Student Network of Ottawa at 29 Gilmour St., says: "We're catering to students, and students are looking for reasons not to go."

The rabbi's wife will even make chicken soup for a student with a cold, "not as a tool to bring them in, God forbid."

Just so he'll feel better.

Chabad is hip, too, enlisting Larry David's Curb Your Enthusiasm for an advertisement on YouTube. (Mr. David is shown buying Yom Kippur tickets from a scalper.)

Rabbi Boyarsky had 75 students for Rosh Hashanah, and is expecting 140 for Yom Kippur tonight.

There are four Chabad centres in Ottawa and some of them will charge what Rabbi Yeshoshua Botnick says is a "token amount," that doesn't cover the costs but prevents people from taking the service for granted. "If you give something or free, people think less of it."

Chabad of Centrepointe is charging $100 to $250 for reserved seating, but says on its website that "nobody will be turned away for lack of money."

Rabbi Bulka is skeptical. As soon as they need some infrastructure for their activities, they come running to the congregations who've been paying into it for years. "There's some sponging going on."

Professor Jonathan Sarna, one of the foremost experts in North American Judaism, said from his office at Brandeis University, that everyone has an obligation to support the temple. "Therefore, there is a great deal of unhappiness with freeloaders. But Chabad has a different model."

It maintains that people will give even more out of a sense of personal indebtedness if they aren't charged.

Some businessmen believe the Chabadniks, as they are called, operate so frugally, they are just a better investment on the donor's dollar. But Mr. Sarna says nobody fully understands where their money comes from.

The Chabad movement may be unsettling, but that's likely due to its success.

"This is the fastest growing movement since World War II.

It is an unparalleled success story, and other movements are a little suspicious of it, especially as it's mission driven."

They often revivify moribund communities that nobody else wants to take on.

And their rabbis are appointed for life to one community, so they must make of it what they will. Because those spiritual leaders stay, they often become the most senior rabbi relatively quickly.

Mr. Sarna is not surprised that they can rub the rest of the Jewish community the wrong way.

"It does its own thing, it doesn't listen to federations and it works on its own model. It's not a team player."

"The worst of it, from the point of view of the mainline, is that it seems to be working beyond all expectations."

There is a deeper issue. Rabbi Bulka says he's all for any group so devoted to reconnecting Jews with their faith, but "the nature of that connection gets a little bit dicey."

The Chabadniks originate with Lubavitcher Hasidim in Brooklyn, some of whom believe their leader, Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, never really died in 1994; that he is the messiah they have been waiting for.

Mr. Sarna says that has largely been put aside, at least in public. They may believe the rebbe was the greatest human who ever lived, the best person of this generation "but he's not alive anymore."

© The Ottawa Citizen 2008

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