Chabad takeover

Chabad does some great work, but do we really want them on every street corner?

chabad 88.224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
chabad 88.224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Few people would deny the amazing work that Chabad has done in Jewish outreach and the success of this global hassidic movement founded by Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liady in bring previously unaffiliated Jews into the fold and giving them a sense of community, belonging and heritage. While Kfar Chabad, with its replica of 770 Eastern Parkway, is the focal point of Chabad activity in Israel, and contains the largest concentration of Chabad families, educational institutions and printing works for Chabad publications, Chabad is extremely visible in Jerusalem and has become even more so in recent years as its down-town facilities have multiplied. The situation has intensified since the death of the Rebbe eleven years ago. Even in his lifetime, Chabadniks used to go around singing "We want Meshiach now." Since his passing, the messianic arm of Chabad has become much more forceful. The Messianic Chabadniks who spend a great deal of time in the Ben Yehuda Mall and outside the Central Bus Station are much more aggressive in their approach -- almost to the extent of being coercive. It used to be kind of a cute thing to see clusters of Chabad males at busy intersections inviting bareheaded young Jews to say a prayer and put on tefilin. This initial binding experience often led to a deeper commitment to the tenets of the faith, partially because that first encounter with Chabad was such a joyous experience. Similarly, few women, even the least observant, refuse the candles that Chabad women distribute on Fridays in downtown Jerusalem streets and in the area of the Central Bus Station. The Rebbe coined an acronym for these candles. He called them neshek - weapons, deriving from nerot Shabbat kodesh (holy Sabbath candles) whose light continued to be a significant weapon against assimilation. The women handing out the candles -- even those who belong the messianic arm of Chabad -- seldom if ever try to force them on anyone. The offer is made, but if it is refused, it is not pursued. With the men, it's different. It started with the Chabad mitzvah tank. For some strange reason, the sound systems in the mitzvah tanks are harsh and grating on the ear. Whether it's someone protesting activities offensive to Judaism, shouting lessons for the day or amplifying tinny music, the effect is annoying, and an invasion of privacy. Although the mitzvah tank per se is not traversing the Ben Yehuda Mall, there are Chabad musicians whose sound system is turned up so high as to drown out all the regular musicians. This would be bad enough if the singers were in good voice. But on a recent evening in the mall, there was a young man with a raucous voice and unbounded enthusiasm, who assailed the public not only with his singing, but with synthesizer that he was playing at full volume, while a small group of other Chabadniks gathered around him. The zealous young man with the raucous voice may have thought that he was serving his Creator, but in fact he was doing the opposite. He was depriving the general public of a pleasurable stroll by assailing their eardrums, and he impinged on the earnings of the street musicians positioned elsewhere in the mall, because quite a large number of people chose to take another route from Jaffa Road to King George rather than be forced to listen. While many of us, especially those who eat kosher, are delighted to come across Chabad Centers when traveling abroad, there is a limit to how much we can take of Chabad on our home turf. Chabad has a great propensity for growth. When I was a child growing up in Australia there was barely a handful of Chabad institutions in my hometown Melbourne. Last year when I was back in Melbourne for a family wedding, I visited with Rabbi Yitzhok Groner who has been the moving force of Chabad for decades. He proudly told me that there were 16 Chabad institutions in Melbourne. It would not surprise me to learn that the number has since increased. While full of admiration for that which Chabad has achieved, I would not want to live in a Chabad theocracy. It's unlikely that it would actually come to that in Jerusalem, but it does appear to be moving in that direction, which should raise a couple of red alerts.