|by Sam Glaser
I have heard a resounding theme during my travels over the past several months: that Chabad is a wretched institution. That Chabad favors the rich, steals members from other congregations and is steeped in misguided messianism. I have the opportunity on my annual fifty city tours to divide my time between Reform, Conservative and Orthodox synagogues and a highlight is the heart to heart chats I have with the members of clergy. Let me state for the record that these conversations are usually enlightening and stimulating and these rabbis and cantors are some of my dearest friends. As a rule they are entirely dedicated to their holy work and wear their love for Judaism on their sleeve.
Nevertheless, comments slip out like, “Oh, Chabad – the closest religion to Judaism!” Or, “those *&^s just opened down the street so they could siphon off our membership!” First the dig and then “but they do great work.” After enough of these ripostes I was concerned that this diatribe was a universal mantra. That was until a recent Chanukah Shabbaton in Orlando, FL where I met Rabbi Gary Perras. He is a veteran Conservative rabbi and hanging proudly in his office is a 3×4′ portrait of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. As we lit candles together in his home on one of those ubiquitous Chabad supplied menorahs he explained his perspective. He was one of the only rabbis to welcome Chabad to Orlando when the other rabbis were protesting. He argues that one can’t “steal” members…they vote with their feet and many crave the spiritual nourishment that Chabad provides. When Rabbi Gary’s congregants opt for Chabad he considers it a success story: they will be more likely to keep kosher and marry a Jew. He stated “my job isn’t to retain members, it’s to get people into Judaism.”
I am not trying to bite the hand that feeds me or get Rabbi Perras in trouble. It’s that I deeply want Jewish people to love one another, as lofty and far-fetched as that may seem. I feel this yearning in my bones. I am a unifier and peacemaker. Maybe it’s an oldest child thing. My folks raised their four boys in a Conservative home filled with love for all people, Jew and gentile, rich and poor. We unabashedly adored our Auschwitz survivor Orthodox aunts and uncles and our arch-Reform relatives equally. Our family trips to Israel included visits with rebbes and secular kibbutzniks. I see my own passage into observance as an enhancement of my background rather than an abandonment. When the Israeli Jewish unity organization Common Denominator was seeking to create a theme album, I got the commission and produced one of my best-selling CDs, The Bridge.
I was recently nominated as a Jewish Community Hero in the national Jewish Federation-sponsored online campaign. I didn’t know this until friends who had read the announcement wished me a “mazeltov” as I walked the streets of my neighborhood one Shabbat. When I checked the website to see who else was nominated I was surprised to find that the majority chosen were Chabadniks. When a rabbi friend called to encourage me to get out the vote (a $25,000 prize was in the offing,) I mentioned the skewed presence of Lubavitchers in the running. He responded, “well, that’s because they have the time to be out in the streets with the people: they run to visit the sick, they counsel addicts, they kasher kitchens, while I’m stuck behind a desk with budgets, board meetings and membership drives.”
How many times has Chabad come to my rescue? With a kosher meal, a place to stay for Shabbat, a minyan. Thanks to Chabad I have otherwise secular friends who can quote chassidut. Just after my parents started to keep kosher, a miracle I thought might never transpire, they moved to Pacific Palisades, a decidedly kosher-free zone. I feared they’d never make it without a community to support their new lifestyle. Lo and behold, that very year a new Chabad rabbi set up shop in their neighborhood. They were welcomed as founding members of the fledgling chapter that is now a full-blown shul filled with Jewish life.
My positive experiences are too numerous to mention but I’ll offer one anecdote. Every year I ski, sing and study at a rabbinic convention, which is cleverly scheduled each January rotating between world-class ski resorts. I have grown to love this bunch of learned ski addicts. We study Torah for an hour in the morning, ski all day and then meet for mincha and more learning when the lifts close. What better way to celebrate my love of Judaism with my favorite sport! During a recent conference I was lucky enough to stay at a relative’s beautiful condominium (equipped with a piano!) I figured I’d share the good fortune with some of my rabbi friends so I invited a group to gather for songs and snacks one of the nights. I scrambled back to the condo after a very intense day of shredding the back bowls (see it here) to find that the local market had just closed. Now I had a serious problem. I had no car, no knowledge of another market in the area to buy munchies and libations and my friends were on their way within the hour.
I suddenly remembered where to go for help: a concert in Aspen that I had performed the previous year was sponsored by the local Reform community in conjunction with Chabad. And that Chabad rabbi had a brother who had just set up shop in the town where I was. I looked up this rabbi whom I had never met in my life. When I called to beg for the immediate delivery of wine, sodas and snacks his response was simple: “I’ll be right over!” A smorgasbord of munchies appeared within twenty minutes just before the group of rabbis arrived. This well-meaning Chabadnik wouldn’t accept any money from me – he didn’t want to diminish his mitzvah of kindness to strangers.
When my guests arrived we sang and made toasts and I could tell that my new rabbi friend wasn’t quite ready to leave. He felt compelled to give offer a word of Torah. I realized it might be a bit awkward but I figured “what could be the harm?” He spoke about the portion of the week for about ten minutes and then said goodbye. A furious convention leader then escorted me into a bedroom. “How dare you invite a Chabad rabbi to speak to us! This whole kumzitz was a setup so that you could get that man here!” I tried to explain myself but I’m not sure if she believes me to this day.
Dearest fellow Jews, we’re all in this together. When we stand united, our collective light shines and the glory of G-d is apparent to all. “How lovely are your tents, Jacob!” All of our denominations make crucial contributions to the whole. We are all on the same team, fighting ignorance, assimilation and intermarriage. There is far more that we have in common than that which divides us. I beg my readers to please think twice before offhandedly disparaging anyone or any other movement.
The world judges G-d by watching the Jews. “Jews are news.” We are held to a higher standard, whether we like it or not. Even if the term makes us uneasy, we are widely regarded as G-d’s Chosen People. Chosen to take a stand, to act as G-d’s witnesses throughout human history. Tevya would argue “once in a while, can’t You choose someone else?” I’d like to believe we are chosen for greatness. That we have the power to bless each other and all of humanity. We can glorify G-d’s name by loving each other and judging “to the side of merit.” Let us focus on each other’s attributes and not the faults. G-d knows we have plenty of faults.
While I was davening the day before my son Jesse’s bar mitzvah in November, I was hit by a revelation that I’d like to share: At the end of the Aleynu prayer that concludes every service we mention our desire that G-d’s name become one. In other words, at this point in history, G-d’s name or reputation isn’tone. Our world is filled atheists and agnostics, pantheism and paganism, even violence and terror in G-d’s name. In contrast, during the Sh’ma prayer in the morning and evening we cover our eyes and state aloud that G-d is one. Isn’t this a contradiction? Of course G-d is one! Only His Name isn’t.
My epiphany that morning was that when we say the Sh’ma we can take a moment to live in a perfected world where tikkun olam (healing the world) has been realized. Not just to picture this reality but to actually live in the reality. To enter a G-dly space beyond time and taste true unity. Don’t rush into the “V’ahavta” paragraph! Nurture the Sh’ma. Relish the moment and make it real. Isn’t it interesting that the Sh’ma and Aleynu are prayers that are essentially intact in the prayer books of all denominations of Judaism? Let us make this the generation where the unity of the Jewish people creates a world where G-d’s name is one.