Chabad in the Quad Cities
Since 2004, the Jewish community of the Quad Cities has been attempting to deal with the introduction and activities of Chabad in our town. Unfortunately, the coming of Chabad has generated far more controversy than stimulation in our Jewish lives. Recently, our local Jewish Federation was thrown into a crisis over this issue. On Erev Shabbat, January 8, 2010, I delivered a sermon addressing this matter. I wish to share with my readers an EXTENDED version of this sermon.
UPDATE ON CHABAD AND THE JEWISH FEDERATION
Yesterday, the Board of the Quad Cities Jewish Federation received an email from our Executive Director, Allan Ross, stating that the Federation had just averted a crisis concerning Chabad. I do not exaggerate when I say that the crisis in question had a very real potential to tear apart the Federation and perhaps even destroy it.
However, before I share with you the nature of that crisis and how it was averted, or at least averted for the moment, I need to take you on a journey; a journey down the road to this crisis. For before I can share the crisis itself, I need to share the history which led up to it.
But even before I can do that, I need to rectify an important misconception about myself. In our community, we have had a lot of controversy surrounding Chabad, and admittedly I have been, and will continue to be, a key player in those struggles. However, there are those who believe that I am simply anti-Chabad; that it is part of my essential nature as a Reform Jew and a Reform rabbi to oppose them. That is the misconception that I wish to clear up. While it is true that at this point in time I have significant issues with Chabad, it was not always so. Indeed, there was a time when I was a friend to Chabad.
Back in the 70’s, as a rabbinic student intern in a large New York suburban congregation, I used to take my Confirmation classes – classes of over 60 students – to Crown Heights, Brooklyn in order to spend a weekend – to spend Shabbat – with the Lubavitcher Hasidim. Indeed I met and prayed with Menahem Mendel Schneerson, the last Lubavitcher rebbe.
While serving as a rabbi here in the Quad Cities, there was a time when I definitely was Chabad friendly. There was a time when I invited Chabad representatives from Postville to come into our synagogue and conduct family education programs. They conducted a program on the baking of matzah and another on the making of a shofar. Then there was the time when I invited them to do a program on the making of Torah scrolls. They cancelled on me twice, with the last cancellation coming less than an hour before the scheduled event. Yes, I was angry. Those of you who know me well can imagine just how angry I was. But still, I did not hold it against Chabad in general. I attributed this problem to the fact that the Chabad rabbi in question was simply a jerk.
When University of Iowa journalism professor Stephen Bloom published his best selling book, POSTVILLE, I reviewed that book from this very bimah. Some of you might even remember hearing that review. I panned the book. I criticized the author for engaging in excessive exaggeration. I accused him promoting harmful stereotypes; stereotypes both of Hasidic Jews and of Iowans. I stated that if the images he drew of the Hasidic Jews of Postville were anywhere nearly as inaccurate as the images he drew of Iowans in general, then what he wrote at least bordered on bigotry, if it did not actually cross that line. But I now admit that I was wrong. If I were to review that book today, it would be substantially different.
The point is that I did not start off being an opponent of Chabad. However over the years, the circumstances, and particularly the circumstances in our own community, have been such that I have become one.
While I am certainly troubled by some of the more global issues concerning Chabad, I will not focus on them tonight. There is no question but that they do contribute to my attitudes on this subject. I am deeply disturbed by that major segment of Chabad that professes that the late Lubavitcher Rebbe was the Messiah and that he will return. I truly believe that such a profession carries them outside the realm of Judaism and into a faith all their own, like Christianity, which of course holds similar views about the person of Jesus.
As you all know, the legal and ethical abuses perpetrated by the Chabad owners and managers of the Agriprocessors Kosher Meat processing plant in Postville offend me to the very core. Their actions were completely contrary to everything I understand about how our Judaism instructs us to live our lives. I am proud that I was the one who authored the resolution of the Central Conference of American Rabbis which addresses the issue of adhering to Jewish ethical standards as well as ritual standards in the preparation of kosher food.
But I will not dwell on those global topics now. Rather I wish to dedicate the remainder of my remarks to the activities of Chabad within our local community and why those activities have led to a crisis which threatened to undo our Federation.
Our journey began in the Fall of 2004. It was a Monday, my day off, when I received a phone call from our Federation’s Executive Director. He had a visitor in his office; a representative of Chabad. This man had come to the Quad Cities to “explore” the possibility of creating a Chabad presence in our community. He wanted to meet with me. I told him that while I could not meet with him on that day, I would be happy to do so on the next. However, since he was only here for a day, we wound up meeting on the phone.
It was during that phone conversation that I witnessed a the very first hint of the problems that would quickly arise between our two local synagogues and Chabad. The Chabad representative told me, as he told others, that it was the intention of Chabad to work in cooperation with the local synagogues. They would not be replicating the services provided by the synagogues nor would they be recruiting from among the synagogue members. He said that Chabad possessed a list of over 2,000 names of unaffiliated Jews living in our small Jewish community. This, and this only, would be their target population. Of course, every local Jew with whom he spoke – myself included – told him that he was sorely mistaken. While there are unaffiliated Jews in our community, the numbers are not anywhere near what Chabad projected. Indeed, the total number of Jews in our community – unaffiliated and affiliated together – were not anywhere near what Chabad projected. Still he persisted in insisting that these numbers were accurate. So I pressed him on Chabad’s commitment not to recruit from current synagogue members.
I spoke to him of the Jewish legal principle of Hasagat G’vul, the respecting of organizational boundaries. This is a principle which governs inter-congregational relations in most, if not all, Jewish communities around the world. Simply put, local congregations agree not to recruit from those who are members of other local congregations and rabbis agree not to provide rabbinic services for other rabbis’ congregants or take actions which would undermine the relationships between other rabbis and their congregants. Unaffiliated Jews, of course, are fair game for everyone. But when it comes to affiliated Jews, it is strictly hands off. It is in this way that local congregations are able to establish and maintain cooperative and hopefully harmonious relations, for it is important to have confidence that when congregations work together they are not unwittingly providing opportunities for one congregation to prey on the membership of others. Such a predatory environment would be toxic to the well being of any Jewish community.
It was his response to my pushing this issue which sent up red flags. Of course, he assured me that Chabad would not be doing this. But then he went on to say that he did not understand why I was so concerned. After all, if Chabad was going to be drawing members away from any congregation in our community, it would be from the Tri City Jewish Center, the traditional congregation, and not from my Reform congregation. After all, Chabad’s form of Judaism would be more attractive to traditional Jews than to Reform Jews. So why was I worried. Indeed, in many communities, Chabad enjoys a wonderful partnership with Reform congregations and Reform rabbis. It was as if he was giving me a wink and nod, implying that we could be partners in the dismantling of the Tri City Jewish Center, and it would be to the benefit of both of our organizations. Suffice it to say that he did not evoke from me the reaction he obviously anticipated. I would have no part in such a conspiracy.
It would be a few months before Chabad would actively pursue their plans of establishing a presence in our community. In December they held their first community informational meeting. They held it at the Blackhawk Hotel. Just as I had feared, it was not their list of unaffiliated Jews who received phone calls, inviting them to attend, but rather affiliated Jews from both congregations. They held their second meeting on Tuesday, January 11, 2005 – five years ago this coming Monday – and I attended. There were no unaffiliated Jews there. All, with the exception of myself, were members of the Tri City Jewish Center. Once again, in my conversation with the Chabad rabbi that evening, I pressed for adherence to the principle of Hasagat G’vul; respecting institutional boundaries. This time I was told that this principle does not apply to them for they are not “in the same business” as the local synagogues.
In March of that year, leaders from our two congregations and the Federation held the first of several formal meeting with Chabad leadership, in order to work out our differences. That particular meeting was with Rabbi Yossie Jacobson, the chief Chabad rabbi of Iowa. We told Rabbi Jacobson that of course we understood and respected the fact that this is a free country and, as such, Chabad most certainly was free to set up shop wherever it choses. However, if Chabad was going to come to our community, we wanted the Chabad organization to respect the same rules of the road as are followed by our other local Jewish organizations including the halachic principle of Hasagat G’vul.
At first, Rabbi Jacobson said that the principle of Hasagat G’vul should not apply to Chabad because Chabad is not a synagogue. Since it is not a synagogue, it cannot be considered in the same category as the local congregations nor could it be held to the same standards of behavior. I pointed out that, like a synagogue, Chabad was intending to offer worship, study, and communal activities. Therefore, if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, you have to treat it as if it is a duck. As odd a duck as Chabad might be, for the well being of our community, it still must abide by inter-synagogue rules. When Rabbi Jacobson did come around to stating that he was not adverse to abiding by such principles, it was pointed out to him that these principles were already being violated, in that the Chabad rabbi from Iowa City was providing Bar Mitzvah training to a child whose family belonged to the Tri City Jewish Center. While Rabbi Jacobson stated that he would investigate the matter and put an end to such violations, when all was said and done, he took absolutely no action.
When Rabbi Shneur Cadaner, our local Chabad rabbi, arrived in our community, matters did not get better. In fact they got worse. Soon after his arrival, Rabbi Cadaner would say one thing to Rabbi Michael Samuel (of the Tri City Jewish Center) and another thing to me. Only when Rabbi Samuel and I talked did we begin to realize that we were getting mixed messages. We tried to resolve these differences by asking Rabbi Cadaner to meet with the two of us together. However, Rabbi Cadaner insisted that he would not meet with us together, but only alone. He claimed that he did not want us to “gang up on him.” When one of my congregants made a similar request of him – that he sit down with the rabbis of the two synagogues and work out our differences – he responded by saying “I don’t believe in organized crime.”
It was not long before Rabbi Cadaner started approaching Jews who belonged to one congregation or the other. He would visit them in the hospital. He would visit them in their homes. He would visit them at their work places. Now many people would say, “What’s wrong with that?” Let me explain. There are valid reasons why rabbinic professional ethics forbids rabbis from performing pastoral services for the congregants of other rabbis. Those reasons involve both the the possibility of congregants receiving conflicting pastoral counseling as well as the unfair psychological impact of such visits.
The dangers of conflicting pastoral counseling are very real and very serious. My own experience with with the Chabad rabbi in such a situation serves as an excellent example. One of my congregants was a wonderful woman who did much for our congregation and our community, and was beloved by all. Unfortunately, one morning she collapsed. She was rushed to the hospital where it was determined that she had major arterial blockages. While the doctors did their best to clear them, her brain was deprived of oxygen for too long and she was basically brain dead. So she lay as a vegetable in the Intensive Care Unit, with her loving family and friends continually by her side. When it was clear that her situation was hopeless, her family decided to accede to her stated wishes and remove her from life support. Enter the Chabad rabbi. He proceeded to tell her youngest son that Judaism considers it a sin to remove her life support; that the family needs to seriously reconsider its decision. This was in direct contradiction to the supportive counseling which they had received from me; counsel which had a strong foundation in our sacred texts. Fortunately, the family was strong willed and determined enough to set aside the Chabad rabbi’s counsel. Yet strong willed or not, who in that situation needs to be subjected to that type of doubt and guilt? When, later that day, I learned of what this Chabad rabbi had done, I felt deeply violated! How much more so must that family have felt it?
That type of violation is manifest as well when one rabbi takes it upon him or herself to make uninvited visits to the congregants of another rabbi, as did and does our local Chabad rabbi. For when a rabbi visits his or her congregants in the hospital or when they are homebound, while the congregants do appreciate those visits, still in a way they also expect it. After all, part of their rabbi’s job is to visit them. However, when another rabbi visits – a rabbi who is not “paid” to do so by these congregants’ dues – then that visit tends to be considered especially virtuous. “It was nice that my rabbi visited me but how wonderful of this other rabbi to come and visit me as well! After all, he did not have to do that!” Such visits do unfairly interfere with the relationships between rabbis and their congregants.
Just as such actions interfere with the relationships between rabbis and their congregants, so do they interfere with the relationships between congregations and their congregants for, right or wrong, congregants start feeling that they are being better serviced by the other rabbi and his institution than by their rabbi and their congregation.
Along these lines, another serious bone of contention has been Chabad’s insistence upon sending publicity flyers to members of the two synagogues; sending these flyers without specifically being asked by these congregants to be included on the Chabad mailing list. This is but another form of illicit congregant solicitation. Once again, it is a standard of inter-congregational relations that synagogues do not include members of other congregations on their mailing lists unless those individuals have specifically requested to be included. This, too, is an issue of creating a predatory environment.
When it comes to our local Chabad rabbi, he claims that he only sends his publicity materials to the names and addresses on the list of Jews which Chabad purchased in advance of its coming to our community. However we know that is not an accurate statement. There is evidence that he has used, without permission, the Temple’s membership list, if not the membership list of the Tri City Jewish Center as well. How do we know this? Because Betty Cottrell, our non-Jewish retired office administrator, whose name and address appears in our Temple Directory, receives Chabad mailings. There is very little, if any chance, that her name appears on any other compiled Jewish list. The odds are extremely high that the only way that Chabad could have gotten her name on its mailing list was by taking it off of our mailing list. And that was done without our permission. That is highly unethical.
It could also be considered unethical when the local Chabad rabbi started befriending on Facebook the children of families belonging to the two synagogues. To him, these children were complete strangers, yet as Jews they seemed to be legitimate targets. Of course, anyone can choose to befriend anyone they want on Facebook, but at the least, his doing this was more than a tad creepy.
Inappropriate congregant visitations and recruitment have just been the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the transgressions of our local Chabad rabbi.
There have been those occasions when he has misrepresented himself to the general community as speaking for all Quad City Jews. Soon after his arrival, he went around to several local businesses, soliciting paid ads in a calendar he was producing, telling these business people that his was the ONLY calendar which would be published in the Jewish community. He said that, in spite of the fact that both of the synagogues also distribute calendars. Indeed, at that time, the calendar of the Tri City Jewish Center included paid advertisements. This type of inappropriate approach to the non-Jewish community repeated itself during his first winter holiday season in our community. It was then that he went to the officials at the Moline City Hall and insisted that since they had a Christmas tree in their lobby, the Jewish community demands that they display a Hanukkah menorah as well. In this, he was not only not speaking for the entire Jewish community but he was, in fact, speaking in a manner contrary to the generally held position of our Jewish community; a position strongly in support of the separation of church and state; one which definitely would not want to see a Jewish religious symbol displayed on public property. The damage done by this request was only compounded by the fact that he delayed for so long in removing that menorah from their lobby that the Moline city leaders decided not to have any holiday displays in their lobby in the future.
There are other aspects of his relationship with our non-Jewish neighbors which I find deeply disturbing as well. For example, one day he met a local monsignor; a man of great public distinction and deservedly so. Not only that, but this priest has been a long time friend of our local Jewish community. When the priest extended his hand to shake, Rabbi Cadaner rejected it, stating that “We do not do that”. Well, soon after that incident a member of the Jewish community intentionally offered to shake the Chabad rabbi’s hand, and they did. So the message seems clear. From his perspective when he says “we do not do that,” what he probably means is “we do not do that” with non-Jews. As a small Jewish community, we depend heavily upon the good will of our non-Jewish neighbors. Such prejudicial behavior hurts us all.
Likewise, when we held a community interfaith service in response to the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India, the Chabad rabbi turned down an invitation to participate. I cannot help but wonder: Was it because he would not pray with non-Jews? Was it because the service was held in the sanctuary of the Reform congregation?
Of course, our Chabad rabbi’s attitudes about the local synagogues and their clergy have not helped resolve our problems. They have only exacerbated them. My colleague, Rabbi Samuel, reported to me that in one angry encounter, the Chabad rabbi told him that he (the Chabad rabbi) was the only “real” rabbi in our community and that he would still be here long after Rabbi Samuel and I were gone. Then there is the matter of his total disrespect for the clergy status of our cantor, who also happens to be my wife. We met in seminary. She is a fully credentialed cantor. Still, Rabbi Cadaner refuses to recognize her clergy status and won’t even respond to her communications. At one point, he requested that she be excluded from any formal meetings between the Jewish community leaders and Chabad.
Over the years, both congregations and the Federation have tried to make it very clear that in order for Chabad to truly be considered a part of our community, then it must abide by the rules which govern our community. Unfortunately, time and again, Rabbi Cadaner has refused to accept that offer.
And this is what brought us to the recent crisis. According to the bylaws of our Federation, the rabbis of the local synagogues are granted automatic seats, with voting rights, on the Federation Board. In recent months, Rabbi Cadaner and the supporters of Chabad chose to insist that this provision be applied to Chabad as well the synagogues, and that Chabad itself be considered a synagogue. Of course, that claim contradicts what Chabad had been saying all along; that our inter-synagogue rules do not apply to them because they are not a synagogue. However, now claiming to be a synagogue, Chabad still claims that inter-synagogue rules do not apply to them because they are Chabad, and as such are unique.
The issue of whether or not to grant Rabbi Cadaner a seat on the Federation Board created a great rift in our community. So much so that those on both sides of the issue threatened to withdraw their financial and human support of the Federation, should the decision go against them. The supporters of Chabad threatened to do so, claiming that such a contrary decision would deny the Orthodox community representation on the Federation Board. The opponents of Chabad threatened to do so, claiming that if the Federation officially recognized Chabad, it would also tacitly be granting its seal of approval to Chabad’s continued violations of the rules of inter-congregational behavior; it would officially be approving Chabad’s predatory practices. Such an abandonment of the long established local synagogues would simply be unacceptable. It seemed as if, for the Federation, this would be a lose-lose situation, with them losing significant, perhaps vital, financial support no matter what they did.
This crisis was averted, thanks to the efforts and creative thinking of Jeff Goldstein. It was Jeff who suggested that if the Orthodox community feels unrepresented, then let them be represented by a lay person on the Federation board. In that way, our Federation could avoid being caught in the middle of a bitter struggle over the actions of Rabbi Cadaner. Those of us who were opposed to Rabbi Cadaner’s being seated on the board, and by so seating him apparently granting Federation approval to his objectionable actions – myself included – had no qualms about the Orthodox community itself being represented. Therefore, we had no problem with a lay representative. But the ball rested in Chabad’s court. Would they accept a lay representative in place of Rabbi Cadaner? They were presented with the proposal, considered it for some time, and in the end, finally accepted it, turning a lose-lose situation for the Federation into a win-win.
Now it is time for us as a community to move forward. And so we hope to do so. However, we do so recognizing that our problems have not gone away, and they will not go away until Rabbi Cadaner and Chabad agree to become community team players and change the way in which they do their business; until they come to recognize and accept that they too are expected to abide by the very same rules and principles which govern the behaviors and inter-relations of both the Temple and the Center. We have asked nothing more of them than we expect of ourselves. We pray that someday soon they will decide to live up to those expectations.Agriprocessors, Chabad, Christmas, Hasidism, Interfaith Relations, Iowa, Jewish, Lubavitch, Midwest, Quad Cities, Quad Cities Jewish Community, Quad Cities Jewish Federation, Tri City Jewish Center
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