Posted tagged ‘Christmas’

Purim: The Antisemitism Holiday

February 23, 2010

Around the world, we Jews soon will be throwing ourselves into our celebration of Purim.  We will be voraciously eating hamantaschen (Purim cakes), dressing up in all manner of costumes, reading the Megillah (the Book of Esther) while grinding our groggers (noisemakers) as loud as we can whenever the name of Haman is mentioned, having fun playing games and winning prizes; all of this being wrapped up inside a carnival – or dare I say a Mardi Gras – atmosphere.

Purim is a holiday of total abandonment to joy.  It is a mitzvah!  We are commanded by Jewish law to enjoy ourselves on Purim.  And such abandonment was never intended to be limited to just children.  Adults, too, are supposed to surrender to it.  I know that there are times when we adults can become too self-conscious or just too darn stuffy to let ourselves get into the spirit of Purim, but that is our shortcoming and not the shortcoming of the holiday.

Last year, at our Purim service in Davenport, Iowa, we had a family of adults who attended, all in costume, and it was obvious from their behaviors that before coming to Temple, they had liberally partaken of the fruit of the vine, or perhaps liquids somewhat stronger.  They had a great time!  After the service, there were those who commented about how inappropriate was their behavior.  However, those who made such remarks to me were surprised, and perhaps disturbed, by the response they received.  For rather than affirming their outrage, I told them, “No.  Not at all!  For these were the adults who, more than any others, had truly captured the spirit of the holiday.”  What?  Drunkenness in the sanctuary is appropriate behavior?  Not on Yom Kippur, and not even on Shabbat.  But on Purim – you betcha!  In fact, there is an entire tractate of the Talmud, Tractate Megillah, which is dedicated to instructing us on how to observe this holiday properly.  And in that tractate it says, believe it or not, “On Purim it is a man’s duty to inebriate himself to the point that he is unable to distinguish between the phrases, ‘ Cursed be Haman’ and ‘Blessed be Mordecai.’”[1] In fact, there is a Purim tradition for adults – not for children but for adults – which is derived from that mitzvah, the very name of which comes from that Talmudic text.  It is called a Adloyadah and it is an adult drinking party.  The name Adloyadah literally means “until you are unable to distinguish.”  Purim is indeed our party holiday!

But why all the extreme celebration?  After all, while the story of Mordecai and Esther, Haman and Ahashuerus is an interesting one, it would not appear to be that significant.  Let’s face it!  It’s not Passover, with the Ten Plagues and the splitting of the Red Sea, and the liberation of our people from Egyptian slavery.  So what is this excessive joy all about?

You see, while the celebration of Purim centers upon merriment, the reason for the celebration of Purim actually centers upon the most painful and tragic challenge which has confronted our people, not just at the time and in the setting of the Purim story, but in practically every time and every setting throughout the history of our people.  I am talking about antisemitism; that seemingly eternal hatred of Jews merely because we are Jews, coupled with the desire to do away with, if not all of us, as many of us as possible.  Haman, the villain of the Purim story was a consummate antisemite.  His plan for the Jews of Persia was nothing short of genocide.  Indeed, this might have been the first attempted genocide in human history.  It is to this point that Rabbi Irving Greenberg, in his book THE JEWISH WAY: LIVING THE HOLIDAYS, says “Appearances can be deceptive.  Purim, which supports enormous theological freight, may well be the darkest, most de­pressing holiday of the Jewish calendar.  Its laughter is Pagliacci’s – a hair’s breadth away from despair.”[2]

Unfortunately, in our own day and age, history has impelled us to memorialize another attempted genocide; the Holocaust.  Yet our Holocaust remembrance is most certainly a somber affair.  We recall both atrocities and instances of heroism.  We weep in our hearts, if not actually with our eyes, for all its victims so brutally slain.  We are nonplused by the evil of the evil doers and we, with grim resolve, vow “Never again!”  There is no merriment attached to Yom HaShoah; no noisemakers drowning out the name of Hitler whenever it is mentioned.  There is nothing lighthearted about it.  Yet the bonds which bind Purim to the Holocaust are incontrovertible and unbreakable. Probably the most compelling statement of this connection came out of the mouth of none other than Julius Streicher, the publisher of the virulently antisemitic Nazi newspaper, “Der Sturmer.”  Having been sentenced to death by hanging at the Nuremberg trials, his last words were “Purimfest, 1946!”[3]

So if Purim is all about antisemitism and attempted genocide, why is it so merry whereas Yom HaShoah is so somber?  The merriment of Purim is based, not so much upon the attempted genocide itself, but rather upon the defeat of the genocidal plan; the victory of the Jewish people over antisemitism.  For while Haman plotted our destruction, unlike Hitler, Haman never succeeded in killing one single Jew.  Gratefully, when it comes to Purim, we have no Jews for whom to mourn.  Thanks to Queen Esther and her uncle Mordecai – true Jewish heroes – the implications of Haman’s hatred were not underestimated, but were effectively confronted before any harm could be done.  And that is a true cause for celebration.  The confronting of antisemitism – the confronting of hatred and bigotry – and stopping it in its tracks before it can take root – before it can draw blood – is a true cause for celebration.

There is much which the Purim story can teach us for our own day and age about both the nature of antisemitism and how to respond to it.  We make a serious mistake if we choose to believe that this story is just about the past.  It is about the present as well.  So what can we learn from it?

First of all, we should learn that while a certain amount of assimilation into the general society may serve us well, we are foolish to believe that assimilation in and of itself is the answer to antisemitism.

The Jews had a good life in Persia.  By most of their neighbors, they seem to have been completely accepted.  One of the ways that we can tell that the Jews were highly assimilated is by looking at the names of the characters.  Neither Esther nor Mordecai are Jewish names.  Greenberg believes that these names are based upon the names of the Babylonian goddess Ishtar and the Babylonian god Marduk.[4] It is not uncommon for Jews, when they feel welcomed by their non-Jewish neighbors, or they wish to make themselves more welcomed by those neighbors, that they put aside their Jewish names in favor of more socially acceptable ones.  One only need consider the names of most American Jews today to see this at work.  My name, “Henry,” is not a traditional Jewish name, and neither is my wife’s name, “Gail.”  Even most of those who have traditional Jewish names don’t pronounce them in their Hebrew fashion.  My son, for example, is named “Joshua,” not “Yehoshua.”

Nor is the assimilation of the Persian Jews at the time of the Purim story witnessed just in their names.  How much more assimilated can a Jew become than Esther?  Here is a Jewish woman who becomes queen of the land.  But she does not become queen like Joe Lieberman when he was running for president.  She does not wear her Judaism on her sleeve.  Quite the contrary.  For her, Jewish identity is a very personal and private matter.  If no one mentions it to her, she doesn’t mention it to them.  As far as she is concerned, what the non-Jews around her, including her own husband, don’t know won’t hurt her.  She doesn’t look Jewish.  She doesn’t act Jewish.  She doesn’t talk Jewish.  And at least as long as people don’t ask her, there is no assumption that she is Jewish.  Sound familiar?  It should.  So, you see, the Persian Jewish community at that time was not that different than ours today.

Yet even in a society where most people, including the king, seemed to be comfortable with living side by side with Jews, still there were those who were fueled by their hatred of us; who, those who, like Haman, saw us as a community apart from society; an alien presence; a threat requiring elimination, indeed extermination.  These are Haman’s words to Ahashuerus, “There is a certain people scattered and dispersed among all the other peoples in all the provinces of your realm, whose laws are different from those of any other people and who do not obey the king’s laws; and it is not in your Majesty’s interest to tolerate them.  If it please your Majesty, let an edict be drawn up for their destruction, and I will pay ten thousand talents of silver to the stewards for deposit in the royal treasury.”[5] Indeed, such people seem to hate us all the more for our trying to “fit in.”  Even though today these haters of Jews may be on the fringe of society, they still pose a real danger.  They pose a real danger because they always have the potential of locking on to an issue which gains them an audience of otherwise tolerant people.

Did we ourselves not experience this for several years, with a personality no less than Bill O’Reilly, on the Fox network, ranting and railing about the so-called “War on Christmas”?  Suddenly, he had a surprising number of our fellow Americans believing that Jews, and other religious minorities, but especially we Jews, were dead set on denying our Christian neighbors their sacred holiday.  Why?  Simply because we preferred such inclusive December salutations as “Happy Holidays” and “Seasons Greetings” over the Christian-only sentiment of “Merry Christmas.”

While being at one with the general society can never be the complete answer to antisemitism, it most certainly can be part of the solution.  We must remember that Mordecai was not just a good Jew.  He also was a good Persian.  Remember that it was Mordecai who uncovered the plot to assassinate King Ahashuerus.  He literally saved the king’s life, and for that he was rewarded, much to Haman’s chagrin.  But more than the reward he received at the time, it was his actions and his proven loyalty, as well as the love and loyalty of Queen Esther, which sowed the seeds for Haman’s undoing.  If Jews are to have any hope of safety in a society, then they must prove themselves, time and again, to be good citizens who contribute to well being of all.

Purim also teaches us that we must take the threats of antisemites seriously.  When Mordecai reported to Queen Esther Haman’s dark plot against our people, it would have been easy for her, in the safety of the royal palace, to tell him that he was blowing the situation way out of proportion; that it was inconceivable that Haman could ever achieve his goal.  There are still plenty of Jews today who would respond that way.  “I don’t want to rock the boat.  I don’t want to put myself at risk, simply because I am Jewish.”  Sad to say, this was the response of too many American Jews to the Holocaust, while it was happening.  Their fears for their own security kept them from protesting and from demanding that the United States open its doors to Jewish refugees; to demanding that the Allies bomb the extermination facilities.  If they had done so, God knows how many of our Europeans brothers and sisters would have been saved.  But they failed, and we know the results of their failure.

Esther, rather than hiding in the safety and security of the royal palace, chose to take Haman’s threat seriously; so much so that she took great personal risk in confronting and subduing it.  As a result, our people were saved.

Like Esther and Mordecai, the rabbis of the Talmud understood:  “Kawl Yisraeil aravim zeh ba-zeh” – “All Jews are responsible for each other.”[6] First and foremost, we are Jews, and as such, we need to take care of each other.  It is foolishness for we Jews to think that we can dissociate ourselves from our fellow Jews and from the challenges they face.  For in the end, those challenges will engulf us all, even if we try to hide from them in the deepest, darkest places, or for that matter, in the palace of the king.

Today, in Iran, there is yet another Haman, making similar threats – Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.  He has been seriously pursuing the production of nuclear weapons, coupled with unabashedly announcing his goal of using those weapons for the total elimination of the State of Israel.  He has proudly proclaims that “Israel must be wiped off the map!”  If we have learned anything from the Purim story – from the actions and the courage of Mordecai and Esther – then it is that it is imperative to take seriously those who make such threats, and to act according so as to insure that such plots never come to fruition.

Mordecai and Esther took Haman’s threats seriously, and they nipped his genocidal plan in the bud, and therefore we celebrate at Purim.  On the other hand, far too many refused to take Hitler’s threats seriously until it was too late, and therefore we mourn on Yom HaShoah.  Today, there are those, like Ahmadinejad, and Hamas, and Hezbollah, and a frightening number of Neo-Nazi hate groups, who continue in the tradition of Haman, threatening to extinguish the existence of the Jewish people.  The sad and hard truth is that once antisemitism is unleashed in a society, we Jews have little choice.   We have to be willing to fight long and hard to eradicate it.  And that job is not just the job of any one Jew or any one group of Jews.  It is the job of all Jews.  It is our job.  We have to do it.  We cannot stand by silently, waiting for the threatened danger to disappear like a cloud of smoke.  For it is not a cloud of smoke.  It is tangible.  It is lethal.  And it will remain so unless we act to dismantle it.   To such threats, Purim challenges us to respond in the manner of Mordecai and Esther, for the future of our people is in our hands.  In the years to come, will the nature of our response to such antisemitism give rise to another Purim celebration or another Yom HaShoah memorial?


[1] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Megillot 7b.

[2] Greenberg, Rabbi Irving, THE JEWISH WAY: LIVING WITH THE HOLIDAYS, p. 224.

[3] Conot, Robert E., JUSTICE AT NUREMBERG, p. 506.

[4] Greenberg, 227.

[5] ESTHER 3:8-9.

[6] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shevuot 39a.

Chabad in the Quad Cities

January 9, 2010






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.

Reflections on a Jewish Christmas

December 29, 2009

This is my first posting on this blog, so forgive me if I mess it up.

Right now we are in that American holiday limbo between Christmas and New Years.  Yet I cannot shake my discomfort with this year’s Christmas day experiences.

Many people wonder, “What do Jews do on Christmas?”  I know one antisemitic joke responds that we all gather around our cash registers and sing, “O What a Friend I Have in Jesus!”  Well, I just recently turned 60 years old and can say from my own life experiences that I have never witnessed or heard of anything remotely resembling that remark.  Indeed, when you consider who own the major merchandising firms today, the overwhelming majority of these folks are Christian.  I have always been astounded at how hate filled and bitter this joke is; all the more so since it is attached to a season which is supposed to be dedicated to “Peace on Earth, Good Will Toward All”.

All my life, as a Jew, I have found the Christmas season to be one of both great beauty – physical & spiritual – and great discomfort.

I have always loved the lights and the festive spirit.  As a child, on Christmas eve, my family would pile into our car and my father would drive us all around town so we could admire the lights.  I still do that with my own children.  As I have grown older, I have increasingly grown to appreciate the uplifting messages of the Christmas stories, songs, and films.  I am a collector of DVDs and yes, I admit it, I own copies all three of Tim Allen’s SANTA CLAUSE movies, Bill Murray’s SCROOGED (I have always adored Dickens’ A CHRISTMAS CAROL), and of course, IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE.  Christmas Shistmas!  I find these stories to be universally applicable and universally enlightening.  There is much of great value that this holiday season offers all people, regardless of faith affiliations.

Yet there is the discomforting part of Christmas as well.  In my opinion, there is no other time of the year in which Jews find themselves feeling more on the outside of American society than now.  Granted, we are a religious minority living in a predominantly Christian population.  I fully understand and appreciate that, and I do not in the least begrudge my Christian neighbors the joy and the wonder of their very special holiday.  Indeed, I pray that they would actually take the true meaning of this day more to heart.  For Christmas is not, or more correctly, should not be centered around its commercial and material aspects.  Rather, our Christian neighbors should focus on the profound spiritual message of the day.  Borrowing a term from my own faith tradition, Christmas is a Christian High Holy Day and should be treated as such.

Yet all that being said, as a Jew, I must admit that I find the constant barrage of music extolling Jesus as lord and savior, which one encounters in the stores, in the restaurants, on the radio, on TV, and most painfully, in the public school music programs to be a wearying assault on the very validity of being a non-Christian in America.  Indeed, it saddens me when I witness Jewish and other non-Christian children, whose love of music has led them to desiring to participate in public school music programs, both choral and instrumental, being called upon to praise Jesus in song, declaring him a spiritual king.  It has broken my heart to watch as my own children have ultimately come to their own decisions to give up their beloved music activities rather than continue to buck the tide.  My youngest daughter attends a public high school which has a “tradition” of  performing Handel’s MESSIAH every year at this time – and I find that an outrageous violation of the First Amendment’s guarantee that the government will strictly refrain from promoting any one faith over the others.

Then, as if to add insult to injury, a few years back Bill O’Reilly started in on his rants about”The War on Christmas” and that red herring just refuses to let go.  One cannot imagine how painful it is to be considered an enemy of Christmas and Christians simply because one advocates in our society on behalf of a increase in multi-cultural and multi-faith sensitivities.  It was a dark day, indeed for America, when there arose those who proclaimed that the greetings of “Happy Holidays” and “Seasons Greetings” were part of a nefarious conspiracy to destroy the very essence of Christianity.  My-way-or-the-highway seasonal greetings?  Who would have thunk it?  I do not know about the rest of my fellow Jews, but I for one am weary of being considered the Grinch Who Stole Christmas just because I am proud enough to say that in our society there are more faiths than just Christianity.  What ever happened to “live and let live”?

So one can say that part of what Jews do on Christmas is to both bask in the beauty of the season and persevere, looking forward to its passing.

But still, what do Jews actually do on Christmas day?  For many of us, we have half jokingly called it our tradition to go out for Chinese food and then to a movie.  Why Chinese food?  Because, until recently, the Chinese restaurants were the only ones open on Christmas.  And how about the movies?  They, too, were the only form of entertainment outside of the home which was available on Christmas day.  And besides, with all the Christians gathering in their homes, with their families, opening their presents under their Christmas trees, drinking egg nog, and wearing festive clothing in green and red, both the Chinese restaurants and the movie theaters were pretty empty.  Service was good and you could always get in to see a film.  In fact, back when I was in Lincoln, Nebraska, I knew of one Jewish family who hopped from movie theater to movie theater on Christmas day, always striving to break their own record as to how many films they could see.  The Chinese restaurants and the movie theaters were somewhat of a Jewish haven on this most Christian of days.  We enjoyed having them to ourselves.

That is until recently.  Over the last few years, I have been surprised at how many others have joined us in those “Jewish havens” on this most “Christian of days.”  The places have been packed.  Indeed, this year on Christmas day my family and I encountered bigger crowds in the movie theater than at any other time during the rest of the year.  It was like a mirror image of all the Christmas days at the movies of my youth and even my middle age!  Gazing upon the massive crowds, my daughter asked me, “Aren’t these people supposed to be in church or something?  Aren’t they supposed to be over at Grandma’s house visiting with their family?”  And I joined her in my wonderment.  It seemed as though the secret of the Jewish Christmas had leaked out and now everyone wanted to take advantage of it.

But tongue-&-cheek aside, I found it disturbing on a more essential level.  Over some time now, there has been a lot of talk in our society about “family values”; how they seem to be slipping away and how we need to grasp them greedily and fold them back into our lives.  Well, Christmas for Christian, like Pesach for Jews, and Thanksgiving for all Americans, has traditionally been a bastion of family values living.  Traditionally, these have been times when families have moved heaven and earth, if necessary, to come together and be with each other.  The Christmas table, the Seder table, the Thanksgiving table, have been the sacred altars of reaffirming family life.  But as Christians as well as Jews flock to the Chinese restaurants and the movies on Christmas day, one cannot help but feel that once again the American family has taken a major hit.  The song says, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and not “I’ll Meet You at the Movies.  Make sure to get the popcorn and the pop.”  And this has saddened me, saddened me greatly, even though this is not my holiday.  For it is another victory for the secularization and the commercialization of Christmas; another defeat for what are supposed to be the essential messages of the holiday; another defeat for the spirituality of Christmas.

So as a Jew, why should I care?  After all, this is a Christian holiday.  I care because whenever the spiritual is defeated by the secular, we all suffer, whether we realize it or not.  As American Christians become more secular, so do American Jews and Muslims and Hindus and Buddhists, and you get the idea.  Regardless of our faiths, our various spiritualities are interconnected and interdependent.  Their defeat is our defeat and our defeat is theirs.  And in these defeats, we move further away from each other and further away from God.