In perhaps the most explosive exposé to date, the JTA's Philip Carmel lays out the dirty tricks, lies and subterfuge Chabad is using to take over the Jewish communities of Europe. [Hat Tip: Sultan Knish.]
As you read how Chabad runs roughshod over Europe's rabbis – a good portion of them Modern Orthodox – please keep in mind that the world's epicenter of Modern Orthodoxy, Yeshiva University and its rabbis, remains silent. Apparently Chabad's thuggery is – like most pressing issues in today's Jewish world – of no concern to Rabbis Schachter and Willig, who continue to prove themselves both incapable of leadership and unworthy of their jobs. Richard Joel, are you listening?
BATTLING FOR EUROPE’S JEWS (Part 2)
In capital of European Union,
Chabad wields great influence
By Philip Carmel
BRUSSELS, April 20 (JTA) — Across the street from the headquarters of the European Commission, in the very heart of the European Union, is the office of the Rabbinical Center of Europe. It looks like a war room: Stretched across one wall is a gigantic map of the European continent, stuck with hundreds of pins from Ireland to Kyrgyzstan. Each pin represents a Chabad rabbi affiliated with the center.
This is a map of Chabad-Lubavitch’s sphere of influence in Europe. Sitting beneath it and surrounded by the flags of the E.U.’s 25 member states, Rabbi Menachem Margolin, the Rabbinical Center’s secretary-general, is proud of what his group has achieved in its four years in Brussels.
“We have around 700 rabbis across Europe who look to us for spiritual and technical guidance,” he says.
In a sense, there is a battle going on. For Chabad, it is a battle for the souls of lost Jews; its foot soldiers are the thousands of Chabad emissaries sent to spread yiddishkeit across the globe.
But for many Jewish organizations in Europe, it looks increasingly like a battle for control over Jewish communities and institutions.
Here, in the political capital of Europe, the activities of the Rabbinical Center have ramifications for Jewish political and communal interests throughout the continent. At a time when anti-Semitism and Israel’s image in Europe are occupying the international Jewish agenda, the battle for political recognition, influence — and public funding — has intensified.
“It’s a great sadness that this duplication exists in a Europe of 25 states where for the first time ever Jews are protected under the law and can cast off their shackles,” says Jonathan Joseph, president of the European Council of Jewish Communities. “It’s such a pity that having come this far, we should dissipate our energies with factionalism.”
The Chabad enterprise in Europe is coordinated through the Rabbinical Center in Brussels, acting either alone or through its affiliated organizations, most notably the European Jewish Community Center and a student organization, which maintain offices in the same building.
Although the struggle is described by others in the European Jewish community as one between themselves and Chabad, Margolin and his associates in Brussels say that the organizations they head are not Chabad institutions, though they are proud Lubavitchers themselves.
The words “Chabad” or “Lubavitch” do not appear on any doors in the building, nor are they used on the letterhead of the Rabbinical Center or the community center. In early 2004, the word “Chabad” was removed from the masthead of the center’s Web site.
“I want to make it clear that the RCE is not a Chabad institution,” says the center’s director, Rabbi Moshe Garelik. “Chabad helped us at the beginning with things like the Web site, but some of our supporters would not feel comfortable with the RCE as a Chabad organization.”
It is clear, however, that both the Rabbinical Center and the European Jewish Community Center were created as Chabad institutions and are still so considered by Chabad headquarters in Brooklyn. The official Web site of Chabad-Lubavitch lists the Rabbinical Center as one of the movement’s institutions in Brussels.
And Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, the New York-based development director for Chabad’s international emissary network, says Garelik was placed in Brussels by his organization.
Some Jewish organizations in Europe criticize the center’s use of the acronym RCE, the same three letters, albeit in a different order, as those used by the continent’s pre-existing Orthodox rabbinical group, the Conference of European Rabbis.
However, Margolin says that his group’s choice of name reflects its pluralist approach. “In order to make sure there is no mistake about our willingness to help any and all we decided to indicate that in our name,” he explained in an email.
Other Jewish leaders feel there’s more behind it, suggesting that Chabad wants to present themselves as the primary representative of the Jewish people.
“I’d want them to say that they are really Chabad in order not to mix up terms,” says Rabbi Avraham Guigui, chief rabbi of Belgium’s Consistoire, an umbrella organization.
In what looks like a further effort to distance itself from its Chabad connection, the European Jewish Community Center does not use its last initial in its logo, referring to itself as the “EJC.” These are the same initials used by the European Jewish Congress, the long-established umbrella body representing 38 national Jewish communities across Europe.
“We will certainly be confronting Chabad about this issue,” says Cobi Benatoff, president of the European Jewish Congress. “This way of misleading people is not the Jewish way.”
Currently, the European Commission, the executive branch of the European Union, works on a political level only with the European Jewish Congress and the Conference of European Rabbis. Some Jewish leaders fear that the Rabbinical Center and the Chabad rabbis it represents are trying to change that, and to present themselves as the officially recognized Jewish community of Europe.
It’s not just Jewish communal leaders who are concerned. Last year Ricardo Levi, then-director of the Group of Policy Advisers to the president of the European Commission and the staffer who personally handled Jewish-related issues for the commission, suggested that the Conference of European Rabbis open a Brussels office in order to counteract the Rabbinical Center’s influence among European legislators and officials.
Levi’s initiative came amid concern in the European Commission over the close ties between the Rabbinical Center and Russian President Vladimir Putin. E.U. officials have also said they are uncomfortable with the idea of European Jewish communities being represented in Brussels solely by a fervently Orthodox group.
What are they doing in Brussels?
Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, the Brooklyn-based administrative head of the international Chabad-Lubavitch movement, says that Garelik’s principal role “was and is to coordinate all the rabbis who are emissaries in West and Eastern Europe and bring them together in one coordinated group for all necessary rabbinic functions.”
Because Garelik is in Brussels, however, Krinsky added, “he’s also the liaison between the emissaries and the E.U. countries.”
Margolin confirms that these are the two main functions of the Rabbinical Center, which he and Garelik direct.
In an e-mail statement to the JTA, Margolin says the Rabbinical Center is in Brussels “in order to serve European Jewry’s needs and to facilitate the numerous requests of rabbis and communities continent-wide.” He added that the group tries to “work closely with European Union institutions on problem-solving and various aspects of advocacy.”
To that end, the rabbinic group states it is involved in such activities as training and dispatching new rabbis; providing cantors, shochets and mohels to local communities; providing a Beit Din and rendering decisions on halachah, or Jewish law; and assisting with funerals, mikvahs and other ritual needs.
The Rabbinical Center’s energetic appearance on the European scene comes at a time when the worldwide Chabad movement is going through its own internal turmoil. The checks and balances that the late Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, personally exerted over his emissaries have largely dissipated in the decade since his death, leaving the playing field wide open to those emissaries who have the skills and drive to assert their own agendas.
A whole new cadre of young, savvy Chabad emissaries has come of age, men like Garelik and Rabbi Levi Matusof, director of the European Jewish Community Center, who move easily in political circles.
Matusof, still in his twenties and fluent in English and French, spends much of his time lobbying European lawmakers and commissioners for political recognition, though he says that his principal duty is to serve the religious needs of the Jewish staffers at the European Commission.
The son of the Chabad-Lubavitch emissary in Cannes in the south of France, Matusof works closely with Garelik, himself the son of a prominent Chabad rabbi in Milan, Italy.
This generational change has led to a discrepancy between the largely cordial relationships that the older, established Chabad rabbis maintained with the more mainstream and established European Jewish Congress and the Conference of European Rabbis, and the readiness of some of the younger, newer rabbis to rock the communal boat.
Such is the case in Austria, where Chabad Rabbi Jacob Biderman is trying to secure government recognition of his own Jewish community alongside the pre-existing official Jewish community. If he succeeds, it will be the first time in Austrian history that two official Jewish communities exist.
Biderman maintains close ties with Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel, in contrast to the stormy relationship between Schuessel and Ariel Muzicant, leader of Austria’s official Jewish community. Many feel the latter animosity is fueled by Muzicant’s persistent demands for increased security for Jewish communal institutions.
Biderman has a more nuanced approach to the question of anti-Semitism in Europe — as do many Chabad rabbis. This has contributed to their popularity with some European political leaders, who are not fond of Jews who always remind them of the Holocaust, who push anti-Semitism in their faces. Chabad, on the other hand, appears to work smoothly with them, invites them to parties, hands out prizes, and seems to have a bottomless supply of overseas funding.
These battles between the Rabbinical Center and mainstream Jewish organizations in Europe have become particularly acute during the past year. Most specifically, the center has a troubled relationship with the Conference of European Rabbis.
Margolin insists the Rabbinical Center doesn’t want to ruffle feathers. “There are a number of rabbinic and communal organizations on the European continent,” he says. “We strive to cooperate and maintain good relations with all of them.”
From East to West
One of those organizations the Rabbinical Council strives to cooperate with is the Federation of Jewish Communities of the Commonwealth of Independent States, a Moscow-centered umbrella group founded in 1988 under the leadership of Chabad’s chief rabbi for Russia, Berel Lazar.
The federation is by far the dominant Jewish religious force in the former Soviet Union, recognized as the official voice of local Jewry by the heads of most countries in which it is active — most notably by Putin. And some senior European Jewish leaders fear Chabad is trying to do the same thing in Western Europe.
Early last year in Vienna, the Rabbinical Center honored former European Commission President Romano Prodi with a humanitarian award. The award came just weeks after the European Jewish Congress and its New York-based parent body, the World Jewish Congress, accused Prodi in London’s Financial Times of not being tough enough on anti-Semitism.
Chabad rabbis from across Europe attended Prodi’s award ceremony, and were presented by the Rabbinical Center as the senior Jewish religious heads in their respective countries — countries which, in some cases, had other, officially recognized chief rabbis.
The Rabbinical Center tries to boost the status of Chabad rabbis in various countries by bestowing honors on those countries’ political leaders, but the opposite is also true: The center pays back political leaders who support Chabad.
One of the first examples of this occurred prior to a key E.U-Russia summit in Brussels in 2002, where Lazar praised Putin’s relations with the Russian Jewish community at a meeting the Rabbinical Center arranged with Prodi at the European Commission.
Similarly, in December 2004, just days before the European Union prepared to debate possible candidacy status for Turkey, the Rabbinical Center held a key meeting with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayiip Erdogan in Brussels where they called for speeded-up candidacy for Turkish membership in the European Union.
Last December in Strasbourg, the European Jewish Community Center held its Chanukah candle-lighting ceremony in the European Parliament.
As dozens of European lawmakers and their assistants gathered in front of the menorah, Rabbi Shmuel Samama, director of Strasbourg’s Chabad House, was introduced to the legislators by Matusof as “rabbi of the Strasbourg Jewish community.”
No mention was made of the dozen or so other rabbis working today in Strasbourg, including the official chief rabbi of Bas Rhin, the French region in which Strasbourg is situated.
Watching alongside was the event’s co-organizer and Samama’s son, Rabbi Menachem Samama. He noted that today, much of the on-the-ground work with European political leaders is being done by young Chabad rabbis like himself.
“We’re young and we have the time and the energy,” Samama said. “When you’re young like us, you want to change the world.”
The entire 5 part JTA series can be read here.