By Lawrence M. Reisman
A recent op-ed piece in The Jewish Press caught my eye. Called “Time to Give Chabad Its Due,” written by Rabbi Sholom Kalmanson of Cincinnati, it is, in part, a response to a recent Jewish Press article by Rabbi Meir Goldberg which stated that “Kiruv in its early stages was performed mostly by the Torah Umesorah day school movement and NCSY, with their emphasis on reaching children and teens. Eventually, they were joined by Chabad…” Rabbi Kalmanson sincerely believes that Chabad has been slighted, going on to complain that “I can’t even count the number of times I’ve seen an article in which this or that organization claims to be the “first and oldest outreach organization,” and in which Chabad’s pioneering activity is slighted, if it’s mentioned at all.” …
Having been tangentially involved in the kiruv business (as a consumer) in the early 1970s, I know first hand that for so many years, Chabad labored, if not alone, certainly unique in the size and scope of its activities. I also know that in those far distant times, kiruv was looked down upon by most of the Orthodox world as a frivolous activity. I also believe that today, the only reason why kiruv is regarded with any respect is because Chabad’s efforts in bringing kiruv to the front and center of the agenda. We can all name persons who are honored today for their kiruv work: the Bostoner Rebbe, Rav Noach Weinberg, etc. etc. That honor has only been bestowed on them in recent years, and only because Chabad made kiruv an honorable activity.
Let me go even further. I first became interested in Orthodox Judaism as a 12 and 13 year old, due to a number of unique experiences, none of which involved Chabad. However, visiting my Orthodox relatives in Borough Park for a Simchas Torah in 1964, I remember one perplexed relative totally clueless, unable to understand why someone who was not Orthodox would want to become Orthodox. I doubt he was alone. Today, no one would be so perplexed. Unlike 40 years ago, the Orthodox Jewish mindset today comprehends that Orthodoxy can appeal to those who were not born that way, and that mindset exists only because of the accomplishments of Chabad.
So why this posting, and why here, of all places? Like any number of observers of the Jewish scene, I’ve get just a bit annoyed when Chabad tries to take credit for every single positive development in Jewish life since the invention of the dreidle. Years ago, I locked horns with Rabbi Shmuel Butman on the pages of The Jewish Press, and now I feel compelled to go to battle once again.
What has Rabbi Kalmanson said that bothers me so? Well, here goes:
“Anyone familiar with the development of Judaism in America knows that almost immediately after he arrived in the U.S. in March 1940, the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe proclaimed he’d come here to demonstrate that “America is not different” – that even in America one could live as a traditional Jew.” Hardly a unique comment. Rav Moshe Feinstein said the same thing when he came in 1935. Rav Aharon Kotler said the same thing when he came a year later. So did any number of others. No one gets credit for saying the obvious. Why then should the Rayyatz?
“And so, as virtually his first order of business in America, the Rebbe founded the first Lubavitcher yeshiva on these shores. That very same day he also established Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, the educational arm of Chabad, thereby sowing the seeds of Torah-true education in America.” Sorry Rabbi Kalmanson, but the seeds of Torah-true education were sown much earlier. They were sown in the first quarter of the 20th century when brave individuals started such institutions as Yeshiva Rabbi Jacob Joseph, Yeshiva Chaim Berlin, Yeshiva Torah Vodaas. They were sown in the 1920s and 1930 with the first two girls schools, Shulamith in 1929 and the Bais Yaakov of Williamsburg in 1938. They were sown with the founding of the Maimonides school in Boston, and with day schools in Los Angeles, Washington DC, Miami, and several in suburban New Jersey before the Rebbe started anything.
Those seeds were growing with the hundreds of boys who went to Europe and Eretz Yisroel to study in Yeshivos, starting in the 1920s. Rabbi Kalmanson, did you know that among the talmidim of the Chevron yeshiva who died in the 1929 massacre were four boys from Chicago? Did you know that in 1939, one-sixth of the Lithuanian Mirrer yeshiva’s students were American? There were Americans in Telz, Brisk, Kletzk, and Slabodka. Before the Rayyatz stepped foot on these shores, there were even American boys in Yeshiva Tomchei Temimim Lubavitch?
If Rabbi Kalmanson insists on crediting Chabad for sowing the seeds of Torah Judaism in America, he also exaggerates Chabad achievements in other ways, thus he states that “it was Chabad that established the first yeshivas for baalei teshuvah (Hadar Hatorah for men and Machon Chanah for women) in the early 1960’s. (Non-Chabad baal teshuvah yeshivas followed years later – Ohr Somayach, for example, did not come into existence until 1970, and Aish HaTorah was founded in 1974.)” Sorry again, Rabbi. The first Baal Teshuva Yeshiva was the James Striar School of Yeshiva University, started in 1956. And while we’re at it, Yeshiva University High School had a mechina program long before Chabad opened Yeshiva Chanoch LeNaar.
The exaggerations continue. Thus Rabbi Kalmanson asserts that “When Yeshiva Torah Vodaath was in dire need – on the verge of bankruptcy – and the banks were going to repossess the school’s building, an urgent appeal for help was made in the press. The Rebbe called Reb Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz and donated hundreds of thousands of dollars – equivalent to millions today – to resolve the problem” I doubt Chabad had the resources to give Torah Vodaas that type of money, and I further doubt the willingness of Chabad to donate such funds to a non-Chabad institution. I will wait for others to offer evidence on the matter.
Again, Rabbi Kalmanson writes that “My sister was executive secretary to Dr. Joseph Kaminetzky at Torah Umesorah in the 1960’s when Olomeinu, the children’s monthly magazine (founded to compete with the Talks and Tales children’s magazine published by Chabad since 1942) was in danger of shutting down due to financial problems. The Rebbe called Dr. Kaminetzky and donated the amount of money needed to save Olomeinu.” The problem? According to all other historical accounts, the Rebbe made a $5,000 loan, not a gift of any sort.
This paragraph brings up another issue I have with Chabad, questioning the motives of others by saying that Olameinu was founded to compete with Talks and Tales, as if there were no better reason to start it. I am not the only one who has heard a Lubavitcher assert that Torah Umesorah was started only to keep Chabad from opening day schools outside New York. When discussing the efforts of others, there is a constant undertone of questioning motives, of seeing an ulterior purpose in what others do. It’s as if Chabad is unwilling to admit that others Jews are capable of working leshaim shemayim.
Sometimes the exaggerations and the aspersions go hand in hand. I have read more than once how Chabad started the first Orthodox Jewish camps in America, Gan Yisroel for boys in 1949 and Emunah for girls in 1954. However, Camp Mesifta was founded in 1937, Camp Agudah in 1941 (both for boys) and Camp Bais Yaakov (for girls) in 1944. In addition, Camp Massad, the pioneer modern Orthodox camp for boys was started in the 1930s as well. So how to claim being first? An advertisement in last year’s Jewish papers lauded the founding of Camp Gan Yisroel by stating that any camps started earlier were either summer homes for yeshivas, or nothing more than glorified baby-sitting services for Orthodox parents who wanted to be free of their children for the summer. I doubt that the founders, directors, and staff of these camps would have appreciated hearing their hopes, ideals, and efforts dismissed in such a cavalier fashion.
What makes this especially galling is that for so many years, it was the mighty efforts of others that allowed Chabad to conduct its massive kiruv campaign. Torah Judaism requires institutions and structures to flourish. Much effort was put into establishing those institutions and structures by American Jews who were not Chabad. Chabad availed themselves of other’s work. For over 20 years, Chabad girls attended the Bais Yaakov of Williamsburg high school and teachers’ seminary because they didn’t have one of their own. For many, the beginnings of a shelichus came with a job offer from a Torah Umesorah day school in some distant city. That school allowed the Chabad shliach to educate his children close to home. The benefits worked both ways. An acquaintance of mine remembered the Lubavitcher girls in Bais Yaakov as “the glatt of the glatt,” and the Lubavitcher teachers who went out of town to teach were pillars of the schools in which they worked. The relationship was symbiotic, but to hear Chabad talk about it, the benefits only flowed in one direction.
Rabbi Kalmanson asks, “If someone has a problem with anything about Chabad, why not discuss it with a Chabadnik? Why not talk it out intelligently?” Because, Rabbi Kalmanson, this is what we are subjected to when we try.
Another thing Rabbi Kalmanson writes about, he states that “many (if not most) of today’s non-Chabad kiruv rabbis (and rebbetzins) are themselves beneficiaries of the Chabad outreach network. .... it truly is a shande (disgrace) that many of them seem to be embarrassed that it was Chabad that introduced them to Torah-true Judaism.” I don’t know if this is again an exaggeration, I will not argue the point. But it does bring up something about Chabad kiruv that Chabad does not like to mention. There are any number of ways Orthodox Jews practice their religion. Not everyone is alike, and not everyone is suited to the same derech. Someone’s initial contact might be with NCSY, or Breslov, or Aish haTorah, and end up in Chabad, because it suits them better. Conversely, someone could with Chabad, and decide they are better suited somewhere else. When this happens, Chabad cuts off all contact. It is not a overt or explicit policy, but it happens. I have seen it, and so have many others. It’s as if Chabad is interested in mekareving Jews to Chabad, not to Yiddishkeit. If this is not the case, then they are very good at giving the wrong impression.
Rabbi Kalmanson states that with regard to outreach “Chabad ...continues to set the standard” Sorry, but others have set a far higher standard; outreach for outreach’s sake, without regard to where the “target” ends up. It certainly makes for more achdus (unity) in the entire Jewish community, something Rabbi Kalmanson claims Chabad seeks.
So much more could be said, but I’ll let others do it. However, Rabbi Kalmanson, stated that he “is happy to discuss any matter with any serious individual seeking to learn about Chabad.” Yesterday, I e-mailed him with some of the comments printed here. I have yet to hear a reply from him. At least when I clashed with Rabbi Butman 17 years ago, he attempted to give me an answer.
I would add this. Rabbi Kalmanson writes:
And so, as virtually his first order of business in America, the [Frierdiker] Rebbe [Yosef Yitzchok Schneersohn] founded the first Lubavitcher yeshiva on these shores. That very same day he also established Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, the educational arm of Chabad, thereby sowing the seeds of Torah-true education in America. The next day, he formally launched Chabad-Lubavitch outreach activities in the U.S.
As Bryan Mark Rigg has shown, the Frierdiker Rebbe raised money with the announced purpose of rescuing Jews from the Holocaust. Instead, he used much of that money to start that Lubavitch yeshiva Rabbi Kalmanson mentions.]