Conceivably the most prevalent, and ubiquitous, force within the Orthodox community today is the Chabad-Lubavitch movement. Everyone from patrons to journalists have been mystified, though duly impressed, by the enigma of those persistent, energetic bunch that call themselves Lubavitchers. Personally, as a Ba’alas Teshuva through the Lubavitch movement, I found myself intrinsically and irrevocably bound up with these amazing people when I moved to Crown Heights to pursue my Jewish education. My journey here was a long one, but once here the adventure has only continued as I discover more about the Orthodox community as whole, and how Lubavitch fits into that picture.
Many Orthodox people I have talked to have had not only negative, but generalist and stereotypical views of the Lubavitch sect. Many express disapproval of the overemphasis on the Lubavitcher Rebbe as opposed to Hashem, and others resent that it is Lubavitch’s job to “save” other people.
Miriam Mizrachi, however, has a lot of respect for the Rebbe. “He worked so hard to mikarev people all over the world, and I really respect him for that,” the non-Lubavitch Monsey native confided in me. “But whether he’s alive or not? I have no clue.” After much prodding, she admitted that when the so-called “Lubabs” were brought up in conversations, “…there’s snickers. They’re kind of looked at like they fell off a different planet. They’re really just not taken seriously.”
What is it exactly that perturbs the Orthodox community so much about Lubavitchers? In 2002, Dr. David Berger wrote an inflammatory piece asserting that Lubavitcher Chassidim are idol worshippers, and that their views on the Rebbe after his passing smack of the Christian second coming, l’havdil. However, as astutely pointed out by Rabbi Chaim Dalfin in his book Attack on Lubavitch, Dr. Berger did not visit the schools and homes he declared were brainwashing their children and members of the community. His rabble-rousing work is very loosely based on fact and first hand experience. Using this as a macrocosm for Orthodox Jewry today, I am distressed at the misconceptions and vast generalities that are used to describe the highly intellectual and remarkably sensitive group that are proud to call themselves Lubavitchers.
Something I feel strongly about, and I’m not sure if it is because I am coming from the outside, is that for Orthodox Jewry to survive, influence others, and influence the world, we must unite. Prejudices and stereotypes are dangerous for the well-being of the Jewish people and the world. Unity is essential. However, a universal response to Lubavitcher’s way of life is open disapproval and disgust. Meanwhile, Lubavitch’s very philosophy is centered around achdus - an ideal to be looked up at and not shunned.
Lubavitchers are well aware of the rifts forming between them and the rest of Orthodox Jewry. “Our beliefs are based on Chassidus, which is not any different than Torah, but rather an explanation – spicing things up,” my Lubavitch classmate Esther Leah Munitz explained. “I think Lubavitch is just another group or type of Jews – like Satmar or Modern Orthodox,” her cousin Bayla Bryski adds. Many of my classmates have cousins who are not Lubavitch or even a parent who abandoned another type of Chassidic or non-religious lifestyle in favor of the Chabad way.
However much Lubavitch seems integrated into the myriad sects that make up Orthodox Jewry, there is no denying it stands out as its own, undeniable and unique force as a force on the world at large.