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It's a Matter of How You Say It

When I started writing a couple of years ago, I was careful not to explicitly insult too many people. I shied away from controversy. But the more I write, and the more I age, or should I say mature, I have realised that I am, and can afford to be, an equal opportunity bully.

Having often travelled to the Far East, I, and many other religious visitors, appreciate dropping into one of the many Habad centres and restaurants. Their existence makes travel in these regions easier and more pleasant. And they really do go out of their way to be helpful.

But I cannot agree with Chabad's position on many topics. As one of my rabbis, originally from New York and quite far from any type of Hassidism, says, "I was very close to the Lubavicher Rebbe -- it's with the hassidim that I have a problem". Of course not all of Rabbi Schneersohn's disciples are identical -- far from it as we shall see.

I have written of some of my personal experiences with Habad in a previous piece, though without mentioning the words Habad nor Lubavich. There I alliterated a thinly disguised synonym which also reflected my childish sense of humour. Now that I am an accomplished writer, I no longer feel the need to veil my opinions, and I am more than happy to be controversial.

Unlike me, my cousin grew up in North America, but in circumstances similar to mine in Sydney, he grew up in a very small Jewish community: one or two orthodox synagogues; not too many "overly" observant Jews; a bare minyan on Shabbath, but a full-house on Yom Kippur; a small, general Jewish primary school; availability of kosher food; you get the idea. Though the city is large, the Jewish population within is not.

Things plodded along. They could have been a lot better. But in those days most western diaspora Jews were happy living in the Galut. No-one bothered to take biblical prophesy too seriously, so they, like us, never thought too seriously about leaving for home in Israel. Barely a generation after the holocaust, our Jews were satisfied just to be left alone.

Then, as was happening in many small Jewish communities around the world in the early seventies, Lubavich arrives in town. Not in big numbers, a marching band leading the way. No, just one lone family. Sometimes these people arrive in official communal positions, rabbi or teacher, but more often than not, they just turn up one bright morning. And set up shop.

We're not talking about Chang Mei, Thailand, where Lubavich exist specifically to provide Jewish services to lost [post-army] Israelis in an attempt to prevent them from the lure of Buddism or of the many other Eastern "isms" seemingly offering nirvana, filling the spiritual void. The Lubavichers show the face of Judaism of which the army graduates were robbed by a secular government's education system, a lifestyle to which they were never exposed in their childhood.

Not so the so-called Lubavich emissaries arriving in small Jewish communities in the West. They often seem intent on displacing the established community with something "better".

And so it was in my cousin's town. The existing Jewish school is just that, struggling to maintain itself. Out of the blue one day, my cousin's mother (also my cousin -- how confusing is this, but I have a big family) gets a phone call canvassing her sons . . . for the "new" local school, a new institution under the auspices of Lubavich. My cousin's mother fumes. She is very involved in the local little school (and in the community in general), and she immediately realises that any attempt at competition in this arena only serves to destroy what already exists. She goes ballistic. She gives the self appointed emissary a piece of her mind. Not that he wasn't persistent.

Fortunately most locals feel the same way, and after a good yell, each in turn ostracise the hassid. Not to be perturbed, he goes ahead to start the school. He obviously has a sugar daddy; they often do.

Fortunately good sense prevails in our case. But unfortunately this is not always the case. Offers of free Jewish education often surpass common sense.

In our story, only two students sign up and the newcomer needs to change his plans.

In Lubavich, emissaries are not allowed to give up. Failure is not in their vocabulary. For example, when the contract of the rabbi of a synagogue in Hong Kong was not renewed a few years back, the rabbi remained. He just moved into a hotel down the road and carried on in competition with the existing congregation. Similarly in Adelaide, Australia (this case is currently before the courts so we shouldn't discuss the specifics) the rabbi's position is terminated and but he stays put. A short while later he is charged for having had a sticky finger in the government's education pot. Had he left town, he may have spared himself the pain, and the embarrassment.

My cousin's rabbi stayed around to open a kosher pizza shop, a business that could only succeed in a small community if it didn't openly project itself as a Jewish "hang-out". But Habadniks never play it low key. High key is the word in their dictionary.

My cousin and his mother would occasionally drop in for a bite at this establishment, located in the busy local shopping centre.

One day, my cousin, by now in high school, dropped in with a couple of friends for a slice of pizza. They each ordered a slice and a can of Pepsi. So far sounds good.

What does our clever proselyting rabbi say to my cousin, in easy earshot of his friends, as he hands him his slice?

"When you come here with your mother you wear a kippa -- with your friends you come bareheaded!?"

My cousin was by now at a very impressionable age. Like most of his peers, he was questioning, questioning many things, questioning everything.

I have no doubt (nor does his mother) that this experience profoundly effected his decision to leave religious practice behind.


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