Earlier this year Rabbi Eric Yoffie, head of the Union for Reform Judaism, talked a little smack about Chabad’s willingness to sign kids up for Bar Mitzvahs without requiring them to attend a ton of classes or forcing their parents to start showing up to shul:
Chabad, however, is often the address for those who wish to avoid serious requirements for the child or family. It is the place that you go when you do not want to join a synagogue or subject your child to a meaningful course of study. The rationale offered is that no child should be denied a Bar Mitzvah, and even with little serious training, the child and family – who are probably unaffiliated – may later be drawn into Jewish life. Perhaps.
More likely, the lesson that is absorbed is that Judaism is not a serious endeavor and that even the most significant milestones require only a modicum of work and preparation. Let me be clear: no family should ever be denied membership in a synagogue because of inability to pay. But we should protest when Chabad, or anyone else, becomes a voice of Jewish minimalism that lowers educational standards in our communities.
Now Chabad is firing back. Here’s a snippet from the recently posted reply from Chana Silberstein, the educational director at Chabad at Cornell:
What Yoffie fails to consider is that Chabad’s willingness to offer all children a bar mitzvah stems not from lowering of religious standards, but from a refusal to make children the pawns in a game of institutional extortion.
The reason most temples demand certain requirements be met before allowing children to be bar mitzvahed has nothing to do with standards—and everything to do with increasing synagogue revenue. The present system of front-loading fees such as synagogue membership and building fund, while creating an economic base for synagogue operations, discourages many Jews from getting involved.
Thus, many American Jews affiliate with synagogues only because they believe that if they do not, their child will not be able to become a bar mitzvah. In effect, the children are forced to pay the price for the failure of congregations to give their members a reason to want to join of their own volition. And so the kids become hostages. Parents are told that unless they ante up, their children will be denied this most significant of milestones. Some parents pay the ransom. Others leave the temple in disgust.