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Battling for Europe’s Jews (part 1): Chabad’s Growing Presence Inspires Pride for Some, Tensions with Others

April 22, 2005
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One evening last December, as pedestrians strolled along the famous Unter den Linden Avenue in former East Berlin, the decorum was broken by the incongruous sound of Jewish pop music with a distinct Chasidic “oy-oy.” Facing the former dividing line between east and west was a towering menorah, standing just in front of the ultimate of German symbols, the Brandenburg Gate, its chunky columns illuminated by spotlights. A crowd had gathered for the city’s first-ever public Chanukah celebration, sponsored by Chabad-Lubavitch and the Jewish Community of Berlin.

A group of Ukrainian Jewish immigrants could barely contain their joy. Never before had they seen such a public Chanukah display, and they’d been here 22 years. “It’s a miracle,” said one.

“At first, I thought it was too much,” said Berliner Hannah Schubert, 22. “And then, I felt — yes — pride. My forefathers left Berlin in 1939 ” to escape the Nazis. “I had to press tears from my eyes.”

The scene — repeated 1,843 times last year in 559 different cities in 65 countries around the world — is laden with a symbolism that is particularly poignant in places where recent Jewish history has been filled with such tragedy. And the publicity surrounding these lightings only boosts Chabad’s fast-rising star.

Across Europe an extraordinary success story is unfolding: The growth and expansion of the 200-year-old Chabad-Lubavitch movement, occurring alongside — and in some cases in competition with — the revival of the remnants of local, prewar Jewish communities.

While Chabad, a chasidic movement whose focus on outreach to non-observant Jews has led them to create a multibillion dollar, worldwide network of emissaries, is still on the margins of the Jewish establishment in the United States, the group has become a big player in all the major countries of Europe. In some places, Chabad is well-integrated into the Jewish mainstream: Chabad rabbis fill virtually all the pulpit positions in Holland, for example, and nearly half in England. In France, they run many Jewish schools.

In other countries, Chabad and the traditional Jewish communities are at loggerheads, fighting over major donors, holiday programming — and who is the chief rabbi.

How this relationship develops may determine the face of European Jewry in the 21st century. Will Chabad edge out the established centrist Orthodox organizations that have dominated the European Jewish landscape in recent decades?

The positions of Chabad and the established communities will also determine critical issues such as which groups get both government and private funding, which institutions survive and thrive to attract and serve Jewish souls, who represents Jewish interests to the political establishment and, in some countries, which groups receive property and funds as part of Holocaust restitution.

Chabad leaders say it’s not about competition for Jews or influence. In Europe and around the world, Chabad reaches out to assimilated Jews looking to reconnect with their Jewish roots. Assertive emissaries attract both tourists and local Jews seeking a spiritual home.

“The real reason for Lubavitch success is the love, selflessness and extraordinary spiritual energy its philosophy holds for every single Jew,” says Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, the movement’s chief spokesman and one of its administrative leaders in New York.

But for many in the established Jewish communities, the perceived competition poses a major problem. They see, in some cases, duplication of services instead of complementary activity.

“European Jewry cannot afford to have established communities and Chabad pitted against one another,” says Serge Cwajgenbaum, secretary-general of the European Jewish Congress, a representative body of European Jewish leaders that is affiliated with the World Jewish Congress.

“It took us a long time, about 60 years after the Shoah, to rebuild Jewish communities and Jewish life in Europe, and to endanger the status quo, or to change the status quo could affect Jewish life at large,” he says.

While the growth of Chabad’s Jewish schools and outreach centers in Europe poses a challenge to other Jewish institutions, its impact on individual Jews is just as tangible. For some, it can mean new educational options for their children. For others, it’s an uncomfortable alternative that tries to draw Jews — as well as financial support — from their own synagogues or institutions.

One modern Orthodox father in Berlin said that even though Chabad isn’t his way of life, he found that when he was searching for a Jewish education for his young child, the Chabad school was the “only place” where he could be assured of getting kosher food.

For others, the presence of Chabad causes them to reassess their Jewish affiliation, something they may not have done when there was only one Jewish community.

Sylivie Kajdi Frajman liked the Chabad Passover seder she and her family attended in Berlin last year, and was considering sending her twins to the Chabad preschool program. In the end, she opted for the official community’s day-care center, because she felt she’d have to affiliate with the Chabad congregation, and it “made me a little anxious,” she confesses.

As Chabad grows, European Jews and non-Jews alike increasingly associate one kind of Jew with Judaism: not the acculturated, often non-observant Jew that makes up the bulk of Western and Central Europe’s nearly one and a half million Jews, but the Chasidic Jew, which in today’s Europe generally means Chabad.

“What appeals to many people is that the blacker the hat, the more ‘pure’ they are,” says Diana Pinto, a Paris-based historian and former consultant to the Council of Europe who has written widely about contemporary Jewish identity in Europe. “Some think Chabad must really be the truth from which everyone else has deviated — which is ahistorical and not true.”

But, she says, the movement’s “kindness and open and embracing nature is what attracts people. Chabad manages to find a bed and warm place for every Jew.”

The landscape of European Jewry today is very different from the devastation that existed at the end of World War II, when some 6 million out of an estimated 10 million Jews were killed. Few Jews who had escaped the Nazis returned to Europe after 1945. Only in a few countries, notably France, England and Italy, were there sizable Jewish communities remaining on which to rebuild; and neutral Switzerland’s small community had remained intact. Romania had some 400,000 Jews after the war, most of whom emigrated to Israel. Everywhere else in Western and Central Europe, virtually nothing was left.

Today, 15 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the scene has changed again. Particularly in Germany, the Jewish population has quadrupled with the mass immigration of former Soviet Jews.

Recognizing the opportunity, Chabad has grown in leaps and bounds on the European continent, including all the lands of the former Soviet Union, spreading its brand of Orthodox Judaism. Its success is due, observers say, to the movement’s aggressive style of outreach and determination, for which established Jewish communities are no match.

“The distinction between Chabad and the classical communities could not be more marked,” Pinto says. The latter, she says, “are caught in an identity struggle” whereas Chabad presents an “idealized version of the Judaism of ‘before.’ ”


Chabad, which emerged in the late 18th century in Belarus, began its return in earnest to Europe soon after the late Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who had fled Nazi-occupied Warsaw for New York in 1941, assumed the leadership of the worldwide Chabad movement in 1951. He sent emissaries first to Italy, France, the Netherlands and England.

Austria and Switzerland followed in the early 1980s. In the late 1980s and 1990s, Germany, Scandinavia and the countries of the former Soviet bloc were added. In all of Europe today, Portugal and Luxembourg are among the very few countries that do not have permanent Chabad centers — yet.

In the four years after the rebbe’s death in 1994, Chabad’s outreach empire expanded at an annual rate of 27 percent. Today, there are 112 Chabad-Lubavitch centers in Europe, not counting those in the former Soviet Union, where Chabad’s presence is largest of all. There, 104 Chabad centers exist, many of which house multiple institutions. Scores of separate Chabad schools also operate in Europe.

Chabad’s expansion in Europe is not conducted according to any grand design, Chabad leaders say. Decisions about where to send new emissaries are made on a case-by-case basis. Germany today is the fastest growing area for Chabad, they say, because the tremendous influx of post-Soviet Jews convinced Chabad leaders that the existing Jewish community in Germany could not handle the strain.

Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky is the development director for Chabad’s worldwide emissary movement, and the man who formally sends these outreach couples, what they call shluchim, or emissaries, to Europe and elsewhere.

Kotlarsky, who is based out of movement headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, says 770 is “intimately involved” in Chabad operations in Germany, whereas in France and England, long-standing Chabad organizations basically run their own show.

Chabad leaders say their emissaries are “building Jewish communities.” They say that when they move into a new town, their intention is to work in harmony with existing Jewish institutions. They point out that Schneerson always emphasized the importance of not duplicating existing Jewish services. One oft-told story by Chabad officials has it that when a Chabad emissary in Holland started a morning service for students, local community leaders complained that this was hurting their minyan; Schneerson promptly instructed the Chabadnik to discontinue his program.

Other Jewish leaders, however, say Chabad tactics have changed. Today, instead of only bringing Judaism to places with little or no organized Jewish life, Chabad emissaries are deliberately moving into territory with established communities and, in some places, edging out existing Jewish institutions.

There is a consensus among many mainstream European Jewish leaders that each time Chabad expands its sphere of influence they, as one rabbi put it, “step on another set of toes.”

As an example, critics point to the growing trend of Chabad emissaries seeking the title of chief rabbi, even in places where chief rabbis already exist. The group has succeeded in doing this in several former Soviet lands, most notably Russia and Ukraine.

Although an anomaly in America, chief rabbis exist in most European countries as well as in some cities, such as Moscow and Prague. For the community, the chief rabbi, almost always Orthodox, serves as the spiritual and legal center for other rabbis. He also usually represents the moral-religious voice of the Jewish community to the political and secular communities.

In the past few years, conflict has broken out in some places where Chabad emissaries have sought the chief rabbi title. The most dramatic example is Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, where Chabad Rabbi Sholom Krinsky has been demanding that the Jewish community recognize him as chief rabbi and that it fire the new rabbi it had hired, Rabbi Chaim Burshtein. The fracas, which sometimes erupted into violence, spilled over last year into the larger Jewish and secular world, as Krinsky tried to draw international Jewish organizations and even the European Parliament into the struggle.

The role of chief rabbi was never something to which Chabad emissaries aspired in the past, says Rabbi Moshe Rose, former head of the Conference of European Rabbis, which represents the continent’s non-Chabad Orthodox rabbinic leadership.

“If the rebbe was alive I don’t think he would allow them to call themselves chief rabbis,” he told JTA, referring to Schneerson. “I think they seem to have taken the bit between their teeth and call themselves chief rabbis.” Still, Rose, who now lives in Israel, acknowledges, “in some places they ignore the title and do good work.”

Chabad supporters argue that they are only reaching out to the unaffiliated.

“We try our utmost to deal within the community,” Kotlarsky says. But when that doesn’t work out, Chabad still forges ahead. “In many places, we are successful in that. In others, we open Chabad houses” anyway, he says.

Beyond competing for Jews, there is money and politics at stake. In many European countries, the organized Jewish community has an official relationship with the state and can be eligible for government funding.

The opening of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union 15 years ago led to the institution of religious freedom and also opened doors to Western-based religious institutions. Chabad had maintained an underground network within the Soviet Union since the 1920s, but with the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989 the movement began its big, public push into the Eastern bloc, eager to win Jews back to Judaism and rebuild yiddishkeit in the lands that gave birth to Chasidism more than two centuries ago.

In order to achieve this, Chabad rabbis had to forge political connections.

In Russia, close ties between Chabad and Russian President Vladimir Putin give Chabad influence and help in building its network of federated communities. For his part, Putin gets a Jewish stamp of approval that plays well with western political leaders. The Russian Jewish businessmen who support Chabad feel they’re doing a mitzvah and playing on the winning side of the political game as well.

There is a fierce territoriality, says Rabbi Aba Dunner, executive director of the Conference of European Rabbis. Four years ago, Dunner went to the Israel office of Lev Leviev, the billionaire diamond merchant and one of Chabad’s major donors in the former Soviet Union, to talk about cooperation.

Instead, Dunner charges that Leviev told him “to get out of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. It is Lubavitch territory.”

Rabbi Avraham Berkowitz, executive director of the Federation of Jewish Communities of the CIS, disputes Dunner’s allegation. “Mr. Leviev’s generous support to non-Lubavitch institutions, programs and communities in the FSU and elsewhere belie Dunner’s outrageous claim,” he says.

Some observers fear that Chabad is planning to take its tactics that have succeeded so well in former Soviet lands west. Chabad supporters argue that political connections are necessary to anchor a Jewish community. They also say that by maintaining such high visibility, be it through public holiday celebrations or public gatherings with elected officials, Chabad promotes a positive message of Jewish pride rather than the Holocaust-centered identity associated with the established Jewish communities, and this has done wonders, they say, for the public image of European Jewry.

In contrast to Chabad leaders and emissaries, who are driven by the desire to spread their brand of Judaism across the globe, the established Jewish communities in Europe were mostly concerned with rebuilding on a local scale. First came the infrastructure: congregations, kashrut, schools, political connections. Then, as post-Holocaust generations came of age, Jewish art, music and literature began to take off; and non-Orthodox Judaism worked its way back into the mainstream.

But Chabad had a head start and an advantage. Coming from the United States back to Europe in the late 1940s and early 1950s, it was psychologically girded to nourish a European Jewish identity based on the joy of Judaism rather than the suffering of the Holocaust — something that has proved attractive to disaffected, unaffiliated Jews across the continent. Chabad also had an army of young couples ready to move anywhere — something that mainstream Jewish communities did not have.

One of those couples was Rabbi Israel and Chana Diskin, who arrived in Munich as Germany’s first Chabad emissary couple in late 1988.

“When we came, Judaism was based on Holocaust identity and very little joy,” says Chana Diskin. “We aimed to show that Judaism is relevant in our modern times. It is not about constantly commemorating a tragic history. We are not allowed to forget it, but there is so much more.”


Chabad was not the only international organization finding a voice in post-Communist Europe. The Ronald S. Lauder Foundation and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee were among others that poured vast amounts of money into educational and, in the case of the JDC, social welfare programs.

In the religious realm, Chabad has succeeded in reaching out to assimilated Jews in ways that the established Jewish communities have not. And while the Lauder Foundation succeeded in attracting Jews in several places, notably Germany, the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary, its activities were more targeted to particular communities, with an effort not to duplicate services.

Particularly young Jewish men find a sense of belonging in Chabad’s embrace, as they are invited to join in a minyan perhaps for the first time. And this, for a European Jewish community still emerging from the trauma of the Holocaust, has great emotional power.

But it also means, says Dunner of the Conference of European Rabbis, that non-Chabad minyans are falling apart, kindergartens are losing pupils and donations are being channeled away from established Jewish communities.

Over the past several years, Dunner says, he has been getting phone calls and letters from Orthodox rabbis across the continent “crying on my shoulder” about their troubles with Chabad.

In fact, a survey of European Jewish communities shows positive, negative and mixed relationships between Chabad and non-Chabad communities.

In Italy, Amoz Luzatto of Venice, the head of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, says that relations with Chabad in most cities are not always smooth, except in Trieste, where Chabad Rabbi Ariel Haddad sets a “beautiful” example of cooperation.

In Vienna, relations soured when Chabad applied to the Austrian government for recognition as a separate religious entity in order to secure state funding for its educational programs. If the bid works, it will be the first time in Austrian history that a second Jewish community is officially recognized. In Prague, a recent dispute led to the closing of the famed Old-New Synagogue.

In Gothenburg, Sweden, the established Jewish community of 2,000 members is fighting attempts by Chabad to register a new Jewish school where one already exists.

A prime example of cooperation is in the United Kingdom, where Chabad has long been integrated into the Jewish establishment. Thirty-five Chabad rabbis serve in non-Chabad pulpits of the United Synagogue, Britain’s official network of Orthodox congregations. When those rabbis need guidance, they turn to the head of the United Synagogue, Britain’s Orthodox Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks — not to Chabad headquarters in Brooklyn.

That’s completely in keeping with Schneerson’s directives, says Chabad Rabbi Yitzchak Schochet of London’s Mill Hill synagogue. “Wherever you are, you follow the ruling of the Beit Din in your area,” Schochet says, referring to the rabbinical court.

“We don’t have the conflicts that are in other communities,” confirms Henry Grunwald, head of the Board of Deputies of British Jewry.

Poland, a country of an estimated 8,000 to 15,000 Jews, provides an illustration of the decentralization that has characterized Chabad since the rebbe’s death. Chabad has no permanent center in Poland, although it regularly sends rabbinic students to do outreach work.

But Zalman Stambler, an Israeli entrepreneur and Chabad adherent with roots in Poland, recently opened a Warsaw Torah Center on his own initiative. He has brought several young students from Israel to the city that already has an Orthodox synagogue under the leadership of Rabbi Michael Schudrich, who was recently elected chief rabbi of Warsaw.

Soon after setting up the Torah Center, Stambler’s group began to suggest publicly that Schudrich was not quite kosher. First they raised a fuss about a young man married to a non-Jew who sings in Schudrich’s synagogue. Then they began offering a study group on the same night as Schudrich’s Torah class.

In response, Schudrich suggested to Torah Center officials that he teach a monthly class there, in return for their rabbi teaching once a month at his synagogue. He’s still waiting, he says, for the officials to get back to him.

“Lubavitch is doing wonderful things around the world,” he said. “However, it often fails in the category of coordination and cooperation. They need to work hand in hand with the local Orthodox rabbi.”

It appears that Orthodox and Conservative groups are the ones most concerned about Chabad’s increased presence in Western Europe. The Progressive movement, which is similar to the Reform movement in the United States, does not seem as threatened.

“Our position is, let 1,000 flowers bloom,” says Rabbi Uri Regev, head of the Jerusalem-based World Union for Progressive Judaism. Regev adds that although the World Union goes head to head with Chabad in many places in the former Soviet Union, the two groups have little interaction so far in Western Europe. “The one major concern I have is that there be full disclosure of the respective movement’s ideology and theology,” he says.

The JDC, which provides humanitarian aid around the world, has a long history of working with — and funding — Chabad around the world. JDC’s executive vice president, Steve Schwager, says he admires the “dedication and devotion” of Chabad emissaries, who are often “sent to remote towns and work under hardship.”

But while he characterizes the relationship between JDC and Chabad as generally one “of mutual respect and recognition,” Schwager adds that in some places “we have disagreements that revolve around difference in philosophy.” JDC represents the American Jewish values of religious pluralism, he says, whereas Chabad sometimes “demands an exclusive recognition as the voice of the local Jewish community.”

In the former Soviet Union, where Chabad has at times clashed with JDC, Berkowitz, of the Chabad-affiliated Federation of Jewish communities in the former Soviet Union, says, “We, too, appreciate the close partnership we share with the JDC in many of our social weflare programs and Jewish communities. The federation never asked for exclusive recognition.”

For many, the competition is unsettling.

“At a time when life is difficult enough for Jews all over the place, as sure as night follows day, Chabad arrives in a community and it unsettles the community,” says Jonathan Joseph, president of the European Council of Jewish Communities.

But some observers call the worries about a Chabad takeover of Europe’s Jewish communities overblown, or even a relic of the 200-year-old struggle between chasidim and misnagdim, their non-Chasidic fervently Orthodox opponents. What is really going on, these observers say, is the renewal of Jewish life in Europe, and here, they say, Chabad acts where others only talk.

Jews of all kinds have partaken of what Chabad offers, from kindergartens to Shabbat meals, holiday celebrations and Torah classes. Chabad-sponsored ritual circumcisions for adults as well as adult bar mitzvahs are not uncommon. Some European Jews are deeply moved that identifiably religious Jews are showing themselves in public. They don’t care if mainstream synagogues lose minyans, or if the community’s Jewish kindergarten is threatened.

Nathan Kalmanowicz, head of religious affairs for the Central Council of Jews in Germany, doesn’t see anything sinister in Chabad’s success. “In Dresden, the liberal rabbi has services once a month with a few dozen people. Then comes a Chabadnik, builds his own Chabad house, holds services every Friday night with 200-300 people, coming out of a community of 600.

“I would like to be conquered in this way,” he says. “They do not a good job but a very good job.”

Even some of Chabad’s harshest critics suggest that the movement’s success should inspire mainstream Orthodox leaders and communities to do a better job.

“Chabad will eventually force the whole Orthodox rabbinical and communal establishment to reorganize,” says Moscow Chief Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, a frequent critic of Chabad. “I believe that the position of the communal rabbi as an employee will have to be re-evaluated in light of its shortcomings compared to a freelance franchiser of Chabad. I think that we stand before significant historical changes in our communities.”

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