Sunday, February 1, 2009

Chabad: What if They Threw a Seder & Nobody Came? קריאה להחרים את חב"ד

I recently watched a TV documentary [could it have been this? Here you’ll read a short description of the film, about a Chabad couple “setting up shop” for outreach in ― are you ready? ― Ho Chi Minh City [hereinafter: HCMC]. Most of the program was spent following them around HCMC as they attempted to identify (and ascertain the kashrut of!) the unfamiliar foods at the grocery and explain to the furniture maker what kind of bed their toddler would need.
The suspense derived from the uncertainty of whether their things would arrive in time for Passover Seder, to which they’d naturally already invited a dozen or so guests. Their stuff arrived within hours before Passover, which they of course attributed to haShem working a miracle on their behalf.

Throughout, I could not stop exclaiming Why? I suppose I get the Chabad aspiration of increasing the per capita number of mitzvot performed anywhere on God’s green earth, but there? Vietnam? This article says that the Jewish population of HCMC is 200, most of whom are married to Vietnamese. Now what are the chances that an ex-pat Jew living in Vietnam and married to a native is going to “see the light” and return to the fold? Even if there should be such a Jew out there, among these 200, does it justify the formidable outlay of resources needed to relocate a family to a locale that Jewishly speaking is far-flung both in the geographical and figurative sense?

Yet my problem with Chabad shlichut goes beyond the expense. I "get" Chabad on college campuses, say. But the transplanting of an inherently Western institution to the Far East contains a distinct element of colonialism, manifested in the fact that all needs, down to formula for the toddler, flour for baking challah, and of course matzot, need to be imported; and also in the fact that the family’s only contact with the locals was to instruct the movers where to put things and supervise the carpenters who were assembling the Holy Ark ― tasks to which the shluchim naturally won’t or can’t stoop.

I find the entire phenomenon of Chabad in the Far East distasteful (and certainly not cute, as many Jews do): It smacks of paternalism, particularly the flagship Katmandu Seder, for which they’re famous among the post-IDF backpacker set, the underlying presumption of which is “those spiritually vapid seculars need us to ‘do’ Seder for them”.

Therefore, I would actually go so far as to actively discourage my kids from attending this or any other Chabad Seder or celebration, should they ever find themselves in the vicinity. Why not instead encourage our kids to join together with fellow travelers, shop for supplies to approximate a Seder (or Sabbath or other holiday) meal, and hold their own Seder? Such a Seder would certainly more closely resemble more Sdarim throughout Jewish history than does a Chabad Seder-in-a-box (Seder-in-a-vacuum?), and would no doubt not only have a more genuine feel, but would also likely be more memorable. So, calling all backpackers: Boycott the Katmandu Seder!


  1. Coming from a long line of mitnagdim which ended in an American liberal Conservative (Masorti) congregation, I abhor the Lubovitcher and other Hassidim. They are the remnants of the ghetto which the European Jews placed themselves in and are of no value to Judaism, Jews or the world. It is particularly galling that so much of their money comes from the contributions of sympathetic non observant ignorant Jews who give money which could go to worthwhile causes.

  2. I respectfully disagree.

    There are Jews living everywhere in the world. Having lived in both China and Japan, and having traveled extensively in Asia, I have availed myself of Chabad's services numerous times.

    Chabad in the Far East is not paternal at all; what they are is familiar, warm, welcoming, prepared...and with no strings attached. They don't care if a Jew enters with backpack on or a suit and attache case. They offer a gamut of resources for all of the "Four Sons" in the Seder.

    Funny thing: Jews go to the Far East to escape Judaism. They marry locals, learn the language, start families, start a business...and then many of them rediscover Judaism...with a surprising number becoming religious. I have seen it happen many times.

    Chabad recognizes one of the problems of modern Judaism: our self knowledge is paltry and our ability to teach Judaism to our children so that they can band together and celebrate a Seder wherever they are is just not there...unless we are modern orthodox Jews who know the calendar by heart and really commit themselves to not traveling on Shabbat, to keeping kosher wherever they are, to not intermarrying, etc.

    Chabad doesn't judge. They accept a Jew wherever that Jew is, physically and spiritually. Chabad provides the framework, the resources, and they do it all with a welcoming smile.

    So, let's all meet up in Katmandu, or here in Astoria, New York with Rabbi Zev and Rifka Wineberg for the next Chabad Seder.

    Astoria, New York City

  3. posting for Gil Troy:

    I disagree. They're extremely effective and sincere. Many alienated from mainstream Judaism in the US and Israel have seen a different, more authentic, and more welcoming face thanks to the efforts of Chabad.

    Plus they serve an important role for kashrut-observing travelers the world over.


  4. With all due respect to Anonymous Commenter no. 2, they're only welcoming and non-judgemental when they're doing outreach. They refrain from telling you the unspoken rules of their community, one of which is that newly-Orthodox are second class citizens, particularly where *shidduchim* are concerned. I also know of a Bar Mitzva guest not being allowed to *lein* at a Chabad-run ceremony because "he's not Orthdodox". That's the face they don't show in Katmandu...

  5. posting for Rabbi Susan Silverman:

    I agree with you. McDonald's Judaism.

  6. אם הפוסט עצמו אני מסכימה חלקית. יש בהחלט ריח של פטרנליזם במעשיהם. הגעה לכל חור בעולם אינה מוצדקת תמיד. יחד עם זאת, בתור מי שהשתמשה בשירותיהם מספר פעמים, אני יכולה להגיד שהם נותנים דברים שלפעמים קשה לארגן לבד. ארוחת שבת לא בכל מקום אפשר לבשל לפני שבת, ולא כל אחד מוכן לקנות אוכל כשר, ועוד לפסח זה אף יותר מסובך. לכן יש מקום לפועלם.
    דווקא עם תגובתו של אנונימוס הראשון יותר קשה לי. העובדה שאנשים רוצים לחזור ליהדותם זה טוב, אבל זה שהגוף היחיד שישנו כדי ללמד אותך יהדות זה חב"ד בעייתי בעיני. אם כן התשובה, אולי, היא לפתוח "בתי חב"ד" ליברלים, שיתנו לאנשים תשובות אחרות ממה שנותנים בתי חב"ד