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Blessing or sect?

Sunday, May 23rd, 2021

The growing influence of the Chabad Lubavitch Jewish Orthodox Movement

By Ayala Goldmann

Prospective rabbis study at the Chabad Jewish Education Center in Berlin. (picture alliance / dpa / Maurizio Gambarini)

The worldwide Jewish organization Chabad Lubavitch is also very active in this country - and not without controversy: A blessing for the Jews because it cultivates traditions, some praise it. A power-conscious Orthodox sect that influences Jewish communities, say the critics.

"Welcome to Hanukkah 2012 at the Brandenburg Gate!"

Thick snow falls at the Brandenburg Gate. It's freezing. But that cannot shake Yehuda Teichtal: The rabbi of the orthodox Chabad movement in Berlin is about to ignite the second light on the huge Hanukkah chandelier. At around five meters, the chandelier is not nearly as high as the brightly lit Christmas tree a few dozen meters further. But that's why the Chanukkah is right in front of the Brandenburg Gate, an ideal motif for cameras and photographers.

"We're standing at the Brandenburg Gate tonight to say that Judaism will continue to grow in Germany and will have a permanent place here!"

The American Yehuda Teichtal is one of the thousands of "Schlichim", Hebrew for "envoy", who work for Chabad Lubavitch all over the world. And he is one of the most active. This time, Federal Education Minister Annette Schavan came to the Hanukkah celebration in Brandenburg - a great success for Teichtal, who is hoping for financial support from the Central Council of Jews for his Chabad rabbinical seminar in Berlin.

Schavan: "All the best! Happy Hanukkah and Shalom!"

Teichtal: "Thank you very much, dear Minister! We have a Hanukkah chandelier from Israel, we want to present it to you as a sign of light and hope, thank you very much for being here today and for all your support. We bless you with us God's blessings and strength! "

Schavan: "Thank you!"

Yehuda Teichtal has been the official rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin since this summer - the Israeli chief rabbi Jonah Metzger, who is very close to Chabad, helped him to obtain this title during a visit to Berlin. There was no vote in the representative assembly of the Jewish community on this. Albert Meyer, former community chairman, often supported Teichtal in his work in the past.

But Meyer does not believe that the Chabad rabbi, who has been running his own synagogue for years, will now adhere to the instructions of the community:

"That is schizophrenic in itself. Look, he is a community rabbi, and I will grant him the entire salary. I mean, he can get even more. He is even underpaid for his performance. But it can't be that one Community employee builds a competing company parallel to the community. That contradicts itself. "

Since he has been in Berlin, Yehuda Teichtal has always emphasized that he is not interested in recreating Judaism in Germany based on the image of Chabad:

"I say very clearly: We are not here to make people orthodox. We in Chabad make no distinction between orthodox and liberal. These are just labels that have no meaning. We look at one thing: a person is a Human. And that's all. And that's why our programs are open and suitable for everyone. We are really open with all our hearts to everyone. "

But Albert Meyer says:

"It's just a global organization. I didn't recognize that at the beginning. And you have to admit that it is a structure that also has political dimensions."

Yehuda Teichtal did not leave his American homeland of his own accord - he sees himself as the envoy of the "Rebbe" Menachem Mendel Schneerson:

"The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, who sent me and my wife to Berlin, said: Germany shouldn't be ignored!"

In every Chabad center in the world there is a picture of the old, wise man with the long beard at the entrance. This is also the case in the Jewish Education Center in Berlin-Wilmersdorf on Münsterschen Strasse. Yehuda Teichtal founded it five and a half years ago. Menachem Mendel Schneerson was the last "Rebbe" and spiritual leader of Chabad Lubavitch. He died in New York in 1994 at the age of 92. Now Teichtal and his employees want to rename the square in front of the education center to Menachem-Mendel-Schneerson-Platz.

"Chabad" is an acronym for the Hebrew words Hochma, Bina and Daat "- wisdom, insight and knowledge. That sounds rational. But within the worldwide Chabad movement there is a messianic wing. It got an upswing when the death of the" Rebben "announced. At that time, a Chabad campaign was launched in Israel under the motto:" Prepare yourselves for the coming of the Messiah! "

In Chabad it is common to believe that the more Jews keep the commandments of the Halacha - the Jewish religious law, the faster the Messiah will come. The messianic Chabad followers even already know who the Messiah will be: namely the late Schneerson himself. The mainstream of Chabad, on the other hand, describes Schneerson in official statements merely as an important scholar. And Yehuda Teichtal has repeatedly emphasized that he has nothing to do with messianism: He has been active in Berlin for years, and the people who deal with him know that too.

"Chabad is not entirely undisputed. Of course it is a sect. A sect is nothing derogatory. But you see, you cannot get certain phenomena out of the world by denying them"

says the historian Julius Schoeps.

And Stephan Kramer, General Secretary of the Central Council of Jews, says:

"" There is indeed a popular saying that Chabad is a sect that is closest to Judaism. It's not mine, but I think it's a sentence that encompasses the description quite well. "

In Israel, the Chabad movement is much larger and more influential than in Germany. There, the Lubavitches are also actively involved in politics and through their presence they support Jewish settlers in occupied Palestinian territories. Several thousand followers of Chabad live in their own large village between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv - Kfar Chabad. A huge poster of the "Rebbe" hangs on almost every street corner.

The kindergarten is run by the educator Chana Liss. Of course Schneerson is the Messiah, says the Orthodox Jew:

"We are all Chabadniks, and we all believe in it. We are sure. We have no doubts about it at all. That is the education we received. Nor from himself, from the rabbi."

Thousands of followers wanted to be received for an audience in Brooklyn during the Rebbe's lifetime.

"Many years ago there was a time when the Rebbe received us one by one. But later so many people came and it was such a rush that it became the dollar distributions. People stood in line for their turn and came to the Rebbe and he was standing there with a lot of dollar bills in his hand and he gave everyone a dollar and in that time anyone could make their request. And then people went on. And we kept those dollars , til today!"

Children in Chabad educational institutions in Israel are also taught to worship the deceased Rebbe as the Messiah. Daniel, a 12-year-old boy, on his upbringing in a Chabad school in the Israeli coastal city of Netanya:

"Messiah, that means that redemption is coming soon, in our day redemption is approaching us and the rabbi is already on his way. The Rabbi of Lubavitch, that is the leader of our generation, and we believe that he is alive and he always leads us, and he gives us the strength to overcome everything. He will come in this generation. "

In the traditional Jewish school in Berlin-Charlottenburg, which is under the sponsorship of Chabad, there is no sign of any messianic tendencies. The lessons are completely bilingual and the students' knowledge of Hebrew is impressive.

Boys and girls learn the Torah, the five books of Moses, together. However, they are seated in separate rows and the girls are wearing skirts. The married teachers are also traditionally dressed, with the wig common to ultra-Orthodox Jewish women. And Rabbi David Gewirz, Torah teacher and Jewish studies coordinator, wears a kippah, a black jacket and a long beard.

The Jews in Berlin have very different concerns than the question of who the Messiah is, says Gewirz:

"Our school is not just for certain families who obey the commandments. Because if it were just for us, we would go back to Israel and raise our children there, just like we grew up. All these subjects you are not an issue at this school, and if you asked the children, they would have no idea what you are talking about.

Anyone who knows the situation in which Judaism finds itself in Berlin also knows that at the moment it is not about spreading any particular ideas of a particular movement within Judaism, but simply the foundations of tradition, which very many people here lack . "

An important concern of the Orthodox is "Zniyut", Hebrew for "chasteness" or "decency". Swimming lessons in the traditional Jewish school take place separately by gender - but swimming is only on the timetable until the age of the bar mitzvah, the religious maturity of boys.

However, the students swim in public baths and see people of the opposite sex in bathing suits - which would be unthinkable in ultra-Orthodox schools in Israel or the USA. Headmistress Heike Michalak:

"We are decried among the Chabad schools because we are not a Chabad school, but only our sponsor is Chabad. In Germany this is not as possible as Chabad can possibly operate in other countries. We are simply a catchment basin for everyone the parents who like a little more tradition for their children. "

Chabad is well received by this target group. And anyone looking for a less orthodox Jewish school or daycare center in Berlin can send their children to the facilities of the Jewish community. But for some time now, leaflets and posters from Chabad have also been appearing in the community's kindergarten.

And it is not only in Berlin that Jews fear that Chabad wants to expand its influence further. Stephan Kramer, General Secretary of the Central Council of Jews, is alarmed:

"They want to build parallel structures or literally take over congregations, and to that extent turn unified congregations into orthodox congregations. I do not want to question at all that Chabad's pastoral work to bring Jews back into connection with their Judaism is a good and important task The only question is: how far do you let them do this work, where are the boundaries drawn, also with regard to the question of how one can also go back to fundamentalism in Judaism. "

The power and distribution struggles behind the scenes of the Jewish community are fierce. Since several rabbis from Chabad Lubwitsch are employees of central council congregations, they can also claim funds from the State Treaty.

Kramer: "When the existence of the communities is threatened by the work of Chabad, so to speak, then the fun stops. And then the Central Council, including its committees, made it very clear to the board of directors that we would not surrender without a fight."

And what happens in communities where there is only one rabbi, a Lubavitch? For example in Ulm on the Danube, where a new synagogue was inaugurated on December 2nd, in the presence of Federal President Joachim Gauck.

Susanne Jakubowski, board member of the Israelite Religious Community Württemberg, emphasizes:

"Well, basically Ulm is a branch of the Israelite Religious Community of Württemberg. I would describe it more as a coincidence that the community rabbi in Ulm is a Lubavitch. But he is not in the role of a Lubavitch with us. That is why we cannot say that this is a community center or synagogue of Chabad Lubavitch. "

Jakobowski belongs to the liberal wing within the Württemberg community. She is proud that some time ago there was a celebration in Stuttgart for a young girl who came of age in religion. She would also like to see events like this in Ulm.

A maturity ceremony for girls is not common in Orthodoxy, says Schneor Trebnik, Chabad rabbi in Ulm:

"The Israelite Religious Community of Württemberg has not celebrated a Bat Mitzvah for over 50 years. And we are part of the Israelite Religious Community of Württemberg, and as I said, the synagogue is built as an Orthodox synagogue."

And then the first service begins in the new, magnificent house in the middle of the Weinhof in Ulm. Around 50 immigrants from the former Soviet Union came - and several Chabad rabbis and their many children. Rabbi Trebnik asks all women to leave the hall and go to the women's gallery. Only the sons are allowed to stay and take part in the dance with the Torah scroll on the shoulders of their fathers.

Yehuda Teichtal from Berlin was also a guest at the synagogue inauguration in Ulm. A week later he lights the Hanukkah candlestick at the Brandenburg Gate. An action that Jacques Schuster, author of the newspaper "Die Welt", prompted to comment some time ago:

"The Lubavitch movement is the only direction in Judaism that knows an eleventh commandment: Go public and stand in the camera so that no one else can fit into the picture. Do we need a Hanukkah candlestick in front of the Brandenburg Gate? What would we say If the church were to put up a cross on Kurfürstendamm that is as big as if King Kong himself had rammed it into the tar? What would we do if the Muslims installed a flashing crescent moon in the Lustgarten? "

Albert Meyer, the former chairman of the Jewish Community in Berlin, is also prone to sarcasm in connection with Chabad:

"Just take Mr. Teichtal's letterhead. The letterhead doesn't show a synagogue or the Jewish Western Wall - it shows the Brandenburg Gate, the strength of Prussia. Mr. Teichtal wants to take over Germany from here."

This is of course completely exaggerated. But from the rhetoric of the Chabad rabbi on the second Hanukkah evening in Berlin, critics could well hear a claim to leadership for the Jewish community:

Teichtal: "Dear Sir or Madam, we will now illuminate Berlin and all of Germany with the light of Hanukkah!"

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