The saying goes, "Wherever there is Coca Cola, there is Chabad," which is really a commentary on the ubiquitous nature of Chabad.
I have nothing bad to say about Chabad and only good: through Chabad, my family found a deeper and more satisfying understanding of Judaism in thought, prayer and practice. Chabad gave us a Judaism as a way of life, instead of compartmentalized suburban American Judaism-as-Hebrew-school-attendance, or Judaism as go-to-the-synagogue-on-holidays, or Judaism as an ethnic/cultural identity. Judaism has historical, halachic, traditional, emotional, spiritual depths that are all too often missing from the suburban Judaism-as-a-drive-in-drive-out experience for one's kids.
I recall doing 'parent-duty' in a local Hebrew school classroom when one of my stepdaughters was attending, and I recall all too vividly the anger and resentment of kids who felt they were 'dropped off' on Sunday mornings so Mom could go have coffee with her friends while Dad played a pick-up game of basketball in the gym. The learning was shallow, since there wasn't much Judaic foundation at home, and one parent even told me that, "Of course he (his son) hates Hebrew school--everybody does but this is what you do to get to your bar mitzvah. We (meaning the parents) all had to do it."
Hebrew school was treated as something to be endured to get a bar-or-bat-mitzvah, at which point the children dropped out of Hebrew school, cut their ties to the Jewish community, and don't show up again, if at all, until they're married and sending their own children to Hebrew school. That's assuming they married a Jewish spouse, which often isn't the case. The parents were complicit with this as well, often dropping their synagogue memberships as soon as their youngest was bar-mitzvah'd, and mom and dad could then have Sunday mornings to themselves again, returning to the comfortable routine of twice-a-year synagogue and sleeping in on weekends.
We ended up at Chabad 'by accident.' (Hah!) We were long-standing members of another suburban synagogue (NOT the one my stepdaughter attended--she insisted on going to the OTHER suburban synagogue because "all my friends are there.") Our synagogue had a Hebrew school program which we enrolled Josh in when he was in Kindergarten. Our son has certain physical limitations which were more severe in grade school, and his first grade Hebrew school teacher at our synagogue was the Talmud-Torah version of the 'soup Nazi.' It was "her way or the highway", and our requests for accomodations fell on deaf ears. Hebrew school, which my son had loved the year before, was now something he dreaded; he was criticized, held up to ridicule, isolated and ordered to take home anything he didn't finish in class to finish at home, which was often hours of work.
I pulled him out of that class rather than watch him come to hate Hebrew school and the Judaism it embodied. I figured I was stuck for a year, until I could get to a new class in second grade. Then a friend of mine reminded me that Chabad had a Hebrew school which met on Tuesdays and Thursdays after school.
"But we're not Orthodox," I protested in one of the biggest misapprehensions I had at that time.
"They don't care," my friend told me. "They're there for Jews--all Jews."
So I went to meet the rebbitzin, Gittel Rice, who is one of the most remarkable, wonderful women I've ever been privileged to meet in my life. She let me see her class, watch how she taught and invited me to bring my son for a trial session. This, for me, is always the awkward part because I then need to explain to teachers Josh's issues with impaired vision and fine-motor skills. I braced myself for the usual quick flash of consternation and the dimming of enthusiasm with which most teachers respond to this news.....Gittel shrugged and said, with remarkable cheer, "No problem--we'll just work around it."
That's what Chabad does -- it opens doors for Jews. In our case, it made Hebrew school fun and accessible for my vision-impaired child and he learned more in one year at Chabad's Hebrew school than his cohorts did at the synagogue we left....because we DID leave.
We didn't have any sudden epiphany about becoming frum....we attended Chabad's services once when we were invited for dinner, and my son loved it. "Can we come back here again, Ima? This is great!" enthused the child who previously always said, "Are we done yet? Can we leave now?" while at other synagogues. He loved the liveliness of it, the friendliness, the fact that he wasn't chained to a pew or seat for hours....the music, the enthusiasm, the way he was accepted by the community (for a child with disabilities, acceptance is a rare thing).
I looked at him in surprise. "You like it here, we'll come again." And we did. While my son was finding companionship, learning, Yiddishkeit, Hebrew, menschlich behavior and acceptance, my husband, chiloni to the core, announced, "This is fine for Josh, but we're not doing this 'eating-with-the-rabbi-every-Shabbat' stuff that the dati do, okay?"
Okay. So I would take Josh to Chabad and Mike would go to the gym......until one day, Josh came to me and said plaintively, "Ima, why doesn't Abba come to shul with us? I don't have anyone to duchen with if he's not there." The little children would traditionally gather with their fathers under their fathers' tallits during the Priestly Blessing....and Josh felt included due to the good graces of our wonderful gabbai, Nachman, who took Josh under his tallit, but Josh also felt the absence of his father.
I said, "You need to ask your father that question." So Josh did. Much to my surprise, my fervently Zionist but only-religious-in-a-masorti-sort-of-way husband said to Josh, "Go on ahead with your mother -- I'll be there in a little while." And he was....
Shortly after that, Mike was diagnosed with cancer. This small Chabad community rallied around us newcomers, and mothers took turns taking Josh after summer camp so I could be at the hospital; men assembled minyans to pray for a refuah shlemah; women made food so my husband could eat kosher food in the hospital, and Josh and I were invited to a different home each night for dinner so I didn't have to cook.
The cancer surgery was successful. My husband was impressed with the closeness and caring of this community. My son loved it at Chabad. The community was warm, caring and accepting. The rabbi and rebbitzin were helpful and nonjudgemental, offering Judaism but not cramming it down anyone's throat. You took what you needed or wanted, and if you wanted to take more, it was there for the asking.
Mike changed his mind about "that dati stuff." THIS was the kind of community in which he wanted his son bar-mitzvah'd, and THIS was the kind of community he wanted to belong with and pray with every week. THIS was real Judaism.
Around the time we were having our discussion about moving to the Chabad shul and becoming shomer Shabbos we were treated to a tirade about the Evil Orthodox and their cultish practices and how they 'snared' unsuspecting Jews into their synagogue and made them feel less than adequate because they weren't authentically Jewish enough, etc, etc......
I was stunned. I felt as if I was in a 15th century Catholic Church listening to a scion of Torquemada preaching against the Jews. This speech had that kind of fire and fervor and anti-Jewishness that to me was the very antithesis of Ahavat Yisrael. And I wasn't hearing this from some crank at the Hebrew school coffee-clatch -- I was hearing this from the rabbi!
It was also dead wrong. What he thundered against in his talk was nothing like Chabad, so I don't know what facts he based his talk on. I suspect he based it on hearsay, because no one in our area who ever attended Chabad's classes (which were full of non-affiliated Jews as well as Jews from other synagogues searching for Jewish learning) or services would describe it in the strident and hateful way this rabbi described "the Orthodox." (Since Chabad was the only Orthodox shul in the county, there wasn't much doubt who the rabbi was talking about....)
The contrast between the defensive, angry and hateful spiel against "The Orthodox" by a supposedly learned man in a position of influence in the Jewish community and Chabad's clear Ahavat Yisrael no matter who you were as you walked in the door, could not have been more stark. It made our decision to leave suburban Judaism and adopt a shomer mitzvot life with Chabad an easy choice.
We didn't make aliyah when Josh was two because our shliach gave us honest advice: wait until your son's multiple operations are over and you both have a pension and your stepdaughters are grown. You won't have the financial worries, the job retraining and the medical and legal problems you'd have if you come now. There were just too many barriers to a successful aliyah, he told us. It was practical advice but I hated it -- I didn't want to wait.
I now know that the reason I had to wait was because I wasn't done yet with what I needed to learn in California. The door to Yiddishkeit had yet to open for us, and it was a journey we were meant to make together. Once we'd reached the place we were meant to be in our spiritual journey, we applied to make aliyah again, and doors opened everywhere, barriers fell, and now we're where we're supposed to be, doing what we're supposed to be doing. And we were able to do that because of Chabad and the many friends in our shul who helped us along the way.
Thanks, everybody at Chabad of Marin and Chabad of Mill Valley.
Dedicated to Gittel Rice & Chana Scop in honor of Kislev 19