Archive for September 15th, 2008

Are Some Chabad Rabbis Playing Favorites?

Monday, September 15th, 2008

I want to state this up front: I love Chabad. But in this election, some Chabad rabbis have crossed a line, giving the distinct impression that they are backing John McCain for president.

As individuals, of course, rabbis have the right to support whomever they choose. The problem starts when the lines are blurred, and individual support for McCain begins to seem like a Chabad imprimatur on the candidate.

First, some personal history. I have fond memories of evenings spent at the Chabad House at Rutgers University, as a student in the early 1990s. When I was the editor of Moment magazine, I assigned an article on Chabad’s world-wide movement, and the positive impact it was having on Judaism. That article turned into a book, “The Rebbe’s Army,” by Sue Fishkoff, which chronicles the impressive work of the shaliachs, or emissaries, here and around the world.

When I moved to Ohio two years ago, I began studying Torah — for the first time in my life — once a week with the local Chabad rabbi. What I loved, from the start, was just how welcoming and non-judgmental he was. No question I asked was foolish, un-informed, or beneath him. I never once felt that he had an ulterior motive — that he wanted me to be “more Jewish.” In fact, he has never tired of telling me that God is more impressed with Jews like me — who are spiritually striving — than with Jews like him, who are born into an observant lifestyle. As he sees it, following Jewish law and ritual, for him, was never a choice. I appreciate his encouragement, even as I know there’s no need for the comparison.

It is partly because of his approach that, last year, I decided to stop eating pork and shellfish. Last month, in his office, I put tefillin on for the first time — a raw, emotional experience. A week later, I did it again.

It’s because I both connect with Chabad, personally, and appreciate the important work the rabbis are doing worldwide, that I am so deeply concerned about what looks to me like GOP politicking by some Chabad rabbis.

For those who don’t know, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency broke the story last week that, last month, about 40 Chabad emissaries held a conference call with John McCain, at McCain’s request. During the call, McCain asked for their endorsement.

Here, from the ChabadInfo Web site, are McCain’s closing remarks:

“I believe this is going to a be tough race. We have for the first time gone ahead in the polls. But I think we are the underdog… We’ve got a lot of work to do.

I’d be grateful for your support, it would mean a great deal to me. I believe that I can be the kind of President that is the President of every American and I will put my country first. And I want to promise you that I will put my country first and I understand the meaning of freedom and I will do everything in my power to make sure that the USA and our closest friend and ally remain secure and peaceful and prosperous and I thank you for this opportunity Rabbi Shemtov and thank you very much.”

Now, Rabbi Levi Shemtov, the Washington head of American Friends of Lubavitch, has consistently said Chabad makes no political endorsements; he has also said the emissaries would offer Obama the same forum. As the JTA writes:

Shemtov said he had “several” discussions with the Obama campaign about a similar event and the only reason it hasn’t happened yet is because of “scheduling challenges.”

“If between one event and an an equivalent event there is a lapse of time beyond our control, that can hardly be considered partisanship,” Shemtov said. “Especially in this particular case, we were clear with both campaigns that whatever would be done withone we would be willing to do with the other.”

As I learned from a Democratic operative with ties to the Jewish community, though, the Chabad emissaries didn’t reach out to the Obama camp in meaningful way until after the story broke that the rabbis had facilitated the call in which McCain asked for their endorsement. And even then, despite prior advice given to them, the Chabad rabbis never bothered to write the Obama campaign with an official reqeust. That would have been the clearest indication that they genuinely wanted to make these appearances “educational,” rather than political. “They should play it fair,” the operative said. “Don’t do it witha wink and a nod and think you can get away with it.”

The fact is, this is not the first time questions have been raised with regard to some Chabad rabbis getting involved, politically, for the GOP.

In October 2004, for instance, Rabbi Shlomo Ciment of Boynton Beach penned a missive, which he sent out to congregants, after spending a day he described as a “whirlwind tour on behalf of the re-election campaign of President George Bush and Vice President Cheney.”

According to a copy of his letter that I obtained (bold is original; Italics are mine), the rabbi, after stating that he was not speaking for Chabad and that his views were his own, went on to write:

Allow me to be clear; I am not, nor do I ever endeavor to be a political operative in any form. What has me engaged now, in my opinion, is a matter of life and death! … After the 15 hour day, I can unequivocally state that from now until November 2, this rabbi will be passionately cajoling his congregation, his community, his colleagues, and all who care to listen that President Bush must receive four more years …

Frightening anecdotal polls and statistics were discussed. John Kerry’s scary promise of revisiting the days of the need for an “even handed” approach to the “Palestinian cause” and his persistent theme of bringing back the coalition of the United Nations to fight the causes of good in this world were unmasked for their ridiculousness and utter danger to the Jewish people. …

Who fearlessly stood up on 9/11 and delivered America’s message “you will be hearing from us” and has consistently and unfalteringly delivered that message in Afghanistan and Iraq. Who has put all regimes of terror, not just with words but with effective muscle, on notice? Who has stood with determined and unchanged policy and forceful leadership? Who has stood with iron clad resolve to bring justice, freedom and liberty to all who seek it?

On the “flip flop” side, who has answered all of these legendary and heroic efforts with meek comments and the self denial reality of the threats on our lives, by promising to expend our resources, and go back to building the libraries, firehouses and roads in the US? …

Poignant stories of The President’s stunning character were shared. His unquestioning love of Israel clearly borne out with heartwarming personal stories, some never before published, were told by these distinguished individuals who enjoy experiencing the inner depths of the President’s heart through their very close personal relationships with him.

What struck me the most, though, were the tears. This was not a day of political campaigning. This was a day of heartfelt tears. Tears of anguish. Tears of truth. Tears of hope. Tears which cut right through any semblance or hint of political posturing. It was individual Jews who spoke from the heart to their fellow Jew’s heart.

That’s not politics, that’s saving lives. Our entire Torah, and everything it represents, is predicated and preceded by the sanctity of human life. We are our brother’s keeper. It is up to us to save our’s and our brother’s lives. ….

In this world of terror and destruction we have no one but on G-d A-lmighty Himself on whom to rely for salvation. He has granted us the greatest gift, humanity, Israel and the Jewish people have ever had in the White House, President George W. Bush. He has granted this blessed country with unmatched resources, unlike humankind has ever known. Let us be the wise people for which we are known. Stand up and vote and make sure that all who you know vote for Bush-Cheney 04.

Flash-forward to 2008, and that same Chabad has an article on its Web site this time around, about how Joe Lieberman was stumping for McCain in Palm Beach county during the primary. (Subhead: “He focuses on Jewish support in the Primary.”)

When McCain picked Sarah Palin as his running mate, Lubavitch.com, the offical Chabad site, almost immediately had a piece online discussing her terrific virtues; it wasn’t until a few individuals complained that they put up something nice about Joe Biden — weeks after Obama had tapped him.

And the Lubavitch news service web site is currently promoting this story, headlined: “John Voight endorses John McCain for President on the Telethon”:

The State of California might be a bastion for Democrats but that didn’t stop actor Jon Voight from letting Chabad of California telethon viewers know that his choice for President is Senator John McCain and he hopes they will do the same. Voight’s announcement, that came shortly before 9:00pm on the east coast, was greeted with loud applause from members of the studio audience. This is the 18th year that Voight has appeared on the telethon.

Why is this important? It’s not so much for me that Chabad-Lubavitch is a 501 (c) 3 nonprofit, and, as such, is prohibited from making political endorsements. It’s that, taken together, the actions of individual rabbis begin to look like an official Chabad hecshsher on the Republican candidate.

Obama is, unfortunately, already swimming upstream in the Jewish community, in part because of all the lies and smears that have been directed against him in the past year. And Chabad matters. According to “The Rebbe’s Army,” there are as many as 30,000 Lubavitchers in this country, with large communities in Los Angeles, Miami, Pittsburgh, Detroit, and Chicago. (Note the three swing states.) And, judging by my own experience, their influence far exceeds their numbers.

Incidentally, when I told my Chabad rabbi about this, and showed him the JTA article, he was appalled. He said the the late Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson (who many Lubavtichers believe was the Messiah) expressely forbade politicking of this type, because of its divisiveness. My rabbi has always described himself as a one-issue voter — Israel — but he said that he actually has an issue that is even more important to him — the unity of the Jewish people — and these activities, he says, run completely counter to that central Chabad mission. He is so angry, he is now leaning toward Barack Obama.

I asked my friend, a Jewish professional, what he hopes to see for the rest of this campaign.

“Do not do electioneering in Chabad houses for the next 8 weeks,” the operative said. “They should not be propagating GOP politics in Chabad Houses. Individuals — fine. But not from the pulpit and not using the Chabad House.

“They should play it straight,” the operative said. “Now and forever more.”

Amen.