It’s Chabad vs. a congregation near you

Many times in recent years, I’ve heard rabbis or synagogue officials express concern over the growth of the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic sect in the northern suburbs.

The concern is always the same: Chabad offers cheap religious programming — holiday celebrations, schools for youngsters, etc. — that is very attractive to unaffiliated Jewish families that don’t want to pay pricey synagogue dues.

That don’t want to pay pricey synagogue dues.

That’s the key.

Something like half the Jews in Westchester don’t belong to synagogues. Therefore, synagogues are always plotting how to attract a small percentage of all those available families.

The biggest obstacle for many — not all, but many — is the dues. We’re talking several thousand dollars a year.

For many families that could go either way, then, Chabad presents an attractive and affordable alternative.

The Chabad movement, based in Crown Heights and located around the world, is committed — in an existential way — to bringing home Jews who have lost their way. In numerous New York communities, Chabad rabbis and their wives work fulltime to provide accessible programming for Jews who might otherwise stay home and watch Seinfeld reruns.

So I was fascinated to read a long piece in The Jewish Week that teases out one such showdown between Chabad and established Jewish congregations.

It’s in Oceanside, Long Island, where a weekly Chabad school for Jewish youngsters has taken a lot of kids away from more traditional synagogue programs.

The ironic part is that the synagogues say that Chabad offers a less intensive, less well-rounded Jewish education — just so it can get Jews through the doors.

One “competing” rabbi explains: “Chabad has led to a diminution of Jewish education in this community. I still have a two-day Hebrew school and I’m under attack from my members [to cut back to one day a week]. … I’m not blaming Chabad for everything bad in the community, but Chabad was a catalyst.”

Chabad Rabbi Levi Gurkov did not mince words: “When I came to Oceanside I placed a phone call to every rabbi here. Some were receptive; some were not because they felt I was coming to shake up the community. They had had a great run, and now someone new was coming and they couldn’t do their job and their sermons by rote anymore.”

Ouch. This could get ugly.

Finding seats for the High Holys

This time of the year, I always get a few calls from suburban Jews wondering where they can go to High Holy Day services.

Even though there are dozens of vast synagogues up and down the LoHud, probably half the Jews in the region are unaffiliated. Maybe more.

It can be hard to get tickets for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, especially without having to pluck down several hundreds bucks.

Here’s a couple of ideas:

tjndc5-5bhypj3d6w2zm5626jw_layout.jpgA New Rochelle rabbi named Mathew Hoffman has been running High Holy Day services for years, open to any and all. He offers educational programs, too. It’s all known as The Flame (you may have seen the ads in the Journal News over the years.)

He’s changed locations several times for the High Holys, but this year he’ll be offering services at the brand, spanking new Young Israel of New Rochelle.

There is no charge, although a donation is requested to cover expenses. You can check service times and make reservations at his website. (That’s Hoffman outside the kosher Chinese restaurant in New Ro where he held services the past couple of years.)

Also, Reconstructionist synagogues in New York and Jersey have set aside seats for High Holy Day services for unaffiliated Jewish families.

You can read about the “Open Seats Campaign” here. For information, you can call 212-870-2484.

Synagogues taking part are Bet Am Shalom in White Plains, the Hebrew Congregation of Somers, Mvakshe Derekh in Scarsdale, and the Mishkan Ha’am group in Yonkers, which will hold services at the Park Hill Raquet Club.

What is Reconstructionist Judaism, you ask. Here is an explanation from the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation:

Reconstructionist Judaism is a progressive, contemporary approach to Jewish life which integrates a deep respect for traditional Judaism with the insights and ideas of contemporary social, intellectual and spiritual life.

Judaism as the Culture of the Jewish People

For Reconstructionists, Judaism is more than Jewish religion; Judaism is the entire cultural legacy of the Jewish people. Religion is central; Jewish spiritual insights and religious teachings give meaning and purpose to our lives. Yet our creativity as expressed through art, music and drama, languages and literature, and our relationship with the land of Israel itself are also integral parts of Jewish culture. Each of these aspects provides a gateway into the Jewish experience that can enrich and inspire us.

Community as Cornerstone

While deeply connected to the historical experience of the Jewish people, we find a profound sense of belonging in our contemporary communities as well. This connection often leads to increased ritual observance and experimentation with the ritual rhythms of Jewish life. We find meaning in rediscovering the richness of traditional ritual and creating new observances which respond to our contemporary communal and personal cycles.

Reconstructionist communities are characterized by their respect for such core values as democratic process, pluralism, and accessibility. In this way, they create participatory, inclusive, egalitarian communities committed to exploring Jewish life with dedication, warmth and enthusiasm.