Recently I visited Rockford, IL, where I spoke on the phone to the head rabbi of the Rockford Jewish Community Center. The topic came up of some bad experiences I had had with two Chabad Rabbis in Austin, Texas. As a direct result of my conversation with the Rockford rabbi, I realized that it was important to point out publicly the bad behavior of the Austin Chabad rabbis. I realized that there was a great ignorance on the part of some Chabad rabbis as to the sad state of Chabad in some communities–some Chabad rabbis operate with the strange delusion that a Chabad rabbi can do no wrong.
I have visited many Chabad synagogues in the US, Europe, and Asia. In general, Chabad rabbis are wonderful people, filled with love for their fellow Jews and eager to help them. However, there are always a few rotten apples in every barrel that has been standing around long enough, and I think it is unfortunate that Chabad allows people like the head rabbi of the Chabad House at 2101 Nueces St, Austin, TX, and the head rabbi of Chabad Lubavitch of Austin at 4413 Spicewood Springs Road Suite 106, Austin, TX, to operate centers.
I had two unpleasant experiences with the head rabbi of Chabad Lubavitch of Austin. When I met him in person, I found him to be a very cold, unpleasant, unwelcoming, unhelpful person. He made absolutely no effort whatsoever to welcome me into the Jewish Community of Austin, to which I had recently moved. A week before Pesach, I called his house, and his wife invited me to a Seder. One day before the Seder, I called again to find out the best time to arrive. This time, my second experience with the head rabbi of Chabad Lubavitch of Austin, the rabbi himself answered the phone. I explained to him that his wife had already invited me to the Seder. The rabbi then cancelled the invitation, saying that only people who attended his synagogue regularly could come. The fact that I had already been invited meant nothing to him. I found this behavior extremely obnoxious.
The head rabbi of the Chabad House in Austin operates a center which is devoted to hatred of Jews over the age of about 35. If you are over 35 and have no money but wish to have a Shabbos meal with him at his center, you are welcome to do so, but you must pay about $16 even though the extremely simple meal isn’t worth more than about $5. During the meal, the rabbi’s wife will scowl at you the entire time because of her great dislike of people over 35. If you are under 35 and are a millionaire and wish to have a Shabbos meal with him, you may do so for free. The purpose of the pricing has nothing to do with ability to pay or interest in Orthodox Judaism but is simply to strongly discourage people over 35 from attending. The rabbi feels that many young people dislike older people, simply on the basis of their age. He encourages this bigotry and hatred at his center (also known as the Rohr Chabad Jewish Center at the University of Texas), pandering to what he perceives to be the prejudices of the majority of the people who visit his center. I have no doubt that if he believed that the majority of the people who visited his center were anti-black racists, he would try to charge an African-American convert to Orthodox Judaism who wished to have a Shabbos meal with him $100, just to keep that convert away, even if that convert were under 35. I also strongly suspect that if he believed that the majority of the people who visited his center disliked obese people, he would charge obese people $100, to keep them away, even if they were under 35. The rabbi does not see his job as one of elevating, educating, or uplifting Jews. His job, in his view, is to pander to the worst prejudices of the Jews around him. The rabbi also does a miserable job in his classes on Judaism. He’ll start teaching a text (at the level of an elementary school student) to a class. Five minutes later, a student will walk in late, and he’ll start the whole class over again. Ten minutes later, another student will walk in late, and again he’ll start the whole class over. He’ll keep repeating this, whenever a student walks in the door. So if you got there on time, you’d have to listen to the exact same portion of a talk about four or five times. I was shocked at the rabbi’s contempt for those of us who were on time for the class and who had to listen to the same thing over and over.
I had two other bad experiences with Chabad shluchim (representatives of Chabad whose task is to bring Jews closer to Judaism) in Austin. On one occasion, two young shluchimwere visiting from Houston to assist the head rabbi of the Chabad House in Austin during a holiday. I happened to visit the Chabad House at a time when these shluchim were the only people there. I found them unhelpful and unpleasant. Although they knew (because I told them) that I was Jewish and had taken classes at the Chabad House, they certainly did nothing to encourage my participation in any of the events occurring there during the holiday. They were barely willing to even talk to me. On another occasion, during Sukkot, a sukkahhad been set up on the UT-Austin campus. I happened to pass by the sukkah while a youngshaliach (singular form of shluchim) was there. He said he was visiting from Ottawa, Canada. I was delighted to have the opportunity to recite a blessing with the lulav and theesrog. The visiting shaliach seemed nice enough at first, and he assisted me in reciting the blessings. However, immediately afterward, he suddenly started screaming at me with intense hostility that while I had been reciting the blessing (which took less than two minutes), several young Jews (whom he regarded as the only Jews truly worthy of assistance) whom he knew personally had walked by and not recited the blessing because of my presence. Bizarrely, he regarded this circumstance as constituting some sort of terrible offence on my part. But why couldn’t the other Jews simply have waited a minute for me to finish? And why was this man screaming at me when I hadn’t been informed that these young people had walked by or that I should have stopped reciting the blessing halfway through because of their presence? And why, indeed, should I have stopped?
These unpleasant experiences reminded me of what happened to some people I know in Bangkok. In this case, the head rabbi in Bangkok was not involved, but rather some underling rabbi who worked at a kosher restaurant in an area of Bangkok frequented by young Israeli travellers. My acquaintances, who were Jewish but were well over 35–probably in their fifties–and who had even made financial contributions to support the kosher restaurant, stopped by the restaurant one day to have a meal. The underling rabbi supervising that restaurant was annoyed to see people who weren’t in their twenties eating at his restaurant. He considered them to be a menace because he thought that people in their twenties would be annoyed that some older people were eating in the restaurant. Pandering to what he perceived to be the prejudices of the young people, he tried to shoo these older people out of the restaurant. This is just typical behavior of Chabad rabbis, who frequently show hatred of their fellow Jews when those Jews are considered “too old.”
I am sad to see so many Chabad rabbis showing such contempt and hatred of older Jews. There are probably at least a few hundred other Chabad rabbis who share this bigotry, all over the world. I wish Chabad would get rid of these bigots–such rabbis should leave Judaism and start their own religion where they can practice love of fellow Jews under 35. Judaism teaches love of all Jews, not just Jews under 35.
The head rabbi of Chabad in Rockford himself falls into the category of rabbis who are more like the rabbis in Austin than like, say, the head rabbi of Bangkok. The rabbi in Bangkok is warm, friendly, pleasant, welcoming, and helpful, and always does his best to make Jews in Bangkok a part of the Jewish community. When I spoke to the head rabbi of Chabad in Rockford on the phone, he asked me dozens of questions about myself, but refused to answer any questions I put to him about himself. I had called him to donate some Jewish books to his center. He said he’d be glad to have them but that he’d only be willing to take them (a) if he could pick them up at the reception area of my hotel and (b) if I was not there when he arrived. I thought this was absolutely insane. He was, for no apparent reason, refusing to meet with me or to let me visit his center. In fact, he didn’t seem to even have a center (despite his claim on the internet that he has one at 3661 Grenoble Ct, Rockford, IL, and that many activities occur there), for he said there were no Shabbos services taking place there and he wouldn’t give out any information about other activities at his synagogue. In all likelihood, the “rabbi” of Rockford, IL is probably just a fraud pretending to run a center–after all, if he is running one, why can’t a Jew visit it? I do not know why he would want to engage in this scam–perhaps he’s fraudulently using his nonexistent “Jewish Community Center” website to get donations out of the Chabad organization or other Jews. I don’t know this for a fact, however. I’d like to know more about his center, but you won’t get anything about it out of the “rabbi” himself–with him, everything is a big secret, including where he’s from and what his Jewish activities are.
If most of the Chabad rabbis I have encountered were like the rabbis in Austin and Rockford, I wouldn’t bother to contact Chabad in the future, but fortunately, most of them are more like the rabbi of Bangkok. Over the past year, I visited Chabad synagogues in Augusta, GA; Wilkes-Barre, PA; and Blue Ash, OH; and the rabbis there were all wonderful people. They were much more like the rabbi of Bangkok than like the rabbis of Austin and Rockford.
I would not not want to leave readers of this webpage with the impression that within Orthodox Judaism, hatred of Jews over the age of 35 is restricted to Chabadnikim. This type of age-based hatred is rampant within Orthodox Judaism. For example, if you are over 35 and go to Jerusalem to study at a yeshivah, you’ll find that about 95% of the yeshivas there won’t accept you solely on account of your age. They’ll tell you before you even open your mouth, before they know anything at all about you other than that you look like you’re over about 35, that older students don’t fit in and are therefore unwelcome. This is very odd, because in secular universities in the U.S., there is a large number of older students who fit in just fine. Why would it be that older secular students fit in, but older yeshivah students do not? Actually, older yeshivah students would fit in just fine if they were allowed to attend yeshivahs. The only reason they are kept out is sheer bigotry and hatred of Jews over 35.
Another example is Taglit-Birthright Israel, which has a number of free group trips to Israel, including the Israel Free Spirit trip, sponsored by the Orthodox Union. The Taglit-Birthright Israel people dislike Jews over the age of 26, and Birthright will not allow such persons to participate on their trips to Israel. Again, the reason is nothing other than age-based bigotry.
I was raised in a Reform Jewish family. I first encountered Chabad as a teenager in the ’70’s in Berkeley, CA. I visited the Berkeley Chabad one Shabbos and was overjoyed to have apparently found the “real thing” in Judaism. It was a far more spiritually elevating experience than any event I’d attended at a Reform synagogue.
Much later in my life, in the ’90’s, I attended some Chabad events in Honolulu, HI. The head rabbi there, who I was told was actually the only Orthodox rabbi in the entire state of Hawaii, was a very unpleasant, unfriendly person who seemed to hate everybody and everything around him. (I do not know if he’s still in Hawaii.) Once, a visiting shaliach (Chabad member whose task is to bring Jews closer to Judaism) in Hawaii made an appointment to meet with me at about 9 am. When I arrived, he was still asleep. He hadn’t gotten out of bed. The head rabbi was very annoyed to see me and didn’t believe me when I explained that I was there because I had an appointment. This was very typical of my experiences with that head rabbi. However, he did bring a visiting Chabadnik to give a talk, an event which sparked my interest in living in Israel. According to this Chabadnik, he had wanted to move to Israel for decades but the Lubavitcher Rebbe had told him not to move to Israel. After the Rebbe passed away, this man did move to Israel, and he told us how much he loved it there. His message was, “Do what you want.” I smiled at that — it was good to see a Chabadnik with a little common sense (although I don’t think the Hawaii head rabbi approved of this message). About ten years later I myself moved to Israel. I met this same man there, but he was very unfriendly. Indeed, I was to discover later that among Orthodox Jews, there is an very large number of incredibly rude and hostile people who evidently interpret the commandment to “love their fellow Jews” as a commandment to hate their fellow Jews.
At the time I decided to move to Israel, I was living in Bangkok, Thailand. One of the reasons for that decision was the monetary inducement from the Israeli government. Israel at that time provided a total of about US$3000 to new Jewish single American immigrants without families in the form of a free air ticket to Israel, housing subsidies, free Hebrew classes, etc. I do not know whether they still provide that same level of support. People from poorer countries received much more assistance, and, of course, people with dependents, i.e., families, received much more assistance.
In order to get permission to immigrate to Israel and become a citizen, I needed a letter from a rabbi saying I was Jewish. The Jewish Agency for Israel handled the immigration applications on behalf of Israel, and I had to deal with them through the mail or through email. I obtained a letter from the head rabbi of Chabad in Thailand, and the Jewish Agency approved my application. Then I got my immigration visa from the Israeli Embassy in Bangkok.
After I arrived in Israel, the Israeli Ministry of Interior (Misrad HaPnim, or משרד הפנים) reversed the decision of the Jewish Agency to grant me a visa, on the ground that my letter from the Bangkok rabbi (which was in Hebrew, so that I had never actually been able to read it) either didn’t say I was Jewish, or that that rabbi didn’t know me well enough to know whether I was Jewish. However, the Jewish Agency in Jerusalem assisted me in obtaining another letter from a different rabbi in Milwaukee, WI who had records of my parents and grandparents, who had been members of that rabbi’s synagogue. This time, the Ministry of Interior accepted my letter and granted me Israeli citizenship. I found it incredible that the two institutions responsible for bringing new Jewish immigrants to Israel were not working together and had different standards for citizenship applications. One can imagine what a disaster this could be for some people. Suppose you were married, had six kids, and a good job in the US, and had been approved by the Jewish Agency for immigration to Israel. You quit your job, sell your house, and move everyone to Israel. After you get there, you are told that the Jewish Agency made a mistake, and that you cannot, after all, become citizens of Israel! A worker at the Jewish Agency in Jerusalem told me that there were, in fact, a large number of cases where the Ministry of Interior had rejected people approved by the Jewish Agency after they had moved to Israel, leaving these people in a strange legal limbo.
I found that Israel was very far from being a US-type “melting pot.” Among new immigrants, French people associated with French, Americans with Americans, etc. It was unusual to see people from different countries spending a lot of time together.
Native-born Israelis, on the whole, associated with native-born Israelis, rather than with new immigrants. The exceptions were almost always people who had immigrated to Israel by their early twenties and who had been in the army or attended university in Israel. These people had usually learned to speak Hebrew fairly well.
In Israel, there are two main types of immigrants. The first type moved to Israel primarily for economic reasons. They came mostly from relatively poor republics that were formerly part of the Soviet Union (e.g., Russia), and from Ethiopia. In this group, very few immigrants have any interest in Judaism. They do not wish to practice or even learn about Judaism. They came to Israel to make more money.
The second type come from countries wealthier than Israel, such as England, France, and the US. In this group, almost all the immigrants are very interested in Judaism. I would estimate that about 90% of these Jews are Orthodox and came to Israel because they believe that according to Torah, they should be in Israel. Although most of these immigrants end up returning to their former countries because they can’t easily make a living in Israel, they tend to feel bad about doing so.
There were only a very small number of Jewish immigrants that I met in Israel who, like myself, wanted to learn about Judaism but not to practice it, i.e., to learn just for the sake of learning. In general, rabbis at the yeshivas I visited and studied at simply assumed that all the Jews in the classes were either trying to observe the basics of Torah law (although not necessarily all of Torah law), or at least were seriously considering adopting a lifestyle in which they would observe Torah law.
I did attend a few yeshivas in Jerusalem. One was Aish HaTorah where the two rabbis I remember best were one who had a militant, aggressive, forceful approach to bringing baal t’shuvahs (Jews who previously weren’t religiously observant but who have decided to become religiously observant) to Orthodox Judaism, and Yom Tov Glaser. The militant rabbi was an excellent teacher but he had a nasty habit of sometimes losing his temper and screaming at students for no valid reason. I sometimes wondered why, if he hated his fellow Jews that much, he didn’t just move to Lebanon, join Hezbollah, and start firing missiles at Israeli civilians.
Rabbi Yom Tov Glaser was probably the most popular of the teachers I encountered at Aish. He taught various mystical aspects of Judaism, though not in a very clear or organized manner. I once asked another rabbi about the stuff Rabbi Glaser was teaching, and he said, “I don’t think any of the rabbis here at Aish HaTorah know anything about Rabbi Glaser’s stuff. I don’t even think Rabbi Glaser knows Rabbi Glaser’s stuff.” But Rabbi Glaser was very well-liked because of his personality and charisma. I like Rabbi Glaser a lot. Just to be in his presence was uplifting. You felt elevated by the spiritual force which surrounded him. Thus, it didn’t really matter very much what he said, or whether his presentation of material was unclear or disorganized–you could get a lot out of his classes just by being present.
After I had attended a number of public classes at Aish, one of the rabbis there encouraged me to speak to another rabbi handling admissions about becoming a full-time, regular student there. I wasn’t at all sure I wanted to do that, but as a favor to this rabbi, I spoke to the rabbi handling admissions. The rabbi handling admissions, it turned out, had a deep, intense hatred of students over the age of about 35, and since I was clearly “too old” by his standards, he was extremely nasty and rude to me in order to discourage me from trying to pursue studies at Aish. I wondered why he, too, didn’t just move to Lebanon, join Hezbollah, and start firing missiles at Israeli civilians. But I didn’t get too upset because I didn’t much desire to study full-time at Aish in the first place, and because by then I’d already encountered a large number of hostile people among Orthodox Jews–people who would very likely have led me to abandon Orthodox Judaism if I’d ever embraced it.
I learned a few interesting things about Chabad while I was in Israel, such as that there is actually a split within Chabad, and there’s a large Chabad community in Israel which does not recognize the authority of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who passed away in 1994.
My efforts to learn Torah from Chabad in Jerusalem were pretty frustrating. In downtown Jerusalem Chabad had set up a small center, which I visited. A Spanish shaliach was there and he made a point of telling me I could study Torah with him any weekday at 11:00 a.m. I returned the next day, which was a weekday, at 11:00. He refused to study Torah with me because he said he was reading something which he was enjoying. I later attended some classes at Chabad’s Mayanot yeshiva, which is mostly for baal t’shuvah beginners. The classes weren’t bad. One rabbi there did make the absurd statement that for someone who knows no Hebrew to learn Hebrew, all he needed was a Hebrew-English dictionary. He said you could just go through a Hebrew text and look up each word and write it down, and there was no need to study Hebrew grammar, etc.
At Mayanot, there were several young people who were quite advanced in Torah studies who were there more to help the student-beginners than to engage in their own learning. One of these people gave me permission to drink coffee which was provided for students. I had coffee everyday there for a couple of weeks. One day, a Russian kitchen staff member who spoke no English started screaming at me as loud as he could, apparently for drinking coffee. He was holding a large kitchen knife. He scared the hell out of me. I thought I was about to be murdered. I told a rabbi about it but he didn’t seem to take it very seriously. I never went back to Mayanot after that.
There is often a lot of alcohol consumption among religious Jews in Israel, though this is generally reserved for special occasions such as Shabbos celebrations, holidays, and special classes. I remember a time when a rabbi from Yishuv Bat Ayin gave a special class in Jerusalem which I attended. The students were mostly between the ages of 18 and 25. The students initially looked somewhat worn-out and dispirited. But then the rabbi said, “I don’t think this is going to work without alcohol.” The students thereupon became very excited and happy as the alcohol appeared–in fact they roared with joy! I was a little disgusted by this scene as it appeared that the students were much more interested in drinking vodka, or whatever it was, than in learning Torah.
I personally object to alcohol being used in learning situations because alcohol makes it much more difficult to think clearly. The Lubavitcher Rebbe was reported to have been a big drinker–I don’t know, however, whether he drank when teaching, discussing, or writing about Torah.
As a vehicle for spiritual upliftment or spiritual experience, I consider alcohol a miserable failure. From a spiritual perspective, alcohol lowers you, rather than raises you. You might feel better in some ways when you’re inebriated, but you’re very deluded if you think you’re on a higher spiritual level. There’s nothing more ridiculous than a typical drunken person with slurred speech making inappropriate sexual advances on strangers, unable to think clearly, but considering himself to be on a higher level than when he is sober. I would recommend that Jewish spiritual seekers who strongly feel a deep need for drugs (a feeling that I do not share) should avoid alcohol but perhaps try something else, such as marijuana, mescaline, or LSD. These latter drugs have been shown to genuinely uplift some people.
After Aish HaTorah, I was able to attend some classes
at Yeshivat Simchat Shlomo in Nachlaot in Jerusalem which, at the time I was there, had classes for male and female students together in the same room. (Now, I believe, these classes are only for females.) It had some excellent teachers, though most of the ones I knew aren’t there anymore. This yeshiva was founded by students of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, who died in 1994 just four months after the Lubavitcher Rebbe passed away. Carlebach was a shaliach of the Lubavitcher Rebbe from 1951 to 1954. He knew that the Torah does not prohibit men, married or unmarried, from having sex with unmarried women, a fact which is often covered up by Orthodox rabbis today both in Israel and elsewhere. Carlebach engaged in many sexual affairs with unmarried women he met while travelling, performing, and teaching in the US, at a time (mostly the ’60’s and ’70’s) when Americans were having a lot more sex and were much more promiscuous than they are now in the 21st century. Carlebach’s followers continue in the tradition established by Carlebach, and to this day it is well-known that many married Orthodox Jewish men who have been influenced by Carlebach engage in extra-marital sexual affairs with unmarried women. I personally don’t have any problem with this, although the vast majority of Orthodox Jews object to such behavior when they hear of it. Of course, to be fully compliant with Torah law, the women involved in these relationships would still have to observe the laws of family purity by abstaining from sex for at least 12 days after the onset of menstrual flow. This is calculated as a minimum of five days of menstrual flow plus seven additional days. At the end of this 12-day period, the woman is required to go to a mikvah for a ritual bath, in order to be ritually purified, before having sex. I suppose it’s unlikely these laws were adhered to by someone like Carlebach who spent his time travelling, performing, teaching, and picking up lots of women all along the way. If you meet a woman and 45 minutes after first meeting her you’re in bed with her, it’s not likely you’ll be paying much attention to the laws of family purity or stopping by a mikvah on the way to bed in case the woman had neglected that step.
Those who wish to learn more about Carlebach and who prefer audiovisual entertainment to reading should take a look at the excellent film directed by Boaz Shahak, “You Never Know,” לעולם אינך יודע – הסרט המלא
,which can be seen online at youtube (see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7np6jL8dHUU
). The film has a very serious flaw in that the producers or director decided that English speakers don’t matter, and only Hebrew speakers are worthy of consideration. All the spoken English on the film has Hebrew subtitles, while none of the spoken Hebrew on the film, which is about half the film, has English subtitles. Evidently, the filmmakers had no interest in reaching out to the majority of Jews worldwide, who are not Hebrew speakers–only to Israelis and a small number of other Jews who understand Hebrew.
I thought one of the most interesting things in the film was the part about LSD. Many people have reported deep spiritual experiences from LSD use, including one person in the film. This person also reported in the film that when he danced while Shlomo Carlebach was singing, he had an intense spiritual experience that was very similar to the one he had had while using LSD.
The tolerance for bad behavior on the part of some Carlebachians is quite excessive. One time a Carlebachian rabbi from Yeshivat Simchat Shlomotold me that when some drunken Russians had shouted and screamed at me I shouldn’t have gotten upset because Carlebach associated with “lowlifes.” My own view is that lowlifes should do their thing somewhere where they won’t be disturbing other people. A special zone for lowlifes could be created in Jerusalem. If I have to walk past them in a crowded residential area to get somewhere while they’re screaming at me, then I think the police should take them to jail for at least 12 hours.
One of the nicest things about Israel was that many people liked to invite others to their homes for a Shabbos supper on Friday night and a Shabbos lunch on Saturday afternoon. During my entire year and a half in Israel, I very rarely had no place to go for a Shabbos supper and a Shabbos lunch. It was even acceptable to ask people if you could join them at their homes for such a meal. No one would get offended if you asked, “Could I eat with you this Shabbos?” Sometimes they couldn’t accomodate you, but they wouldn’t hold it against you for asking, and they would often try to help you find another place to go in that situation. This sort of question would be unacceptable in the U.S. and many Jews there would indeed hold it against you if you asked if you could come to their home for a Shabbos meal.