My Good News column by Roger Mendelson from the UPJ Weekly News & Drash (30/31 August 2019)
Last Shabbat I did something I have rarely done: I celebrated Shabbat at a Chabad shul.
The occasion was the 100th yartzheit of my great-grandfather.
It felt very special that there is a vibrant, extended family able to remember him, in a land he never visited, living peaceful lives he could never have dreamed of, with opportunities beyond his imagination.
Although I immersed myself in the service (as far as I could), I couldn’t help comparing differences between them and us.
It began with the welcome. It was from the rabbi and he was warm and engaging, but there were no visible board members or president, and this in itself is a major difference.
Chabad congregations are seeded from head office and it is up to the rabbi to build them. He has powers in his community far beyond any Progressive rabbi.
This is a strength, in that communal growth can be rapid, as it is unhindered by a diversity of opinions and egos. However, I see it as a weakness, in that it can lead to some disastrous situations. It is ultimately limiting, as all autocracies are limited. Our congregations are democracies and ultimately they harness the energy and skills of a broad range of people and a sensible consensus emerges.
My second feeling was one of Jewish inadequacy. Everyone seemed to know the tunes and tempo of the prayers, whereas I was often baffled by their pronunciation of commonly used words. However, I soon worked out that it was just a question of familiarity by them. If I went every week, I would pick it up as well.
It struck me just how Yekke (Germanic) most of us are in the Progressive Movement, even though most of us are from non-German/Austrian backgrounds.
Our services are ordered, people sit down and are basically quiet, we stand as one, and sing and pray in unison. This is in stark contrast to Chabad, which is true to its Eastern European origins and hasn’t varied from it.
However, there were two things which really stood out.
There was very little singing and no cantor. I love Chassidic music, but this service had very little of it.
By far the major issue was the absence of women. Behind the mechitza, there were only about seven women, compared to about 60 men inside.
It is a truism that you take for granted what you have and fully appreciate it when you don’t have it.
We are so used to women being equal partners with men in our Movement that we don’t think about it. They are presidents, board members, rabbis, service leaders. I suspect that at most of our services they are the majority.
To exclude them strikes at the heart of our Judaism. It is the single most tangible point of difference between Orthodoxy and us.
I admire Chabad's energy and passion for reaching out to Jews everywhere. I love their gentle dignity. However, for most of us, making chicken soup was our grandmother's main focus, and not necessarily our daughter's.