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June 20, 2003

Judge Chabad Outreach Efforts by their Results

In his June 6 review of Sue Fishkoff’s book “The Rebbe’s Army: Inside the World of Chabad-Lubavitch,” Joseph Berger writes that, “Fishkoff is too uncritical and at times a bit too differential, and I would have preferred more of an ironic appreciation of the distance between Lubavitch statements and ordinary reality” (“A Place All Their Own in the Jewish Kaleidoscope”).

It is indeed a shame that Fishkoff chose not to deal with a range of issues that many, particularly within the Orthodox camp, have with Chabad and some of its practices.

In certain ways Lubavitch today cannot be considered within the mainstream of Orthodox Jewry. It often enjoys, at best, strained relationships with the vast majority of Orthodox Jews who are not Lubavitchers. At times these interactions have become downright querulous.

While the presence of a Lubavitcher representative in a given community may lead to a strengthening of the ties to Judaism of some, do we know that this is the most effective way of combating assimilation? Would this money perhaps be better spent on lowering tuitions at established day schools so that more parents will be inclined to send their children to day schools? After all, many studies have shown that the most effective way to prevent intermarriage is to give young people a good day school education. Indeed, I believe that some studies have actually shown that the more years of such an education a Jewish youngster has, the less likely she or he is to marry a non-Jew and the more likely they are to identify with and practice Judaism.

Chabad missionaries have wrapped themselves in a certain “romanticized” aura due to the fact they are willing to go to places where there are few Jews and few Jewish amenities. However, we all know that it is results that count. Is there really evidence that the approach that Chabad has taken to outreach is the one that brings the most results? I would love to know the answer.

Yitzchok Levine

Professor, Mathematical Sciences

Stevens Institute of Technology

Hoboken, N.J.

In one of his relatively few criticisms of Sue Fishkoff’s book on Chabad-Lubavitch, Joseph Berger laments that the author “never talks to psychologists or social scientists who may help us understand the groups’ appeal.” The very implication that any psychological analysis of the attraction of chasidic Jewish thought and life is even warranted is itself a true affront to both this type of Judaism and those who have chosen it.

Would Berger similarly seek the wisdom of psychologists in explaining how Jews are drawn to Reform or Conservative lifestyles — or how various non-Jews are attracted by Methodist or Unitarian or other choice of institutions?

I was a pediatrics resident at the time my wife and I began our transition to Lubavitch, and our explanation is similar to that of almost everyone we know — all psychologically healthy, highly educated men and women. Once we were introduced to the integrity, depth and richness of Chabad philosophy and living, we realized how shallow and lacking the education and Jewish living of our earlier synagogues and religious education had been. The growth never stops, and the 30 years of family life since have fully validated our decision. Countless other families would relate similar sentiment.

Yes, there are a relatively small number of people who come to Chabad from unstable life situations. But the preponderent bulk of us have made rewarding, enlightened decisions with deeply gratifying, lifelong benefit. Neither Berger nor we need the analysis of psychologists and sociologists. Indeed, the personalities and the families of these professionals should only fare as well as our own.

Dr. David Cotlar

Houston, Texas

First Hispanic Judge

Opinion writer and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg gives us some fascinating insights into some of the brilliant Jewish jurists in the history of this country and their inspiring achievements (Justice, Guardian of Liberty, May 30).

With the current conflict over presidential choices for judicial confirmation, appointment to circuit courts and the impending vacancies on the high court looming, it may be relevant to note a fact related to Ginsburg’s remarks and too often ignored by many politicians and journalists.

As it relates to matters of minority and ethnic issues, Justice Benjamin Cardozo represents the first Hispanic to be named to the Supreme Court, in 1932. While the first Latino/a has yet to ascend to this level of recognition and stature, we should remember Cardozo’s special significance as well as his brilliant legal legacy.

Saralie Pennington

San Francisco, Calif.

‘Yidishe Hotties’ Have A Long, Famous History

While increasing the erotic representation of American Jews may increase our cultural pride, doing so by drawing inspiration from celebrity Jennifer Lopez, as the East Village Mamele suggest, is dubious (“Yidishe Hotties, Unite,” May 23).

It’s bizarre for the Mamele to suggest that youthful female celebrities who serve as sex-positive role models are fewer in number than Latinas like “J.Lo” because of a few bad apples. Not only is it further insulting to suggest that Jewish women are so sexually clueless that they need a gentile pop icon to lead them out of the desert, but a Catholic one to boot — one whose religion has historically infused sexuality with shame, guilt and other impulses.

The “babe element” in the representation of Jewish women that the Mamele raves about is actually not new, but rather a recent immigrant from that controversial fringe of pop culture: pornography. Both as film character and performer, the “kosher cheesecake” — the proud, curvaceous Jewish woman who delights in consensual, guilt-free and non-reproductive sex — first arose in the predominantly Jewish adult film and video industry. Annie Sprinkle, Nina Hartley, Gloria Leonard, Susan Nero, Melissa Monet, Ona Zee, Traci Lords, Amber Lynn and Alexandra Silk have been among the top pornography stars.

During the 1970s and 1980s, 12% of all female pornography performers were Jews, and most of the leading male performers were, in fact, “kosher beefcakes.” The fact that Debra Messing’s character on the television sitcom “Will and Grace” prefers to stay home and watch pornography rather than go shopping is, in part, a tribute to “kosher cheesecakes” everywhere.

Phil Goldmarx

New York, N.Y.

At a time when Jewish cultural literacy among Americans is disappearing neck and neck with their Consitutional rights, the advent of “Jew.lo” as a marketing concept is beyond a shande far di goyim. It is a toxic waste of space in your esteemed newspaper.

Can the Forward be so desperate for content? Can its editorial staff be so insensate as to give this trash legitimacy by exposing and thus promoting it?

For this, did our esteemed ancestors shape a culture predicated on morality, wisdom and social justice? For this, did our tzadikim embody piety and compassion?

Did generations of Jewish mothers nurture their daughters only to arrive at this lame, puerile pun that trivializes and dumbs down yidishkayt by making “Jew” equal to “Coke” or “Nike” — just another brand name?” This is Jewish pride?

Any Jewish daughter who remotely thinks that emblazoning “Jew.lo” across her breasts communicates an enhanced sexuality or allure is sadly mistaken. What she would really be communicating is that she can breathe and walk without benefit of an actual functioning brain.

Wolf Krakowski

Northampton, Mass.

Upstart Seminary Not Aiming to Outdo Y.U.

Readers of the June 13 article on Yeshivat Chovevei Torah might come away with the impression that our rabbinical school is competing with and, indeed, trying to outdo the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary of Yeshiva University (“Upstart Rabbinical School Set To Fight for Pulpit Jobs”).

This is not the case. The reality is there are scores of communities in need of rabbinic leadership. There are multiple Orthodox yeshivot — each with its own unique educational and ideological approaches — that attempt to train such rabbis.

We applaud the wonderful work of Y.U.’s theological seminary and feel confident that under the leadership of the university’s new president, Richard Joel, the seminary will continue to flourish and reach even greater heights. We view our institutions as complementing rather than competing with each other. We believe that the continued success of both Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School and the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary can only benefit from the diverse needs of the Orthodox and larger Jewish community.

Rabbi Avi Weiss


Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School

New York, N.Y.

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