New Monroeville Chabad House stirs up controversy
A new Chabad center will open in Pittsburgh’s eastern suburbs within the next two weeks, but its launch has caused some unease with at least one local rabbi.
The new Chabad of Monroeville will be led by Rabbi Mendy Schapiro. Schapiro recently moved to Pittsburgh with his wife Esther, a Pittsburgh native, and their infant son. They are currently looking for a location to run their programs.
But in the Nov. 7 issue of TD Now, the Bulletin of Temple David of Monroeville, Rabbi Barbara AB Symons expressed concern over losing congregants to the outreach organization, charging Chabad with “targeting” areas from which it believes it can “draw people away from other congregations.”
“This is not a Jewish value,” Symons wrote. “It does not model am yisrael the people Israel.”
In the publication, Symons describes Chabad as “a world-wide institution that not only does not respect other branches of Judaism but believe that theirs is the only right one.”
“I love the idea of other Jewish institutions coming to Monroeville and building up our community, if they’re going to be partners,” Symons told The Chronicle. “My concern is that they may not be partners, based on my understanding from colleagues and other community leaders.”
“I hope they will turn a corner. I hope this Chabad that’s coming to Monroeville will prove me wrong. I look forward to that.”
Schapiro said that he had no intention of luring Jews away from their home congregations, but that he is “focusing on general ideas to raise the level of Jewish awareness in the eastern suburbs.”
Symons said that Schapiro had initiated a meeting with her and Cantor Rick Berlin, spiritual leader of Parkway Jewish Center, and that she has been working to schedule that meeting.
Berlin also expressed some trepidation at Chabad’s imminent arrival, but noted that the various workshops Chabad has conducted in Parkway’s religious schools in the past have been well received.
“They came with menchlikeit,” he said. “Individually, they have been very, very kind to our community. We’ve enjoyed the workshops and our children have gotten things out of them.”
“I’m very happy that Rabbi Schapiro has reached out in the spirit of cooperation,” Berlin continued. “I’m happy to establish a cooperative effort. But at the same time, I’m aware of the issues a Chabad coming into a community can create. Both nationally and locally there is concern about Chabad and the nature of the movement.”
“They are very well-funded, and they are able to do things that other congregations can’t do in the same way,” Berlin remarked, citing the enticements of free membership and free meals as examples.
It is not uncommon for a community congregation to feel threatened when a new one joins the neighborhood, explained Jonathan D. Sarna, professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University and director of its Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program. In fact, he said, it was not so long ago that Reform temples were “the new kid on the block.”
But, he said, history has shown that such competition is generally good for the Jewish community at large.
“In general, competition has been good for American religion,” Sarna said. “It gives people more alternatives, so that if someone is not satisfied [with the current choices], they have somewhere to turn.”
Sarna explained that competition in religion is not unlike competition in the American economic system.
“I can understand why any synagogue would be threatened when a new congregation moves in, but it’s no different than when a supermarket comes in and challenges the existing one,” Sarna said. “It’s neither un-American nor un-Jewish.”
Although during the Middle Ages, synagogues were careful not to establish themselves within the communities of existing congregations, that system broke down in the 1820s, said Sarna, “and we are probably richer as a Jewish community as a result.”
Sarna noted that generally, a community is made stronger by having “multiple options.”
“My guess is that’s what will be true in Monroeville,” he said. “It may even bring more Jews to the community.”
Schapiro plans to initiate adult education programs, along with programming for youth and senior citizens. Although he does not plan to offer Shabbat services immediately, Schapiro said that Chabad would soon be hosting Friday night dinners and Shabbat lunches.
Schapiro said that he had been in the process of setting up a meeting with Symons, and that he was “shocked” to learn of the message she sent out to her congregants in the Temple newsletter.
“I think that’s truly unfortunate,” Schapiro said. “We haven’t even spoken about what Chabad is and what Chabad does. We’re not targeting anyone’s congregants. In fact, most of the people I’ve met are unaffiliated.”
“But we want to hear from everybody and get everybody’s input,” he added. “We want to try to accommodate anyone.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.)