Chabad within Europe

"Battling for Europe's Jews" is the product of nearly a yearlong investigation by European correspondents of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency into the growth of Chabad in Europe and the impact that growth is having on Europe's Jews and its established Jewish communities. Last week, the series covered an overview of Chabad ("Chabad broadens reach," Jewish News, May 13) and the group's work on the Hungarian scene ("Chabad expands operations in Hungary"). This week, the series ends with a focus on Brussels, Berlin and Venice.

Photo courtesy of Chabad.org

Across the street from the headquarters of the European Commission, in the very heart of the European Union, is the office of the Rabbinical Center of Europe. It looks like a war room: Stretched across one wall is a gigantic map of the European continent, stuck with hundreds of pins from Ireland to Kyrgyzstan. Each pin represents a Chabad rabbi affiliated with the center.

This is a map of Chabad-Lubavitch's sphere of influence in Europe. Sitting beneath it and surrounded by the flags of the E.U.'s 25 member states, Rabbi Menachem Margolin, the Rabbinical Center's secretary-general, is proud of what his group has achieved in its four years in Brussels.

"We have around 700 rabbis across Europe who look to us for spiritual and technical guidance," he says.

In a sense, there is a battle going on. For Chabad, it is a battle for the souls of lost Jews; its foot soldiers are the thousands of Chabad emissaries sent to spread Yiddishkeit across the globe.

But for many Jewish organizations in Europe, it looks increasingly like a battle for control over Jewish communities and institutions.

Here, in the political capital of Europe, the activities of the Rabbinical Center have ramifications for Jewish political and communal interests throughout the continent. At a time when anti-Semitism and Israel's image in Europe are occupying the international Jewish agenda, the battle for political recognition, influence - and public funding - has intensified.

"It's a great sadness that this duplication exists in a Europe of 25 states where for the first time ever Jews are protected under the law and can cast off their shackles," says Jonathan Joseph, president of the European Council of Jewish Communities. "It's such a pity that having come this far, we should dissipate our energies with factionalism."

The Chabad enterprise in Europe is coordinated through the Rabbinical Center in Brussels, acting either alone or through its affiliated organizations, most notably the European Jewish Community Center and a student organization, which maintain offices in the same building.

Although the struggle is described by others in the European Jewish community as one between themselves and Chabad, Margolin and his associates in Brussels say that the organizations they head are not Chabad institutions, though they are proud Lubavitchers themselves.

"I want to make it clear that the RCE is not a Chabad institution," says the center's director, Rabbi Moshe Garelik. "Chabad helped us at the beginning with things like the Web site, but some of our supporters would not feel comfortable with the RCE as a Chabad organization."

It is clear, however, that both the Rabbinical Center and the European Jewish Community Center were created as Chabad institutions and are still so considered by Chabad headquarters in Brooklyn. The official Web site of Chabad-Lubavitch lists the Rabbinical Center as one of the movement's institutions in Brussels.

And Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, the New York-based development director for Chabad's international emissary network, says Garelik was placed in Brussels by his organization.

Some Jewish organizations in Europe criticize the center's use of the acronym RCE, the same three letters, albeit in a different order, as those used by the continent's pre-existing Orthodox rabbinical group, the Conference of European Rabbis.

However, Margolin says that his group's choice of name reflects its pluralist approach. "In order to make sure there is no mistake about our willingness to help any and all we decided to indicate that in our name," he explained in an e-mail.

Other Jewish leaders feel there's more behind it, suggesting that Chabad wants to present themselves as the primary representative of the Jewish people.

"I'd want them to say that they are really Chabad in order not to mix up terms," says Rabbi Avraham Guigui, chief rabbi of Belgium's Consistoire, an umbrella organization.

In what looks like a further effort to distance itself from its Chabad connection, the European Jewish Community Center does not use its last initial in its logo, referring to itself as the "EJC." These are the same initials used by the European Jewish Congress, the long-established umbrella body representing 38 national Jewish communities across Europe.

"We will certainly be confronting Chabad about this issue," says Cobi Benatoff, president of the European Jewish Congress. "This way of misleading people is not the Jewish way."

Currently, the European Commission, the executive branch of the European Union, works on a political level only with the European Jewish Congress and the Conference of European Rabbis. Some Jewish leaders fear that the Rabbinical Center and the Chabad rabbis it represents are trying to change that, and to present themselves as the officially recognized Jewish community of Europe.

Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, the Brooklyn-based administrative head of the international Chabad-Lubavitch movement, says that Garelik's principal role "was and is to coordinate all the rabbis who are emissaries in West and Eastern Europe and bring them together in one coordinated group for all necessary rabbinic functions."

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