Chabad’s Singing “soldiers of the Rebbe”

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A child raising the flag at the Chabad camp Gan Israel (ganisrael.co.il)

Chabad is the world’s largest and best-known branch of Hasidic Judaism, an orthodox stream that emphasizes spiritual interaction with God through their community leader or “Rebbe”. Over the last generation, Chabad has become famous for its outreach programs, dedicated to bringing assimilated Jews into a stronger Jewish identity. This emphasis was initiated by the movement’s last Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Shneerson (who served 1951-1994).

The Chabad Telethon, which is broadcast from Los Angeles every fall before the Jewish holidays, marked its 36th year on September 4, 2016. The famous personalities who appear at this event take part in non-stop singing, joking and dancing, while donors pledge millions of dollars for Chabad’s West Coast projects. Many Chabad activities are admired by the wider Jewish community, as well as non-Jews. But some songs never heard at those fundraisers reveal a troubling descent into cultish behavior.

Take the recent release by Kfar Chabad, the Lubavitcher village located in the center of Israel, at the conclusion of their summer children’s camp, “Gan Yisrael in the Holy Land”. It was a praise song… to their deceased rabbi.

In the professionally produced music clip by camp coordinator Yisraelik Navul, the visuals alternate between young boys, young men, and “the Rebbe”, former Chabad leader Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who died in 1994.  A young boy and a young man sing this song together (translated from Hebrew):

I’m a soldier in a camp, saturated with a goal,
Ready for a mission, steadfast to bring Redemption already today.
My parents surely know it – I will become immunized;
Two weeks at camp will make me a Chasid.
I’m definitely not throwing up my hands, not giving up.
Today I know to try my best, do a little bit more.

Soldiers of the Rebbe, we will never be separated.
They are sacrificing themselves, spreading light to everyone.
Military formations and prayers, Mishnah passages and Tanya* learned by heart,
These connect us to the Rebbe, we will never weaken.

Aggressively we will march, we will learn in ‘Shturem’.**
We will draw every Jew closer, we will love each one.
In another moment, Messiah will stand before us,
Proud and joyful in all of his soldiers.

Soldiers of the Rebbe, we will not be separated, ever.
They are sacrificing themselves, spreading light to everyone.
Military formations and prayers, Mishnah passages and Tanya* learned by heart,
These connect us to the Rebbe, we will never weaken.

Thus we will be strengthened together, in the final moments;
Because the soldiers of the Rebbe always win.
Thus we will be strengthened together, in the final moments;
Because the soldiers of the Rebbe always win.

*Tanya is the teaching of the first Chabad Rebbe, Schneur Zalman, published in 1797. Chabad describes it as the core of the Chassidic belief system, and “a practical path that allows anyone to approach divinity.” [sic]

**Shturem is the Chabad online learning network and the Yiddish word for “storm”; the network’s English slogan is “taking the world by storm”. Topics include how to “bring the Rebbe into our homes: “Do you yearn to raise your children to be mekushorim [mystically connected to Shneerson] and true soldiers of the Rebbe? If the answer is yes, start truly living with the Rebbe in your daily life.” 

The older singer’s devotion to the cause is obvious, with key phrases emphasized by meaningful looks toward heaven. At one point, the young singer is juxtaposed with old footage of the Rebbe striding through crowds of admirers, seemingly coming towards him, and the boy salutes. The clip ends with the camp emblem, on which is written, “Gan Yisrael, Soldiers of the Rebbe”. The emblem vaguely resembles the IDF symbol.

Lest the reader think the military imagery is just spiritual metaphor, at Chabad’s introductory mini-camp to register for “Gan Yisrael”, the initials of the IDF (צה”ל) were prominently displayed on the wall. Only instead of צבא הגנה לישראל (Army for the Defense of Israel), the initials stood for צבא הכנה לגאולה  (Army for the Preparation of Redemption).

And how did Chabad campers relate to the Rebbe as their commander in chief? They saluted his photo.

They ceremoniously raised flags in his (photo’s) presence. They wore kippahs embroidered with the “Yechi” blessing: “Long live our Lord, teacher and rabbi, King Messiah, forever and ever.”  (Hebrew speakers will notice that the spelling of “adoneinu” here includes the “yud” which distinguishes the Divine “Lord” from a human “lord”.) After camp, they wrote a “Duch” (report) to him, “thanking” the Rebbe in heaven for their experience.

Last but not least, they were taught to keep singing about him – and even to him – after the camp was over:

“I see the Rebbe before my eyes, and then my heart is filled with yearning.
Surely now the Commander in Chief [literally ‘Ramat-Kal’] is proud of his soldiers,
In a few more minutes he will reveal himself.
Gan Yisrael, you’ve changed my life.”

“Rebbe, I promise I won’t let the light escape,
With all my might I will bring the Messiah…
I am a faithful soldier of the Messiah.
Rebbe, I promise, the main thing is that you will come,
And Gan Yisrael will salute you in love.”

Lacking any mention or hint of God or Torah, these songs glorify a man they claim is Messiah (not was or might be). This allegiance is a worldwide Chabad priority. Lubavitcher families enshrine pictures of the Rebbe in their homes. On Shneerson’s birthday, people are invited to “greet” him in mass rallies. Some Chabad synagogues have made replicas of the Rebbe’s house (“770”, now Chabad HQ) to hold their Torah scrolls. At “770” itself, children are taught to salute the Rebbe’s empty chair while chanting the “Yechi”… turning their backs to the Torah ark.

In Israel, the devotion is even more intense. Hebrew posters announcing Shneerson’s birthday celebrations also declare him “Moshiach Tzidkenu” – “Messiah our righteousness“. An exact replica of the Rebbe’s Brooklyn home was built 30 years ago at Kfar Chabad. Now it’s “an alternative for whoever who can’t go to him [sic] in the United States.” (Jewish Telegraph Service, feb/2016) In particular, the Israeli copy of Shneerson’s personal study is a popular place to pray, in order “to feel close” to this man who was buried in the USA 22 years ago.  

There were even plans to build “a palace for Messiah” on the village grounds, which Shneerson reportedly approved. He ordered construction to begin in 1992… only weeks before he suffered the stroke which left him paralyzed (2/march/92) until his death (12/june/94). After waiting 22 years for his “return”, Kfar Chabad quietly settled for a public park, which was inaugurated this summer on the same spot.

The JTA reported that the Chabad members-only village has another purpose besides gathering to greet Messiah: it’s a fortress to defeat doubts. The line in the camp song about being “immunized” hints at this dropout phenomenon. Indeed, so many youth raised on Chabad teaching have walked away that it became necessary to establish an outreach center exclusively for ex-Chabadniks. Like many Chabad soldiers, the program founder took up this work after “writing to the Rebbe“, a Chabad-approved process where a petitioner randomly inserts his question or prayer request into a volume of Igrot Kodesh (the Rebbe’s “holy” correspondence), reciting the “Yechi”. A personal “reply” is found on that page, in one of those old letters. (This may require Chabad assistance.)

There are significant threads connecting “soldiers of the Rebbe” with the anti-Yeshua organization Yad L’Achim. Leading YL activist Benjamin Kluger testified in a 2013 interview, “A clear answer from the Rebbe is what got me involved in Yad L’Achim’s work.”  He received this answer when he decided to “write to the Rebbe”. Kluger, once a professing Christian, said that he has introduced other ex-believers to this practice as well. When asked: “How much does being a Lubavitcher Chassid and mekushar [mystically bonded] to the Rebbe help you in your work?” Kluger answered that it “helps tremendously.”

Another “soldier of the Rebbe” working for Yad L’Achim is Chabad Rabbi Yoav Zeev Robinson, who conducts courses endorsed by YL at Machon Bina, a Chabad women’s center dedicated to nurturing “a generation of women who are a nachas [source of pleasure] to the Rebbe“. The international Chabad site likewise promotes defectors to Yad L’Achim in this war of Messiahs, for example Amitai Schiff, once a professing believer in Yeshua and now a self-proclaimed soldier for the Rebbe who spiritually “connects” with him.

More ominous threads run between Chabad and fringe Israeli racists like Lehava leader Benzi Gopstein. The above-mentioned JTA story noted that Kfar Chabad has a tradition of voting for “far-right Kahanist candidates”. This affinity is shared by Gopstein, who has adopted the late Meir Kahana’s contempt for Arabs, Christians and Messianic Jews. In a debate at a yeshiva-sponsored summer camp last year, Gopstein promoted the medieval opinion by Maimonides that it was proper to burn down churches. A few months later, he called for the expulsion of all Christians from Israel, denouncing them as “vampires” who “suck blood” from Israeli Jews. He has led attempts to disrupt Messianic gatherings as well, including the Elav youth conference. During the summer Lehava sponsored their own camps for older “soldiers” fighting in “the war on assimilation and missionaries”. Among other things, the campers learned martial arts, presumably for use in physical confrontations. There are also family ties: the Rabbi of Kfar Chabad, Meir Ashkenazi, is the son-in-law of Kiryat Motzkin Rabbi David Meir Druckman, a Chabad rabbi whose public support of Lehava was noted by Ha’aretz.

Then there is the singing. At the wedding of Benzi Gopstein’s daughter in 2013, the teenaged wedding guests performed a “knife dance”, vowing revenge on Arabs. The song they sang, “Zochreini Na” (“Remember Me, I Pray”, taken from Samson’s prayer in Judges 16:28), is popular at Chabad as well; songwriter Dov Shurin was invited to perform it at the “770” Chabad synagogue in New York.

Every year during the Chabad Telethon, scores of earnest celebrities appear on camera, joining the song and dance, endorsing the work of Chabad, and raising millions for Lubavitcher rabbis to use as they see fit. While some of that work is commendable, there is a darker side emerging. Supporters would do well to rethink the wisdom of serving as unquestioning “soldiers of the Rebbe”.