Herzliya apologizes to Chabad lawbreakers — and their dead rabbi

Illustrative image - an religious Jews inviting men to pray with tefillin (Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Daniel Maleck Lewy)

In late October, the Chabad magazine “Beis Moshiach” (“House of Messiah”) was still celebrating an August incident in Herzliya, where (so the story went) Chabad emissary Yosef Yitzhak Amitai was fined for urging Jewish men in the street to put on tefillin (phylacteries worn during Orthodox morning prayers).

Media headlines sparked Israelis to rally around Chabad in defiant support. In fact, as reported in Beis Moshiach, “Every now and then, someone came over [to the Herzliya stall] and asked to put on tefillin, ‘just because of what they did to you.’”

In reality, the story was more mundane, even boring. But given media eagerness for a sensational tale of secular-religious friction in Israel, Chabad leaders couldn’t resist tweaking details to promote their mission.

Most sources reported the Herzliya municipality’s statement: Chabad had erected their stall without a permit and had also blocked pedestrian movement. But suspicion abounded that this was a pretext covering a juicier conflict. Some claimed passersby were upset by Amitai’s excessive zeal in recruiting them for the tefillin ritual. Others took the opposite slant, describing secular hostility against a humble service offered every Friday to the delight of local residents.

Contradictions appeared about how much warning the city gave before issuing the fine. In the Beis Moshiach narrative, “an inspector… demanded that Amitai immediately remove his stall and stop the tefillin thing.” The ticket itself says that the activist “was asked a few times” to dismantle the stall and refused. According to the citation, he also refused to show personal ID as required by Israeli law, forcing the inspector to use police databases to identify Amitai.

Who was ultimately responsible for the clash? Another open question. Herzliya’s Chabad leader Rabbi Israel Halperin told the Hebrew-language hareidi site B’hadrei Hareidim that a week earlier, someone from the municipality had notified Chabad that “the mayor had announced a change in policies; therefore, it was prohibited for us to erect a stall.” (He presumably meant, “erect a stall without a permit.”) This placed the blame on Herzliya Mayor Moshe Fadlon for creating the dilemma, or on Rabbi Halperin for doing nothing to avoid a showdown despite being forewarned.

Mayor Fadlon’s efforts to please both religious and secular sectors are proven by his role in providing secular residents with free Shabbat bus service to the beach on a route that avoids religious neighborhoods. Regarding the tefillin tug-of-war, a global Chabad site quoted an administrative response that demonstrated the same diplomacy: “The Herzliya municipality said [that they] must ensure freedom of passage and prevent disturbances and harassment in public places. Chabad was asked to visit the municipality’s offices, to find a solution which would regulate their activities and the tables they place in public places.” Chabad’s Halperin countered with a public statement that the stall had been a Herzliya tradition “for 33 years” and he saw no reason for the change.

All this hinted at a familiar Israeli problem: inconsistent law enforcement. We might speculate that Herzliya officials were aware of Chabad’s permit-less tefillin stall for years, but considered the legal lapse a low priority. Recently (probably due to population growth) they decided to tighten control on public stalls by requiring permits from owners both old and new. In short, the fine was bureaucratic pressure to change the status quo, not a secular attack on Torah tradition.

Chabad responses did not mention the existence of local laws regulating the use of public areas, much less instruct their activists to honor such regulations. Instead, a statement from the global organization of Chabad emissaries played the persecution card, adding melodramatic fiction for good measure (emphasis added):

“It’s hard to believe that out of all the places around the globe where Chabad emissaries help Jews put on tefillin and connect to their parents’ tradition, only in Israel will a person be fined or BROUGHT TO COURT FOR IT. Not in New York, not in Moscow’s Red Square, not in London or at the foot of the Eiffel Tower. Only in Herzliya, a city in Israel.”

Beis Moshiach rejoiced that “the media raised the story to a fevered pitch” while Halperin added fuel to the fire, declaring: “This is the first time in Herzliya, and perhaps in the entire world, that a Jew has received a citation for putting tefillin on other Jews.” A few Israeli politicians joined the ruckus, comparing Herzliya with Nazi Germany and Communist Russia. The Brooklyn-based magazine, however, enthused that the crisis was God-ordained: “From Heaven, they [sic] want us to intensify this campaign, so they sent inspectors to convey what seems to be an opposite message.

In an effort to defuse the uproar, Fadlon offered a personal apology to both Amitai and Halperin. The mayor visited Halperin’s office to announce that the ticket was a “misunderstanding” and was hereby cancelled. Or, as some reported, he recommended coordinating with the municipality to locate their tefillin stalls in places that won’t disturb public traffic, and he promised that if Chabad appealed the fine it would be cancelled.

Rabbi Halperin’s response: “God forbid!” He is keeping the 730-shekel ticket for a “museum” exhibit in the Messianic era.

Already bizarre and misleading, the story took on surreal tones when Halperin advised Fadlon to also apologize to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Shneerson, who died in 1994. The mayor complied.

Fadlon’s apology in Hebrew addressed the deceased religious leader as “King Messiah” and twice as כבוד קדושתו, translated by Crown Heights Chabad as “His Holiness.” Some local news outlets balked at publishing the entire text: Arutz Sheva’s English site omitted the “Holiness” attribute, while the Hebrew Ynet left out the “King Messiah” reference. The self-censorship showed a reluctance to feed the growing Israeli uneasiness over Chabad’s literal idolization of their Rebbe.

Chabad’s emissaries (another name for “missionaries”) use outreach campaigns, along with their anti-missionary activities, as part of their ultimate mission: to convince the world to embrace their dead rabbi as a “concealed” Messiah who now reigns from Heaven. Chabad headquarters in New York and its Israeli branches encourage people, Jews and non-Jews alike, to write notes to the late Shneerson asking for advice and/or blessings. These are inserted into a random page of the Rebbe’s 30-volume collection of letters written to people while he was alive. They guarantee that the Rebbe will personally answer each note from a portion of text found on that page.

This resembles the dubious Christian custom of blind, random scripture-picking as a method of seeking God’s guidance, a cross-cultural practice known as Bibliomancy. The additional fact that consulting with the dead is explicitly forbidden in Torah (Deut.18:10–11) is neutralized by a denial that Shneerson is dead. Failure to receive an intelligible reply through his letters is “a phenomenon [that] is unknown;” however, you might need a Chabad rabbi to “interpret” the answer for you.

Accordingly, Fadlon’s apology note proclaimed appreciation for Chabad’s activities and asked the deceased man to bestow on him a blessing for the coming year. The Jewish Press commented tongue-in-cheek that at the time of their report (mid-September), the Rebbe had not responded.

But according to B’hadrei Hareidim, Fadlon’s “spiritual fax” to Shneerson did receive a reply, relayed by Rabbi Halperin as mediator-interpreter. And “the content of the answer made him [Fadlon] very happy.” The secular mayor was so happy he joined in the Chabad “Yechi” salutation: “Long live our Master, Teacher and Rabbi,* King Messiah, forever and ever.

[*Occasionally the Hebrew contains an extra yud, changing “our Master” to “our Divine Lord”; and some Chabad fans replace “our Rabbi” with “our Creator”.]

For the past 50 years the sight of Chabad’s emissaries, manning their tables and asking passersby if they are Jewish, has become familiar worldwide. Yet few know the motivation behind this global effort. Chabad followers believe that coaxing Jewish males to wear tefillin — even once, and even without understanding it — will guarantee those men eternal life, ensure the survival of Israel and help bring the Messiah. They cite their Rebbe as the initiator of this idea in 1967, and even claim that it “precipitated the victory of the Six-Day War.”

Three days later, on Oct. 20 a similar confrontation erupted with another Chabad tefillin promoter, this time in the upscale Ramat-Aviv-Gimel neighborhood of Tel Aviv. The incident drew sharp accusations from the Tablet, which noted “a second case in a few weeks involving Chabad being singled out by unfriendly Israeli municipalities.” In contrast, only a short factual report appeared in Yeshiva World News. Perhaps the latter took note of a Hebrew Chabad site that provided a closeup photo of the Tel Aviv ticket, with the violation easily readable: “Erection of a tefillin stall and gazebo tent without a valid permit (the permit expired in 2016).”

Among the resulting headlines about Israel’s “shutdown” of a Chabad stall “yet again”, which faulted Tel Aviv for refusing to comment, the hareidi news outlet Hamodia actually obtained one: “In a statement, the Tel Aviv Municipality said that ‘all activities in the public space must receive a permit signed by the mayor before they take place. The activity in this case was issued a warning, and not a citation. In the future, we expect those operating the booth to file a request for a permit before operating it.’”

The recipient of the warning, Tel Aviv’s Chabad missionary Yehuda Lipsh, took on the role of victim and echoed the earlier claims by Herzliya Chabad of religious persecution (translated from Hebrew):

“We are here at the command of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, King Messiah. For 20 years we have been providing aid to all the Jews by putting tefillin [on them] …I’m in total shock that in the Jewish state they would accept a demand to remove this Jewish stall.”

If those working for “King Messiah” are “in shock” at the idea that they are expected to obey civil laws like everyone else, then they present a bigger problem than just adoration of Shneerson. If their rabbis believe that misrepresenting demands for legal compliance as persecution is permitted in order to attract more disciples, then Chabad’s “Torah” is not from the God who commanded, “You shall not bear false witness.” (Ex.20:16)

The popular sympathy Chabad is able to generate despite this conduct suggests that too many Israelis are just not paying attention. Or, maybe some are so hungry for Torah heroes that they willingly ignore the warning signs of a cult.