Chabad Success Leads to Split Intown

Chabad Success Leads to Split Intown

When the wave of terrorist attacks in Israel began this fall, the first communal response from Jewish Atlanta came when the Chabad Israeli Center Atlanta organized a prayer vigil Oct. 15 at Chabad of Georgia’s Congregation Beth Tefillah.

With the support of Reform, Conservative and Orthodox congregations, Jewish day schools, the Marcus Jewish Community Center, and the Israeli Consulate General, the event provided several hundred people the opportunity to show solidarity with Israel.

It was an example of Chabad of Georgia’s communitywide benefit, but it was also a reminder of the complicated relations among Chabad affiliates 30 years after Rabbi Yossi New brought the Lubavitcher outreach movement to Georgia. (See why we wrote this article.)

Rabbi Eliyahu Schusterman of Chabad Intown
Rabbi Eliyahu Schusterman of Chabad Intown

Within a growth model that gives rabbis known as shluchim specific territories to build communities, the Chabad Israeli Center crosses all the geographic lines to serve a specific population, in this case Israelis. And it operates under the leadership of a member of Rabbi New’s family, his son-in-law Rabbi Mendy Gurary.

Rabbi Gurary’s Sandy Springs center serves as a valuable resource to Atlanta’s Israeli community, but it also competes with the other Chabad outlets for Israelis’ participation. It is the first of several cross-community operations Rabbi New has launched the past decade under the leadership of sons and sons-in-law, creating tensions with the other shluchim, who are expected to respect Rabbi New’s authority at the head of Chabad of Georgia even though they must succeed or fail on their own.

Those tensions reached a breaking point recently for one of the earliest, most successful Chabad of Georgia offshoots, Chabad Intown, which Rabbi New ousted from the official Chabad ranks.

Chabad Intown Rabbi Eliyahu Schusterman said that, like his fellow shluchim, he had agreed to halt successful programs at Rabbi New’s insistence over the years to support the launch of Atlanta-wide replacements, even though the senior Chabad rabbi did not consult with the other rabbis.

For example, Rabbi Schusterman was told to fold his program connecting teens with people who have special needs into a new outlet of Chabad’s Friendship Circle serving greater Atlanta under Rabbi Yale New, Rabbi New’s son. The program is thriving, but the other shluchim had no input into its creation and lost that connection to their community members.

Last year Rabbi New brought son-in-law Rabbi Levi Mentz from Los Angeles to head JCrafts of Georgia. JCrafts brings experiential children’s programs into the community, such as a matzah factory at Home Depot for Passover, a shofar factory at preschools and religious schools for Rosh Hashanah, and a couple of sukkahs making the rounds for Sukkot.

Rabbi Mentz has been active and effective with JCrafts, but his arrival forced Chabad rabbis to shut down similar, independent programming even though Rabbi New didn’t seek consensus support for the citywide effort.

For Rabbi Schusterman, the final straw was Rabbi New’s demand that he disband his thriving YJP (Young Jewish Professionals), Midtown Atlanta, in deference to a new young-adult program serving greater Atlanta. When the intown rabbi balked, Rabbi New removed his center from the official Chabad list.

Rabbi Ari Sollish joined Rabbi Schusterman in Chabad exile. As individual members of the Chabad movement, they may continue to operate their self-sustaining operations under the Chabad Intown name even though they are no longer affiliated with the official Chabad outreach organization locally or nationally.Chabad Success Leads to Split Intown 1

Chabad Intown will lose access to classes and other programming made available through the Chabad network, and Chabad of Georgia in theory could establish a new center that would compete for Chabad followers inside Atlanta.

The problems in Georgia are not unique for Chabad, an outreach movement launched by the revered Lubavitcher rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, in the 1950s. As the ranks of Chabad rabbis have swelled and the number of Chabad centers has grown, the hierarchy inherent in the system has clashed with the financial and operational independence demanded of shluchim.

In 30 years Chabad has grown in Georgia to encompass 16 entities, including centers in Athens and Augusta. Several thousand families consider Chabad to be their synagogue, and several million dollars are raised each year for programming, education, prayer and growth. Chabad rabbis will tell you that Atlanta Jewish spirituality has grown tremendously under their tutelage.

The Chabad model is entrepreneurial. A husband and wife are given a geographic area, similar to a franchise. They learn on the job from their communities, other Chabad rabbis far and near, and mentors’ sharing of best practices.

Spiritual support is bountiful, as are Chabad programming models, but monetary support is not. A new shaliach might receive enough startup capital to cover rent and other living expenses for a couple of months, but then his success depends entirely on hard work to create a congregation and community where none existed.

About 15 years ago, Chabad operations within the Atlanta area were spread out, with Rabbi New’s Beth Tefillah in Sandy Springs, Rabbi Ephraim Silverman in East Cobb, Rabbi Hirshy Minkowicz in North Fulton, Rabbi Zalman Lipskier at Emory University and Rabbi Schusterman intown.

But the success of those rabbis has created a growing demand for Chabad operations, and Rabbi Schusterman said Rabbi New has made unilateral decisions on how to meet that demand, including the citywide operations and the locations of new centers.

For example, Chabad is talking about opening a center under the leadership of a New family member in Forsyth County. But rather than place the center in the county’s only city, Cumming, Chabad of Georgia is looking at sites at the southern end of Forsyth, close to the expanding Chabad of North Fulton on the Johns Creek-Alpharetta line.

Rabbi Minkowicz declined to comment on the potential encroachment on his territory, just as Rabbi New passed on the opportunity to talk on the record about the internal Chabad conflicts in Georgia.

The logical arbiter for such regional disputes, the national office of Chabad in Brooklyn, encourages mediation, which has been unsuccessful in Georgia. While a regional leader such as Rabbi New must answer to Brooklyn, the organization prefers local answers to local problems and doesn’t provide centralized policies for issues such as the locations of centers and leadership succession.

Still, several of the Chabad rabbis who have been in Atlanta for 15 years or more have stood together to plead their case to Brooklyn. Rabbi New has led Chabad of Georgia to great success, and Rabbi Schusterman said he and his colleagues are willing to keep working with him.

But without a change in leadership style and operational approach, Chabad of Georgia could continue to see cracks in the organization, and the members of the Chabad communities will be the losers.

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