A number of years back, my son (then in his late 20’s) and I were in the Bryant Park behind the New York Public Library. A Chabad rabbi was going from table-to-table speaking to people at each one. My son said, “Oh no, he’s going to want us to pray with him,” to which I replied, “No, I would like to talk to him.” My son respected my request, although he is secular, but not hostile towards Judaism. He indicated that he would not be embarrassed to talk or pray with the rabbi.
I was visiting NYC where my son then lived, from Denver CO, where he was born and grew up. The rabbi began speaking with us and asked about my Jewish background, to which I replied that I had converted to Judaism. He looked upward for a few seconds, smiled and said, “So you were not Jewish and decided to become Jewish?” I replied in the affirmative. He said, “Hm, OK!” He did not question me as to the circumstances or auspices under which my conversion occurred – no judgment whatsoever.
He then turned and began talking to my son. The rabbi wrapped tefillin around my son’s arms and forehead placing a yarmulke on his head. He then asked my son to repeat some Hebrew blessings after him. I recognized the “Baruch attah Adonai,” but the remainder of each blessing was a bit unfamiliar – not one of the standards one hears in synagogue services each week. Then the rabbi exclaimed, “There! Now you’ve had your Bar Mitzvah!”
During my wife’s second marriage, when my son was 12-years-old, they lived Wisconsin. He did attend Hebrew school there to prepare for a Bar Mitzvah, but upon returning to Denver at age 13 none of the Congregations would accept him as a candidate for a Bar Mitzvah. In some cases he hadn’t attended their program; in other cases, where accepted children from mixed background or who had minimal exposure to Judaism, he had had too much involvement in the Jewish community and religion – Catch-22! This was a something very special for my wife’s family. I emailed pictures of the encounter to Denver so that my wife’s mother in a Jewish assisted living facility could celebrate her grandson’s Bar Mitzvah vicariously. (Note: the pictures displayed in this article are illustrations from the internet – not the pictures of my son.)
Afterwards, the rabbi approached me and told me that I should buy my son a set of tefillin. I didn’t want to tell him that my son would be unlikely to ever use them. I thanked the rabbi and he departed on a pleasant note. Then, some young men my son’s age came over from a nearby table and asked what the rabbi was doing. He had asked them if they were Jewish and thanked them for their time and courtesy when they said they weren’t. (They were more familiar with Mormon and Evangelical Christian missionaries who would have pressed them further.) I explained that the mission of Chabad and their Mitzvah Mobiles was directed only at Jews.
I’m not sure I read years ago of a Lubavitcher teaching stating that if all Jews all over the world would say the Sh’ma on the same day Mashiach would appear. As a movement they are rooted in Chassidic mysticism, so such an idea as motivation for their missionary efforts is plausible. In any case, I do respect them because their emissaries are friendly, respectful and non-judgmental of people they reach out to. I am also grateful that this one Chabad rabbi saw fit to give my son a Bar Mitzvah in a park in Central Manhattan.
Some Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jewish groups and individuals criticize the Lubavitchers and Chabad for a number of ideological and political rationales, but so, too, do many of these same groups heap condemnation upon one another. I prefer, as in the first post in my TOI blog, to promote K’lal Yisrael and respect for one another.