Chabad seeks ‘members of the tribe’ in Australian outback


The idea of hunting for Jews in the Australian outback may sound as ridiculous as combing the streets of Jerusalem for Aborigines.

But when two Chabad emissaries set out this summer to find landsmen in the desolate outback, they were not disappointed.

In fact, had history turned out a little different, there would have been a Jewish colony in the Australian wilderness, but in 1944 then-Australian Prime Minister John Curtin quashed a plan, called the Kimberley Project, to resettle 75,000 Jews from Nazi Europe in the outback.

More recent, Australia’s colorful Orthodox rabbi, Joseph Gutnick, became known in the 1990s as “Diamond Joe” after his mining companies in the Western Australian desert struck rich veins, which Gutnick claims the Lubavitcher rebbe prophesied with a blessing on a map.

The rebbe is dead and the diamonds have dried up, but Jews are still searching the outback. Only now it is Chabad emissaries seeking Jews, not jewels, in the Australian wilderness.

“The Lubavitcher rebbe instilled in us a love for every single Jew,” said Chaim Telsner, one of two visiting yeshiva students from New York who traveled through the outback over the summer in a bright red-and-yellow Winnebago emblazoned with the Lubavitcher rebbe’s face looking for a few good Jews.

He and Mendel Grossbaum, a Minnesota native, were brought to Australia by the Chabad of Rural and Regional Australia to cross the continent in a “mitzvah tank” in search of outback Jews.

“Most of the places we visit only have one Jew,” Telsner said. “We’ll drive four to six hours for one Jew.”

Saul Spigler, who founded the Chabad of Rural Australia in 1977, estimates there are 7,000 to 10,000 Jews living outside Australia’s major metropolitan-area cities. For years he has been overseeing a project to find, register and impact rural Australian Jews.

Operating on a shoestring budget and with only one full-time employee, Spigler says his project to reach the Jews of Australia’s remote areas yields high returns.

“Every Jew has a spark of Judaism, and you’ll be surprised how that spark becomes a burning bush sometimes,” said Spigler, who has 3,000 rural Australian Jews on his Chabad database. “There’s no other Chabad operation like this in the world that I know of.”

Spigler, a lawyer, reels off stories from his years on the road: the man living in tropical north Queensland who thought the mezuzah they installed on his door was a menorah; the priest on the island of Tasmania who asked to put on tefillin; the pig farmers in northern New South Wales who turned out to be Jews; the 90-year-old man in Western Australia who had never had a bar mitzvah until the mitzvah tank arrived at his door.

Most rural Australian Jews are amazed that the Chabadniks have traveled so far just to be with them, Spigler says.

“The chance to have some lasting impact is really there. It’s one of the reasons that inspired me” to create the Chabad of rural Australia, he said.

Ruthi Urbach is the only Jew living in Scone, a town in rural New South Wales best known as the last resting place of Australia’s richest man, media tycoon Kerry Packer.

“To have these boys turn up out of the blue just to say hello and bring some Jewish contact into our lives was just lovely,” she said. “It’s a good feeling to know that someone out there has come so far just to see we are here.”

Michael Rosenfeld, who was one of the people Spigler visited back on his first trip to look for Jews in rural Australia in 1977, said the visit had a profound effect on him.

“Growing up I didn’t really have a lot of contact” with other Jews, Rosenfeld said. “I think they were a very important link for me at a critical time in my childhood.”

Rabbi Dov Oliver became Chabad of Rural and Regional Australia’s first full-time employee in 2004. He grew up in Melbourne; his father was a rabbi who traveled as far as Singapore to spread Yiddishkeit.

“The rural aspect is driving around the outback looking for Jews,” Oliver said. “The regional aspect is different. My wife and I will fly somewhere where there are between 30 to 100 Jews and set up shop for a couple of weeks for a Pesach seder, Chanukah program or Rosh Hashanah.”

Oliver manages the mitzvah tank Winnebago, ensuring it is staffed by yeshiva students and stocked with kosher food, Jewish books, mezuzahs, tefillin and other Jewish paraphernalia.

“A fellow named Joseph in Darwin made a huge impression on me,” Oliver recalled. “He is elderly, has had a stroke, is quite poor and his wife left him. He knows little about Yiddishkeit but sits every Friday night and lights candles.”

Chasids in the Hood (or Not)


It’s one of the quirks of the Pico-Robertson neighborhood. There’s a movement that owns a huge block on Pico Boulevard right in the middle of the hood, runs a preschool,elementary, middle and high school for girls on that same block, has official or unofficial connections with six shuls in the area, has one of the higher-profile brand names in the Jewish world and yet, strangely, you walk around the hood and you don’t really feel their presence.

I’m talking about Chabad-Lubavitch.

They have two shuls on Robertson Boulevard, both south of Pico. The one closest to Pico — commonly called the Yemini shul, after its founder and leader Rabbi Amitai Yemini — has been in the area the longest. The other shul, farther south, is a small minyan called Chabad of Beverlywood.

On Pico, you’ll find one minyan officially connected to Chabad — a tiny weekly minyan in their Bais Rebbe building — and three independents: a Persian Chabad near Cresta Drive; a shul near Beverwil Drive recently opened by Rabbi Eyal Rav-Noy, who used to run a branch of Chabad’s Jewish Learning Institute, and finally, near Robertson is Bais Bezalel, the biggest Lubavitch synagogue on Pico, also known as the Rabbi Lisbon shul.

So with all this presence, how come Chabad is so, er, quiet around here?

In a way, it’s an easy answer: Chabad doesn’t make a lot of noise in areas where people put on tefillin.

They thrive in nonobservant communities, where their unconditional love for every Jew, and their flair for promoting mitzvahs, make them highly visible. For more than 50 years, Chabad has taken this outreach model throughout the world and has lit up thousands of communities with a tireless, single-minded focus on “giving you” a mitzvah.

The problem is that here in the hood, most of the mitzvahs are already taken. The soul of the hood is clearly Modern Orthodox, with the majority of Jews already observant and affiliated with one or more congregations, which cater mostly to their members. So it shouldn’t surprise anyone if there isn’t a market in the hood for Chabad-style outreach.

Of course, I had to meet a rabbi who thinks all this is baloney.

He’s a chabadnik who lives in the hood and who believes that there is, in fact, a market for outreach in this part of town. He doesn’t just believe it, he lives it.

In truth, he does outreach all over Los Angeles — with an emphasis on the Westside — but he has a special place in his heart for the hood, maybe because he lives and hangs out here. He’s like a gold prospector. He loves, for example, those buildings on Bedford and Wooster avenues, where he has discovered plenty of single, unaffiliated Jews who are now on his mailing list and come to his outreach events.

He recognizes that the hood is more of a post-outreach neighborhood, where Jews come to pursue their Judaism after their Jewish spark has been lit, usually elsewhere. But that doesn’t faze him. He thinks there’s a fair amount of unaffiliated Jews in the hood, but they are hidden (I think some of them are hiding). Either way, he says that even if there’s a tiny amount, he wants to reach them all.

His name is Rabbi Mendel Schwartz, and for the past few years he has been running the outreach organization called Chai, started 20 years ago by his father and former Chabad emissary Shlomo Schwartz (I’ve rarely met a Jew in L.A. who hasn’t heard of “Schwartzie”; I go to a lot of events, and he or a look-alike is at all of them). Chai, like the other independents, does not fall under the official Chabad umbrella, and it is neither a shul nor a location.

Rather, it’s a nimble guerrilla outreach operation that uses cool events to bring Jews to Judaism. A Purim party at a comedy club; a haimish Shabbat “dinner for 30 strangers” at Schwartzie and Olivia’s (his wife and partner); High Holiday services at the Writer’s Guild; a Chanukah lighting party in a minimansion. Because they move between venues, they supplement the work of other shuls. Their outreach feeds the shuls for inreach.

But while Chai may be eclectic and independent, their inspiration is classic Lubavitch: using mitzvahs to light Jewish sparks.

This, for me, is the Chabad genius: a knack on the deed, not the talk. They don’t get turned on by grand debates that lead to more grand debates. While the Jewish world agonizes over “profoundly important” issues, Chabad agonizes over getting to Kinko’s on time to get their flyers out for their Chanukah event.

And at Chanukah time, all Chabads make noise. Here in the hood, the Yemini shul had their big outdoor bash at the Wells Fargo parking lot on Saturday night, with the hot band, 8th Day (major sound system). Across the hood, many Lubavitchers have placed large portable menorahs on their cars (they were part of a Chabad citywide parade Monday night) and a giant menorah billboard is on the wall of their Bais Rebbe building, to go along with the actual menorah in front of the building.

There’s no doubt: Hood or no hood, outreach or inreach, Chabad salivates for Chanukah.

It’s the holiday that embodies, through one simple icon, what the Lubavitch movement yearns for all year long: a chance to make observant Judaism shine. With thousands of public menorah lightings around the world, they proudly shine a light on the Jewish faith, on the freedom to practice that faith, and on the value of doing another mitzvah.

They are the Nikes of the Jewish world: They believe that if you just do it, the mystical power of the mitzvah will win you over, and your heart and mind will inevitably follow. And if you live in Los Angeles, where might that lead you?

I’m guessing right back here in the hood, to look for a house.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is the founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.

Campus Outreach Connects Orthodox


At the Enormous Activities Fair during UCLA’s Welcome Week last September, Sharona Kaplan stepped away from her own brochure-laden table to help out at the busier Hillel table.

A first-year student perusing Hillel’s sign-up sheet seemed stuck on one question.

“So what kind of services are you looking for? Liberal, Conservative, Orthodox?” Kaplan asked her.

“The least religious,” the girl said, and Kaplan helped her mark the box for “Reform.”

That doesn’t bother Kaplan at all — each student should find what’s appropriate for him or her, she believes.

But her particular mission is to serve Orthodox Jews and to encourage observant Judaism.

Sharona Kaplan and her husband, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, both 26, arrived in September 2004 through the Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus(JLIC), a program sponsored by the Orthodox Union, Hillel and the Torah Mitzion organization to serve the needs of Orthodox students.

Since the program began five years ago, it has anchored couples on 12 U.S. campuses — three of them newly placed this past September — as well as at Oxford University in England. Each couple is a young rabbi and his wife, charged with teaching classes, running Shabbat programs, ensuring that religious services and kosher food are available and providing a frum-friendly atmosphere for students coming out of the Orthodox day school world.

Over the past year the Kaplans have instituted weekly Shabbat lunches and holiday meals at Hillel, and they invite students to their home for Shabbat meals when the university is closed.

They also strengthened the daily minyans, Sharona Kaplan says, noting that her husband “wakes the boys up and drives around picking them up” to make sure they get to shacharit services on time.

In many ways, the JLIC program is similar to campus programs run by the Chabad organization. The JLIC couples, however, are sent mainly to serve students who already are Orthodox, whereas Chabad couples actively reach out to the entire Jewish spectrum.

Though JLIC couples welcome every Jew to their programs — and would be happy to shepherd nonobservant young people down the frum path — that’s not their mandate.

“The primary purpose is to serve the needs of the Orthodox population,” says Rabbi Ilan Haber, the program’s national director, who works out of Hillel headquarters in Washington. “It’s not an outreach program, it’s an in-reach to Orthodox students.”

Haber says an important aspect of the program is sending a couple to each college: “We feel there’s a need for both male and female role models for the students.”

This point is driven home on a September afternoon at Brooklyn College in New York where Nalini Ibragimov is teaching Torah to nine young women. It’s the students’ two-hour free period, which the college gives twice a week to encourage clubs and sports.

Instead of eating a longer lunch or going swimming, these nine modestly dressed students are discussing with Ibragimov, their rebbetzin on campus, the finer points of the 39 malachot, or acts of labor forbidden on Shabbat.

Nalini Ibragimov, 28, and her husband, 30-year-old Rabbi Reuven Ibragimov, were sent to Brooklyn College three years ago.

Four of the nine women in Nalini Ibragimov’s class spent last year studying in Jerusalem at all-girls seminaries. All say they’re thrilled to have the Ibragimovs on campus.

Meira Sanders, 19, says she likes “just having a rabbi you can ask questions.”

Sarah Roller, 18, says, “It’s really important to have an Orthodox woman to look up to.”

Several of the young women say the JLIC presence eases their transition from high school, where at least half their classes were on religious subjects. One-third of Brooklyn College’s 10,000 students are Jewish, but this is a first experience in a primarily secular world for these nine students, and they’re anxious for regular doses of Yiddishkeit.

“If there weren’t religious studies here, I don’t think I would have come,” Roller says.

Haber, the national program director, says that as more and more Modern Orthodox began attending universities other than Yeshiva University and its affiliate for women, Stern College, the traditional choices for this community, Orthodox leaders and parents saw the need to provide ongoing religious counseling and services to them during their campus years.

Some Reform and Conservative students look at the JLIC program and wish their movements would fund professionals on campus, too. Both the Reform and Conservative movements depend on student volunteers to do campus outreach.

“Between JLIC, Chabad and JAM,” a Southern California-based Orthodox outreach program, “the Orthodox are investing hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the Reform and Conservative are giving zero,” says Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, UCLA’s longtime Hillel director.

“If a kid wants to study Talmud,” he can benefit from the Orthodox rabbi, Seidler-Feller says. “But what if he wants to study Buber?”

The answer, for now, is that such students will have to rely on secular coursework.

Still, the goal of funding campus professionals is “important” to the Conservative leadership, says Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism. “We are trying to find the financial wherewithal to do it.”

A Reform movement leader considers such aspirations a “fantasy” for his movement, given that there are Reform students on several hundred campuses.

“I even question the efficacy of it,” says Rabbi Daniel Freelander, vice president of the Union for Reform Judaism, adding that a Reform rabbinic presence on campus wouldn’t solve the challenge of keeping Reform students Jewishly involved through their college years.

“The involved students are wonderful, and they crave as much rabbinic input as we can give them, but they’re a tiny minority” of the overall student population, he says. “If we put a rabbi on every campus, would [involved students] increase from 5 percent to 10 percent or 20 percent? I doubt it.”

For more information on Camp Gan Israel Running Springs, call Chabad Youth Programs at (310) 208-7511, ext. 1270.

 

Chabad Menorahs Gain Acceptance


Ten years ago, the American Jewish Congress (AJCongress) sued the city of Beverly Hills to block the local Chabad house from erecting a 27-foot menorah in a public park near City Hall. Displaying the menorah — a Jewish religious symbol — on public property, the AJCongress argued, was unconstitutional.

The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the city, allowing Chabad to put up the large candelabra. A three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals later reversed the decision.

When it comes to displaying menorahs in public places, what a difference a decade makes.

This Chanukah, Chabad-Lubavitch plans to light more than 11,000 large public menorahs, from Bangkok to Miami Beach. Those lighting the Chanukah candles won’t come strictly from the ranks of America’s Chabad Chasidim; leaders of Jewish organizations across the spectrum, eager to take part in the public celebration of the Festival of Lights, will also be lighting Chabad’s candles.

The growing acceptance of the Chabad menorahs is just one example of a broader trend: As Chabad spreads throughout the United States and the world, America’s mainstream Jewish community is increasingly willing to embrace the movement, whereas in the past many Jewish organizations preferred to keep it at arm’s length.

“I think there’s less fear and more openness on the parts of both Chabad and the broader community to support all who can reach and touch Jews,” said John Ruskay, executive vice president and CEO of the UJA-Federation of New York.

Chabad, though, said the recent past offers some indication of how far things have come — and where they may be headed.

“Chabad has not changed that much in a generation,” said Rabbi Levi Shemtov, director of the Washington office of the American Friends of Lubavitch. “The organized Jewish community has gone from being indifferent or harsh to being much more welcoming.”

Chabad insiders and observers cite several developments that highlight the change:

• Jewish federations around the country are funding Chabad projects, inviting Chabad rabbis to sit on their boards and committees and including Chabad synagogues in their listings of local places to pray.

• With each passing year, more U.S. Chabad houses become dues-based congregations — like most mainstream Jewish congregations — running on membership payments rather than simply on donations.

• Most Jewish groups no longer sue to prevent Chabad from erecting public menorahs.

• Chabad continues to secure support from Jews outside the movement, even non-Orthodox Jews like Harvard law school professor Alan Dershowitz.

The movement says its annual budget comes in at more than $1 billion, much of it raised by emissaries in the field for their own programming.

Chabad has made extraordinary efforts to reach out to Jews of every stripe, some of whom have grown to embrace the movement.

“In the market of outreach, Chabad looms large,” said Samuel Heilman, a sociology professor at Queens College.

Dancing rabbis on Chabad fundraising telethons have given the movement a public face, as have the movement’s mitzvah mobiles and the army of young Chabadniks who spend days out on city sidewalks asking passers-by if they’d like to put on tefillin or sit in a mobile sukkah and shake a lulav.

“I think that Chabad and much of Orthodoxy have come of age,” Heilman said. “Orthodoxy in general is much more a part of the discussion. Within that, there’s been a recognition that Orthodoxy is not just one thing.”

Part of the reason Jewish groups were wary of Chabad was the impression that the movement was not out simply to offer Jews positive Jewish experiences, but wanted to make unobservant Jews Chabad adherents. Chabad rejects this notion, although its officials do acknowledge that they wouldn’t mind if those who come in contact with them take on more Jewish rituals.

Life of a Footsoldier


Shmuel Marcus is a bit like the lucky son of an ambitious frontier storekeeper, who relies on family to staff a second storefront.

Since January, Marcus, 27, has operated Orange County’s newest Chabad from a living room alcove of the second-floor Cypress apartment he shares with his 25-year-old wife, Bluma, and two young children.

Scion of an unusual family, Marcus has joined the equally unusual society of shluchim (emissaries). They are foot soldiers for a powerful ideology of outreach by the Chabad-Lubavitch branch of Orthodox Judaism. Trailblazers like Marcus must solicit their own financial support and, with their wives, make a lifetime commitment to remain in often-remote areas, ranging from Armenia to Zaire. In not-so-remote California, 20 new sites are planned this year alone in places such as Calabasas and Monterey. The Golden State already has the largest concentration of Chabad centers outside of Israel.

Orange County is already home to 18 synagogues of various denominations and now 10 Chabad centers, including Cypress. No. 11 is to open in Santa Ana this month, manned by Rabbi Yehoshua Eliezrie, son of David Eliezrie, Yorba Linda’s Chabad rabbi.

“California is the new frontier,” Cunin said. Innovations from its centers, such as demonstration “factories” for shofars and matzah, become models used at Chabad sites in 56 countries.

“By giving so many young couples the honor of being shluchim, they are responsible for bringing the love of the Rebbe to anybody we come in contact with,” said Cunin, referring to the Lubavitch spiritual leader, the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

For Chabadniks, being an emissary is a central life goal, so they open centers to satisfy this personal as well as ideological need, said David Berger, history professor of New York’s Brooklyn College and author of “The Rebbe, the Messiah and the Scandal of Orthodox Indifference” (Littman Library, 2001).

Stagnating Jewish population figures suggest Chabad’s explosive growth is not reflected in a revival of Judaism. Instead, its popularity reflects heightened interest in religious beliefs and practices, said Sue L. Fishkoff, whose book, “The Rebbe’s Army: Inside the World of Chabad-Lubavitch,” will be published by Schocken Books in April.

The proliferation of Chabad sites, which generally do not charge membership dues, can siphon members from existing institutions and cause friction, but also attract the unaffiliated, said Fishkoff, who cited anecdotal evidence. The rivalry, cordial in some communities and contentious in others, often prods greater adherence to Jewish practices by non-Chabad groups. “Hillel consciously adapted Chabad programs on campus because they are so vital,” she said.

Chabad’s brand of low-cost Judaism may be its initial draw, she said. “But nobody stays for that reason. Those who stay are finding something they like.”

Shmuel is the third Marcus son to become a Chabad rabbi and take the career path of the family patriarch, Yitzchok. He is the 17-year rabbi of Congregation Ahavat Yisroel in Los Alamitos. Together, he and his wife, Ita, have seven children. Another son, Zalman, is the spiritual leader of Mission Viejo’s Chabad.

“It’s a very unusual family,” said Rabbi Yitzchok Newman, dean of Huntington Beach’s Hebrew Academy, where Ita Marcus teaches. “It’s a sign of dedication. It’s not there was a flourishing community; it’s dedicating themselves to the Jewish cause.”

The youngest Marcus rabbi was deployed to a “red zone,” mapped at Lubavitch headquarters in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights. Cypress is considered a battlefield because of its extremely high intermarriage rate. Seeing a need to cultivate relationships with a more youthful audience, his father suggested the daunting assignment.

Without a building, Marcus organizes events in people’s homes or at his father’s center. So far, he has taught five Hebrew classes for three students. His wife taught a women’s group to make kreplach, meat-filled dumplings. Fifteen children registered for holiday-crafts classes.

“Many Chabads started with one kid,” said Marcus, seemingly unfazed by the meager start.

“You can’t educate a 25-year-old,” his wife said.

“Unfortunately, you have to start when they are 4,” he added.

Marcus, who holds a second job as director of outreach and marketing at Chabad’s West Coast headquarters, wrote about his 1996 stay in the former Soviet Union as an assistant rabbi. Safire of San Francisco published “Chicken Kiev” in February. It’s based on epistolary e-mail snapshots of modern Jewish life in a spare, verse-like text. Posted at Chabad.org, it generated enough interest he figured it had book potential.

He’s not anticipating a best seller, though.

It ends on a conversation with a poet, who notes Shakespeare has been translated into Ukranian. “It would only be fair, wouldn’t it, for them to publish my work in English?”

Marcus writes: “He would be astounded to hear that in America verse writing is not a particularly lucrative profession, unlike the Ukraine where poets are respected as heroes and pillars of society.”

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