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Never Alone: Finding a Jewish Community for Holy Days

As I was about to embark on a trip around Europe by myself for the summer after I graduated, a girlfriend told me, “Gila, wherever you go if you need anything find the local synagogue.”

Back in the ’70s when I was a hippie art student at a college where the two biggest movements were women’s and gay rights, I had a girlfriend who was a Zionist. When she met my gentile boyfriend with whom I was deeply in love, she insisted I dump him and find a Jewish guy. I now had to hide my loved one from not only my mother but also my girlfriend.

As I was about to embark on a trip around Europe by myself for the summer after I graduated, the same girlfriend told me, “Gila, (that’s my name in Hebrew which she started calling me) wherever you go if you need anything find the local synagogue.”

I nodded, just to please her but had no intention of doing so. My Jewish experience in my youth did not leave me wanting more.

I set off on my journey with a passport, Eurail pass and traveler’s checks tucked in a pouch under my shirt. When a complete stranger came up to me in France and asked, “You Juif?” I was shocked. He was curious, as he had never met a Jew.

A few evenings later when I was dancing at a discotheque in Paris, an older man came over to me and asked the same question. I realized then that I had a symbolic Star of David on my forehead.

After leaving my Jewish enclave on Long Island, retaining my bump on my nose and my long dark, curly hair, my ethnic identity was clear to many. The French man, who didn’t speak English, handed me his business card and used a friend to translate. He insisted that if I needed anything I should come to him. He shared he was Jewish, too.

It was the first time in my life that I felt part of a group who was there to help each other. It was comforting to know that if I did need assistance, someone was there.

Decades later, after thousands of miles traveled around the world, I’ve sought out the Jewish community. I now feel an immediate connection and want to learn about my community.

When it’s the High Holidays, and I’m traveling, I find a congregation to join in the celebration. I don’t have to look too far to find a Chabad. As of 2020 there were over 3,500 Chabad centers in 100 countries. They never require a ticket and never turn you away no matter your affiliation.

This year I decided to take a road trip for a few days to Maine to explore and photograph. I knew my first day there would be Erev Rosh Hashanah. I discovered two congregations. Chabad was also offering a couple of dinners. How could I say no to food?

This year I decided to take a road trip for a few days to Maine to explore and photograph. I knew my first day there would be Erev Rosh Hashanah. I discovered two congregations. Chabad was also offering a couple of dinners. How could I say no to food?

I scouted them in advance so I knew where I’d be going later. When I entered their space, I met the 30-year-old, red-headed, kind Rabbi Lefkowitz, his beautiful wife, Draizy, and their three little children, ages two, four and six. There were a couple of Lubavitch young men who came up from NYC and other folks working hard to prepare for the evening service and meal. Draizy had one eye on her children and the other on her food prep. I was impressed by how organized she was. There were tins filled with baked fresh salmon stacked one on top of the other. She took me up on my offer to help and I returned a couple of hours later to do so. I had no idea I had stepped into a gourmet kitchen. I was chopping and slicing fresh vegetables and fruits for a variety of salads.

The rabbi grew up in Monsey, NY. His father opened up the Chabad in Suffern, and Draizy grew up in Portland, Maine, where her father opened up the Chabad Center.

I had the opportunity to meet an engaging group of people including college professors from Bowdoin, artists, lawyers, and blue collar workers. Most were born Jewish, some were not.

As I was savoring each dish, each delicacy that Draizy had prepared, a regular attendant who was born and raised in Kiryat Arbat, an Israeli settlement right next to Hebron, alerted me that this is where you go for the best food in Maine.

I saw so much love between the rabbi, his wife and children. When his young daughter was crying in the middle of his service, he lifted her up, and held her in his arms as he continued.

Due to this Chabad, I made friends with a couple of the guests, who each reached out to me, and we got together during my four-day stay. The rebbetzin called to ask if I wanted any of her recipes. I had hemmed and hawed about how much I loved her food. 

I never realized how tough it is particularly for those Rabbis and their wives who decide to open up a center in an area like Brunswick. 

After the holiday, I spoke to the rabbi and learned they moved there three years prior and began offering activities and services to the public and the local colleges. There are no Jewish schools in Brunswick other than what they offer, no kosher restaurants, and a very small Jewish population. Although I had visited several Chabads in the world, I never realized how tough it is particularly for those rabbis and their wives who decide to open up a center in an area like Brunswick. They have to educate their children themselves or online, in addition to providing kosher food and activities for their families and community.

Did I mention that there is no charge to attend these events and feasts? It’s the responsibility of the rabbi to fundraise. As an independent documentary filmmaker for years, the biggest thing I dreaded was raising money. I’m so impressed and grateful for the kindness and generosity of Chabad and particularly of my new friends, Rabbi Lefkowitz and Rebbetzin Draizy. Thanks to them, I must say my new year has started off quite well.


Gayle Kirschenbaum is an Emmy Award-winning filmmaker, TV producer, photographer, writer and TEDx speaker. Her documentary “Look at Us Now, Mother!” can be found at lookatusnowmother.com. She’s writing a memoir based on this film.

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