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A New Mikveh for the Florida Panhandle

By , TALLAHASSEE, FL

It’s the cornerstone of any thriving Jewish community, and integral to Jewish continuity. Women who observe the mitzveh of mikveh will travel distances to use one—and for the women of the Florida Panhandle who’ve taken on this mitzvah, that meant a four-hour drive—as often as every month—to Jacksonville, home to the nearest mikveh.

A mere three years since Chabad has settled in Tallahassee, Florida, local Jewish women and those in surrounding cities in northwest Florida and Southern Georgia will finally have a mikveh all their own.

A few weeks short of completion, the $150,000 facility has already garnered a good deal of interest among community women, and Nancy Kohn, a resident who will host a class on mikveh at her home this week, finds people have become “very receptive to the idea.” Kohn expects some twenty women to attend the class at which Chanie Oirechman will teach the laws and mystical interpretations relating to mikveh.

More than a mere addition to the Jewish landscape in the Florida Panhandle, Tallahassee’s new mikveh is but one indicator of the strides Chabad has taken in a spiritual wasteland where many were initially wary of approaching the Oirechmans.

Arriving friendless and with zero resources the Oirechmans went to work with sheer determination to bring Judaism to life for the Panhandle’s 10,000 Jews. Using the white pages and a magnetic enthusiasm, the Israeli-born rabbi and his wife began to create a vibrant Jewish infrastructure. Rabbi Oirechmann recalls preparations for Chabad’s first function here, chuckling: “Someone donated a typewriter and we went to the library to print our flyer.”

In the short time since its arrival, Chabad has become a visible Jewish force in the community, with the Oirechmans making fast friends of every acquaintance, from local professionals to members of the state legislature. Rabbi Oirechman has been invited several times to recite the invocation at the state House of Representatives, and Governor Jeb Bush joined Chabad and the local community this year for a public menorah lighting at City Hall.

“Chabad brought a lot of energy and a higher profile for the Jewish community,” says Nancy Kohn, pointing to a variety of programs and activities aimed at reaching out to people at every level of the Jewish spectrum.

Weekly services, classes, and holiday events cater to members of the local community, while simultaneously welcoming Jewish students at Florida State University (Jewish pop. 3,000). Friday night Shabbat dinners draw some 30 students on average, and Chabad’s on-campus booth helps generate awareness of Jewish life at a university where it is sorely lacking. Rabbi Oirechman also makes weekly visits for one-on-one Torah study sessions, reaching out to Jewish families in surrounding towns and cities from Deston to Thomasville in Florida, and across southern Georgia.

Children’s programs include Camp Gan Israel, now in its first year with 20-plus campers, and a new Hebrew school opening next year. Jamie Ross, whose son Eli, ten, attends the day camp, is thrilled. Ross initially registered her son for just the first week, but he loved it so much, he’s still there. “There’s a lot of personal attention, a lot of energy, and a great group of counselors,” she says.

Tonya Chavis, an attorney with the legislature in Florida’s Capital District, says Chabad’s pivotal role here is indisputable. Originally from Orlando, Chavis was raised Christian, and regularly attended a southern Baptist Church. Deeply spiritual, but dissatisfied, she began a search for meaning that would have her experiment with a host of religious cults and a variety of theological beliefs.

Ultimately, Chavis chose to try the heritage of her own birthright, and placed a call to Chabad of Tallhassee. “I told the rabbi I knew nothing about being Jewish, about when to sit and when to stand during the services, or anything at all” she says. “He told me to come, it was okay, somebody would show me.” And that is exactly how it’s been. “There’s no pressure, just lots of encouragement,” says Chavis, who has koshered her home, and walks 1.3 miles each Shabbat to attend services. It’s been a long journey, but this time, Chavis feels she’s finally “come home.”

The Oirechmans are home-schooling their two young children, and as of now, kosher food must be ordered from Miami or New York. But having generated enough support to build a mikvah here in so little time, Tallahassee’s Jewish community seems to be moving ahead in full throttle with more developments on the way.

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