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Chabad Families, Communities, Grow in Small, Remote Communities

By , Saskatchewan, Canada

The annual International Conference of Shluchos 5775, corresponding to 22 Shevat–yahrzeit of Rebbetzin Chaya Moussia Schneerson, of blessed memory–opened this week at Chabad-Lubavitch Headquarters in New York.

Thousands of women, leaders in Jewish communities worldwide representing will be participating at the Conference. Among them are shluchot, women who have dedicated themselves to Jews living in remote, small town outposts.

In the last issue of Lubavitch International, Rena Greenberg took a closer look at what life is like for these women, mothers, teachers, community builders, who, sometimes seem to be accomplishing the impossible. Here’s her report.

Are we there yet?”

Seven-year-old Mendel Kats moans from the backseat of the road-tripping car, a time-honored tradition of kids everywhere. The second-grader lives with his four siblings and parents, the Chabad emissaries to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, where aurora lights dance in the night sky and temperatures oscillate in the negative degrees in the winter time.

As he looks out the car window at the miles of snow-covered plains that stretch in undisturbed stillness save the occasional bale of hay and the odd cow, Mendel counts down the minutes left in the dragging six-hour drive from Saskatoon to Edmonton, Alberta.

It has been a few weeks since his family last made the trip to stock up on kosher food, and Mendel is looking forward to a rare treat: milk chocolate.

The only Jewish-observant kids in town, Mendel and his siblings are homeschooled by their mother. Trips to the pizza shop, the Jewish library, and birthday parties at the kosher ice cream parlor—regular outings for the average kid in a big Jewish community—are rarities reserved for the few times a year that the Katses visit Brooklyn, New York.

His parents, Rabbi Rafi and Sarah Kats, both hail from sizable Jewish metropolises—Toronto, Ontario, and Cleveland, Ohio, respectively. They moved to the remote central Canadian province of Saskatchewan in 2011 to serve the local Jewish population of about 500 Jews.

Focusing on the Micro

The Katses are among a growing number of Chabad couples who give up the material bounty and spiritual security of life in a developed, Jewish community, choosing instead to put down roots in places where kosher food is scarce and the most basic institutions of Jewish life, including synagogues and schools, only exist if they build them. Motivated by a vision of inspired by the Lubavitcher Rebbe that would leave no Jew without access or education, the shluchim are possessed of a courage and stamina that enables them to traverse huge geographic distances and build their family and a community in the far-forgotten corners of this Earth.

With Chabad now in every major city in the world, the focus has turned to reaching Jews in tiny communities, and in recent years Chabad Houses have been opening up in small, remote towns. Today, Chabad’s emissaries are located in over 2,500 communities; of these, 1,000 have Jewish populations under 5,000. With modest turnouts at their events, and programs scaled to a smaller size, these emissaries make few headlines, and go about their mission without pomp or fanfare. Quietly, consistently, they reach out and educate: teaching Jewish tradition and identity, creating community and giving people the experience of belonging.

Finding Friends

Beginnings are especially difficult in these small places, and oftentimes, beginnings last a long time. Arriving with a dollar and a dream on a one-way ticket, these young families get down to business: The Rebbe’s emissaries don’t wait for others to come looking for them; they go out searching. Sometimes, that means hitting the streets just as if you were looking for a family member who has gone missing.

“In the beginning, I walked in the street and introduced myself to strangers,” said Rabbi Avremy Raskin, Chabad emissary to Brattleboro, Vermont. One contact led to another—each one precious to the young shluchim. Soon, he recalls, he “made lists and started randomly calling people to invite them for a holiday or just to meet for coffee”.

How many Jews are in Brattelboro? Who knows? Conventional cost-benefit analysis is not important in the decision that comes with opening Chabad in a given location, but Raskin estimates there are several hundred within thirty miles of the quaint northeastern town that he, his wife Chaya and their two young children, now call home.

When they moved in 2006 to the small town on Route 66 in Flagstaff, Arizona, Rabbi Dovie and Chaya Shapiro relied on word of mouth to connect with Jews. “We asked people, ‘Do you know anyone Jewish?’” says Shapiro. “Everyone knew someone, so even though everyone felt that they were one of only three Jewish families in town, there are more. Every person connected us with someone else—a colleague, a friend.” Every find becomes important, and they now have 230 names on their mailing list.

Establishing Roots

Once the emissaries collect their motley crew of local Jews, they begin: a shared cup of coffee, a Shabbat dinner, a lesson in reading Hebrew, a bar mitzvah. It may be a long time before they can pull together a minyan, weeks until they obtain kosher meat, and miles to travel to the nearest mikvah. But the seeds are planted, and over time, buds will sprout from even the driest, toughest ground.

Jews tend to stick together. More than four-in-ten U.S. Jewish adults (43%) live in the Northeast, with another 23% residing in the South, 23% in the West and 11% in the Midwest. The vast majority of them live either in urban areas (49%) or in the suburbs (47%). Just 4% of U.S. Jews reside in rural areas, compared with about one-in-five Americans overall. While Chabad emissaries have multiple centers in areas with high Jewish concentrations (some 200 Chabad centers serve New York City’s 2 million Jews), appointing a couple to a town that has several dozen Jewish families may seem like a poor distribution of resources.

“It is very critical that we don’t lose sight of the small towns,” says Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, Chairman of the educational and social services division of Chabad-Lubavitch. “They cannot be neglected simply because there are not that many souls. We may have cities with 700 families or cities with 50 families. We still have a ways to go to reach them all.”

No Jew Left Behind

As more and more shluchim head out—on average about two couples a week, says Rabbi Krinsky, Chabad Houses are growing up in even the smallest communities. To radio talk-show host and author Dennis Prager, Chabad is so pervasive, he now uses it, he says, to define the word “remote” as “a place without a Chabad House”.

In the past, communities of forty or fifty Jewish families were often doomed. With no rabbi, no synagogue and no mikvah, young Jews married out of the faith, and the community faded away in short time. Unfortunately, this has been the fate of hundreds of Jewish communities in South America, the United States, and Europe.

Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, vice-chairman of Chabad’s outreach arm, is concerned with sustainability in these small places. He remarks, “Every Jew is important, but for a location to warrant its own Chabad center, it is important to have sustainability, and that means enough Jews to at least make the smallest efforts possible.”

Financial sustainability sometimes plays a role in the decision-making process, but more than anything, it is the young couple’s ability to innovate and improvise that will make a desert bloom. Thus, many Chabad centers have opened in places that didn’t seem to have a chance. A place of fewer than one-hundred local Jews seems like a non-starter. Add to the mix of drawbacks a foreign language, a peculiar mentality, and a strange culture. Phom Penh, Cambodia? Chabad’s been open there since 2009; Rabbi Bentzion and Mashie Butman are a precious resource to the country’s hundred Jews and any others traveling through.

In Yerevan, Armenia, where Jews have lived since the sixth century, the population has waxed and waned. Today only a few hundred remain. “The Jewish community in Armenia is ‘too small’ to be of great interest to most Jewish organizations,” local Chabad shliach, Rabbi Gershon Bourshtein notes sadly.

The Challenges of Living Remotely

The assimilation rate in Saskatoon is around 90%. Sarah Kats travels six hours by car to Edmonton, Alberta to use the mikvah—sometimes in the very worst of Canadian winter storms. “Mikvah is very, very hard and it’s been a real challenge,” she admits. But she considers her impact and the difference she makes to the local Jewish population. One hundred people attended their last Lag Ba’Omer event—one fifth of Saskatoon’s total Jewish population, a huge number for this area. “We do count babies and photographers,” she laughingly admits.

In places where kosher food is difficult to obtain, hosting Shabbat dinners requires planning ahead and prioritizing. Industrial-sized freezers, stocked with kosher perishables, are a mainstay in nearly every small-town Chabad House. In Porto Alegre, Brazil, where the closest kosher market is over 1,100 kilometers away, the Chabad representatives consider kosher meat a luxury and carefully ration it throughout the year. When they moved from Israel to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan 12 years ago, Rabbi Arye and Esther Raichman went to local farms to milk the cows. Now, they get deliveries from Alma Ata, Kazakhstan. “We get what kosher items we can and whatever we cant get, we simply do without,” Raichman says.

And yet, it’s not the religious observances that pose the biggest challenge for shluchim living so far away from an established, Jewish community, but the challenge of rearing their children without the proverbial village. “Our children’s Jewish education and their social life is by far our biggest challenge,” says Rabbi Shaul Perlstein, a father raising four children with his wife in Chattanooga, Tennessee. “We have a wonderful community and great interaction with the people we’ve come to know here, but it’s different than having a social life with people who live a similar lifestyle to you.”

Jews comprise less than 1 percent of the population in the Bible Belt, with most living in large cities like Atlanta and Charlotte. The Perlsteins, who moved to Chattanooga from Brooklyn in 2009, are the only observant Jews in town.

His children, he says, are themselves Jewish role models, and he’s proud to see them teach their friends about prayers and Shabbat. The sacrifice they make, he says, is significant. After all, “kids are kids, and it would be nice for them to have playmates who are their peers.”

With no local religious Jewish day schools, nor the population size to warrant establishing one, some families homeschool their children. Many, like Perlstein, enroll their children in the shluchim Online School, a web-hosted educational institution based in Brooklyn that delivers a virtual, real-time and interactive school experience for shluchim ’s children.

Small But Focused

Financial backing is tricky in small communities. Initially, shluchim are funded by seed money—some get grants for a period of three years, others raise funds from family and friends. All must eventually transition to local funding, but the small communities offer a smaller pool of donors, and the giving culture is often different than in big cities. “Supporting Jewish infrastructure may be new to them,” says Raskin. But with time and patience, as the community begins to appreciate the life brought to experience by the new family in town, they take ownership.

Helping shluchim so that they don’t have to reinvent the wheel with every program is an impressive array of resources emanating out of various divisions at Chabad-Lubavitch Headquarters in New York. Educational, social and holiday events are designed and prepared down to the smallest details,. Invaluable tools, these resources allow shluchim in the smallest places to bring sophisticated programming to their communities.

Compared to thousands gathering for a menorah lighting at the Eiffel tower or dozens of schools uniting for a Jewish pride parade in New York, seven people attending a Sukkot party in Mobile, Alabama can easily be overlooked. But turning paucity to their advantage, small-town shluchim provide better focus to each individual.

“A bigger city can sometimes have more of a mass production feeling,” says Rabbi Yosef Goldwasser, who moved to Mobile just three months ago with his wife Bina and their two-year-old son. “Here, it is more about the personal connection with every single Jew.” Since arriving, Goldwasser has been meeting with local Jews nearly every day, and is excited about staging Chabad’s first major event – Mobile’s first public Menorah lighting this year’s Chanukah.

Immeasurable Success

Metrics may be all the rage in today’s data-hungry world, but they prove an ineffective measure of Chabad outreach, which shluchim describe as more of a retail operation. Igniting a Jew’s “hidden spark” often comes from personal, one-on-one connections.

There are only a few dozen Jewish families in Bend, a city in Central Oregon with a population of around 80,000. “We really don’t look at the numbers,” says Mimi Feldman, the local Chabad representative. “That is not what is important and it took us a while to be okay with that. What is important is that are we making a difference in the community, and sowing a stronger sense of Jewish identity and Jewish pride.”

Feldman is raising her four children there, and she and her husband have managed to find and connect with just under a hundred Jews. A handful attend Mimi’s Jewish women’s circle. Twenty-five have become regulars and now attend Friday night Shabbat services, and in recent months the Feldman’s established a family hosted “Hands on Havdalah,” where local families welcome members of the budding community into their homes for the traditional ceremony that marks Shabbat’s end. For this community, says Mimi, success means really investing in the personal relationships for positive impact.

Eight years after the Shapiros arrived in Flagstaff, they bought two acres of land to build a Jewish community center. “Although we do have quantifiable success–150 participated at at our Passover Seder, and Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services were packed, I’m not sure numbers are the best measure of success.”

Instead, Rabbi Shapiro determines success by asking, if we left our place of Shlichus tomorrow, would we be missed?

“To that we can answer yes,” he says, emphatically. “There are many people who now turn to us for their Jewish needs, for inspiration and learning, and there we find our success.”

There is a price that these small town shluchim pay to succeed: As Jews evolve and grow in their Jewish identity, shluchim finally who can relate, who keep kosher and Shabbat, and share a similar lifestyle, the shluchim are less lonely. But that’s when many choose to leave for more established Jewish communities.

“It’s bittersweet when families with whom we’ve developed and nurtured relationships and friendships move away,” said Perlstein. “When four young families who we got really close to moved away, I can’t deny that it hurt us. Sometimes I wish in my heart of hearts that they would stay and help us establish our community here.”

Looking to the Future

Jewish attorney Samuel Levy, his wife Lauren, and their son and daughter relocated from Lisbon, Portugal to Maputo, Mozambique a few years ago for business reasons. They had grown comfortable with Chabad in Lisbon and were dismayed to find that Maputo was without its own Chabad center.

When Levy met Rabbi Krinsky on a trip to NYC this past September, he wanted to know if the Rebbe truly believed “that we have to be concerned with the welfare of every single Jew?” When Krinsky replied in the affirmative, Levy didn’t mince his words: “Well, what about the 35 Jewish families in Maputo?”

Looking at Chabad on the world map, there is yet much ground to cover. Many places like Maputo still need shluchim . And many idealistic young couples are waiting to go. Soon, one such couple will head out to Maputo, Mozambique, and for the few Jews living there, life will change for the better, in so many ways.


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