Known for vegetarians, animal rights activists, and liberal minded thinking, this is the last place you expect to find a Chabad couple. Yet, despite living a very different lifestyle from their campus community at the University of Oregon, Rabbi Asi and Aviva Spiegel chose to settle in Eugene specifically because of its liberal demographic.
“My wife and I both bring creative angles to our outreach work because of our own diverse backgrounds. People feel and know they are safe with us,” says Rabbi Spiegel.
Born in Israel to a modern orthodox family, Rabbi Spiegel joined Chabad as a teenager. His father, a renowned Talmudic scholar and professor at Bar Ilan University, introduced his young son to many different paths of Judaism. After watching a video of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, writing a letter to Lubavitch headquarters before his Bar Mitzvah, and then receiving a personal response from the Rebbe, Rabbi Asi felt a connection. He went on to study in Lubavitch schools in Israel and the United States. At age 21, he began running the famous Nepal Seder with a group of fellow Chabad students. His involvement with the Nepal Seder lasted seven years, and attracted more than 1500 Israeli tourists each year. It was there, while interacting with fellow Israelis whom had many questions regarding Judaism’s response to eastern philosophy, that Rabbi Spiegel found his niche in outreach work.
“I realized that Chasidic teachings were the only way to properly answer and reach the Jews I met in Nepal. I knew for my life work I wanted to be involved with Jews who were seeking answers to similar questions,” explains Rabbi Spiegel.
Aviva, traveled even further to reach Chabad Lubavitch. She grew up in a
secular Jewish home and graduated from Stanford University. In her early
20’s, she looked to a variety of spiritual practices to satisfy her deeper
spiritual longings. While studying at Hebrew University in her junior year,
she encountered the world of Torah and mitzvot and began to embrace an observant lifestyle. After Aviva and Asi married they looked for a Shlichus position that would utilize the creative aspects of their personality.
Eugene fit the bill, and in, September, 2002, the Spiegels moved there, and, with a grant by the Pamela and George Rohr Foundation, they launched a wide range of innovative programs and services to help them reach out to some 1,500 Jewish students.
“I draw heavily upon my background in the creative arts when I give a
workshop or hold a women’s gathering. I always incorporate some kind of craft,
drama, movement, or creative writing to help the women synthesize the new
ideas. My background and familiarity with “New Age” vocabulary and concepts
also helps me to know how to relate Chasidic concepts to the women,” says Aviva.
Over the short time they’ve been in Eugene, the Spiegels have sent six students to Mayanot Jerusalem, a school for advanced Jewish study, and traveled with a group of students to Israel on an educational tour. Their goal is “to provide an opportunity for Jewish students to become familiar with Judaism,” says Rabbi Spiegel.
They admit it is a challenge being so far from a larger Jewish community. Portland and kosher food is two hours away, and the education of their 3 children is their daily responsibility. Still, they see difficulty in terms of wanting more Jews at their Shabbat table. “All we ask for is more Jews to get involved,” says Rabbi Spiegel.