The last place Rabbi Chaim Markovits expected to hear an authentic, heimish Yiddish with a Brooklyn accent was in Macon, Georgia (pop. 150,000).
Not that it’s implausible—Rural Georgia is home to roughly 5-10,000 Jews. Which is why Chaim and his wife, Chayala, had moved to the state earlier this year to open CHARGE, Chabad of Rural Georgia, a traveling Chabad dedicated to these far-flung cities.
Still, Macon isn’t Brooklyn. So when a 37-year-old father showed up with his two sons at their pop-up shofar factory in the town, a two-hour drive from Atlanta, and thanked the rabbi in fluent Yiddish, Chaim was surprised.
Menashe grew up in a Chasidic community in Brooklyn. He’d been living in Georgia since he was eighteen, when he signed up for the US military and was stationed there.
After a friendly chat, Rabbi Chaim invited Menashe to don tefillin, something the man hadn’t done in twenty years. He was hesitant. Then, humoring the young rabbi, he rolled up his sleeve, and strapped on the ancient black boxes Jews have been praying with since Moses’ time.
“He became very emotional,” remembers Chayala. “And we were so moved just watching him recite the Shema. At one point he just stood there, motionless, unable to continue, unable to move. It was like he didn’t want it to end. I know we didn’t.”
It’s encounters like this that give the couple the inspiration to do what they do. Based in Atlanta, Rabbi Chaim and Chayala drive all over the region, visiting the remote towns and villages where there is no Jewish infrastructure.
The traveling Chabad House was modeled on Chabad of Rural and Regional Australia’s and was adapted by Chabad of Georgia’s Rabbi Yossi and Dassie New. “A couple of years ago, a documentary produced about Chabad of RARA was aired in Atlanta and as a Chabad rabbi and native Australian, I was asked to speak at the event,” the rabbi remembers. “It was then that it occurred to me that rural Georgia could use such a center as well.”
Until the Markovitses came, New traveled to Blue Ridge once a month where he led Torah classes for the area’s thirty-forty local residents. Chabad also sent visiting yeshivah students to direct holiday services in the rural cities. But there was room for a more organized and comprehensive program, and, armed with their Kia Sorento and kosher snacks, the Markovitses are intent on providing it.
“They’re uniquely qualified and inspired for such a trailblazing initiative,” says Rabbi Isser New, associate director of Chabad of Georgia, of the couple.
“It’s exhilarating,” Chayala says. “Instead of organizing events and activities in one city, we do it in multiple different towns.” Every day of Sukkot found them in a different city where they stopped at peoples’ homes to pop open their travel sukkah and offer them the chance to bless the lulav and etrog. As well, they host daily classes, lectures and even a book club online.
But they’re encouraged by the people they meet.
There’s Steven Edelson who was born and raised in LaGrange (pop. 30,305) and now lives there with his wife and three daughters. “Our family was one of only five other Jewish families in town,” he says. “Today we’re basically the only one here. My parents raised me and my siblings with a Jewish identity and instilled in us the importance of being Jewish, marrying Jewish and raising a Jewish family—without the infrastructure found in larger cities.”
Edelson is intent on instilling the same values in his children and keeping the spirit of Judaism alive in their small town. His children go to Hebrew School in nearby Columbus. His sister is active at the Chabad in Charlston, and his niece and nephew attend Chabad at their college campus. He maintains the small local synagogue, opening it for the High Holidays so it remains active. “We have around forty people from around the area, mostly Atlanta, join us for services. Many of them have lived in LaGrange before and want to support Jewish life here.”
But that’s only once a year. Otherwise, he says, “you’re not going to meet a Jew in LaGrange unless you’re specifically seeking him out.”
So the Markovitses are seeking them out. They visited a number of times with much of the extended Edelson family. For the man who takes responsibility for inspiring the Jewish identity of his family and community, the passion of the visiting rabbi was rejuvenating and strengthened his resolve. “We sat in the Sukkah and talked Judaism. It was a beautiful way to keep the spirit alive, especially for my parents who don’t attend services very often.”
Then there’s the hotel manager in Macon they spoke with about hosting a Seder there. “You’re really from Chabad?” he asked in astonishment. “I can’t believe it!” It turns out, his in-laws had just mentioned that they wished there was a Chabad in town so they could participate more. Though the Seder was cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Markovitses are planning to host local Chanukah events.
One at a time, they are connecting with the scattered Jews of Georgia.
Menashe joined the Markovitses at Chabad of Atlanta for Simchat Torah. “I am not sure where I am holding in my Jewish journey right now but I anticipate becoming more involved,” he told Lubavitch.com.
Edelson is also looking forward to future visits. “They’re giving us residents of small towns the opportunity to be exposed to Judaism, to have Jewish relationships and conversations.”
You can’t expect to hear Yiddish in rural Georgia, but with the Markovits’s roving Chabad center, it’s no longer unimaginable that you’ll bump into a rabbi somewhere along the Ocmulgee River.