Shelby, Montana, with a population of 3,000 and, at most, a handful of Jews, is not high on the priority list of any Jewish organization. But it is one among thousands of locations worldwide to be visited this summer by Lubavitch rabbinical students participating in the Chabad-Lubavitch Jewish Community Enrichment Program.
Many of the 280 rabbinical student interns have left this week on assignments that will take them to sparsely populated towns and hundreds of backwaters in every region of the world where Jews live without the benefit of a Jewish community.
Established in the 1940s by the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, the program is meant to reach Jews who are geographically isolated from Jewish life. “Lubavitch is concerned with every single Jew,” explains Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, chairman of Machne Israel and Merkos L’inyonei Chinuch, the respective social services and educational divisions of Lubavitch. “The Program is a quintessentially Lubavitch initiative, in that it invests precious funds and human resources to bring Judaism to individual Jews who otherwise have no access to it.”
For many, this becomes a first encounter with a rabbi, and a first exposure to Judaism. The students travel with a library of Jewish literature, Judaica, and sometimes a Torah scroll. Typically, the Chabad-Lubavitch representative in the most nearby location will help plan logistics, and arrange for the students to meet local Jews. But it’s usually the meetings of happenstance that result in long term relationships—maybe even planting the seeds for a Chabad House.
“Many of our Chabad Houses around the world developed from this program,” says Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, vice chairman of Merkos, and director of the program. “The rabbinical students report back to headquarters after the summer, and these are then studied to determine which places are most in need of a full time Chabad representative.”
At a cost of about $600,000.00 per summer, the program sponsors the airfare and expenses of the rabbinical students, who are trained to generate the most productive results for the people they will be visiting. “These students are on the lookout for every opportunity to connect with Jewish people, and to help them develop some kind of Jewish communal life for themselves and their families,” says Rabbi Kotlarsky.
The students are encouraged to keep journals and record all of their meetings. Every encounter—with the forgotten Jew in a prison in Poland, the Jewish child in an orphanage in Romania, or the elderly woman in an old-age home in Ireland—tells a heartrending story of Jewish dispersion.
“Though the students usually do not know when they set out what to expect, they have often reach Jewish people in the throes of deep spiritual despair,” says Rabbi Krinsky. “Each individual and community they encounter presents another opportunity to uplift spirit and hope.”