Jews scattered by the winds of exile tend to land in metropolitan clumps or at least in suburban splotches. But then there are those who follow their hearts to the heartland, their dreams of financial success or adventure to the crannies of the country, the nooks of the nation. For many of those Jews living so far off the beaten track that they’re teetering on the edge of civilization, the 230 Merkos Shluchim sent out by the educational division of Chabad-Lubavitch to posts around the world this summer may be the only rabbis or the only other Jews they see all year. All summer long, the 20-something rabbinical students cruised the suburbs of the Diaspora, looking for Jews who might want to connect.
Arkansas: Guinness World Record Holder Strengthens Proud Jewish Past
Arkansas’s Ranaga Farbiarz knows just about everything about wind chimes. His technical feat of rigging up the world’s largest wind chime – 32-foot long tubes of thick walled aluminum suspended from the mighty boughs of an oak tree – attracted notice of the Guinness Book World Records, but other questions about his Jewish heritage went unanswered until Merkos Shluchim Mendy Margolin of Norfolk, VA, and Yossi Kopfstein of London, England, happened by.
Farbiarz’s parents survived the Holocaust coming from Poland to America in 1951. Ellis Island’s clerks tried to Americanize the family name to Farber, but Ranaga re-ethnicized it as a way of “going back to his Jewish roots,” said Margolin. Talking about Jewish topics rarely broached in Eureka Springs, AR, struck a chord. When Margolin checked his email, Farbiarz had already written, requesting help finding his Hebrew name.
Discovering roots became something of a theme throughout the young rabbinical students’ trip. In Eureka Spring, AR, parents searching for a Jewish name for their newborn daughter, Lilly, got the floral equivalent – Shoshannah in Hebrew, Tzirel in Yiddish – from the Merkos Shluchim.
Then they met Linda Sweitzer. The spry grandmother watching over her grandchildren, Josh, 8, and Sarah, 10, had been trying to wipe away the misconceptions of her youth. Raised as a Christian, Sweitzer recently discovered she was Jewish, and thus her son, too, and this did please her Jewish daughter-in-law. Hungry for Jewish knowledge, and not sated by resources available in Hot Springs, Sweitzer started praying for someone to come and teach her grandchildren during their summertime stay. Her answer came in the form of a short article in a Hot Springs paper about the young rabbis’ visit.
“She lit up when heard about us,” said Margolin. In one cram session, the two taught grandmother and grandchildren about lighting Shabbat candles, Kiddush and challah. They taught and talked and hung up mezuzahs, and ended their meeting at twilight, when their next appointment pulled them away. As a result, a small group of Jews really wants Chabad to come to their corner of Arkansas this Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Peru: Shabbat Lights Up in Andes
Drawn to Ica, Peru, to view the mysterious geographic figures carved into the desert floor by ancient Peruvians (or aliens according to crackpot theorists) Israeli tourists bunking at cheap hostels got more than they bargained for. This summer, Shabbat came to Ica when 70 travelers joined two of Chabad’s 230 junior emissaries, for Shabbat. The next week, 60 more Israelis – many already aware of Chabad’s ability to turn up in the most unexpected places – ate challah and sang Jewish songs until night gave way to dawn with Chabad rabbi’s in training, Yisroel Litvak and Dovid Naka, in Huaraz, in the Andes. Together they sat, “religious, traditional and very non-religious and people who have never spoken to a religious person, and definitely not a rabbi. This is an experience they take home with them to Israel,” said Chabad of Lima’s Rabbi Schneur Z. Blumenfeld.
Chabad of Lima has already seen fruit from Merkos Shluchim past efforts. From Shabbat meals just like those held for tourists in Ica and Huaraz, a new Chabad center was built in Cusco. Now Chabad in Cusco hosts Shabbat for 150 backpackers and locals each week.
Two Views of the Wild West: Arizona and South Dakota
Thousands of miles to the north, a kindred spirit of Grandma Moses, Evelyn Weisberg of Lake Havasu City, AZ, who unearthed her artistic talents in her eighties, displays one of her favorite paintings – a fish placidly lazing among the coral against the cool blue-black of the ocean’s depths – to Yehoshua Lustig. Lustig and his colleague Meir Rivkin visited Weisberg’s spic and span home and got into contact with 70 other Jewish families during their two and a half weeks along Arizona’s western border.
Lustig and Rivkin navigated their way through Lake Havasu City, Prescott, Bisbee and Patagonia, AZ, aided by a maps and friendly Arizonans. In Sierra Vista, David Miller wrapped tefillin for the first time in his 86 years. A freshly shorn marine academy graduate showed off the J for Jewish on his dog tags, said the Shema prayer, and got his arm wrapped, too. Because Lustig explored on last summer’s Merkos Shlichus program, he got to complete some unfinished business. A Jewish woman who helped Lustig when his car quit on the highway receive a thank-you visit. Joan Werner, a bookstore owner in Bisbee, was so pleased to see Lustig again she helped organize a “meet the rabbi” discussion night. One fellow, a friend of Werner’s came away with a new view of Chasidic Jews. “He decided we weren’t the close minded radicals he thought we were,” said Lustig.
Marty Gallanter of Sioux Falls, SD, didn’t need to change his mind about Chabad-Lubavitch rabbis. A Brooklyn boy, Gallanter already knew Chabad and liked them. When Chesky Rothman and Yudi Steiner strode into his office, he already knew what to expect. “They were refreshing and welcome, spiritual and very joyful,” said Gallanter, Chief Development Officer for the Volunteers of America – Dakotas and president of the Jewish community in South Dakota.
With about 300 Jews, total, in all of South Dakota, the Jewish community is tight and active, a surprise to the rabbinical students “Because it’s a small Jewish community, everyone steps up to the plate,” said Rothman. Yet the South Dakotans were deeply appreciative of Chabad’s interest. Secretaries piled Post-it sticky notes on a state attorney’s office door as his conversation with the young rabbis-to-be stretched and stretched. Three-hour conversations, about danger in Israel, the fate of the Jewish people, the Torah view of relationships, happened not once or twice, but all throughout Steiner and Rothman’s 3,000-mile road trip. A young woman, a former Jersey girl, phoned the young rabbis from her farm. She found their number in one of the many articles written about the visiting rabbis in local papers. Despondent, feeling the pain of being so far from the warmth of fellow Jews, the woman brightened when the pair suggested lighting candles for Shabbat. “A little bit of light dispels a lot of darkness,” they said.
Those very words are printed on the charity box the young men stocked among their brochures. They were so popular with Jewish South Dakotans that FedEx was called upon to ship more from Lubavitch headquarters. One sits in Gallanter’s office, “I try to put coins in it every day,” he said, “and remember why it is there.”