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Monday, August 21, 2006

Walking miles to spread a message

By Sara Williams
Sentinel correspondent

Santa Cruz

For the past two weeks, Yossi Berktin and Pinchas Taylor, a couple of young single Jewish men from Morristown, N.J., have been wandering the streets of Santa Cruz County, searching for a connection, hoping to rekindle that old flame called heritage.

"It's kind of like a blind date," Berktin said of their methods, which involve stopping people on the street and sparking conversations with strangers about religion and urging fellow Jews to reconnect with faith and prepare for coming of the messiah.

"Making people aware that the world is building toward something," Berktin said. "It's not just random. There's a goal or a purpose in the world."

With their long beards and sideburns, Berktin and Taylor could blend right in Santa Cruz, but their outfits — the black fedoras and sport coats of Hasidic Jews — give them away.

The duo are emissaries from Chabad Lubavitch, a branch of Hasidic Judaism whose members embraces modernity and tolerance for all Jews even as they abide by orthodox Jewish law. The duo will walk for miles to spread their message, but never on the Sabbath.

"The Jewish people were often hunted down in hate, hunted down to be killed. We are sent to hunt them down in love," Taylor said.

Berktin and Taylor are a couple of modern-day schlichim, messengers sent out to areas with few Jews to spread the religion. In the old days, schlichim were often a young couple expected to establish a Jewish community in an unfamiliar town.

Every summer Chabad-Lubavitch sends emissaries, young unmarried senior rabbinical students from New York, all over the world to educate people about Hasidic Judaism. Before they return to their studies, Berktin and Taylor will encourage Jewish people to strengthen their faith and religious practices and to connect with the Jewish community of Santa Cruz. Their goal is to illuminate the ways in which Jewish wisdom, knowledge and understanding can be integrated into everyday life.

Though they encourage Orthodox Judaism, Berktin and Taylor aim to reach out to all Jewish people, regardless of their way of worship.

"I like to compare it to a buffet table. Our intention is to give you everything and you can take what you want, to your taste," Berktin said.

Berktin and Taylor are working with Chabad Rabbi Yochanan Friedman of the Santa Cruz temple, Chabad by the Sea.

"He offers Hebrew school, Sunday school, camp in the summer time, weekly classes covering Jewish ethics, law, and so on," Berktin said. "We're here to hopefully expand his horizons, educating people that don't know about Chabad. Some people are afraid to go if they're not Orthodox."

Berktin and Taylor have a few methods for finding Jewish people in a strange town, such as searching for businesses with Jewish names, but they also rely on people coming to them. Often, Taylor said, people who are Jewish are surprised by what they hear about their heritage.

"Some Jewish people, for some reason, grew up with zero Judaism," Taylor said "Our goal is to get them to do a mitzvah, to do something practical and Jewish. Now, some of the people that we met, they get that flick of inspiration, that desire to get more involved."

The men Berktin and Taylor meet are given a tefillin, two boxes of Jewish prayer connected by a long black strip of leather.

The tefillin is wrapped around the left arm if you're right handed and vice versa. The prayer boxes are placed on your heart and head — representing emotion and intellect. Women are encouraged to light Shabbos on Friday night to welcome the Sabbath.

In addition to these practices, Chabad-Lubavitch encourages Jewish people to strengthen their daily practice and realize the godliness that is part of everyday life.

"We take the fire and light other lamps," Berktin said. "Then they become a source, instead of a wick. We're changing the world, one mitzvah at a time."

Contact Sara Williams at kalexander@santacruzsentinel.com.

If you go

WHAT: Chabad by the Sea.

WHERE: 406 Mission St.,

Suite B, Santa Cruz.

Info: 454-0101.

Key terms

* Torah: Hebrew for 'lesson,' the Torah is the Hebrew Bible.
* Orthodox Judaism: Strict belief in, acceptance of and adherence to Jewish laws, ethics, and the 613 mitzvahs.
* Hasidic Judaism: A lighter form of Orthodox Judaism, accepting of ritual laxity.
* Shabbos: Hebrew for Sabbath, the day of rest, beginning Friday at sundown and ending after nightfall on Saturday.
* Mitzvah: Hebrew for 'commandment.' The Torah names 613 mitzvahs.

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