Thursday, February 01, 2007

There for Others

Rabbi Yonason Denebeim is a devout member of the Hasidic branch of Judaism. Following ancient practices, he wears a beard, adheres to a strict kosher diet, tops his head with a yarmulke and simplifies his very busy life when honoring the Sabbath, spending time on the holy day at home and on foot.

In December, though, he used a most modern phenomenon, the Internet, to coach his daughter during the birth of his grandson in China. The use of Skype, a video communication system transmitted over the Internet, enabled him to help her deliver.

The friendly Denebeim is familiar to many desert residents. For a quarter century he has staffed the "Ask the Rabbi" booth at Palm Springs Village Fest, a Thursday night street fair in the heart of downtown.

At his post, he enjoys explaining his religion, debating theological concepts and even offering the time and directions, but he confesses he can't forecast winning lottery numbers.

His street fair discussions are a public diversion from overseeing synagogues in Palm Springs and Rancho Mirage and the Desert Torah Academy in Palm Desert, plus working as a chaplain at the Chuckwalla and Ironwood state prisons way out in the desert toward Blythe.

The very busy rabbi was sent to Palm Springs from New York in 1980 with his wife, Sussie, to perform his religious work as part of the Chabad movement.

He and Sussie now have 14 children ranging in age from 5 to 26. All but the eldest were born in Palm Springs. He coached his wife's deliveries using a natural, pain-controlling technique from Switzerland that she favors. He also coached the deliveries of his grandchildren.

His adult children now follow their Hassidic faith and its social-service mission all over the world. To keep in touch with children in China, Romania, New York and Israel, he uses Skype. Not only can the family speak over the Internet, they also see each other as they talk.

His 24-year-old daughter, Rivkie Lipskar, lives with her husband, Rabbi Zalman Lipskar, in Beijing. Denebeim had coached her during the birth of her first child and she wanted the same help in China.

Denebeim, though, didn't have the time to wait around in China for her to go into labor. He couldn't make the trip. His wife, Sussie, managed to arrive in Beijing in time for the birth.

His industrious son-in-law scrambled to bring Denebeim into the delivery room via cyberspace. The hospital had wireless Internet connections, so Zalman set up a camera and laptop computer.

Through the Internet, Denebeim was able to see and speak with his daughter during the delivery. He coached her in the breathing and inner-focusing technique that helped her overcome pain. He felt part of the birth of his third grandchild, Sholom Lipskar.

He said he could tell his daughter was overjoyed when the connection worked and she could listen to her father.

"She could not only see me, I could see the expressions on her face," Denebeim said.

"It was not as good as being right there, but it was the next best thing."

Denebeim did get to see his new grandson soon after. After guiding college students on a trip to Israel, he flew to China to attend Sholom's circumcision ceremony.

Reach Bob Pratte at 951-763-3452 or

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