Sunday, March 18, 2007


March 18, 2007 -- Call him the kosher cowboy.

A Brooklyn rabbi with the Chabad-Lubavitch movement pulled up stakes in Crown Heights last week and schlepped west to Bozeman, Mont.

"I saw a growing Jewish community thirsting for a connection to their religion," said Chaim Bruk .

Bruk, 25, and his wife, Chevie, 22, traded in their view of Eastern Parkway for a 1.2-acre claim nestled against the Rocky Mountains. They arrived Wednesday.

Montana has about 1,500 Jews spread out over 145,000 square miles, according to United Jewish Communities, and Bruk had been sent there by elders in Crown Heights twice before.

"The goal of our movement is to make sure that there isn't one Jew in this world that feels lonely, that he feels comfortable with the religion that he was born into," Bruk said.

"I'm going there to bring exciting Jewish knowledge to these little cities."

And as Bruk teaches his flock about Judaism, he's hoping they'll teach him something about the cowboy way.

So far, Bruk has done some horseback riding and shooting out on the range, but no hunting. His religion does not permit it.

He's started scouting locations for weekly Torah classes in Bozeman and monthly and bimonthly sessions in Helena, Billings, Kalispell and Great Falls.

"We're there for them. God forbid they need me to officiate at a funeral or, on the brighter side, a wedding," he said. "Even if it means that we have to drive all night long."

The rabbi is also preoccupied with trying to keep a kosher kitchen with only a blowtorch and hot water to sterilize the dishes.

Eventually, he said, he'd like to have time to take up fly-fishing.

"I'm ready to learn," Bruk said.

"Maybe I'll get a pickup truck. I'm more used to riding the No.3 train."

But don't expect Bruk to trade in his black fedora for a 10-gallon hat.

"If someone gives me a nice pair of custom-made cowboy boots, I'll wear them, as long as it's permitted by Jewish law," he said.

There are no kosher restaurants in Montana, but Chevie is an excellent cook, Bruk said, adding, "I'll miss my family and friends and the occasional kosher pastrami sandwich."

The adjustment shouldn't be too hard for the rabbi, said famed Jewish cowboy Kinky Friedman.

"I'd just tell him to hang on tight, spur hog and let 'er buck," said Friedman, an author, musician and former gubernatorial candidate from Texas.

"Jews and cowboys have a lot of things in common. They both like to wear their hats indoors."

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Purim, Just Another Reason to Party

Published: March 11, 2007

Last Saturday, at the start of the Jewish holiday of Purim, Rabbi Shmuel Lein read from a ceremonial scroll at the Chabad of North Brooklyn, a center of Hasidic Jewish culture on Bedford Avenue and North Fifth Street in Williamsburg.

Then Rabbi Lein, a slight 28-year-old with a wild beard and, on this festive day, a crazy-colored tie, shouted out an order — “Party!”— and things began to get a little, well, funky. An Israeli man in a faded Union Jack T-shirt picked up an electric bass and unleashed a stream of psychedelic sounds. A rapper raised a microphone to his lips and lauded the Jewish cornerstones of “Torah and mitzvah, kid.” Standing in the 50-strong audience was a man with a tattoo of a Hebrew prayer on his forehead.

In New York and around the world, members of the Lubavitch sect of Hasidic Judaism run Chabad Houses, or outreach and education centers, as a way of spreading Orthodox beliefs to people of Jewish ancestry whom they consider less devout. Since Rabbi Lein and his wife, Leah, moved into the Chabad of North Brooklyn two years ago, they have made an effort to generate excitement in a part of Williamsburg where indie rockers in tight jeans outnumber yeshiva boys in black fedoras.

The Leins have commissioned menorahs from local artists. They serve organic foods at women’s meetings and teach classes in kabbalah, a form of Jewish mysticism that has enjoyed a surge of enthusiasm among celebrities like Madonna. Because many singles live in the neighborhood, the Leins hold plenty of rollicking parties in their crowd-friendly loft space.

“There’s always a holiday to blame it on,” said Rabbi Lein, “Purim, Tu Bishvat, Lag Ba’omer.”

At Purim, a holiday on which getting drunk is considered a good deed, a makeshift pulpit at the front of the room doubled as a bar. Throughout the night, guests poured themselves cups of whiskey and vodka from Costco-size bottles. The guests represented an eclectic mix: an Israeli hip-hop producer with his ponytail in a pink scrunchy, a music-video director in jeans and a blazer, a resident of the Hasidic section of Williamsburg in a satiny frock coat and a black Yankees cap.

“Some people just come here for the big parties,” said Michelle Shapiro, a freelance make-up artist. “Some people come just for the prayers.”

Whatever their reasons for coming, the guests roundly applauded Nosson Zand, a 25-year-old Orthodox Jewish rapper who lists the Lubavitch sect as a “friend” on his MySpace page.

“Let’s get high,” chanted Mr. Zand, also known as NIZ.

“High on Hasidis,” he added, referring to the philosophy at the heart of the Hasidic movement.


Symbol of a changing chaplaincy

Rabbi vows to bring 'inspiration' to Canadian troops

From Tuesday's Globe and Mail

OTTAWA — When Chaim Mendelsohn swears his oath to the Queen and receives his commission as a military officer this morning, he will become the first rabbi to serve with the Canadian Forces since the guns of the Second World War felt silent.

Crawling across mud fields, living in tents and eating rations -- even if they are kosher -- will be quite a change of pace for the 27-year-old Orthodox Jew who is the spiritual leader at the Ottawa branch of Chabad Centrepointe, an international Jewish outreach group.

But Mr. Mendelsohn, a married father of two, is brimming with enthusiasm for the task of bringing comfort and faith to the men and women of Canada's military.

"The most important element of a rabbi's role is his reaching out and guiding and inspiring members of his community, members of his congregation and, in reality, people that he comes in contact with," he said in an interview yesterday.

"These young, brave men and women are looking for encouragement and inspiration."

Because he will join the reserve force, his initial commitment will be just three hours a week. But he said he would embrace the opportunity to serve in Afghanistan or anywhere his unit is needed.

The last rabbi to serve with the chaplain's office of the Canadian Forces left the job in the mid-1940s. There just haven't been enough Jews in the military since then to warrant having a rabbi in the service, said Major Neil Parker, a military chaplain.

And those numbers may not be there even now, Major Parker said. The Defence Department estimates that that just 1.1 per cent of the Forces are Jews, about the same as their presence in the Canadian population.

"But we are not going to wait until there are a certain number of people for whole faith groups before we start to meet the needs," said Major Parker, adding that having representation of particular religions is one way of encouraging its adherents to join.

Mr. Mendelsohn knows his reserve unit with the 28 Field Ambulance will be composed of all denominations.

"My role in the Forces is to reach out to the soldiers, regardless of their faith," he said. "Obviously, my Judaism is what inspires me and what moves me, and my commitment to Judaism is what directs my approach to life and everything that I feel.

"But I am joining the Forces as a spiritual leader, not as a Jewish leader."

Mr. Mendelsohn's recruitment began with a member of his congregation, a retired major-general who persuaded him, over time, that it could be his calling.

"It was something I was excited about from the very first moment I heard it, but it was something that was just over the top for me," Mr. Mendelsohn said. "And slowly but surely he managed to convince me."

Military life is not structured around the Jewish faith, but the Forces are willing to accommodate him.

"They understand that my religious requirements are foremost in my life and there are certain things that I can have almost no flexibility with, such as the holidays and the Sabbath, as well as dietary restrictions," he said, "and they are prepared in any way, shape and form to ensure that I can fulfill my role as a padre."

But he is hoping that those he counsels will take as much from him as he knows he will get from them.

"I have no doubt that there is going to be a very strong relationship between myself and my unit," Mr. Mendelsohn said.

"It really makes me proud to be able to serve with them and I have no doubt in my mind that the inspiration that I will get from them -- from their questions and from my dealings with them and from relationship with them -- is going to be something that's going to carry me for the rest of my life."

Jewish philanthropy group finances full-time rabbi for Bozeman

By the Associated Press - 03/14/07

BOZEMAN (AP) — A Jewish rabbi is moving here to serve Orthodox Jewish families in Montana.

Chaim Bruk, 25, and his wife, Chavie, 22, are members of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, a branch of Hasidism founded in Russia in the 1700s. Its followers are Orthodox Jews.

The Bruks, with seed money from Jewish philanthropy group the Rohr Family Foundation in Florida, intend to set up a base in Bozeman.

‘‘We’re really a statewide organization based out of Bozeman,’’ Bruk said Monday in a phone interview from his native Brooklyn, N.Y. ‘‘Our primary focus will be adult education.’’

Classes will cover the religion, its customs and culture, along with the modern Jewish perspective on science, world events to the Torah, Bruk said.

He will concentrate first on Bozeman, Billings and Helena and said he plans to use hotel conference rooms, libraries or other gathering places rather than establishing a permanent Chabad center.

Bruk said he won’t offer Orthodox worship services until there is a demand.

The Chabad-Lubavitch effort is not connected with Bozeman’s Congregation Beth Shalom, which is headed by Rabbi Allen Secher, who lives in Whitefish and comes to Bozeman for 10 days each month.

Chabad may soon have a West Virgina house

By Susan Jacobs
Associate Editor

Morgantown, W.Va., may soon have a full-time Chabad emissary.

Rabbi Zalman Gurevitz, 26, of Crown Heights, Brooklyn, his wife and young daughter are looking into relocating to Morgantown to reach out to the students and faculty of West Virginia University. Theirs would be the first Chabad in West Virginia, although Chabad representatives have visited the state on holidays and during the summer for several years.

"We're still working on the details," said Gurevitz in a phone conversation. On Purim, Gurevitz was in Morgantown to read the Megillah and host a Purim party, which was held at the WVU Hillel.

"It's a wonderful community; everyone is very welcoming," said Gurevitz.

Officially, Chabad activities in West Virginia are supervised by Chabad of Virginia. However, because Morgantown is so close to Pittsburgh, Rabbi Yisroel Rosenfeld of the Lubavitch Center is also assisting Gurevitz in establishing a Morgantown presence.

For several years, Chabad of Pittsburgh has sent emissaries to Morgantown and other sections of West Virginia on Purim, Chanukah and other holidays to bolster the local Jewish communities. "Usually a family from Pittsburgh comes down and we do a little Purim party together," said Deva Solomon, co-director with his wife Heidi of the WVU Hillel.

Baruch and Taibke Hyman of Squirrel Hill accompanied Gurevitz at the Purim celebration this year in Morgantown. Taibke has a strong connection to Morgantown - her father ran a business there for many years, although the family lived in Uniontown.

While WVU does not track students by religious affiliation, Solomon estimated that there are between 600 and 800 Jewish students on campus. About 45 or 50 of those are active in Hillel, which offers both Jewish cultural and religious programming.

In addition to the Hillel on campus, Morgantown also has one synagogue, Tree of Life Congregation, which is affiliated with the Reform movement.

It is unclear what effect, if any, a Chabad presence would have on Tree of Life's membership, said Rabbi David Feder, the spiritual leader.

"I really don't know what he's going to be focusing on," said Feder. "I don't think his presence in town will affect our membership to any substantial extent."

However, WVU Hillel may be more affected.

"Morgantown is a small place and I don't know if there are going to be enough people and resources," said Solomon.

And, some question whether unaffiliated Jewish students in Morgantown want to be Jewishly involved.

"I question whether there is enough interest in doing Jewish stuff that people will participate," said Richard Cohen, a local attorney and former president of Tree of Life. "People who live in this area are self-selecting not to be involved."

However, only time will tell if Chabad will be able to reach students who are not already connected to the Jewish community.

"Who knows? We'll find out," said Cohen. Because Hillel and Chabad offer very different programs from one another, they may attract different populations of students, said Solomon.

So far, the students and surrounding community haven't expressed strong feelings about the proposed Chabad presence.

"There's probably interest and curiosity more than anything else," said Solomon. "We welcome him with open arms and wish him the best of luck."

Feder, who is the only congregational rabbi in Morgantown, said he welcomes the presence of a rabbinic colleague in town.

"Overall it broadens the Morgantown Jewish community," he said. "It will be very nice to have a colleague here."

(Susan Jacobs can be reached at

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Rabbi Levi Shemtov

Rabbi Levi Shemtov is Washington office Director of American Friends of Lubavitch. Shemtov is a well known figure in political and Jewish circles in Washington, and his activism symbolizes the change Chabad's culture has gone through in recent decades from a limited Chasidic faction to a powerhouse working across the Jewish and non-Jewish world. Shemtov's highest profile event is the Hanukah Menorah lighting on the White House lawn. We will discuss with him the state of American Jewry, Chabad and other topics. Readers, as usual, can send their questions to

Rabbi Shemtov,

Can you explain what is the Jewish education you refer to? is it educating people in the mode of Chabad or in the mode of Reform Judaism? These are two very different things.

Thank you for your reply,

Tzvi Noah

I think the focus must be the education of many more Jewish people - particularly children - in the ways of Torah and yiddishkeit. The differences you mention, while indeed real, have sadly served all too often as a reason to end these types of discussions before they begin.

The need to reinforce and expand Jewish education is a vital one, regardless of a Jewish person's particular station in life, communally or otherwise. We need progress, not just process.

Obviously, I am most familiar with the Chabad-Lubavitch method, which seems to work to a large measure with open-minded Jewish people of a variety of affiliations. Too often I hear from participants - as do many of my colleagues - that specifically because they felt welcome, as they were, the possibility for their Jewish growth and that of their family became possible in a meaningful way for the first time. While this indeed is gratifying, it also pains the heart to know that others who seemed a "better fit" lost so much opportunity with these people for so long.

So, if someone is indeed serious about the issue, they need to address it for all the Jewish people. Distinctions instead of solutions is what we have way too much of already. They will only distract from the intended focus. We can and must do better than that.


Dear Rabbi,

I'll start with the topic of last week's dialogue, and with a general question of the state of American Jewry. Is it declining or thriving - is it in crisis or going through a period of renaissance? Give us, for starters, your list of "must do" for American Jewish leaders.


The Jewish people today live in a time of great triumph, but also great challenge. We are taught that G-d tests us either with the pain of poverty or the power of prosperity. We seem to be enduring both right now - the prosperity is material, the poverty is spiritual. But there is a bright spot as well, and reason for hope, if people are willing to act.

There is no way you can ignore the fact that there is presently a serious decline in the American Jewish community, with over half believed to be totally unaffiliated. And the organized community decries the apathy and ignorance of those who do consider themselves affiliated, and are anxious about how to reengage them in Jewish identity.

On the other hand, there is not only a simultaneous resurgence - or resuscitation - of Jewish life, with so many finding their way back or more deeply into their Jewish heritage, but those who for a very long time advocated a lesser degree of tradition in their life as Jews, perhaps thinking that the age-old Torah teachings and directives were no longer "as relevant" now realize and publicly state, emphatically, that ONLY through a return to Torah and mitzvos is there any real hope of Jewish survival. It seems as if all the alternatives ultimately give way to a return to Torah - sooner or later. It's been that way since Sinai

And this leads to the key point I believe the Jewish community must focus on as a most urgent priority: Jewish Education.

From our beginning and up until the latest National Jewish Population Survey, Jewish education appears and reappears as the core factor in Jewish continuity. I am loath to judge the previous generation or two for their failure to provide adequate Jewish education. Perhaps they thought their own Jewish identity would automatically transfer without the requisite strenuous effort to educate children properly. Or they didn't think they had the financial ability to do so. But that can't help us today, as we live with the painful results of the last few decades. Not enough energy was dedicated to afternoon Hebrew school and other similar programs once thought a panacea. They became an afterthought, even a joke, and then a disaster; barely better than nothing. And almost any Jewish adult I speak to indeed remembers that part of their lives with dissatisfaction, if not disdain.

If there is one thing above all others which Jewish communal leaders need to address urgently, this would be it. Reinforce and expand opportunities for affordable, quality Jewish education. After way too long, many Jewish philanthropists, who have collectively donated billions to causes that others beyond our community could easily fund, have now finally begun to realize the emergency and have started to (re)direct serious sums to Jewish causes. Those directing these initiatives need to further redirect these new funding sources toward ensuring Jewish education for all those in our community who can then avail themselves of it.

King Solomon taught us that a properly educated Jewish child will much more likely become a strongly Jewishly identified adult and then a committed member of the Jewish community, even into their later years.

And, for those who are already passed their childhood, innovative and quality programs and initiatives can help rectify a gap in this regard and refocus parents on the Jewish educational needs of themselves and their children. And the educational effortss and mitzvah campaigns for Jews of all or no (perceived) affiliation, which the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of blessed memory, initiated and which thousands of my colleagues throughout the world have developed (to the curiosity, sometimes disdain, then appreciation or even replication by so many others), have had a serious impact in this area. And much more remains to be done.

There are no doubt enough resources in our vast community membership to address this issue. That is what we have. What we don't have is a choice. The answer to this question when it is asked the next time lies absolutely in our hands today.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Chabad on the Avenue one of four new Toronto centres

Staff Reporter

Rabbi Menachem Gansburg and his wife Chana have brought Chabad to a trendy section of Avenue Road north of Lawrence Avenue, causing some initially confused reactions from people who wonder why they’re not on nearby Bathurst Street, with its many Jewish shops and institutions.

Thirty years ago, large North American cities like Toronto typically had one Chabad institution. Today, “almost every zip code has representation,” said Rabbi Zalman Grossbaum, director of Chabad Lubavitch activities for Ontario.

“You have Chabad spilling into every community, every pocket where Jews are situated.”

In Toronto and the surrounding area, there are about 17 Chabad centres, including in Mississauga, Hamilton and Niagara Falls.

Typically, Chabad shluchim (emissaries) are young married couples who start their endeavour from scratch, creating programs and raising funds to become self-sustaining. “It’s challenging, because these rabbis come without being invited,” said Rabbi Grossbaum. “We create the demand.”

In Toronto, Chabad on the Avenue – as Rabbi Gansburg’s fledgling centre is known – is one of just four new Chabad centres that have opened in recent months, and plans are in the works to open one in the Beach area as well.

• Chabad Lubavitch of Downtown Toronto (, run by Rabbi Mendel Chaikin and his wife Chanie out of their Queen’s Quay condo, serves the area south of College Street, between Bathurst and Yonge Street. They serve area residents, tourists, people who work downtown, and downtown hospital patients.

• Rabbi Moshe and Yehudis Steiner at Uptown Chabad Lubavitch (, cater to, for the most part, young families, many of whom are unaffiliated, who live in Bathurst Manor. The Steiners operate out of their home, but recently began holding Shabbat morning services at C.H. Best Middle School.

• York University also has a new Chabad, a student club run by former York student Vidal Bekerman, a 30-year-old ba’al tshuvah, and his wife Chanah Leah Medina. Bekerman, who is not a rabbi, said that there are about 300 students on his mailing list. He said he is on good terms with Hillel staff, who offer a variety of programs and services to York’s 4,500 Jewish students. However, noted Bekerman, there is still a large percentage “that needs to be reached.”

The Gansburgs have been on Avenue Road in a 6,000-square-foot former restaurant, across from the upscale food store Pusateri’s, since December. They are reaching out to Jews in the area bounded by Wilson Avenue and Eglinton Avenue, Yonge Street and the Allen Road.

On an initial visit to the area west of Avenue Road and north of Lawrence, where many small postwar homes have been replaced by newer, larger ones, the Gansburgs noted that a large percentage of the homes had mezuzot.

They introduced themselves to about 50 neighbours by going door-to-door with challah for Shabbat. Many residents told the Gansburgs they didn’t even know their neighbours.

The rabbi, a 25-year-old Toronto native who grew up in Thornhill, said he wants to “create a tight-knit community.” Typically, he said, residents of the area are young families with parents who are “very successful, but very overworked.

“We are here to service the local Jewish community in anything they need.” Programs include a “Kiddie Care” afternoon drop-in centre that features weekly challah-baking, evening Torah classes, a women’s program and the Avenue Road Synagogue, which attracts more than 40 people to Shabbat morning services – and almost double that when services are followed by a kiddush.

Most of the “members” (there is no membership fee) belong to other synagogues, the rabbi noted, referring to existing institutions that service area residents.

Although Chabad’s highest priority is outreach to unaffiliated Jews,“if someone happens to be a member [elsewhere] and wants to come to our synagogue,” they are welcome, he said. The shul, where men and women sit on either side of a row of artificial trees, offers Friday night and Saturday morning services.

Although Chabad is Orthodox, it’s “non-threatening,” said Rabbi Gansburg. There’s “no obligation” to become religious, but he is happy to help anyone who wants to “advance” in their Judaism.

Joy Kaufman, a 47-year-old mother of two who is affiliated with a synagogue that is not close to her home, describes the Avenue Road facility as “a great place to be.

“You’ve got to come on a Saturday. It’s magical,” she said, adding that she is “not the least bit religious.” She was at the centre to help organize last weekend’s Purim program that was scheduled to feature a smoothie bar from Pusateri’s and costume judges from Canadian Idol.

Chana, a 21-year-old teacher who grew up in Montreal, runs the children’s program and the “Jewish Women’s Circle,” which offers programs every six to eight weeks. For Tu b’Shvat, a local chef demonstrated fruit carving, and Chana talked briefly about the holiday.

“I wanted to show this neighbourhood, especially the kids, that Judaism can be as hip as anything else out there,” said Rabbi Gansburg.