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Wednesday, March 14, 2007

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 sjacobs@pittchron.com.)

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