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Monday, July 09, 2007

Roving rabbis promote unity

BENNINGTON — Two young "roving rabbis" will be visiting town this week, reaching out to the local Jewish community to reinforce pride and enhance education.

Rabbi Eli Rapoport, 20, from London, England, and Rabbi Yaakov Raskin, 19, from Burlington, came here on Friday afternoon. They paid a visit to Rabbi Joshua Boettiger of Bennington's Congregation Beth El and visited and prayed with a Jewish veteran at the Vermont Veterans Home.

The two men are traveling around Vermont for more than three weeks this summer as part of a program often likened to a "Lubavatcher summer Peace Corps."

"Basically it's pairs of students traveling the world. Each pair takes a state or country — Florida, London, Idaho, Wyoming, North Africa, Vietnam," Rapoport said. "We go around visiting Jewish families, Jewish communities, just to spread Jewish unity, Jewish identity."

The pair spent the weekend in Montpelier to observe the Sabbath at a Jewish center and will return to Bennington this week.

Rapoport and Raskin are members of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, one of the largest branches of Hasidic Judaism. Since June 21 they have been traveling around the

state with brochures, books, videos, programming ideas and even kosher food.

The program was conceived more than 50 years ago by the Lubavitcher Rebbe ("leader") Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, who died in 1994. Part of Rapoport and Raskin's effort is to reach out to unaffiliated Jews to help them rediscover their heritage, and they have spent much of their time visiting people in their homes.

Both young men — each the son of a Chabad rabbi — are proceeding with their rabbinical studies. "We don't have rabbinical degrees yet, but we are getting there — soon, hopefully," Rapoport said.

"Learning never really ends," he added with a laugh. "We've just been together for five years. We were two years in Michigan, two years in Israel, and this past year we studied together in Brooklyn. Before that I studied in London, Yaakov studied in Montreal.

"And now we've come to the stage where they send us to other Jewish schools and Yeshivas to help out with younger students," he said. "They're sending me back to Israel and Yaakov to Chicago."

They reeled off a long list of Vermont communities they have visited so far. In the southern part of the state these include Rutland, Manchester, Wilmington and Brattleboro.

Besides visiting people in homes, they've also met many fellow Jews on the street. "Just on Main Street in Brattleboro we met many Jews. We actually met a Jew on Main Street who never had a Bar Mitzvah, so we made one for him," Rapoport said. "That was interesting."

They haven't gotten many questions from non-Jews so far, but were asked if they are Amish.

They explained what their religious movement means in terms of the Jewish religious spectrum ranging from Orthodox to Reform.

"What I say to people is our movement is just there to take away these things of 'Reform, Conservative, Orthodox,' and just (promote) Jewish unity," Rapoport said. "We're all Jews, and we don't need all these labels."

"I mean there are more observant and less and observant Jews," he said. "You can probably tell we are more observant."

The Lubavitch movement started more than 200 years ago. It is known for its centers around the world, known as Chabad Centers, essentially a Jewish community center providing education and outreach to all Jews, regardless of their level of observance.

Around the world there are about such 3,100 centers in 79 countries. Only a handful of U.S. states do not have permanent centers. There is a large Chabad Center in Burlington, which has been active for about 25 years, and another recently opened on campus at the University of Vermont, Rapoport said.

Raskin grew up in Burlington until age 11, at which time he left to attend a Jewish school in Montreal. "My father was sent as a Chabad rabbi in Burlington, and my grandfather was sent to Morocco as a Chabad rabbi."

This is the first summer as "roving rabbis" for both young men, and they hope to participate in the program again in the future.

"Hopefully the first of many (summers). It's a very nice place, Vermont, and who knows if I'll come back here — or, say, to Vietnam or to the Congo," Rapoport said. "Actually a cousin of mine was in the Congo three times in the summers. There are many Jews over there, believe it or not."

More information about the Chabad-Lubavitch movement can be found at chabadvt.org. Rapoport and Raskin can be reached at 917-825-9353.

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