Emissary couple establishes a beachhead of Hasidic Judaism in Peoria
Rabbi Eli Langsam sits down, removes his black felt hat - part of the Hasidic tradition of dressing like their European ancestors - and places it next to a stack of books and notes on his table.
His head is still covered by a black yarmulke as he prepares to teach Torah to people sitting at other tables arranged in a U- shape. The two dozen or so attendees of the monthly Lunch and Learn session held in a conference room of a local business munch on vegetables and bagels as Langsam begins expounding on a topic from an ultraorthodox Jewish point of view.
Two years after arriving in Peoria, Langsam and his wife, Sarah, two members of what has become known as “the Rebbe’s Army,” have firmly established a Lubavitch Chabad beach head in downstate Illinois.
They have started a preschool, a summer camp, and monthly classes for both mixed audiences and women only. They hold special seasonal events, such as the recent “Shofar Factory,” at which participants learned how to fashion their own shofars from a goat’s horn for use during the Jewish High Holidays, which start at sundown Friday with Rosh Hashanah.
They invite Jews to their house for Sabbath meals on Fridays and go to their homes for private lessons. They meet with students at area colleges. They help Jews clean and prepare their homes so they fit with orthodox understanding of being kosher.
Langsam has affixed mezuzahs, small cases containing Scripture passages, on doorposts of about 50 Jewish homes in central Illinois. He frequently carries a set of tefillin, leather boxes containing Scripture passages, so he can don it on Jewish men at a second’s notice.
He and his wife visit Jews in nursing homes, hospitals and prisons on a weekly basis.
The Langsams are most proud of the mikveh, or ritual bath, that they have built, providing downstate Jewish women a more convenient location in which to become ritually clean after their menstrual period or after giving birth.
“We are the first Chabad center in central Illinois,” he said. A new one is being opened in Champaign.
Eli and Sarah Langsam are among thousands of other Hasidic Jews who are members of the Lubavitch sect continuing the effort of the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson to spread orthodox Jewish observance around the world in an attempt to bring the messiah’s arrival closer.
“They try to get one more Jewish person to do one more Jewish thing,” said Peorian Laura Kessler, who attends Chabad functions.
Emissaries, or schlichim, of Chabad head out to areas with isolated Jewish populations, like Peoria, and start programs and relationships aimed at increasing traditional Jewish practice. There are currently more than 4,000 families serving 2,700 Chabad centers around the world. Rather than waning after the 1994 death of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the fundamental inspiration behind Chabad, the movement has actually picked up speed.
The Langsams, both of whom had the desire to be schlichim long before they met, themselves chose Peoria and downstate Illinois. They did so knowing it was for the long haul. They’re planning to stay here for life.
“We’re here until moshiach comes,” Langsam said, using the Hebrew word for messiah.
“Peoria’s a beautiful place. People are very welcoming. It’s so small, you can get to know everyone on a personal level,” he said.
One of the things Chabad has given the Peoria area, and downstate Illinois, is an orthodox Jewish presence. Reform Jewish temples are scattered among cities like Peoria, Bloomington, Springfield, Galesburg and Danville. There have been only a couple Conservative synagogues and no Orthodox synagogues downstate, though Peoria’s Agudas Achim is very traditional in its practice.
The Chabad presence in Peoria may be about to become more permanent and visible. The organization is on the verge of purchasing property which would bring most of the group’s functions under one roof, including Sabbath and holiday services.
While some members of the Jewish community see Chabad’s presence as being in competition with existing Jewish congregations, Langsam said he’s not trying to pull anybody away from the other synagogues. But, he said, if they want to attend Chabad, they’re free to come.
“We’re another brand that’s available. We welcome everybody who’s Jewish,” he said, adding that, “We’re not a missionary service. We don’t look for members on our team, we look for members to work with.”
Non-Jews are, though, welcome at Chabad functions, he said.
Langsam said things in Peoria and the surrounding area have been “going better than good.”
“The reception from the Peoria Jewish community has been very welcoming.”
So welcoming that the Langsams are able to raise all the money they need locally. Like other schlichim, though, they had to raise $75,000 to cover their first year’s expenses.
“We get along with everybody,” Langsam said. “We don’t discriminate against any type of affiliation or background. We’re definitely meeting a lot of unaffiliated people. We’re finding out there are more Jews in Peoria than we thought.”
Some of those Jews have had concerns about Chabad’s presence and activities, though.
For instance, Peoria Congregation Anshai Emeth’s board of directors in June passed three “Chabad Policies” which say that, unless the board makes an exception, Chabad notices and announcements will not be published in the congregation’s newsletter and congregation funds won’t be used to directly subsidize or pay for goods or services provided by Chabad. Another policy also made it clear that rules and fees that apply to other groups which frequently use the 5614 N. University St. facility also apply to Chabad.
That action was taken around the time congregation members such as Dr. Glenn Miller began expressing concerns about interaction with Chabad.
Miller said he recognizes Chabad’s freedom to operate as another type of Judaism. His main concern, he said, was any appearance of endorsement or support of Chabad by Anshai Emeth. The congregation is Reform; Chabad doesn’t recognize Reform rabbis or converts. Miller said he thought it wasn’t appropriate for the congregation to be endorsing or supporting a group which doesn’t recognize it as a legitimate branch of Judaism.
Miller said his concerns weren’t personally directed at Langsam.
“He seems like a really nice guy,” the doctor said of the rabbi. “I think he filled a void in our city. Chabad has a lot of well- organized activities.”
Temple president Bonnie Fenton said while the Reform congregation respects many different expressions of Judaism, the board still wanted to “create guidelines so that all non-tenant organizations would be under the same policies regarding building usage and building fees.”
While some members of the Peoria Jewish community are indifferent or concerned about Chabad’s presence, others have embraced the Langsams, turning out regularly for classes and events.
“He’s really made an impact on the Jewish community in terms of spreading Judaism to young and old individuals alike, every person,” said Randy Calisoff, who is studying at the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Peoria.