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Saturday, July 05, 2008

Rabbi seeks Jews who have fallen away

Mission is to show them the road back

By BOB SMIETANA
Staff Writer

For a man who is constantly busy, Rabbi Yitzchok Tiechtel doesn't seem in much of a hurry.

Sitting at a table near the ark that houses the Torah scrolls in the Beit Tefilah synagogue on a recent Friday, Tiechtel holds a yad, or Torah pointer, in one hand as he talks. In the other hand, his BlackBerry chimes almost constantly.

In the background, Lee Becker, a volunteer, carries in brownies and helps set up for a dinner and Shabbat service. Once the setup is complete and his morning meetings are done, Tiechtel will leave the Bellevue office complex that's home to the synagogue and head downtown. An acquaintance has asked him to hang mezuzah, small bits of parchment with Torah verses inscribed on them, on the doorpost of the office.

It's all in a day's work for Tiechtel, a foot soldier in the Rebbe's Army.

He's one of more than 3,000 sluchim, or emissaries, sent out by Chabad (www.chabad.org), a worldwide Jewish group with headquarts in the Crown Heights neighborhood in Brooklyn, N.Y. Followers of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneersohn, the fellow sluchim are an unusual kind of missionaries. Unlike Christian missionaries, who seek new converts, Chabad sluchim hope to persuade secular Jews to return to the fold.

There's been a Chabad presence in Nashville since the 1950s, when Rabbi Zalman Posner and his wife, Risya, arrived from Crown Heights as emissaries. The Posners became pillars of the Jewish community. They started the Akiva Academy Hebrew Day School, and Posner, a scholar and author, led Congregation Sherith Israel until retiring in 2002.

Tiechtel arrived nine years ago to become headmaster of the Akiva School. Not long after arriving, he left Akiva to start the Chabad Center for Jewish Awareness (www.nashvillejewish.org). The center runs classes and a summer camp, puts out an annual calendar and lights menorahs in public spaces during Hanukkah.

The group is also raising funds to build a permanent home in Bellevue, which will include a kosher Internet cafe, a synagogue and a mikvah, or ritual bath.

Being an emissary runs in Tiechtel's family. The oldest of 10 children has six siblings who serve as sluchim in Berlin, Germany; Illinois; and Arizona.

All were inspired by their grandmother, an immigrant from Russia whose father was arrested and killed by the Soviet government for running a cheder, or Hebrew school, in Leningrad.

"I'm just carrying on the work my great-grandfather started," he said.

Tiechtel compares his mission to that of a lamplighter. "There's a light in every person that comes from God," he said, "but someone has to light the wick for that light to shine."

Missions are different

Rabbi Mark Shiftan of the Temple said that the local Chabad Center has a very different focus than synagogues. The Temple, like other congregations, serves those in the mainstream of Jewish life. Chabad, on the other hand, exists to reach those who have fallen off the radar screen.

"Most synagogues are engaging in outreach to try and find new and innovative ways to reach out to Jews who are on the outskirts of Jewish life," Shiftan said.

"They (Chabad) do have a long track record of very actively reaching out to Jews who no longer even know the road back into the community."

Becker, who relocated to Nashville about 10 years, ago, says she grew up in an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in New York City.

When their children were young, Becker said, she and her husband took them to their synagogue.

Once the kids were grown, however, the Beckers dropped out of synagogue life.

They come to services at Beit Tefilah weekly, and say they enjoy Tiecthel's down-to-earth sermons.

"He really explains the Torah reading," she said. "It's like a family. We just enjoy coming. Our Jewish heritage has become more important to us now than it was in New York."

Joe Freedman, a Nashville businessman, also says he has reconnected with his faith after meeting Tiechtel. Freedman grew up as a Reform Jew in New Orleans, where he played baseball for a Catholic high school, and says he never considered himself religious.

"I am one of the most assimilated people you will ever find," he said.

For the past six years, Freedman said, he has met monthly with Tiechtel to study the Torah. The two also pray together.

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