November 10, 2008
When Rabbi Zalman Mendelsohn arrived in Jackson, Wyo., in May, the first thing he did was open the phone book in search of Jewish-sounding names.
"After making a few phone calls, I realized I wasn't getting anywhere,"
Mendelsohn says. "I was finding a lot of wonderful German people living
here in Jackson."
But no one was Jewish. Finding Jews in Wyoming — and bringing them the
traditions of their faith — is the young rabbi's mission, and he was
Mendelsohn created a Web site to reach out to Jews across the country, advertised his religious events in the Jackson newspaper and leveraged his most dramatic asset: his appearance.
"I am a walking advertisement for Judaism," he says.
With his black suit, black yarmulke and full black beard, he's straight out of
central casting — Warsaw rabbi, circa 1935. He cuts an anachronistic figure,
sitting in his backyard on a summer afternoon with the Grand Tetons slicing the horizon behind him. Mendelsohn, who is 26, and Raizy, his 21-year-old wife, are emissaries in the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, an Orthodox branch in which young Orthodox Jews move to remote areas of the world armed with their faith and rituals.
What The Soul Wants
The Mendelsohns, who moved to the resort town from New York, say they
encountered material wealth but spiritual hunger.
"The soul also has very particular needs, and those needs are spiritual in
nature," the rabbi says. "The soul wants godliness. The soul wants holiness.
The soul wants Shabbos [Sabbath]. The soul wants Torah. The soul wants
doing kindness and goodness and mitzvahs [good deeds]. This is what the
soul wants. And so therefore, in order to be able to satisfy the person,
spiritually, the person has to satiate himself with these types of things."
So Mendelsohn imported yarmulkes. He brought in scrolls called mezuzahs
for the doors of Jewish homes and items for Jewish rituals. "Educational
resources, classes, lectures, holiday-observance celebrations, traditional
Friday nights and Shabbat meals — these are all things that became
available, all of a sudden, that weren't here before."
Wyoming seemed an underserved spiritual market. Mendelsohn quickly realized he needed to create a market for Judaism: It's fine to offer Jews a
skullcap or a Shabbat dinner, but unless there's a demand — unless they
want to embrace the faith that underlies these things — all his efforts would
So the Mendelsohns are trying to revive a yearning for Jewish spirituality
and community — one challah at a time.
Modern Rabbinic Marketing
Friday mornings find Raizy Mendelsohn lovingly slipping five braided loaves
of bread into Ziploc bags.
"This is the way I package them since I don't have a professional machine,"
she says, placing a label on the top. It says: "Zalman and Raizy Mendelsohn
wish you a tasty and peaceful Shabbaz" and includes their name and P.O.
They call it "21st century rabbinic marketing."
After his wife packages the bread, Zalman Mendelsohn makes a surprise visit to the homes of Jews in Jackson, fresh challah in hand. On this particular day, he is off to see Reuben Tambor, one of the 500 or so Jews who live in Jackson year-round. Mendelsohn has dropped by before, and Tambor has always been nothing more than
cordial — until today.
When Mendelsohn arrives, Tambor and his two dogs greet him warmly.
"I have a number for you," Tambor says. "Somebody asked me if I knew a rabbi — can you believe it? — and I took down the name. Let me find it."
Mendelsohn is thrilled. "Wow, Reuben, thank you!" he says. It's unclear whether he's happier about Tambor's friendliness or a new lead on a Jew in town.
Tambor writes down the name and number and then happily takes the bread. The two men chat briefly, and before the rabbi wears out his welcome, he leaves for his next delivery.
In the car, Mendelsohn breaks out in a large grin.
"See! This is the way it works," he says. "This is how we network. We've been doing it for so many years — and it works!"
Eventually, Mendelsohn says, people usually come around.
"This is a lifelong campaign," he says. "It doesn't stop after I've found 50 Jews. It doesn't stop after I've found 100 Jews. It doesn't stop, it doesn't end. The campaign continues."
Mendelsohn signed on to the Chabad movement when he was very young.
"I always looked around, and I saw that the most passionate, loving, enthusiastic and caring people in my life were Chabad rebbes," or rabbis, he says. The Chabad-Lubavitch movement — a branch of Hasidism — began in Russia 250 years ago. It hews to an Orthodox Judaism — including fairly strict gender roles as well as keeping
kosher — and takes a scholarly and mystical view of the Torah.
Under the guidance of its most recent leader, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, Chabad became a sort of Jewish Peace Corps, sending out young people as emissaries to revive the traditions that had often fallen by the wayside.
But Mendelsohn is quick to say that the goal is not to make Jews Orthodox; rather, it is to make Orthodox rituals and learning available to Jews.
"We don't expect them to become as we are. We don't expect them to start wearing a yarmulke, or for the women to wear a long skirt and dress as we do," he says. "We accept people as they are."
It's gotten busy for the Mendelsohns since they arrived in Jackson.
"Every half-hour, we get a phone call or e-mail, nonstop. Every half-hour," Mendelsohn says.
Along with his challah outreach, his Web site and newspaper ads, Mendelsohn also recently organized a "meet the rabbi" open house at a Jackson hotel.
About 50 people attended the gathering — a fair showing in a city that has about 500 Jews. Over cookies and cake, Jackson resident Ken Begelman says the new rabbi has revived Jewish life in the state.
"There was never a rabbi here before, and he's also brought a sense of Yiddishkeit [devotion to Jewish tradition]to the community, which was really missing," Begelman says.
Lisa Finkelstein, who serves on the board of the Jackson Hole Jewish Community, a group of mainly Reform Jews that began about 30 years ago, disagrees.
"The Chabad rabbi is not the rabbi of Jackson Hole," Finkelstein says.
Finkelstein, who did not attend the open house, says she doesn't like Mendelsohn's style.
"He contacts people on the phone, by e-mail, in the parking lots," she says. "And we don't necessarily do that."
Nor are most Jews in the area as conservative as the Mendelsohns. The rabbi always wears a yarmulke and declines to shake hands with women. His wife wears long skirts and spends much of her time cooking. (She also manages the Web site as well as helps in the planning and directing of all of their activities.)
Fellow board member Rachel Ravitz worries that the Mendelsohns may give people the wrong impression of Judaism.
"People in Wyoming might not necessarily know what a Jew is in the first place," Ravitz says, "and if they meet a Chabad rabbi, they might not realize he represents a certain sect of Judaism."
But the big problem, several people say privately, is competition. The new rabbi's outreach programs cost $11,000 to $12,000 a month. The Mendelsohns have received a small grant for startup costs, but they must raise all other funding on their own. The current Jewish community group fears that if people start attending Mendelsohn's congregation, their money will follow.
Raizy Mendelsohn says a little competition can be healthy.
"It's great, because the people are getting more," she says. "It's kind of like when you have one store and then another store opens up. The first store is all mad, but the people are all very happy because they get better bargains and better deals, and they get more variety."
Her observations echo the findings of sociologists, who say religions thrive in the United States precisely because they compete in the marketplace of ideas. And if success is measured in Shabbat dinners attended, the Mendelsohns are grabbing market share.
For Shabbat dinner at her home, Raizy Mendelsohn prepares five courses, including fish, chicken, dips, salad and
She must finish the preparations before the sun sets and all work, including driving cars and using electricity,
must cease. She says she has no idea how many people will come to dinner — maybe a dozen, give or take five.
There is a lot of uncertainty when you start a religious enterprise.
"I remember our first week here," she says. "We had one woman come, and she sat there through the whole service. And later, I said to Zalman, 'You know, in a couple years, she'll be telling people, "When the rabbi started, I was the only one who came to services, and now look at how many people there are!" ' "
Soon 11 people — including two young men from Israel who heard about dinner from the Web site — are seated around the formal table overflowing with food and wine.
They begin to sing a prayer, clapping, the tempo picking up.
All the planning and marketing and technology is for this moment — bringing Jews back to Shabbat and back to their community, the rituals so long neglected.
S Myers (smyers7897) wrote:
It seems pretty clear that this is about money. If this were really about reaching out and helping people, the Mendelsohn's would have gone somewhere truly remote where Jewish families might be struggling. The 500 Jews who live in Jackson are all a part of the highest echelon in that community. This visit to Jackson will certainly help fund future endeavors for the Mendelsohn's. I hope they choose to use this money to assist those who really need it. The poor have faith too.
Monday, November 10, 2008 8:51:31 AM
Jessica Smith (Ruah) wrote:
SM, did you hear the story? Jewish people are struggling...with their faith. Man does not live by bread alone. It seems to me Lisa Finkelstein and the Jewish Community Group are upset that someone is becoming successful in bringing people back to their Jewish faith and culture, and it seems *they're* the ones worried about money. Also, Lisa's use of the word "sect" to refer to Rabbi is clearly not out of sociological precision, but of condescension. I respect NPR's journalistic integrity that they interviewed Lisa and they're group, but the piece really just shines a light on Rabbi Mendelsohn and his faithfulness and Ms. Finkelstein's bitter reformed outlook.
Monday, November 10, 2008 9:04:28 AM
Ellyn Camp (Colliegirl) wrote:
I think that the reform synogogue should be more open to idividuals of their own faith. I live in a community in Florida that only has two reform synoguges and I do not like them. There should always be room for another synogogue for jews. I cannot believe that she actually said that she is worried about the money. Chabad in open to all jews no matter how religious you are. You are discriminating against jews. Why does everyone that is jewish have to go to your shul if there is something out there that offers a more comfortable environement for jews. Chabad does not force anything on any jew. They only bring awareness that there is something more if you want it. I thing that you should all unite just because you are jews.
Monday, November 10, 2008 9:20:25 AM
Rose Novk (RLaR) wrote:
I'm writing from Jackson to tell you that this story was taped some months ago when congregants of the Jackson Hole Jewish Community were concerned that Zalman was advertising himself as the first and only Rabbi in Wyoming. Now things have settled down. I happen to like the Mendelsohns, but I could never be a part of his congregation for many reasons. Most important, women are not considered equal to men. The JHJC welcomes all Jews and all those who are interested in our faith.
We do not neglect the rituals or building community, having recently conducted two baby namings, two Brit Milots, High Holy Days, and Shabbats.
Monday, November 10, 2008 9:23:04 AM
Eric Schmitt (studybuddy) wrote:
Its beautiful to see such a warm and friendly Rabbi and his wife do such nice work on behalf of such an age old tradition. Keep the spirit alive! Pastor Eric
Monday, November 10, 2008 9:32:59 AM
Ben Paisy (Ben_Paisy) wrote:
The selfless work that these Chabad couples do around the world is humbling. It’s tough moving out to Wyoming, but helping their brethren is what inspires them.
They inspire people with their unconditional love and deep reservoirs of knowledge.
Chabad/Lubavitch is the future of Judaism. They are growing globally by leaps and bounds while others are receding and for good reason.
(to say this is about money is laughable…)
Monday, November 10, 2008 9:51:30 AM
Steve Covey (steeev) wrote:
Rabbi Zalman and Raizy, keep up the good work. Its your grassroots mentality that will endear you ultimately to all the nay sayers. There is so much positive energy in your voices and tone, there is so much hope in your attitude and your motto of change is very potent.
Monday, November 10, 2008 9:57:16 AM
Justin Forral (jfl) wrote:
The most reasonable story covering religion I've come across to date. Only in America, here one can see that religion regardless of faith is merely a business service offering to assuage customers from their fear of the unknown. Image all the marketing potential, 2 for 1 deals, guarantees of ascension, etc. It boggles both the mind and spirit, but will it pay? Only time will tell, if you were right in buying the service that is.
Monday, November 10, 2008 10:44:25 AM
Zalman T (Zalman) wrote:
By the Grace of G-d
Response to Rose Novk
First of all thank you for reporting that positive follow up it is so rear and very heart-warming.
Of course Chabad doesn’t consider women equal to men – they’re not. The Russians made that same mistake 70 years ago when they executed my great-grandfather, a Chabad Rabbi. They assumed that his work would end since his now-single wife and six small children would not have any significance in the Jewish world.
They were wrong.
My great-grandmother passed away 2 years ago with 535 direct decedents, a large number of them leading Jewish communities and programs around the globe.
Her husband may have led the services but she led the family and ultimately was the strength of not only her community but many communities around the world.
No, Chabad doesn’t consider women equal to men; we recognize that they are truly infinitely greater
Monday, November 10, 2008 10:48:40 AM
john glenn (lewis) wrote:
Jackson Hole (a place where the billionaires are pushing out the millionaires) isn’t representative of Wyoming, it’s people, and it’s culture… Rabbi Zalman Mendelsohn’s focus in Jackson is a fixation on $$$$!
Monday, November 10, 2008 10:51:03 AM
Jim Shulruff (Maggidjim) wrote:
Thank G-d for Chabad! Many of Jewerys best and brightest call Chabad home. Money and outreach go together like money and living. To say this is only about money is lacking in any depth of analysis, because everything, and everyone, in our society needs money to survive and thrive! This includes me, you, Microsoft, and Chabad.
My comment is not about money, but more to say that Chabad is not the only legitemate entry point for Jews to return to active observance. Communities of Jews around the world are observing and practicing in countless ways, there is something for everyone. All one needs to do is step foot into any local synagogue to feel the life and love that is Judaism and the Jewish G-d. And just like the above Colliegirl comment, we should all unite just because we are Jews.
Monday, November 10, 2008 11:15:50 AM