Thursday, December 11, 2008

A home at Chabad

Aaron and Pinchas Herman, brothers and rabbis, work to provide far-flung Jews a sense of connection

By Yonat Shimron, Staff Writer

Like medics, firefighters or police officers, Rabbis Aaron and Pinchas Herman can be considered first responders. When a Jew needs immediate assistance, people turn to them.

Last week, Aaron Herman helped a company in Research Triangle Park find kosher meals for two Orthodox Jewish financial analysts who had flown in for a two-day visit.

Meanwhile, Pinchas Herman was helping a mother who just had triplets find a mohel -- someone trained to perform the ritual of circumcision.

The two rabbis, brothers from Pittsburgh, opened the Triangle's first two Chabad Houses, offering myriad educational, social and religious services. They help people such as the college student from Charlotte whose mother called to ask that they check in on him and make sure he doesn't lose a connection to his Judaism. Or the niece from another state who called to ask that they visit her ailing aunt in a nursing home.

Chabad rabbis provide the glue that keeps far-flung Jews connected.

"You belong here -- that's the hallmark of Chabad everywhere," said Pinchas Herman, 42, the rabbi of the Chabad Center of Raleigh and the Sha'arei Israel Synagogue.

For a brief moment last week, their bearded faces and black hats were in the news after the Mumbai terrorist attacks killed Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg, 29, and his wife, Rivka, 28. The Holtzbergs were among 4,000 families who serve as emissaries worldwide, making Chabad the largest Jewish outreach organization.

North Carolina has seven Chabad houses, including ones in Cary, Chapel Hill and Raleigh. Beyond the Triangle, Chabad houses are in Asheville, Greensboro and Wilmington. The first Chabad House in the Tar Heel state was started in 1980 by Rabbi Yossi Groner of Charlotte.

The seven outposts are part of a faith tradition known as Chabad or Lubavitch -- the words are used interchangeably. The group traces its origins to an 18th century Jewish mystic from the Carpathian Mountains of Poland known as the Baal Shem Tov. This mystical rabbi sought to bridge social divisions between scholarly and illiterate Jews by insisting that all were one.

His legacy lives on in the work of the movement, which for more than a century was based in a Russian town called Lubavitch.

In 1950, the movement's new leader, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, moved the headquarters to Brooklyn, N.Y. From there, it grew and took on new dimensions. The most important of those was its emphasis on outreach to secular Jews in an effort to entice them to return to the Orthodox fold.

But it would be a mistake to label Chabad an Orthodox sect, Pinchas Herman said.

"Chabad is a movement," he said. "We don't focus on denomination, observance level, educational level. That's not important."

At Sha'arei Israel, for example, only 15 percent of the congregation may be considered Orthodox in their level of observance. The rest are on a continuum -- everything from secular to seeker.

Door is open to all

This sense that everyone is welcome is what leads Jews to Chabad when they find themselves in Azerbaijan or Vietnam, or the 70 other countries in which the movement has pitched a tent. As Pinchas Herman noted, many Israeli backpackers traveling abroad find "it's the place to go when you need to get food you're familiar with."

That open-door policy also makes Chabad an easy target for terrorists. Asked whether the Mumbai attacks made them feel more vulnerable, Aaron Herman said no, but added, "It's a wake-up call. It's a reminder."

He said the organization is reviewing its safety procedures, especially in countries where Jews are not especially welcome.

But there was no talk of closing the Mumbai Chabad post, called the Nairiman House. Instead, people called on Chabad to rename it after the Holtzbergs.

Last week many Chabad rabbis, including Raleigh's Pinchas Herman, held memorial services for the Holtzbergs, who were buried in Israel.

The next day, they went about the business of educating Jews for the next generation. Pinchas Herman showed his fourth- and fifth-grade Sunday school class what he looks for when he inspects food plants -- such as the Mount Olive Pickle Co. -- to make sure its products deserve a kosher stamp of approval. Aaron Herman was preparing two adult education classes.

In the wake of the terrorist attacks, the organization launched an effort to add "mitzvot," Hebrew for "good deeds," to counteract the evil of the attackers. The group's Web site ( keeps a running score of good deeds Jews have committed to performing -- 8,373 as of earlier this week. They include everything from saying a psalm each day to giving a train set to a needy child.

"When the world takes a step back, we have to take a step forward," Pinchas Herman said. "The attack was an attempt to stamp out civility. Our response is to add to it."

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