Continuing to connect with people is a mission of Rabbi Joseph Eisenbach and his wife, Mina, as they celebrate the 13th anniversary of the Chabad Lubavitch of Northwest Connecticut, which has headquarters in Litchfield.
"As we reach 13 years, there is no limit to acts of goodness and kindness that we are able to do in a community, but I think we have some huge programs that we hope to implement," said Rabbi Eisenbach, speaking of the array of programs planned by his group for this summer.
The Chabad Lubavitch of Northwest Connecticut is part of the largest Jewish organization in the world with more than 5,000 branches world-wide. The Chabad is against proselytizing, said Rabbi Eisenbach.
The word Chabad is a Hebrew acronym for the words wisdom, understanding and knowledge, with a big emphasis on educating people. Lubavitch is the name of the town in Russia where the movement began in the mid-18th century and means the "city of brotherly love."
"The whole concept of Chabad is people helping people," said Rabbi Eisenbach.
Rabbi Eisenbach explained that the beauty and uniqueness of Chabad is that when a rabbi and his family move out to a community, they traditionally arrive without knowing anyone and ultimately build a community within that host community.
The couple left their families behind in Montreal, Canada, and West Hartford. Both of their parents are emissaries and Rabbi Eisenbach is the fifth generation in his family to become one.
As emissaries, the rabbi and Mrs. Eisenbach evaluated their community. They established programs to suit their surroundings, while following the teachings of the seven dynastic leaders of the Chabad-Lubavitch Dynasty, known as rebbes.
"The whole concept of the rebbe is that you've just got to continue to do the right thing, you've just got to continue to try to change the world one mitzvah at a time," said Rabbi Eisenbach.
"We were blessed to be sent here to Northwest Connecticut, and the unique and the beautiful part is the fact that over the last 13 years we have seen tremendous growth in all areas," said Rabbi Eisenbach.
For more than a decade, the Chabad in Litchfield has seen an influx of families and children. Many of the older Chabads that have been around have taken care of three or four generations, he said.
"Every single Jewish community [has] what we call reform, conservative, [and] orthodox," said Rabbi Eisenbach. "At Chabad, we say labels are for food packages not for our brothers and sisters. It's amazing, the turnout that you get."
According to Rabbi Eisenbach, the theology of Chabad is to embrace everyone, and that has been why Chabad is the world's largest Jewish outreach organization.
Since its 10th anniversary, Rabbi Eisenbach has seen a tremendous growth in the summer children's camp program, Camp Gan Isreal located in Washington Depot, which attracts between 50 to 80 campers weekly. Mrs. Eisenbach is the director.
Weekenders are involved in assisting with the camp program, which offers sports and arts and crafts, according to Rabbi Eisenbach. The camp focuses on education in a fun and interactive way and the Chabad buses children from inner cities, similar to the Fresh Air Fund.
"Our camp has seen super growth in the sense that it's been amazing for this size community that we have," said Rabbi Eisenbach.
The Chabad also runs a network of Hebrew schools that has grown steadily, according to Rabbi Eisenbach. In the last three years, the Chabad started the Jewish Learning Institute (JLI), created in the tradition of teachers reaching out to students pursuing intellectual and spiritual growth in their adult years. The courses are designed for students ranging from first-time learners to those with years of prior study.
"The JLI has really attracted people from every single part of the region, Jewish, Catholic, Episcopalian ... we have seen such a grand blessing since our 10th anniversary," said Rabbi Eisenbach.
According to Mrs. Eisenbach, knowledge of the Jewish religion and Jewish history and of the Torah is something of a rite for every Jewish person. But, unfortunately, not everyone is aware of his or her cultural past. The Eisenbachs have helped to institute new programs, including monthly themed Shabbat dinners called T.G.I.S. (Thank G-d It's Shabbat), to attract more participation.
"We make it fun and exciting; it's a family program where people come and celebrate the Shabbat with us, hear stories and learn," said Mrs. Eisenbach. "It's all about educating people, because unfortunately today we have assimilation reaching such new levels where Jewish people don't know the basics of their own religion."
"Judaism is alive, it's vibrant, it's not just something to study, it's a way of life," said Mrs. Eisenbach.
She added the Chabad holds a monthly Jewish Kids Club, where members gather for fun interactive activities that promote Jewish values and friendship. Each meeting has craft projects and games with a special emphasis on Jewish customs and culture.
Communication is important and Rabbi Eisenbach said one of the greatest developments over the last three years is the Chabad's online magazine. The Internet presence has allowed people to study their religion and interact with the rabbi.
The online magazine has allowed everyone from celebrities who are weekenders in Northwest Connecticut to the average person to log in. The online magazine can be found on the Chabad's Web site at www.chabadnw.org. There is also a bi-monthly publication known as the Jewish News.
"We do a feedback which is 24/6, except the Shabbat," said Rabbi Eisenbach. "It's like a whole community on its own."
Vital to any religious organization is the building it occupies. In 2007, Litchfield's Historic District Commission denied an application to relocate the Chabad's headquarters from Village Green Drive to Litchfield center in a building that would have been renovated and significantly expanded.
The commission based its denial on the scale of the proposed expansion and restoration of the 135-year-old building but said it would be willing to consider a revised plan, including a downsized version.
The envisioned expansion totals 21,000 square-feet, and would involve a four-story addition off the back of the structure. It would include a synagogue, a community center, classrooms, several kosher kitchens, offices, a swimming pool and ceremonial pool. The facility would also have residential quarters for Rabbi Eisenbach and his family, as well as housing for visitors and staff. The historic building was purchased by the organization in 2006.
"We're hoping to have our new home in the center of town, and we're hoping to be able to reach out to as many more people as possible," said Rabbi Eisenbach.
Without offering specifics, he said the Chabad is currently in the midst of making the synagogue happen within the town of Litchfield.
But Mrs. Eisenbach said that most of her husband's work is not with the synagogue. Rabbi Eisenbach can be found visiting hospitals and nursing homes every week.
Chabads, she said, are not run by a rabbi, but rather the partnership of the rabbi and his wife. And the Eisenbachs' partnership is blessed with eight children.
According to Rabbi Eisenbach, most of his time is involved with Chabad. However, he said, he enjoys taking his children for hikes at White Memorial and he shared that he is a big skier.
He said he has connected with people in many different ways during his travels both locally and beyond.
"It's not just that the people who come to synagogue only come here for their religious needs, we become friends in every manner, in every way," said Mrs. Eisenbach. "We become very close."
Rabbi Eisenbach said he and his wife look forward to bringing in more Chabad couples to help them with their programs and hope to open satellite offices throughout Northwest Connecticut to reach out and care for, and be a helping hand to, everyone.
For more information on Chabad Lubavitch of Northwest Connecticut, visit the Web site at www.chabadnw.org. For more information about Camp Gan Israel, call 800-979-CAMP, or visit www.cginw.org.