Wednesday, July 01, 2009

The search for Jews in Ireland

Many New Yorkers buy airline tickets to Ireland to find long lost relatives and connect with their heritage on the Emerald Island. But for two young men Baruch Davidson and Pinny Raitman the goal was not to find family in the strict sense, but to connect with people in the faith.

Davidson and Raitman, both in their mid-twenties, are rabbinical students in a large Hasidic movement within Orthodox Judaism: Chabad. Over the past 60 years, Chabad has been sending pairs of young rabbis to far-flung points of the globe. The Roving Rabbis program aims to provide hands-on experience to rabbis in-the-making whose assignment is to “spread the light of the Torah,” seeking out unaffiliated Jews and helping them find a way back to their faith, a mission that is not a priority for most mainstream Jews.

But finding Jews in Ireland was not an easy task. Of Ireland’s 4.4 million people, only 2,000 are Jewish. Once on the island Davidson and Raitman walked off the beaten paths. They rented a car and instead of large cities, where the large communites are to be found, they opted for small towns and tiny villages in their search for Jews. “We would go to any local stores or pharmacies and asked ‘Do you know any Jews here?” said Raitman. “They would get all excited,” he remembers, “yes we know this lady, they said, lets call her. So they went to the phonebook and started to calling up people. We found people who were off the radar,” maps were of no help, “we had to ask them for their exact directions.” Here are some of the Jews they met:

Rebecca Grinblat is an Australian native who grew up in an Orthodox Jewish home and married to a Catholic Irishman. It was not until she moved to Limerick that shelearned to make hamentashen – triangular poppy and prune filled pastries – a special holiday treat. In Melbourne there was no need to worry about holiday pastries, which could be conveniently purchased in one of the many local kosher bakeries. In Limerick, however, she has to bake it herself as the nearest kosher bakery is 2.5 hours away by train to Dublin.

Gerard Hunt, a Dublin-born businessman said it was not a long ago that he began wearing his kippah in Wexford, where he is one of the four Jews of 10,000 people. He said he feels isolated from other Jews and that the only way to learn about his religion was to take a-year-long web course.

Eva Coombes grew up in a Jewish community in France but today drives an hour from Castleroy, a leafy suburb of Limerick, to the synagogue in Cork, the closest point to celebrate and pray together with fellow Jews.

Grinblat, Hunt and Coombes were just the kind of people the young rabbinical students were hoping to meet. The Irish, famous for their friendliness towards strangers, gave the Americans a warm welcome. “They were open and helpful,” said Davidson. Some families had even kept guest books in which they found the signature of Chabad rabbis who had come before them stretching back 50 years. At some places all they had was a chat. “We are not going to impose religion in a cunning way, to get people more religious,” said Raitman “either you are Jewish or your are not. We are not making anyone Jewish. We are there to raise the Jewish spark.”

At other places, like in the Limerick region, they managed to bring a small company of nine Jews together. “They put me in contact with another woman Eva and a man called Eric who also lives nearby,” said Grinblat who became friends with Coombes through the Chabad mission. “People in our group all have non-Jewish partners but we celebrate the holidays together, which is a nice way to maintain traditions in a small community.”

The rabbis of the local synagogues share the outreach mission of the roving rabbis but their congregations do not have the resources to engage congregants in the outside areas. “The only way is to send out a team to the field,” said Rabbi Zalman Shimon Lent of the Orthodox synagogue in Dublin. “If somebody integrates new people into the community, it remains strong,” Davidson said, who, together with Raitman, collected contact information from everyone they visited during the trip. Despite the low population figures, Rabbi Lent is optimistic though realistic about the future of Judaism on the island. “A lot depends on the economic situation of the country - which at the present is in a difficult state,” he said. As for now both roving and rooted rabbis work hard not to lose a single soul from their flock.

Grinblat, who hosted a dinner for the rabbis at her Limerick home attended also by Eva Coombes, said she looked forward to the annual visits. “No matter what else is going on, once a year Chabad is going to come and chat and should you need something they would get it for you and you do not feel you lost connection.” Though the rabbis did not accept the food from her “half-kosher kitchen” they neither attempted to convince her to change her life.

Hunt had the rabbis over in his Wexford shop, where he experienced what he called a spiritual awakening. “Their effort had an effect on me,” he said, “now I am celebrating Purim and Hanukkah and taking online study classes on Judaism.”

Coombes enjoyed discussing points of religion that “I could not discuss with the people among whom I live at the present,” she said adding, “I think outreach is the best thing since handmade Matza.”

The rabbis brought a suitcase of Jewish books and religious objects like mezuzahs, but what turned out to be the most useful thing was ping-pong knowledge. The rabbis recalled meeting Richard, a secular Jew they met in West Cork who initially avoided them and only for his friend’s insistence did he finally agree to join a table tennis game. Raitman, who is originally from Australia where he would participate in table tennis competitions, was happy to play.

“We drove down to a little community center in the middle of nowhere, because Richard was part of a local team,” Raitman said. “We played for hours, which was a great occasion to connect with someone non-religious. We spoke about Jewish things, experiences that he had had as a child that came up in the conversation, which in itself was something special to him. I realized that any talent a person has can always be used to create bridges with another person.”

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