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Monday, August 03, 2009

Roving Rabbis seek out Jews who are not religiously active

ARLINGTON — The Roving Rabbis aren’t a band, but they are looking for an audience.

Sponsored by the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic movement and based in Brooklyn, N.Y., the program aims to bring together Orthodox rabbinical students and Jews who are not active religiously.

"The challenge is . . . people don’t know what we want from them," said rabbi Shaya Lowenstein, 22, who’s half of the visiting two-man Roving Rabbi team that’s spending about three weeks in Arlington this summer. "We’re just looking to give them the opportunity to do something religious."

That opportunity is a matter of some urgency to many: The birthrate and number of American Jews have fallen since 1990, and intermarriage is up. One prominent rabbi recently urged his followers to embark on a "rescue mission" to prevent American Jewry from disappearing.

The Roving Rabbi program, now decades old, has about 4,000 emissaries worldwide working during the summer. The point is not to proselytize non-Jews but to kindle participation among those born into Judaism.

"As a general rule, Tarrant County is not a very Jewish area," said rabbi Levi Gurevitch of Arlington, who is supervising the work of Lowenstein and Shmulik Raices, also a 22-year-old rabbinical graduate. "I applied to bring them to Tarrant County to help me with my outreach. They’re finding quite a few people, which is why I brought them here."

But the goal isn’t simply to bring more people to services.

"We haven’t survived by increasing our numbers but by increasing our faith," said rabbi Dove Mandel of the Fort Worth Chabad, which he and his wife started in their house in 2002. "I’m mainly looking for Jews to fulfill their faith. It’s about every Jew fulfilling their covenant with God."

Lowenstein and Raices are staying in the Arlington Chabad center near Lake Arlington, which doubles as the home for Gurevitch and his wife as well as being a synagogue. He provides room and board; Roving Rabbis covers transportation to Texas, he said.

"Hopefully, we’ll grow into a full-fledged center," said Gurevitch, who co-directs the center with his wife. "Right now we’re just in the baby stages of that."

Rabbi Menachem Block served in Berlin and Iowa when he was a Roving Rabbi. He now directs the thriving Plano Chabad center.

"The Roving Rabbis are able to get to communities that don’t have an established rabbi," Block said. "When you’re by yourself there’s only so much you can do."

Counting the Arlington center, Gurevitch said, there are six Chabad centers in North Texas. To locate local residents who might be receptive, Gurevitch bought a sales list, from which names that appear to be Jewish are culled.

"We don’t seek converts," Gurevitch said. "It’s very targeted."

The temporary help, even if it’s just for a few weeks in the summer, is valuable in making contacts and establishing relationships, particularly with younger people.

"Unfortunately, in America the younger generation seems to be very, very assimilated," Gurevitch said.

Mandel said: "It’s important, because the majority of Jewish people have little contact with their own synagogue. By having energetic young rabbis show up with a smile on their face, it sort of fans the flames of their Jewish spark."

Working as a Roving Rabbi can be as important to the young participants as to those they’re trying to reach, Block said.

"The experience you have . . . is tremendous," he said, calling it "a great program."

"It’s very inspirational."

Mandel, however, laughed when he talked about the reaction the Roving Rabbis can evoke in some quarters.

"You see two young rabbis wearing black fedoras; they’ve got their fringes at the corners of their garments," Mandel said. " . . .  It’s something you see by the thousands in New York City, but not in suburban Texas."

That’s something that struck Lowenstein, who did his rabbinical studies in New York. He hopes to get married and start a family before he settles down with a congregation of his own.

"You never know" where you’ll find the right girl, Lowenstein said. "But the chances may be a little better in Brooklyn. The numbers work out a little better there."

I’m mainly looking for Jews to fulfill their faith. It’s about every Jew fulfilling their covenant with God."

Rabbi Dove Mandel,
Fort Worth Chabad

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