July 11, 2009 in Features

Rabbi recruits

Roving Rabbis travel through area in search of Unaffiliated Jews
By The Spokesman-Review
 
Dan Pelle photo

Rabbis Mendy Singer, top, and Mendel Dalfin are spending time in Spokane, meeting people and educating them about their branch of Orthodox Judaism, as part of their rabbinical studies.danp@spokesman.com
(Full-size photo)

Who are they?

The Roving Rabbis are part of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, one of the largest branches of Hasidic Judaism with more than 3,000 institutions in more than 70 countries worldwide. It was founded more than 250 years ago.

The Roving Rabbis outreach was developed 50 years ago by Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, who grew concerned that Orthodox Jewish traditions would fade after World War II, especially in the United States.

Chabad of Spokane County ( www.Jewishspokane.com) was established two years ago by Rabbi Yisroel Hahn. For more information about the Chabad or about the Roving Rabbis in Washington state this week, call Hahn at (509) 443-0770.

An hour before the newspaper interview, Rabbi Mendy Singer and Rabbi Mendel Dalfin e-mail the protocol for shaking hands: They do not shake the hand of any woman, even if the woman doing the interview is old enough to be their mother.

They meet for the interview at a Starbucks on Spokane’s South Hill. They have been in town for two weeks as part of the Chabad Rabbinical Visitation Program, a program designed to introduce “unaffiliated” Jews with the history and rituals of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, a branch of Hasidic Judaism.

Shorthand name: Roving Rabbis.

Singer, 21, is from Manchester, England. Dalfin, 20, is from Miami. Both young men share a similar accent, despite being raised in different parts of the world. The accent hints at the Hebrew they have spoken since the age of 3, an accent they grew up around in their tight-knit Jewish communities.

The rabbis politely ask if it’s OK to say a blessing over Starbucks drinks – juices and tea. They wear black fedoras. Underneath the fedoras, traditional black yarmulkes hug their heads.

They wear white shirts, black jackets, black pants and black shoes. They have beards and mustaches, as required of all men in their Orthodox tradition.

They wear glasses; both are nearsighted. They say every student in their Brooklyn, N.Y, educational institute – where they are completing rabbinical studies – wears glasses.

“We study a lot,” Dalfin says.

They volunteered for the Roving Rabbi program, which sends 250 students and young rabbis to locations throughout the world. Neither Singer nor Dalfin had ever heard of Spokane.

“I had heard of Washington,” Singer says. “I knew there were a lot of potatoes around here.”

Their mission in Spokane? “To raise Jewish identity and boost the Jewish community,” Singer says. “We hope to inspire and educate.”

They are staying at the home of their sponsor here, Rabbi Yisroel Hahn, who started a Jewish Chabad center in Spokane two years ago.

The young rabbis are looking for unaffiliated Jews who do not attend religious services or know much about the religion. But such a challenge to find Jewish people in Spokane!

Last summer, Singer did outreach in Lake Worth, Fla.

“We could practically go door to door and meet Jews more often than not,” he wrote on the Roving Rabbis blog, where some of the 250 rabbis recount their summer travels.

To find unaffiliated Jewish people in Spokane, the two young rabbis look in the phone book. They cold-call people with Jewish-sounding names.

They have encountered a piece of Eastern Washington history while cold-calling: More than 100 years ago, German families settled here to farm the Palouse.

“Many (German) people have Jewish-sounding names, because back in the family, someone was Jewish,” Singer explains.

The young rabbis also hang out in public places and search for people who look Jewish. Or they ask people whether they know any Jewish folks.

They are not shy about asking. The day after the interview, they pose for a newspaper photo at Manito Park. They ask the photographer if he is Jewish. Nope, he tells them, Italian.

They also met some folks at Wal-Mart.

“We don’t believe in locking ourselves up,” Dalfin said. “God put us in the world. We have to be part of the world, not separate.”

The young men are not in Spokane to convert non-Jews.

“The Torah teaches us to discourage conversion,” Dalfin explains. “God created every person the way they are. If God made someone not Jewish, it means his mission in life is not to be Jewish.”

The polite young rabbis answer nosy questions, such as will they find their wives through a matchmaker? Yes, they will.

Men marry between 22 and 24; women between 19 and 20. The no shaking hands with women rule, stems, in part, from the desire to reserve “the magical power of touch for our spouses,” according to an article the men shared from AskMoses.com.

So they will both have wives by 24? “God willing,” Singer says.

The rabbis answer nosy questions, but they prefer to talk about Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, who originated the Roving Rabbi idea half a century ago. He became a much-respected religious leader who in his older years gave out dollar bills, to be donated to charity, to the thousands of people who lined up each Sunday to meet him.

Singer and Dalfin plan to travel to Colville and other spots north before their plane leaves for New York on Tuesday. Two other Roving Rabbis – Levi Galperin and Yisroel Kirsh – are traveling in central Washington. They will remain in the state a while longer.

The young men are pleased that strangers who see them at Starbucks, Wal-Mart and walking along the street shout out “Shalom!” because they recognize them as rabbis.

As they leave Starbucks, a barista shouts after them, “Come back again!”

God willing, they will.


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