A poignant handwritten note proves the value of the Roving Rabbis program.
The note came from an elderly Jew living in Dolan Springs in northwestern Arizona.
“We loved the Roving Rabbis and long for contact with the Jewish tradition of our mothers,” wrote the woman. “There are only three of us Jews in Dolan Springs as far as I know and because we are disabled and can’t travel, we have to wait an entire year before the Roving Rabbis visit here again. This is too long, but if we must wait, we will.”
Their wait is over. Through Aug. 18, two young rabbinical students from the Chabad-Lubavitch movement will be traveling throughout the state to help isolated Jews in Arizona reconnect with their faith.
“The goal is to make Judaism accessible and relevant to every Jew, wherever they may be,” said Rabbi Zalman Levertov, regional director of Chabad of Arizona, who oversees the program.
Although Levertov estimates that there should be about 50 Jews in Dolan Springs, there is no mistaking the fact that elderly and housebound Jews may be so isolated they don’t even know there is a larger Jewish community around them.
“The most important thing is going out and finding Jewish people who don’t have a connection and igniting the spark of Judaism and showing them they are not alone; someone in the Jewish community is thinking of them,” Levertov said.
The rabbinical students touring Arizona this year are Mendel Ostrow and Levi Gansburg. They are scheduled to visit about 35 cities in the state.
Being part of the Roving Rabbis program reminds Gansburg of how many Jews have lost their connection to their faith.
“We’re focusing on communities where there’s no permanent rabbi, so these people don’t really experience Judaism,” Gansburg said. “So we want to give them that experience to get in touch with their religion a little bit.”
If a connection hasn’t already been made, there are instances when Roving Rabbis have to actively find Jews in a community.
“Sometimes we go door-to-door and try to find Jews, sometimes you need talk to people in the street, and either word gets around or I get word of other Jewish people,” Gansburg said. “One person who needed something had a nice experience with us and they called a friend. They say one mitzvah leads to the next and once you meet one person it goes on from there.”
Gansburg said that some people he visits will ask if they are trying gain converts to Judaism.
“I tell them we’re actually not doing that,” he said. “We’re trying to meet unaffiliated Jews and trying to bring them some Judaism.”
Although they are dubbed “rabbis in training,” Gansburg and Ostrow maintain that they won’t necessarily become pulpit rabbis after finishing yeshiva. Still, Ostrow sees the Roving Rabbis program as a great training opportunity.
“Students in yeshiva, even though they have studied to become rabbis, they don’t necessarily know how to practice being a rabbi and talking to the people in the community,” Ostrow said. “But when you go out in the field and you visit one of the rabbis that are out there and then you get to see first-hand what they do, that is definitely an amazing practice opportunity.”
Conceived by the Lubavitcher Rebbe Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson in the early 1940s, the Roving Rabbis program has been credited with bolstering and rejuvenating countless Jewish communities around the world, particularly in areas not generally considered Jewish strongholds.
Rabbinical students visit more than 100 countries, as well as every state in the union. This year, 350 Chabad-Lubavitch rabbinical students are traveling to Jewish communities in Asia, Europe, the Americas and beyond.
“The Chabad philosophy is there’s no Jew that’s far from God,” Levertov said. “Every Jew is close to God. The fact that God created us means we’re close to him. However, some of us sometimes don’t realize what our mission is in life, and by us coming out there, we ignite a little bit of fire within them to think about that Judaism.” JN