The problems with the Lubavitch

Lubavitch door to door salesmen…Lock your doors!
August 24, 2008, 5:51 pm
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Roving Rabbis Visitors go in search of fellow Jews

JIM CLARK / Gresham Outlook

Eli Junik and Mendel Schapiro, rabbis from Brooklyn, N.Y., walk the streets of Gresham, approaching strangers in an effort to reach out to the Jewish community.

“Excuse me, are you Jewish?”

It’s an odd question to hear in East County, or at least unlikely, but coming from Mendel Schapiro and Eli Junik, it makes perfect sense.

The two 21-year-olds from Brooklyn, N.Y., are part of the “Roving Rabbis” program of the Chabad-Lubavitch Jewish movement, a branch of Orthodox Hasidism – and they look the part.

Dressed in traditional Jewish garb, with pressed white shirts, black jackets and bushy beards, the two life-long friends (they’ve known each other since kindergarten), have spent the last week-and-half reaching out to the Jewish community in Gresham and other parts of East County.

They say they’ve been largely successful in achieving the mission of the program, which is to meet and encourage unaffiliated Jewish people in their faith, and to bolster their Jewish identity. But it hasn’t necessarily been easy.

“When we started, people told us ‘we don’t know any Jewish people’,” says Schapiro of his outreach efforts in Gresham. “But with time, we slowly starting finding them.”

Because there is no close-by synagogue or community center, their methods for finding Jewish people are fairly rudimentary. They called names in the phonebook that seemed right, but preferred the one-on-one interaction of simply walking into businesses and asking, “Are you Jewish?”

The Roving Rabbis program sends pairs of Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbinical students to countries around the world, a tradition that started within the movement more than 50 years ago. But this is the first time the program has visited East County.

“It’s always helpful to teach other people what you know,” Junik says.

When the Rabbis do find a Jewish person, they have a conversation, asking about their lives and their faith. They also suggest traditional practices to strengthen or reconnect people with their faith, or “Jewish soul.”

“There’s a lot of Jews who just don’t know how to express it,” Junik says. “We give them tools to express their faith.”

Elizabeth Barmon, who lives in Gresham and is Jewish, says she was surprised and delighted to see the Rabbis walking around last week – even more so when she met them.

“It was just really encouraging for me personally,” she says of the Rabbis’ visit. “I was feeling really kind of cynical, but this, this was great.”

Barmon says that the Jewish community in Gresham isn’t very strong, and that she travels to Southwest Portland for synagogue. “But there’s more than you might think.”

Schapiro and Junik will continue their outreach work until Wednesday, Aug. 27, when they will head back to New York. But even after that, they will keep their mission, an important part of their faith, wherever they are.

“We never rest, there’s always more people to meet and things to do,” Schapiro says.

Junik boils it down even more: “Always happy, never satisfied.”


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