Candle-lighting before Shabbat begins. Rabbi Mendy Wilschanski and his wife, Brocha Wilschanski, appear in the background.

Cornell Watson

Navigate to Community section

Celebrating ‘Unity’ in North Carolina

Chabad of Raleigh brought people together last weekend for a Shabbat dinner that illustrated the importance of coming together in spite of fear

Maggie Phillips
October 20, 2023
Candle-lighting before Shabbat begins. Rabbi Mendy Wilschanski and his wife, Brocha Wilschanski, appear in the background.

Cornell Watson

Chabad of Raleigh, North Carolina, held a Shabbat dinner for Israel on the evening of Oct. 13. The evening “of prayer, mitzvot, and candle lighting” was also a fundraiser for Bodega, a restaurant in Tel Aviv owned by a congregation member’s daughter that is providing kosher cheeseburgers (beef patties with vegan cheese) to IDF soldiers. Like many synagogues around the country, Chabad had heightened security that Shabbat, falling on the same day that Hamas had declared a “day of rage.”

In the end, the gathering revealed the character and the resolve of both a congregation and its rabbi.

Although Raleigh is geographically south of the Mason-Dixon Line, culturally, it is not. Net migration from other states has steadily increased in recent years to the “Research Triangle” of Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill, home to renowned universities, biotech firms, and tech companies that already attracted outside residents. Nevertheless, Rabbi Mendy Wilschanski said that when he and his wife first moved to Raleigh from Crown Heights, Brooklyn, four years ago, they were the beneficiaries of Southern hospitality. “Our first week we were here,” Wilschanski said, “our neighbors came over and offered us pie and we’re like, we’re in the South.”

Chabad of Raleigh consists of the Jewish Life Center and Congregation Sha’arei Israel. It also boasts a thriving preschool, and a reach on its mailing list of around 5,000 Jews in the Triangle area, according to Wilschanski. Most recent arrivals to their community, he said, are young families.

A community that bills itself as “your portal to the Raleigh Jewish Community,” it became a focus for Jews in the Triangle for Simchat Torah observance on the evening of Oct. 7, just hours after the Hamas attacks. Wilschanski made an executive decision to go on with the holiday’s customary dancing—a decision that was not uniformly well-received by attendees.

“How do we dance?” Wilschanski said a group of former IDF soldiers asked him at the Simchat Torah celebration. Wilschanski was not yet fully aware of the situation in Israel due to Shabbat observance, which kept him away from his phone; he believed that the religious obligation was to yield to the demand of the holiday. “I feel that pain of not knowing,” he said of his reaction on that day, but the call of the day was to dance. “So we dance with resolve,” Wilschanski said, “for those people who couldn’t make it.”

Steve Rosenberg was among those who were ambivalent about the dancing. With a son with a young family living in Israel, he had to leave Chabad of Raleigh’s Simchat Torah celebrations early. “I couldn’t handle that,” he said.

The following week, after talking to members of his congregation, Wilschanski determined on Wednesday that an event of a different tone was needed. The idea of a “Unity Shabbat” to bring people together in prayer was born, and after the controversy of Simchat Torah, he said,I made phone calls to a bunch of people in the congregation to just make sure that it’s only taken in the right way.”

“He called me up and said, listen, I’m interested in doing this dinner,” said Rosenberg. “OK. Fine.” Rosenberg describes himself as “religious by Raleigh standards,” in the majority-blue state capital where last year, the Freedom From Religion Foundation launched an “I’m an atheist and I vote” media campaign. He was raised Reform at a synagogue in Peoria, Illinois, where few families opted to bar mitzvah their children. Despite his ambivalence, particularly after the dancing on Simchat Torah, Rosenberg said he has a personal motto: “Will daven for food.”

The Unity Shabbat event that followed on Oct. 13, however, was more than a free meal.

The 50 or so attendees mingled before the candle-lighting that preceded the Orthodox Friday night Shabbat service. During candle-lighting, Wilschanski became tearful as he read the names of hostages being held in Gaza. “Really, we need to say it out [loud],” Wilschanski said. “We need to recognize that each one of these is a world of their own.”

After the service, in the social hall, as attendees talked and ate food prepared by an Israeli congregation member of Moroccan descent, explosive noises outside initiated a wave of dread.

Although Wilschanski wasn’t personally “on high alert” at the time, he said, “that was intense, I will admit.” The building, he said, “actually shook.” He turned and saw his wife had gathered his children into a corner. “My first gut reaction was, everybody sit,” he said, “and I went out to the front.”

There, at the entrance, he saw the members of the Raleigh Police Department who had been engaged to provide security, along with a few volunteer members from the congregation in tactical gear, and people from its security committee. Prepared to usher attendees to the locations designated to gather in case of emergency, Wilschanski was greeted by reassuring thumbs-up from the assembled security personnel.

The explosions were from fireworks at Ravenscroft, an independent private high school across the street from Chabad of Raleigh, which was celebrating homecoming that weekend.

“Hey Ravenscroft,” one NextDoor user posted in reaction to the noise, “how about you send out a notice that you’re going to do fireworks on Friday the 13th + the other situation that’s ‘possibly’ going on. Not good timing.”

“No, not at all good timing,” another user agreed.

“People kept calm,” said Wilschanski, but “it was very, very scary.”

When he returned to the social hall, Wilschanski said he did the only thing he knew to do, which was to lead everyone in a song of hope, "Hineh Ma Tov,” “How great it is that we all sit together.”

Two days later, on Sunday, Oct. 15, a pro-Palestinian rally in downtown Raleigh attracted hundreds of demonstrators carrying “Free Palestine” signs. And although Wilschanski is part of an information-sharing security network of Jewish temples in Triangle area, where just weeks before Oct. 7 two men were cited for distributing antisemitic flyers in residential neighborhoods, he said he prefers to “focus on the positives.”

“Fear is a natural instinct, especially in these times,” he said. “But at the same time, despair is absolutely not allowed.” That was the idea behind Unity Shabbat, he said: “to add light into the world, literally.”

Wilschanski said the feedback from Unity Shabbat has been more positive than those to Simchat Torah the weekend prior. Even people who could not make the dinner, he said, were reaching out to let him know they were supporting Bodega.

Unity Shabbat was a “call to action,” said Wilschanski. “We have to still persevere, because if you don’t, then you’re allowing the darkness.”

It even won over Rosenberg, who had originally been scheduled to fly to Israel that weekend to babysit for his son and daughter-in-law, who is expecting their third child any day. “It felt good,” he said, “to be around people and to share a meal, break bread, and be with people who, I didn’t have to explain to them how I felt.”

For now, Rosenberg imagines what it will be like to have three grandchildren running around his house, in what he hopes will be the near future. “I am looking forward to seeing them come to Raleigh,” he said.

Maggie Phillips is a freelance writer and former Tablet Journalism Fellow.