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‘Roving Rabbis’ Cater to Jews in Western U.S.

Chabad rabbinic students travel to rural areas with small Jewish populations

Stephanie Butnick
October 01, 2014
Show Low, AZ, pop. 10,000, is one of the areas Chabad's roving rabbis reach.Wikimedia
Show Low, AZ, pop. 10,000, is one of the areas Chabad's roving rabbis reach.Wikimedia

As Yom Kippur approaches, many Jews around the country prepare to head to local congregations to hear rabbis give their High Holiday sermons. But in many rural areas in the Western United States, where Jewish populations are small and congregations scarce, that sense of community simply doesn’t exist. NPR’s Weekend Edition featured the story of Chabad’s roving rabbis, rabbinical students who do the equivalent of asking “Are you Jewish?” on the streets of New York City and then offering you Shabbat candles, just way out West.

The rabbis keep a list of Jews they know about in these small towns. Often, people request a visit — or their family elsewhere requests one for them. Some days, the rabbis just pick up a phone book and start looking for Jewish names.

Many of the Jews they reach out to, NPR explains, have little religious involvement and live in small communities with large Christian or Mormon populations. But the roving rabbis are quick to clarify that unlike Mormon missionaries who live in those areas, they’re not proselytizing.

“Meeting people and interacting with them on a very simple level, regardless of Jewish topics, is a very positive thing,” Zalman Refson told them. “And it’s a very positive experience for a person who’s going to enter the people business.”

You can listen to the full story here.

Stephanie Butnick is deputy editor of Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.

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