Leonard Felson
Jun 19, 2018

Converting Jews To Judaism

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Edited: Sep 11, 2018

Rabbi Mendel Samuels had never heard of the Farmington Valley the day he was offered a job -- a mission, really -- to open a new Jewish center in Simsbury. Not any kind of center though.

Samuels, an observant Jew from Chabad-Lubavitch, a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Orthodox sect of Hasidic Jewry, had known from at least his teenage years that one day he would be a rabbi. But he never imaged his shul, or synagogue, would attract Jews scattered throughout nine or ten rural and semi-suburban towns who, like most of their Christian and otherwise secular neighbors, were more ensconced in everyday society. They valued good jobs, quality

ADVERTISEMENT public schools, nice houses, Western culture and consumerism. Most were uninterested in a style of strictly observant Judaism that focused on God, studying Torah, daily prayer and living according to halacha, or all of Jewish law.

 

Samuels was 28 when he arrived in Simsbury in February 1998. A curly red beard framed his face. He wore a long black coat, black slacks, white shirt and tie. A wide-brimmed black hat almost always topped his head. Like many young Hasidic Jews, he was already married and the father of three children, all boys. He had no funding support from headquarters in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and no list of Jews clamoring for his new center/synagogue. All he had was a message from a 50-something man named Mitchell Glick of Burlington, who was divorced and mostly living alone. He had never had a bar mitzvah, but was interested in attending a Jewish class or program if one were offered in the Farmington Valley.

Samuels called Glick and invited him to his house the next Friday night for Shabbos dinner. When Glick arrived, Samuels asked him if he'd join in Sabbath evening prayers before dinner. Glick consented and Samuels led him to his basement, where a makeshift synagogue, complete with a mechitza, or divider separating men from women during worship, was set up. Glick wondered who else was coming.

``They're coming,'' Samuels insisted. ``Soon they'll come. Not yet.'' For 20 minutes, Samuels prayed, chanting in a full, deep voice when appropriate, silently davening in Hebrew at other times, Glick his only congregant. Afterward, they climbed the stairs. Samuels' wife, Blumie, had a traditional dinner ready: gefilte fish, freshly baked challah, roast chicken, chicken soup. Glick left that night stuffed, but not before Samuels asked, ``Mitchell, I don't like to eat alone. Would you come for Shabbos lunch tomorrow?''

``What time should I come?'' said Glick.

``About 10 a.m.,'' Samuels said. Glick came. Samuels did the Saturday morning service with Glick and then they ate lunch.

To find more Glicks, Samuels turned to the newspaper's weekly listing of home sales, scanning for Jewish names, sending them welcome packages. He scoured the telephone directory like a detective and made calls. Once, unaware, he contacted, the president of the only other synagogue in Simsbury, a Reform temple, and word spread for a time that the new Chabad rabbi was stealing members.

Slowly, over weeks and months, couples and their kids began hanging out at the Samuels' house Friday nights and Saturday afternoons, adults schmoozing one moment, engaged in challenging spiritual discussions the next, children running about. A Hebrew school for children was started, with Samuels and Blumie teaching. Samuels offered Jewish education classes, led services and counseled couples going through marital difficulties, other adults coping with the loss of parents or jobs. He met with teenagers grappling with drug problems.

In sheer numbers, Chabad of the Valley was never going to be confused with the phenomenon of megachurches or even the draw of the few large Reform and Conservative synagogues in nearby West Hartford, each with more than 1,000 families as members. But gradually, first to the 20 or so regulars and now the 100 or so, the Hasidic rabbi and his brand of Judaism was becoming a subtle force in the lives of Jews who never would have dreamed they'd be going to a Chabad House. (The word is a Hebrew acronym for wisdom, comprehension and knowledge.)

Within Hartford's Jewish community, Chabad's presence was not new. The state's first Chabad House opened in West Hartford in 1977, when Rabbi Joseph Gopin (always dressed in wide-rimmed black hat, black suit and long beard) and his wife, Miriam, rented an apartment off Farmington Avenue. Rabbi Gopin used his kitchen as his office. Three years later, Gopin bought a small house on Farmington Avenue as his shul, and eight years later he raised enough money, largely through the donations of affluent local Jewish businessmen, to build a synagogue on Albany Avenue.

 

In 1995, a satellite Chabad center was launched in New London. Two years later another opened in Litchfield; two years after that, Samuels arrived in the Farmington Valley, then another opened in Glastonbury. Last winter, the latest Chabad House opened at the University of Connecticut in Storrs. There are more than a dozen Chabad houses in the state, according to the Chabad website. In Jewish religious circles, it became a phenomenon not unlike Starbucks. Instead of coffee and pastry, they served kaballah, or Jewish mysticism and Talmud and Hebrew classes, all under the rubric of a fundamental Judaism that existed in Russia and Eastern Europe 250 years ago. (Lubavitch is the name of a Russian town where the movement was based for more than a century.)

 

Chabad today is international in scope with outposts dotting the world map from Israel to Russia, the U.S. to Katmandu, the result of the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (often referred to as ``the Rebbe''), who, in the wake of the Holocaust and what he saw as a threat from secular society, began sending emissaries, or shlichim, to rekindle the spark of Jewish life. At last count, more than 4,000 shlichim were running 3,300 Chabad centers around the world, and its website, www.chabad.org, is often considered the most comprehensive among all Jewish movements. Though rooted in Orthodox Judaism, Chabad's mission is outreach, and so, like Chabad of the Valley, many of its followers are far from observant. If they're thinking about becoming more religious, they often remain skeptical, bouncing between two worlds.

Chabad of the Valley's opening was significant. The Farmington Valley had become the fastest-growing region of Greater Hartford's Jewish community, climbing from 10 percent to 17 percent of the Jewish population between 1982 and 2000, according to a 2000 study. (Jewish residents comprise about 4 percent of Hartford County's population, or about 32,000 people.) Gopin's Chabad House in West Hartford, the heart of the region's Jewish life, made sense. But starting a Chabad House in Simsbury -- ``Who would come?,'' several members of Chabad's West Hartford board of directors argued.

``The Jews living in Simsbury are living there to escape from Yiddishkeit,'' Alec Bobrow, a West Hartford resident and former Chabad board member told Gopin, using the Yiddish term to connote an emotional attachment to the Jewish lifestyle. These were mostly successful, assimilated, secular Jews, said Bobrow.

Gopin, knowing what the Rebbe, who died in 1994, would say, shot back: ``That's exactly why we need Chabad there, to wake them up.''

Initially, Samuels had arrived from Brooklyn as a new rabbi for Gopin, whose center was offering classes and prayer services, lectures and dinners -- something virtually every day and night of the week. But Samuels couldn't find an affordable house to rent within walking distance of Chabad -- a key requirement for observant Jews who never drive on the Sabbath or Jewish holidays.

``What about Simsbury?'' Gopin said to Samuels.

``What, are you kidding?'' replied Samuels, whose cadence and wit is like comedian Jackie Mason without the insults. Gopin persisted. Samuels looked for houses to rent and found one, which included a basement he could use as a synagogue. A new Chabad House was born.

Born in Crown Heights, not far from Chabad headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway, Samuels' family moved when he was barely a toddler to Miami, then to Seattle and later to Milwaukee, all because his parents were Chabad emissaries. When he was 9, a few years ahead of schedule, his parents sent him to begin serious study of the Torah and the Talmud at a yeshiva, or academy in Detroit. At 16, also a little ahead of schedule, he went to the Rabbinical College of America in Morristown, N.J., where his grandfather, like his father, also was a rabbi, and was dean of the school. By the time Samuels arrived in Simsbury, he had spent two years in Caracas, Venezuela, in effect as a rabbinic intern, then sold goods in Manhattan for almost seven years because he wanted to make some money before working as a rabbi. He found little meaning in the work, never made the kind of money he had hoped for and finally realized the time had come to fulfill his destiny.

A month after Samuels moved to Simsbury, he began planning his first big event -- a Purim party, commemorating a miraculous turn of events in ancient Persia (modern-day Iraq) that saved the Jews from annihilation. In Chabad circles, it is one of the rowdiest holidays, with vodka and other drinks flowing freely. Samuels was sure his Bob White Way house would be too small, so he rented the cafeteria at Henry James School. Five people showed up, two of whom were his in-laws.

 

Samuels didn't despair about the future of his mission, even as most of the people he met explained that they were not religious, and, with all due respect, Chabad was probably the last place they would go for religion. It was too strict for their lifestyles, all this keeping kosher, not driving on the Sabbath, too fanatical. It treated women as second-class citizens. Its Hebrew prayer services were too confusing. In short, it was out of touch with the modern world.

Yet gradually those who came discovered quite the opposite. Although women, many from high-powered corporate settings, may have initially questioned what at best looked like ``separate-but-equal'' status, most who stayed bought into the whole package. If they lived a good part of their lives in a post-feminist world where virtually limitless possibilities were open to them, they came to terms with the idea that other mind-sets, at least in their newly adopted religious world, might also be valid.

 

Like other women, Rita Brownstein, a former magazine art director, for instance, came to appreciate teachings from Samuels who maintained that, according to Torah, women were actually on a higher spiritual plane than men. They found comfort in sitting among other women during services, the better, another woman said, to focus on why they were there: to pray to God. And they began to drop feelings of being slighted when Samuels would not shake their hands after he explained that it was out of respect.

``It's for the same reason I wouldn't shake the Queen's hand or why I never shook the Lubavitcher Rebbe's hand,'' says Samuels. In fact, he says, ``We believe that women are at the very epicenter of Judaism.''

Samuels soon grew ensconced in the Farmington Valley. Everywhere he went, and he was hard to miss wearing his wide-brimmed black hat and black suit, Samuels' charm, wit, intellect and nonjudgmental style disarmed Jewish residents.

One Sunday, Samuels awoke with pain in his gums; he had not seen a dentist in 20 years. He had been referred to Bruce Komarow, an Avon dentist, but Komarow was playing golf. ``I prayed to God,'' recalled Samuels, ``and I don't know what, but it started to rain,'' which forced Komarow home, where he got the rabbi's message and saw him that day. Komarow was shocked at the condition of Samuels' teeth and gums, but, more to the point, Samuels exacted a deal: He promised to see the dentist regularly, and Komarow would visit shul more than once every 20 years.

By autumn 1998, 80 people attended Rosh Hashana services for the Jewish New Year, held at the same elementary school where only five people had shown up for the Purim party. Some came because, unlike most synagogues that require paid-up annual membership dues to attend Rosh Hashana services, Chabad's services are free. Others came because through the grapevine they'd heard about Samuels, ``a real character,'' and yes, it was Chabad, but there was something about the rabbi and the atmosphere that made it, well, ``different.'' There was at once an air of informality and seriousness about his services. Congregants would raise their hands when confused, shouting out, ``Rabbi, I don't understand this prayer.'' And Samuels would stop and explain, extrapolating from ancient Jewish texts until his unlikely flock got it. He would joke during services and, the way PBS announces its sponsors, he wouldn't hesitate to urge congregants to support each other's businesses. ``Remember,'' he says often in the middle of services, referring to Andy Lieberman, a 43-year-old marketing director for the auto service company, Valvoline Inc., ``they put the lube in Lubavitch.''

By the end of his first year in town, it was clear the 20 or so families regularly attending were outgrowing the rabbi's basement. Even the mechitza, separating men from women during worship services, symbolically cried low-rent. Instead of a nicely designed wood panel extending the length of the room, they used a shower curtain. To Valley Jews, who believed they knew how to spot success, the basement synagogue just wasn't cutting it. ``People weren't coming back,'' said one member.

Then, as Samuels and even some of his most ardent skeptics tell it, a miracle occurred.

Samuels had been eyeing a building on Hopmeadow Street not far from Route 44, a main artery in the Farmington Valley, but it was too expensive. One day Samuels heard that the building had suddenly become available and at a much lower price. Samuels and Gopin scurried to raise enough money from donors for a down payment. But on the day of the closing, March 31, 1999, Samuels was still $20,000 short. By mid-day, he was $10,000 short. He and Gopin worked the phones frantically; if they could not raise the balance by the end of the business day, they would lose the building.

 

Their lawyer, Jeff Tager, a member of the congregation, was dumbfounded as he watched the day unfold, reach a fever pitch and end in a schnapps toast in his office. The following Shabbos, Tager, a burly man who has long described himself as ``barely Jewish,'' walked into his new synagogue with tears in his eyes.

`It's an amazing place,'' says Orit Tager, 45, an MCI marketing manager who was named for the Hebrew word ``light,'' since she was born in December during Hanukkah. The daughter of a Holocaust survivor, she was raised in Miami Beach and attended an Orthodox Jewish day school. Yet except for the kosher kitchen Orit maintains (a link to her mother, she says), she stopped living her life according to traditional Jewish practices years ago. That is gradually changing.

 

``If you had said we'd be going to shul and the rabbi's house every Friday night for dinner, I'd say you'd be nuts,'' she said over coffee in her kitchen one night. Indeed, many of her friends are learning that she won't go to a restaurant or to the movies on Friday nights anymore. The same holds for the Tagers' 16-year-old son, Adam, a sophomore at Simsbury High School, who takes it for granted that he won't make plans with his mostly non-Jewish friends on Friday nights. And Orit, who routinely used her Saturdays as catch-up days for laundry, errands and shopping, now avoids such ``work,'' choosing to follow the mitzvah, or commandment, to set aside the day to rest. Instead, she'll often spend the afternoon at the rabbi's house, schmoozing with him, Blumie and other Chabad friends.

Friends like the Brownsteins, who lived on the Upper East Side of Manhattan until they had kids and moved to Connecticut. They were proud of being Jewish, but they were far from practicing Jews. Rita, 52, the former magazine art director, and Michael, 57, a physical therapist who grew up in Hartford, used to love Yom Kippur, the most solemn day of the Jewish year, because it was the day they could get on the tennis courts. Now Michael won't drive on Shabbos. He also won't eat out unless the restaurant is kosher, a rarity around Simsbury. He wears tzizit, or fringes, at the bottom corners of his shirts as a reminder of the Torah's commandments. ``Our social life took a huge hit,'' observes Rita, who's not nearly as observant and has taken to meeting her friends for lunch to fill her need to dine out.

The Brownsteins' neighbor Beth Salzberg, 49, like Michael, also has become shomer Shabbos, meaning she observes the Sabbath laws, and will only walk, not drive, when attending services. (Other Chabad members, like Rick Blum of Burlington and Pamela Newman of Avon, live too far to walk, so they either miss services or arrange to stay close to Chabad over the Sabbath.)

Like many of Samuels' followers who have become more observant, Salzberg's journey was gradual. A Brooklyn, N.Y., native and former non-practicing Jew, Beth had enrolled in an adult bat mitzvah class at the local Reform synagogue (Farmington Valley Jewish Congregation-Emek Shalom) where her family belonged, a few years before Samuels had arrived. About the same time, she met with seven or eight women every other Thursday night at Rita Brownstein's home, where a Chabad rabbi from West Hartford was teaching them about traditional and mystical Judaism.

``Thursday nights would blow me away,'' said Salzberg, who found she was spiritually moving from liberal or Reform Judaism. ``It completely spoke to me. I walked on air. I would come home to my husband excited about what I'd learned.''

Adults weren't the only ones affected by Chabad's move into the Farmington Valley. Newman's daughter, Allison, a student at Avon High School, transferred last year to Beis Chana Academy, an all-girl's Lubavitch school in New Haven. Sam Lieberman, 9, pushed his parents, Lauren and Andy, to start keeping kosher.

It started last summer when the Liebermans enrolled Sam in a regional Chabad-run summer day camp at Camp Gan Israel . One day Sam asked: ``Can we keep kosher?'' Lauren, who grew up a Reform Jew in West Hartford, couldn't think of a reason to say no. After all, she reasoned, there were worse things a kid could ask for and the nearby Big Y supermarket in Avon now stocked kosher meats and lots of other kosher products, thanks in part to Samuels. The next day, she emptied her refrigerator and cupboards of all non-kosher foods and began for the first time in her life the process of following Jewish dietary laws.

Of course, the underlying question about these lifestyle and belief-system shifts, the question for friends of the Liebermans and Salzbergs and Tagers and Brownsteins, their Christian friends and especially their Jewish friends, was what gives? What was attracting these otherwise secular Jews to a life shaped increasingly by observance to a system of rules they had never accepted before?

 

The short answer is that a mix of factors were at play: Like many baby boomers, particularly those who had tasted a level of professional success, they had discovered that something was missing from their lives. And when they realized that, their souls, although they may not have articulated it that way early on, began to respond to what Samuels was teaching. But it was more than that.

Some actually belonged to synagogues, Reform and Conservative, but somehow that brand of mainstream Judaism hadn't fulfilled them spiritually. (``It was like the synagogue was where you went for religion, compartmentalized from the rest of your life,'' said Salzberg.) What was attracting them to Chabad was the idea that religious practice could actually be meaningful, and that it could infuse every moment of their lives. The rabbi himself would say he was available 24/7, his cellphone with him always, except for Shabbos and other Jewish holidays when its use was prohibited.

 

Equally important, many found a sense of community within Chabad that had eluded them when they moved to the Farmington Valley. (``You'll never confuse this street with a neighborhood,'' Andy Lieberman said one Sunday afternoon on his backyard patio. You could hear a brook gurgling and see the evergreen trees separating their yard from that of neighbors they had yet to meet.) But within Chabad of the Valley, families cook meals and look in on each other when someone has surgery, and teenagers babysit for younger kids. ``It's like `A Prairie Home Companion','' said Andy.

There is yet another, equally abstract but vital element that may be at work. ``It's a kind of belief that these folks are doing the real thing and that this is a kind of authentic Judaism that will last,'' said Mark Silk, director of Trinity College's Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. As a result, he said, Chabad has people who support the organization with money who don't actually attend services or programs, but rather do so because they believe in the project of Jewish continuity.

Chabad also draws because it is often seen as different from any of the other movements of Judaism, exotic even, observed Richard Freund, director of the Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Hartford. ``The goals are always to lead people to practice more and more religiously,'' said Freund, who teaches about Chabad and Hasidism in his lectureson Jewish mysticism and modern popular religious movements. ``Since this work is so personalized, often unaffiliated Jews respond in ways that traditional modern Reform-Conservative-Orthodox synagogues with more formal structures cannot respond adequately to.''

At first blush, the life of a Hasidic rabbi in Simsbury would seem a contradiction, until you realize that Chabad's mission is to attract the disaffected, non-practicing or less observant Jews and show them how much their religion has to offer.

Samuels offers classes for women and another for men, every Tuesday night, called Talmud and Pastrami. ``It's like a poker game without the cards,'' one frequent member explained. The rabbi supplies a platter of kosher deli meats, rolls, chips and soda for the 6:30 p.m. start. The men -- often a dozen or so, sometimes fewer -- banter with the rabbi about current events. Tiger Woods winning the Masters one week, Terri Schiavo, Michael Jackson, basketball. Then for 30 or 40 minutes, it's the rabbi's turn, as he pulls lessons from the Talmud or from the Rebbe. One night the topic is about when it's permissible under Jewish law to lie: often to avoid hurting someone's feelings or to preserve peace within your household. But, Samuels points out, it's a slippery slope.

To follow Samuels for a day is to observe the often-subtle ways he touches people's lives. On this day in late March, it is Purim, his eighth in Simsbury. Last night's party drew 80 people. (Last year's Rosh Hashana service drew nearly 200 people.) This morning's Purim service on a Friday at 6:30 only attracts 16, including five teenagers. By 8:30, he is in his car, a worn 1997 Taurus sedan, stopping at the Big Y to shop for his wife and their five children -- two more, also boys, were born since they moved to town -- and the unknown number of guests they will host over Shabbos. His cellphone rings regularly. The first call is from Mark Butler, a US Airways pilot, and congregant.

``So what's going on? Are we going to see you on Shabbos, God willing?'' Samuels says. Butler tells him how he's standing his ground at the airline. They want him to fly on Saturday, but he's told them he will not work -- or fly -- on the Sabbath.

``God bless you,'' Samuels says. ``I'm proud of you, Mark.''

 

Back home to deliver the groceries, the house is a hubbub of activity. Blumie is twisting bread dough for challah with the speed of a pizza maker. The rabbi eats a quick bite of scrambled eggs Blumie has whipped up, before which he quickly pours water over his hands and says a prayer, after which he recites another set of prayers of gratitude for the sustenance.

Blumie is up at 7, bathing and dressing her boys and driving all but her toddler to Hebrew Academy, an Orthodox school in Bloomfield. If she's not running errands for her household or for Chabad, she's cleaning or preparing for the next meal, and not always for her family. When other families in the Chabad community face a death or celebrate a birth, Blumie cooks or arranges for food to be supplied to those families for the week. She teaches Hebrew at Chabad Tuesday afternoons and Sundays. By Wednesday night she's already baking for Shabbos. Her major shopping is Thursday before she begins cooking enough for all who will descend on her household Friday evening and all day Saturday. She laughs at the suggestion that she might feel isolated in the suburbs, largely because she and her husband have surrounded themselves with new friends in the community they've created.

 

``A quiet Shabbos, if no one came, would be boring,'' she said. Although Blumie hardly rests on the Sabbath, an ironic fact of life for a rabbi and his spouse, she holds dear one moment every week as her own. It's when she lights the Shabbos candles before sunset each Friday, when, according to tradition, the heavens open up to women. ``That's my time with Ha-Shem,'' she said, using a Hebrew euphemism for God [it literally means the Name]. In those quiet moments, her eyes closed, candles shimmering, she asks that her family remain healthy, that those she knows who are ill recover speedily and then she reflects on her week. For her, for those few moments, time is suspended.

Back in her kitchen that Purim day, Blumie's husband dashes back to his car after eating. At a nursing home, he tells 24 Alzheimer patients about Purim and sings a few songs. Told later that only three of the patients are Jewish, he says he knew that, but it doesn't matter. ``For one, I would come,'' he said.

Back in his car, he talks about his challenges. ``Religion is a scary thing, especially if it means changing [your] lifestyle. At the holiday season, I get calls from Jewish parents alarmed that their kids had to sing `Jingle Bells' in school. In all my years, no one left Judaism because they sing `Jingle Bells,' but thousands leave Judaism because the parents don't give their kids a Jewish education or provide a Jewish lifestyle, a Jewish identity.''

At Yachad, a Greater Hartford Jewish community high school, where teens go one night a week for about two hours of Judaic studies, Samuels teaches a class. He begins each year by making a deal with his students. If they can answer two questions correctly, he'll suspend serious study for the semester and devote the class to fun and games. The teenagers are all for it.

``Who can tell me who Jesus' mother was?'' he asks. The question is too easy. They are halfway toward coasting through the semester. Ninety-nine percent of the students know the answer is Mary, and they're feeling good about their chances of acing the next question.

``Now, who can tell me who Moses' mother was?'' Usually, said Samuels, no one can answer him, and these are all students who went through Hebrew school, some of whom studied at Solomon Schechter Day School, a Conservative movement-led school, which offers a dual curriculum of Judaic and general studies. ``It's shocking,'' he said of the ignorance.

If Samuels' major challenge centers on dispelling myths about the Judaism he practices and reigniting the religion among non-practicing Jews, his other, like that of many spiritual leaders, is financial. Because paying dues could deter some from joining Chabad, rabbis must ask for donations. ``I'm not a good fundraiser. That's not who I am. My personality is that of a very American polite boy,'' he says. Which has meant that, despite spiritual success stories, raising the nearly $200,000 annual budget to run Chabad of the Valley remains a struggle even in a region flush with wealth. Checks have bounced and many times, utility companies have turned off Chabad's lights, heat and telephone service. Even at Samuels' home, his lights have gone off and the oil tank has run dry.

 

Despite his often-desperate state of fundraising, Samuels believes a larger building may ultimately provide a solution to those woes. It would allow him to open a Jewish child-care center, something he claims the Farmington Valley would easily support and which would go a long way toward funding Chabad's programs and operating costs. Then, he said, he could concentrate on the job he was meant to do, the job he says the Rebbe taught him and all the other emissaries around the world to do: ``going out and helping other Jews come closer to God.''

In an age where anything goes and everything is possible, where a growing number of modern Jews along with their Christian, Islamic and even secular brethren are reacting to what Indian novelist Arundhati Roy calls ``the Styrofoamization of civilization,'' Chabad represents a value system that is not ethically relative and that attempts to address a need for some sort of connection to the sacred. And yet, judging by those walking through Rabbi Samuels' doors in Simsbury, this is not a Jewish version of Christian fundamentalism, even though Chabad begins with the premise that the Torah came from Mount Sinai, that everything flows from that point and that the laws received therein are commanded by God. Rather it says, come at whatever rung on the spiritual ladder you are, do what you can.

 

Soon, Samuels said, his oldest son, Sruli, now 11, will leave home and begin yeshiva study in New York. Samuels, now 34, and Blumie, celebrated their 13th anniversary in June. At home late at night, surrounded by bookshelves full of texts mostly in Hebrew or Yiddish, and paintings of the last Rebbe, Samuels collapses anytime between 11 p.m. and 1 a.m. He usually wakes about 2 in the morning and reads until he falls asleep again about 4. He's up for good by 5:30 because, as he begins a new day in his new homeland, ``There's always something to do.''

 

 

FOR THE RECORD - Correction published August 9, 2005. The cover story in Northeast magazine July 31 incorrectly stated that modern-day Iraq used to be called Persia. In fact, Iran used to be called Persia. Correction published 8/14/05 The July 31 cover story, ``Converting Jews to Judaism,'' stated incorrectly that modern-day Iraq used to be called Persia. In fact, the country known today as Iran used to be called Persia.

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  • Leonard Felson
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Certainly such social factors as the higher rate of intermarriage, dwindling religious observance and greater acceptance into America's melting pot , have eroded the degree of ethno-religious identity that Jews feel compared to even a generation ago, say experts who study the American Jewish community. And on issues, growing divisions continue within the Jewish community not only over the war in Iraq (although a majority oppose it), but on certain hot-button domestic issues where many progressive Jews believe Lieberman's votes were just plain wrong. Even on Israel, though it may seem counterintuitive, many Jews who support Lamont say they believe the war in Iraq has left Israel less secure, not more so. As evidence they point to the ease with which Iran shipped missiles to Hezbollah, in part, so the argument goes, because Iran bet that the U.S., distracted in Iraq, would not or could not react. ``The question is this: Is Israel in a better situation today than it was five years ago and is the general state of unrest in the region to Israel's advantage?'' asks David Pudlin, a Lamont strategist, former state House Majority Leader and active member of Temple Sinai in Newington. The question of the connection between Israeli security and the Iraq war echoes the debate begun last week after a classified report from U.S. spy agencies said the war is spreading radicalism throughout the Middle East and increasing the overall threat of terrorism. The Bush administration has disagreed with that assessment. It's unclear how the Jewish vote will divide in the general election. Political insiders are predicting everything from ``a tight race'' to a ``75-25 split'' for Lieberman. Nevertheless, despite the small size of the community -- Jews make up 3 percent of Connecticut's population and 4 percent of the electorate because they have such a high registration rate -- some political analysts say, like the election itself, the results of the Jewish vote could also become a national bellwether for the 2008 presidential race. Meanwhile, with little more than five weeks before Election Day, the campaigning continues across the state and within its Jewish community. Bob Tendler, a 72-year-old consulting pharmacist, is active at Temple B'nai Israel in Southbury. He's on the board of the local branch of the Jewish Federation, an agency that supports a vast array of Jewish services in western Connecticut. He and his wife, a nurse, returned last month from a medical mission to Israel, for which he feels a deep connection. And he's actively supporting Lamont. Until the primary, Tendler, who is also chairman of the Southbury Democratic Town Committee, always voted for Lieberman. After the senator ran for vice president in 2000 and re-election for his Senate seat at the same time, Tendler's support began to wane, as the Southbury Democrat questioned whether Lieberman was paying enough attention to his Connecticut constituents. The turning point came three years ago last spring, when Tendler's son, Jeremy, then a sergeant in the U.S. Army's Third Infantry Division in Iraq, managed to call his father, with a complaint and plea for help. His troops, many in tanks, were getting only one 16-ounce bottle of water per solider a day, as they endured temperatures of 125 degrees. Tendler called the senator's office. But Lieberman's staff dismissed the complaint, according to Tendler. ``They said, `I'm sorry, you must have bad information. That's not happening,''' Tendler recalled. A spokeswoman for Lieberman's Senate office, Casey Aden-Wansbury, said his staff has no ``specific record or recollection of speaking to'' Tendler about the matter. She said Lieberman receives many calls and letters from active-duty military and their families. ``He takes each one seriously, and he does everything he can to answer their questions and help them ... Fortunately there are many success stories among them,'' she said. Tendler is among the 67 percent of Jewish voters polled in the primary who want the U.S. to begin removing troops from Iraq soon. But like others opposing Lieberman, he ticks off several other issues that convinced him it was time for a change. He mentions Lieberman's refusal to back a filibuster against President Bush's Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito; his support for emergency legislation in an attempt to save Terri Schiavo's life; and his comment that Connecticut's Catholic hospitals that refuse to give contraceptives to rape victims shouldn't be forced to do so. Other liberal Jews echo that criticism, and ironically, they believe that Lieberman's hawkish foreign policy stands actually are not in Israel's best interest. One of them is Judith Resnik, a professor at Yale Law School and active at New Haven's Congregation Beth El-Keser Israel, a Conservative synagogue. A frequent visitor to Israel, she has taught courses at Israeli universities and has many close family members living there. ``Israel is far more vulnerable now, as we saw in the conflict with Hezbollah, than it was before the terrible mistake of the Iraq war. To the extent that voters of whatever political or religious persuasion are seeking stability in the Middle East and protection of lives ... the policy of George Bush, supported largely by Joseph Lieberman, has done a disservice, not a service.'' Her rabbi, Jon-Jay Tilsen, known for his far-to-the-left politics, also supports Lamont. Still, like some, he admits to feeling ``a lot of ambivalence.'' After all, he says, Lieberman is ``a known quantity,'' but ultimately the rabbi says he believes Lamont, an Episcopalian, ``would be better for the interests of all of us, including the Jewish community.'' Of course, many Jews disagree. One of them is Tilsen's colleague, Rabbi Avigdor of the Orthodox Bikur Cholim Sheveth Achim. ``I've always been a Democrat and I've always voted for the Democratic Party, but I'm very disappointed that the fringe of the party voted for Lamont,'' he says. ``I feel terrible grief when I see a solider, especially from Connecticut, come back from Iraq in a body bag. I regret that terribly. I understand that Lamont and his supporters want to be done with the war. But life is not that simple. Life is very complicated, and I don't think the American public is aware how serious this battle is,'' he adds, referring to what he sees as a general war on terrorism. The war notwithstanding, the rabbi says, Lieberman, who has prayed at his synagogue, should be re-elected. ``He's an honest man, a very decent man. He does what he says. It's mind-boggling. A politician who actually says he doesn't believe we should pull out of Iraq and [was] losing in the polls [in the primary], and still sticks to his guns. Anyone else would have flip-flopped just to save his seat.'' Michael Kassen, a 53-year-old Westport investor, whose wife, Shelly, is a town selectman, first met Lieberman in 1993. He's contributed to Lieberman's campaign since then, and he wonders why anyone, Jews included, would not support the senator. A member of the national board of the American Israel Public Relations Committee, or AIPCAC, a pro-Israel lobbying group, as well as a board member of major New York Jewish agencies, Kassen agrees with Avigdor. ``Forget Israel for a second,'' says Kassen, who considers Lieberman one of the Senate's leading voices for the Jewish nation's defense. ``I just believe he understands that we live in a very dangerous world that unfortunately is becoming more dangerous and that we have to have what I would call an engaged and vigorous and muscular foreign policy.'' Other Jewish supporters of Lieberman voice concern about whom Lamont, as a political newcomer, would consult, were he to win. One of those worried is Daniel I. Papermaster, a Hartford lawyer, who serves as counsel to the Lieberman campaign. He, like many more moderate Jews, were taken aback when they saw Lamont on the podium the night of the Aug. 8 primary, flanked by the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, as well as U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, all seen as representing the far-left wing of the party, and which moderate Jews say can't always be counted on to support Israel. Some Jews also can't forget Jackson's anti-Semitic remark in 1984 when he once called New York ``Hymietown,'' for which he apologized, or Sharpton's role in inciting anti-Jewish violence in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn in the 1990s. Ironically, Lieberman had kind words for Jackson six years ago when the civil rights leader stumped for him and Gore, and for Sharpton in 2003 when both of them were part of a presidential primary debate sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus and Fox News. In the end, however, the Jewish vote is unlikely to be the deciding factor in the Senate race, although if it's close, and recent polls suggest it could be, those votes could make a difference. L. Sandy Maisel, director of the Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs at Colby College in Maine, says he wouldn't be surprised to see Lieberman win 75 percent of the Jewish vote, given that those who voted for him in the primary will almost certainly be joined by many Republican and moderate, independent Jews. Still despite the divisions within the Jewish community, which largely underscores a historic split between progressive and centrist Jews, the real question is what will it all mean the day after the election. Jonathan D. Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University and a leading analyst of contemporary American-Jewish trends, says: ``What we're seeing in Connecticut is emblematic of the tensions within the Jewish community.'' If Lieberman were to lose, centrist Jewish Democrats -- the old Scoop Jackson Democrats strong on foreign policy and defense issues -- might begin supporting moderate Republicans. These Jewish voters could sense that the Democrats are no longer a big-tent party, but one more interested in embracing their extreme left wing. And that softening of support for the Democrats could have major implications for 2008. That's an argument also being trumpeted by the Republican Jewish Coalition. The group has run full-page ads recently in the weekly Connecticut Jewish Ledger, claiming that the radical left ``with its antipathy toward Israel, its indifference to anti-Semitism, and its desire to appease terrorists instead of fighting them is now gaining control of the Democrat Party. It's time to ask yourself: Does the Democratic Party still represent you?'' Under Sarna's scenario, if a John McCain, for example, were to become the GOP nominee in 2008, running against a far-left-leaning Democrat, the kind supported by MoveOn.org, the national progressive coalition instrumental in helping Lamont win the primary, many moderate Jewish Democrats might well feel they're no longer wanted in the Democratic Party. ``If they do, the question is whether the Republican Party invites them in and tries to recapture that center in hopes of broadening a coalition that brought George Bush to power ... That's why this is such an important election,'' says Sarna. The political calculus gets even more interesting: Although the Jewish vote nationally is small -- about 4 percent of the electorate -- it remains significant in battleground states such as Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania, which could well determine the next president, Sarna says. Others say such an analysis is unlikely. It's true, says Maisel, director of Colby's Goldfarb Center, that nationally prominent Jewish leaders and donors have moved toward the Republican Party, but that's not the case as much among average Jewish voters. Indeed, the percentage of Jews who support Democratic candidates remains extremely high, says Maisel, who notes that John Kerry got 81 percent of the Jewish vote, ``and I think Jews will continue to support the Democratic candidate .'' Granted there could be a pairing of a liberal anti-Israel Democrat against a moderate pro-Israel Republican, in which the Jewish support for the Democratic candidate drops significantly. But Maisel says, ``I don't see that happening. The Republicans won't nominate a moderate and I don't think the Democrats will desert Israel.'' As evidence, Maisel notes that Republican Senate nominee, Alan Schlesinger, also a Jew, is struggling in the polls with virtually no support from the Jewish community or his party, which has all but endorsed Lieberman. So what can we learn about the upcoming election between Lieberman and Lamont? Until the results come in, it's only speculation. What's all but certain, strategists agree, is that Jewish voters from places like West Hartford's Chai Society are likely to strongly support their ``Joe.'' Unknown is how their baby-boom-generation sons and daughters and even their voting-age grandchildren, likely to be sipping chai, the tea, will vote. If Lieberman loses, says Maisel, ``it doesn't say anything about Israel or the Jewish vote (in part because Lamont too has come out in support of Israel). But it does say a great deal about the war in Iraq.'' The question remains to what degree.

© 2019 Leonard Felson / Designed by Sarah Belzer & Co.

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