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High Desert Diaspora

New Kiddush on the block

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In Judaism, as in so much of post modern culture, what's ancient is new again and decidedly hip. While pop stars like Madonna, Britney Spears, Demi Moore and Mick Jagger take lessons in the Hebrew mystical teachings known as Kaballah, Christian fundamentalists express strident pro-Israel sympathies and evangelical pastors in Nampa and Middleton don tallit and teffilin in acknowledgement of Jesus' Jewish roots. Shoppers of all denominations now sport hot gear such as Hebrew and Yiddish-emblazoned T-shirts and jewelry from Web sites like Yidworld.com, Jewschool.com, ChosenCouture.com and Jewish-Shopping.com.

But as unlikely as it sounds, the Treasure Valley is now home to its own ultra-Orthodox Jewish denomination, one by the name of Lubavitcher Hasidim. Long associated with the traditional piety, learning, ritualism and arcane clothing and long beards of medieval, Eastern European Jewish settlements known as shetels, the Lubavitcher have emerged as a worldwide and well-financed movement called Chabad. Beginning in Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, NY in the 1960s, Chabad currently claims a membership of approximately 300,000 and outposts in over 60 countries, all staffed by emissaries known as schlichim. Boise's pioneering schlichim family consists only of Rabbi Mendel Lifschitz, 28, his wife Esther, 24, and their two infant children.

The great German sociologist Max Weber argued that religions, as social institutions, can only legitimate themselves on the basis of three elements of appeal: The personal magnetism of their founders and leaders, the establishment of meaningful traditions, or the creation of highly organized bureaucracies. In the case of Chabad, schlichim such as Mendel Lifschitz speak in glowing terms of the Rebbe, the late Menachem Schneerson, whose gravesite Lifschitz and other Lubavitcher regard with the sanctity and intercessory powers of a shrine.

Portraits of Schneerson, as well as sumptuously bound books of scripture and commentary, grace the Lifschitz's home in a subdivision off State St. Lipschitz uses the upstairs to conduct Shabbos services on Friday nights and Saturday mornings. True to Orthodox practice, men and women remain separated by a wooden partition, but this windowless room contains as many children's toys as prayer books. And true to Hasidic practice, Lifschitz does not pray; he davens, engaging his entire body-extremities and torso-as he paces, chants, rocks up from his heels and down from the waist, and slaps the podium for percussive emphasis.

Those who attend Friday evening services are not treated as congregants, but rather as visitors and guests, and invited to remain for the kind of dinner one would expect from the restaurant of a first-class hotel. Esther Lifschitz acts as an attentive hostess, even accommodating two German vegetarians who happened to show up one night. Food and song have often served as religion's best enticements, and the group singing is enthusiastic if a bit flat, with tunes ranging from the stirring to the silly.

Speaking in a more private setting, Rabbi Lifschitz describes the couple's decision to move to Boise from the cosmopolitan East. "Jews are all over the world and the world of Chabbat is expanding," he says. "Chabbat has sent representatives here for over 40 years in the summer, holidays, different programs. I don't know if you've ever met the traveling Rabbis here over the years. They've come here every summer for over forty years. Chabbat has always been active here, but never had a permanent presence. They decided it was time. We were given the option. They asked if we would like to go to Idaho, we checked it out, we loved it and said we were in. We'd take the assignment."

Lifschitz says that his reception so far has been positive and events such as Sabbath services including a Shabbaton, and holiday celebrations for Hanukkah have been well-attended even by people who remain unaffiliated with Boise's established synagogue, Ahavath Beth-Israel. He believes that Chabad's "Everybody's welcome" approach helps draw in some of the 80 percent of Idaho Jews who normally avoid synagogue membership.

But not all Idaho Jews welcome Chabad's presence or the increased visibility it lends to Judaism in Idaho. For several, matters of Jewish identity in the Treasure Valley are constantly overshadowed by the overtly Christian presence which becomes anxious or resentful in the face of films such as The Passion of the Christ, Mormon insistence on the practice of posthumously baptizing Holocaust victims, Baptist militancy in attempting to convert Jews, pro-Palestinian positions taken by many liberals and a pervasive suspicion that Christians still believe, in their heart of hearts, that all Jews are still bound for hell.

Harriet Berenter's family has deep roots in Judaism and Idaho. Originally from the same Brooklyn neighborhood as Chabad, she has taken an active part in the Treasure Valley Jewish community since 1954. Her Russian refugee parents laid great emphasis "on a Jewish person behaving with dignity, doing everything right, so that you didn't invoke criticism from non-Jews, so that people would know us and respect us. And I feel strongly about retaining that."

Sensitive to the situation of a minuscule congregation living amidst an overwhelming Christian state, Berenter believes that "It's only in the latest 15 years that the Jewish community has achieved a higher position" in the Boise area, the result of "teaching non-Jews about where we come from, and who we are." A retired business teacher in Caldwell, she has done much of the explanatory spadework with colleagues, students and the general public herself.

But she explains, "Now along comes Chabad, with their far-out ideas, and they do not add to all that we have earned. They really alienate the outside community because their whole interest is based on the Jew and Jewish practices, and I object to that because we live in a community and we have to be part of that community."

Berenter adds that she "can't stand" the obvious wealth of Chabad, the near-worship of the Rebbe, their association with conservative politics and even "the whole idea of what they want to do here. I find it very difficult to tolerate their ghetto philosophy." A major irritant for Berenter is the fact that Lubavitcher men refuse all physical contact with women other than their own family members. "I'm insulted by that," she says. "Who do they think they are, that they're so holy they can't shake a woman's hands in camaraderie? I object strenuously to the inequality between men and women that they portray."

Berenter also resents members of Chabad coming to her door and questioning the correctness of her own Jewish practices, and what she sees as the ostentation of their publicity. "Do we need them driving down the street carrying a menorah all over town?" she asks. "Is that the picture we really want to portray? If you really believe that religion belongs in the home and the house of worship, why are you bringing it to the streets? If the Moslems did it, we'd all be aghast." And given the difficulties of reconciling the previous "animosity" between reform and conservative elements in Idaho, "we don't need another competing congregation" that might upset that balance and take members away. "Mostly I'm concerned with how they impress non-Jews in relation to who we are," she says. "I think they spoil our image. I want them to go away. I am totally intolerant of their fundamentalism."

Howard Berger, Ph.D., teaches courses in philosophy and religion at Albertson College, and identifies himself as an openly practicing Jew. "My day-to-day practice is closer to reform, but my heart and soul are closer to conservative," he says. Speaking of Rabbi Mendel, Berger says approvingly, "I like him a lot. They demonstrate how Chabad has changed, and matured. They reach out to their neighbors, they invite them over for Shabbat and for the bris (circumcision) of their sons."

As to Chabad's arrival, Berger first clarifies that "I like them, but I'm never going to be one of them." He then observes that, "I don't think they're thinking, in any way, about making people into Chabad. But I think they want you to become more Jewish, which is a good goal in this age, to be more confident about being Jewish. Jews who came west obviously didn't do it to watch their Judaism flourish, they did it running away from Judaism. These people reach out to you and say that there's something very comfortable about being Jewish. They reawaken the sense that it's fun to be Jewish, that it's cool. Even my students who are not Jewish are more smitten by it. 'I could do this, man,this is cool.'"

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