Wyoming Rabbi Reaches Out, One Challah At A Time Rabbi Zalman Mendelsohn is in Jackson, Wyo., with a mission: to find Jews and help revive their faith. He's part of a movement that sends young Orthodox Jews to remote areas — a sort of Jewish Peace Corps. But his brand of Judaism is ruffling some feathers.
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Wyoming Rabbi Reaches Out, One Challah At A Time

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Wyoming Rabbi Reaches Out, One Challah At A Time

Wyoming Rabbi Reaches Out, One Challah At A Time

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Wyoming, think mountain peeks, rodeos, cowboy boots, maybe not so much synagogues and rabbis. Fact is there just aren't that many Jews in Wyoming and not many resources to serve them, which makes the state an untapped market for Zalman Mendelsohn. In the latest part of our series on young religious leaders, NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty spent time with one of Wyoming's few rabbis.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: When Zalman Mendelsohn arrived in Jackson in May, the first thing he did was open up the phone book in search of Jewish names.

Rabbi ZALMAN MENDELSOHN (Emissary, Chabad-Lubavitch Movement): I was finding a lot of wonderful German people living over here in Jackson.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: But no Jews. And finding Jews in Wyoming is a young rabbi's mission, that and bringing them the traditions of their faith. So undeterred, Mendelsohn put up a web site, advertised events in the Jackson newspaper, and leveraged his most dramatic asset: his appearance.

Rabbi MENDELSOHN: I'm a walking advertisement for Judaism.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Mendelsohn wears a black suit, a black skullcap, and a full black beard. He's straight out of central casting: Warsaw rabbi, circa 1935. But Mendelsohn is only 26. He and his 21-year-old wife, Raizy, are emissaries in the Chabad movement in which young Orthodox Jews move to remote areas armed with their faith and rituals. What they found in this resort town, he says, is material wealth and spiritual hunger.

Rabbi MENDELSOHN: The soul wants godliness. The soul wants holiness. The soul wants Shabbos. The soul wants Torah. The soul wants doing kindness and goodness and mitzvahs.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: And Mendelsohn's passion is to fulfill those spiritual needs. He provided Friday night services and Sabbath dinners. He brought in skullcaps and scrolls for doors called mezuzahs.

Rabbi MENDELSOHN: These are all things that became available, all of a sudden, that weren't here before.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Mendelsohn knows its fine to offer these things, but unless people want to embrace their Jewish faith, all his efforts are meaningless. So he's trying to revive a yearning for Jewish spirituality and community. And he and Raizy are doing it one challah at a time.

Ms. RAIZY MENDELSOHN: So this is just the way I package them since I don't have a professional machine or any of that stuff.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Raizy Mendelsohn slips five braided loaves of bread into Ziploc bags.

Ms. MENDELSOHN: And then I'm going to put a label on the front. Zalman and Raizy Mendelsohn wish you a tasty and peaceful Shabbos.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: They call it 21st century rabbinic marketing. Every Friday morning, Zalman drops by the house of an unsuspecting Jew, fresh challah in hand.


Rabbi MENDELSOHN: Hello there. How are you, Reuben?

Mr. TAMBOR: Come on in.

Mr. MENDELSOHN: Thank you.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Reuben Tambor is one of the 500 or so Jews who live in Jackson year-round. Mendelsohn has come before. Tambor has always been cordial, nothing more - until today.

Mr. TAMBOR: Somebody asked me if I knew a rabbi. And I wrote down the name.

Rabbi MENDELSOHN: Wow, I appreciate that Reuben.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Tambor writes down the name and number and happily takes the challah. The two men chat. And before he wears out his welcome, the rabbi leaves for his next delivery.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: In the car, he breaks out in a grin.

Rabbi MENDELSOHN: This is the way it works. This is how we network. And I've been doing this for so many years, and it works.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: And he's in it for the long haul.

Rabbi MENDELSOHN: This is a lifelong campaign. It doesn't stop after I've found 50 Jews. It doesn't stop after I've found 100 Jews. It doesn't stop. It doesn't end. The campaign continues. Hello.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: The rabbi's BlackBerry buzzes. It's a man who's vacationing with his family in the Tetons and read about Shabbat services on the Web site.

Rabbi MENDELSOHN: You can join us for Shabbos lunch. You're welcome to join us for that. And we'll be starting at around 12:30 lunch.

Unidentified Man: That's wonderful, thank you.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Mendelsohn gives directions to his home, then turns to me.

Rabbi MENDELSOHN: Barb, I'm not kidding at all. Every half-hour, we get a phone call, an email. Nonstop.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: All this in just three months since settling in Jackson.

Rabbi MENDELSOHN: We're going to get started. Shalom, one and all.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: About 30 people are milling around a hotel conference room in Jackson. It's the first "meet the rabbi" open house. After Mendelsohn introduces himself and explains his mission, he opens the floor.

(Soundbite of Rabbi Mendelsohn's open house meeting)

Rabbi MENDELSOHN: Cath's(ph) question was, what is Chabad? It's a fantastic question.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: More questions keep coming. What are your plans for Jackson? What kinds of classes do you teach? Do I have to be Orthodox to attend? Afterwards, over cookies and cake, several people say they appreciate the Mendelsohns reviving Jewish traditions in Jackson. Karen McQuillen(ph) is one of them.

Ms. KAREN MCQUILLEN: It's very hard to live an observant life. There are a lot of sacrifices involved. Without people like Zalman and Raizy, Judaism would disappear.

Ms. LISA FINKELSTEIN (Board Member, Jackson Hole Jewish Community): The Chabad rabbi is not the rabbi of Jackson Hole.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Lisa Finkelstein did not attend the open house. She serves on the board of Jackson Hole Jewish Community, a group of mainly Reform Jews that's been around for 30 years. She doesn't like Mendelsohn's style.

Ms. FINKELSTEIN: He contacts people on the phone, by their email, in parking lots. And we don't necessarily do that.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Nor are most Jews in the area as conservative as the Mendelsohns. Zalman always wears a yarmulke and declines to shake hands with women. Raizy wears long skirts and spends much of her time cooking. The rabbi says they aren't out to convert people to Orthodox Judaism. But Jewish community board member Rachel Ravitz worries that the Mendelsohns may give people the wrong impression.

Ms. RACHEL RAVITZ (Board Member, Jackson Hole Jewish Community): People in Wyoming might not necessarily know what a Jew is in the first place, and if they meet a Chabad rabbi, may not realize that he represents a certain sect of Judaism.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: But the big problem, several people say privately, is competition. The new rabbi's outreach programs cost 11 to 12 thousand dollars a month. And if people start attending his congregation, their money will follow. But Raizy Mendelsohn says having competition is a healthy thing.

Ms. MENDELSOHN: It's kind of like, you know, when you have one store and then another store opens up. The first store is all mad, but the people are all very happy because they get better bargains and better deals, and they get more variety.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: She's echoing the findings of sociologists who say that religions thrive in the United States precisely because they compete in the marketplace of ideas. And the Mendelsohns are grabbing market share, judging from the growing numbers coming to Shabbat dinner.

Ms. MENDELSOHN: I've made two different types of gefilte fish. So that's for my first course. My second course is always chicken soup.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Raizy is putting the finishing touches on tonight's meal. She laughs as she remembers their early days.

Ms. MENDELSOHN: On our first week, we had one woman come. And she sat there through the whole service. And I said to Zalman, you know, in a couple years, she'll be telling people, when the rabbi started, I was the only one that came to services. And now look at how many people there are.

Rabbi MENDELSOHN: We'll start off with a short prayer. May he who blessed our fathers...

BRADLEY HAGERTY: A few minutes later, 11 people gather around the formal table laden with food and wine.

(Soundbite of song "Oseh Shalom")

Rabbi MENDELSOHN: Ya'aseh shalom, ya'aseh shalom. Shalom aleinu v'al kol Yisrael.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: And it is this moment, this is the reason for all the planning and marketing and technology, bringing Jews back to Shabbat, to their community, and to the traditions that many of them have forgotten. Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.

(Soundbite of song "Oseh Shalom")

Rabbi MENDELSOHN: Oseh shalom bimromav Hu ya'aseh shalom aleinu. V'al kol Yisrael...

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