In The Rural West, 'Roving Rabbis' Reach Isolated Jews
Mountains and forests surround the little town of Show Low, Ariz. It's home to only 10,000 people, but the heavily Mormon community is still the biggest place for more than hour in every direction.
It's not the kind of setting that typically fosters a thriving Jewish community — which is exactly why Hasidic rabbinical students Zalman Refson and Yaakov Kaplan are here.
Hitting The Road To Reach Rural Jews
Residents of the rural West have historically relied on the talents of people passing through — traveling doctors, traveling circus performers and traveling preachers. So-called roving rabbis like Refson and Kaplan are carrying on that tradition, meeting rural Jews who otherwise might rarely interact with others of their faith.
They're two of the hundreds of rabbinical students who travel to rural places all across the globe each year. These roving rabbis make these journeys in the name of Chabad, a movement within Orthodox Judaism.
Young, bearded and dressed in black pants and long-sleeved white shirts, even in the Arizona heat, the two men stick out in Show Low. Kaplan says being a roving rabbi is all about helping Jews reconnect to their faith.
"By going out to other people and just trying to have a Jewish conversation, it makes my conviction stronger," Kaplan says.
This program has been around more than 70 years. Both Kaplan and Refson have done it more than once, but never in Arizona, in an area known for sending out its Mormon sons and daughters to proselytize.
The rabbis don't use that term to describe their own work. On one level, Refson sees what he's doing as practice for having his own congregation someday.
"Meeting people and interacting with them on a very simple level, regardless of Jewish topics, is a very positive thing," he says. "And it's a very positive experience for a person who's going to enter the people business."
'If You're Jewish, You're Jewish'
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 the rabbis meet are like Hilda Lochansky-Smith and have never been all that observant. As she invites the rabbis into her place and they get to chatting, Kaplan asks if she likes to cook Jewish food. Lochansky-Smith shakes her head. "I mean, I can make matzo ball soup and chicken soup, but I don't do it too much," she says.
Lochansky-Smith's favorite kosher dish was her grandmother's gefilte fish, but she also likes to joke about her late mother loving ham. She has hardly any Jewish friends and has even been attending a local Bible church in recent years. But in her heart, Lochansky-Smith says, she knows who she is.
"When push comes to shove, you're Jewish — and there's only one Jewish tribe," she says. "Am I right?"
Kaplan agrees: "If you're Jewish, you're Jewish," he says. "Hundred percent."
Many of the rabbis' interactions are like this: friendly, kind of light, more of a check-in than anything else. But it's not always this easygoing. Beth Hakenewerth, who lives in nearby Taylor, Ariz., cried on the phone with the rabbis the night before.
She's dealing with her father's death, and finding out her parents had never fully converted her to Judaism after she was adopted as a baby.
"I don't feel normal," she says. "I don't feel like myself anymore."
She says living far away from her family in California, and hundreds of miles from an established Jewish community, makes it harder. Hakenewerth has only ever met a handful of other Jews in this little town.
"But I just wish, I hope and pray that one of these days, that there'll be a shul up here, or Chabad learning center, or something like that," Hakenewerth says.
The roving rabbis are often seen as a threat to more liberal Jewish congregations for promoting a traditional version of the faith. But Kaplan says they're only trying to inspire Jews to be a little more observant.
His favorite part of this ground game, he says, "is when I see people which are happy that we came, and we were able to help them in any way, shape or form."
That feels the same, he says, regardless of which small town in Arizona he's visiting.
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