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Chabad Center supplements Jewish life with gatherings

By Virginia De Leon

Angst and fear had taken over Armalona Hagel of Spokane as she sat in the hospital awaiting heart surgery.  At the request of a cousin in California, a man she had never met before visited her.

His gentle demeanor put her at ease. His smile and kind words gave her assurance.  Along with Armalona’s family, the bearded young man in the dark suit and yarmulke prayed at her bedside.

“When he prayed, he took my fear away,” said Armalona of the first time she met Rabbi Yisroel Hahn.

Chabad
Rabbi Yisroel Hahn extracts oil from olives

The rabbi comforted her not only during her hospital stay, she said, but also when she went home.  He and his wife, Sarah, brought food for her family.

Other Jews in the area whose lives have been touched by the rabbi share similar stories.

Since they first moved to Spokane earlier this year, the Hahns have made it their mission to reach out to as many Jews as they can find and to serve them “with an unconditional love.”

The Hahns’ South Hill home is the new Chabad Center of Spokane—a place that seeks to serve spiritual, emotional and physical needs of Jews in the region.

Spokane’s Chabad Center is the first of its kind in Eastern Washington. In addition to offering weekly Shabbat gatherings and classes on Torah, Judaism and Hebrew, the center is a kosher co-op and social service agency for Jews.

The Chabad Center of Spokane is a branch of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, one of the largest branches of Hasidic Judaism.  The movement was founded 250 years ago by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi and now has more than 3,300 institutions in more than 70 countries worldwide.

Chabad is known for its outreach among Jews.  Although organizers are Orthodox Jews like Yisroel, Chabad centers or houses are essentially places for Jews to gather, pray and deepen their understanding of their faith.

According to its mission statement, Chabad encourages “positive action” among Jews and facilitates the efforts of Jewish organizations, synagogues and groups to increase Jewish knowledge and observance.

Through Chabad headquarters in New York and Chabad centers around the world, Hahn and other Chabad rabbis are able to contact Jews in their regions through relatives and word of mouth.  They establish ties with existing Jewish synagogues and congregations to help invigorate Jewish traditions and faith, he said.

Rabbi Yisroel Hahn
Rabbi Yisroel Hahn

In December, about 65 Jews from Spokane and North Idaho gathered at the center for a children’s Hanukkah celebration. Many who came were affiliated with at least one of Spokane’s three Jewish congregations: Temple Beth Shalom, a Conservative congregation, and two smaller Reform groups, Ner Tamid and Beth Haverim.

During the celebration, children gathered as the rabbi used an olive press to extract oil from 10 pounds of olives. As he and other adults applied pressure on the press’ wooden blocks to squeeze out the oil, Rabbi Yisroel talked to the children about Hanukkah—the eight-day festival of light.

Later, the children decorated doughnuts, colored dreidls and joined their parents in a feast that included latkes—fried potato pancakes that are considered traditional Hanukkah food.

After the meal, the merriment in the large room paused as the rabbi lit two candles on the menorah. The group recited a prayer of praise and thanksgiving.

“When we light the Hanukkah candles, we should listen to what the candles tell us,” said Yisroel.  “We light the menorah only when it’s dark, and we do it at the window because our job is to illuminate—to light the world.”

Yisroel, 27, was born in Rehovot, Israel, just south of Tel Aviv.  He was six years old when his family moved to New York.  He grew up in a devout home.

Instead of becoming the rabbi of an established synagogue, Yisroel chose to go the Chabad route to be a spiritual leader willing to move far away to foster a Jewish community. 

His mission isn’t to find converts to Judaism, Yisroel stressed, nor is it to start a new congregation.  His goal is simply to help any Jew in need.

The couple, who have two young children, visited Spokane several times in the past year after receiving instructions from Chabad headquarters and Rabbi Sholom Ber Levitin, director of the Seattle-based Chabad-Lubavitch of the Pacific Northwest.

According to Rabbi Sholom, the Inland Northwest is home to a large number of Jews who are not affiliated with a congregation.

His hope is that Yisroel will “reignite” the spirituality of these Jews and to help others deepen their faith.

Since the opening of the Chabad Center, several dozen people have taken part in Yisroel’s classes and a regular group comes every week for Shabbat service.  Once a month, the rabbi also travels to the Pullman-Moscow area to give classes on Judaism.

Last month’s Hanukkah gathering, however, was the largest group the Hahns had seen at the center since summer, according to Sarah.

For information, call 443-0770 or visit www.jewishspokane.com.

 

Copyright The Fig Tree © January 2008