Since last July, my wife and I and our 7-year-old son Judah have been traveling around the United States and Canada by RV as part of a sabbatical I’ve been granted from my job teaching creative writing at the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga.
Over the past seven months we have visited, among other places, Mammoth Caves, Ky.; Indianapolis, Ind.; Detroit, Mich.; Niagara Falls, Ontario; Montreal, Quebec; Peggy’s Cove, Nova Scotia; Portland, Maine; Washington, D.C.; Williamsburg, Va.; and Cocoa Beach, Fla.
We spend anywhere from a few days to several weeks in each place. We are now in the Florida Keys, and are exactly halfway through our 13-month journey.
When we started this trip, one of my biggest concerns was what it would be like for Judah to be away from all his friends. I remember watching him play with his pals at our RV-warming/going-away party. I could see the pure joy in his face—and could feel the pure guilt at pulling him away from that for a year, which to a 7-year-old is like, well, a seventh of his life.
I know it’s sometimes hard for Judah as an only child. Though he is often shy, he is basically an extrovert in the true sense of the term, meaning not that he is outgoing per se, but that he is most energized when he is around other people.
I said to him the other day that sometimes grownups need alone time.
“Not kids,” he said. “I don’t ever need alone time. I always want company.”
Unfortunately, though, the only company he gets much of the time on this trip are the two middle-aged adults who both need their alone time, sometimes. We do our best to play with Judah, but we are parents, not peers, and I know he misses being around kids his own age.
Which is one of the many reasons we are grateful to Chabad.
For those of you who don’t know the term, Chabad—also known as Lubavitch—is a chassidic movement known for its extensive outreach to their fellow Jews. They emphasize and, for the most part, practice a nonjudgmental theology. Though they are stricter in some ways than what I might call “middle-of-the-road” Jews, they are more accepting of and welcoming than virtually any other group within Jewry. And, despite the fact that occasionally they may stop men on the street and ask, “Are you Jewish?” and, if they get a positive response, follow up with an offer to lay tefillin, their most effective forms of outreach are simply modeling an attractive brand of Judaism and maintaining an open-tent policy. Any Jew is welcome at a Chabad center at any time, regardless of one’s level of observance, and rather than try to convince other Jews to be Orthodox, they gain adherents and allies by showing how Judaism and all its practices can be a beautiful, meaningful alternative to secular life. And, if you’re not ready to rise to their level, that’s fine. They’ll accept you wherever you are, while at the same time maintaining their own high standards. We are, I suppose, “Chabadniks,” which means not that we are Orthodox, but that we feel more comfortable in a Chabad House than in any other place of worship. In general, I am more at ease in an Orthodox synagogue than a Reform or Conservative one because, among other reasons, “that’s how I was raised” when I began really exploring my Judaism 10 years ago. Since then I have become most comfortable with Chabad in particular because I don’t feel any need to pretend to be frummer (more religious) than I am around them. What does all this have to do with Judah?
There is an old joke. How do you know there are no Jews on Mars? Because there’s no Chabad there.
There are Chabad centers all over the country, all over the world, really. They are almost everywhere. So almost everywhere we go, we can count on there being a warm, welcoming Chabad center not too far away. And where there is Chabad, there are children. If the rabbi and his wife are under 40, they almost always have kids Judah’s age. If they are over 40, then they have grandchildren his age. Lubavitchers marry young, and they have lots of kids. So we know if we go to a Chabad service on Saturday, there’s a pretty strong chance that Judah will have who to play with, as they say. Is that a good reason to go to a place of worship? So that your boy can play with the rabbi’s kids?
There could be worse reasons. Some people go just for the cholent (a bean-and-barley stew traditionally served at the after-service reception). But even that’s not such a bad reason, really. Years ago, when I worked for the office of student affairs at a small liberal-arts college in Illinois, I used free pizza to tempt students to participate in my programs, and no one was the worse off for it. Chabad offers a lot of things. Traditional services, insights into the Torah, homemade challah. But the two things I’ve most valued about Chabad on this trip are continuity and community. We move around a lot. That’s the whole point of the trip. But it would be a little maddening if we didn’t have the touchstone that Chabad offers us. I know, pretty much, what to expect when I walk into a Chabad synagogue on a Saturday morning. I suppose, to use a vulgar comparison, it’s like a religious franchise, so that whether I’m in Kentucky or Nova Scotia or Central Florida, I get a spiritual boost that is as familiar and reliable as the Big Macs I craved as a kid but no longer eat because, you know, milk and meat. But it’s more than that. We get community. No matter the fact that we’ve never darkened their doors before, when we step foot into a Chabad center, we are treated as returning members of the tribe, as cousins in an extended family. For me, who had virtually no extended family growing up, that’s a blessing. And it’s a blessing for Judah, who is separated from friends and family by thousands of miles.
Sometimes we visit the local Chabad only once. Sometimes, as when we were staying outside Cocoa Beach on the Space Coast, we were there every week or more, depending on what sort of programs they have going. We joined the Chabad of Space & Treasure Coasts for two public menorah lightings and a 100-vehicle car-menorah parade. It’s still hard for Judah. In our first month or so out, he would spend the entire Saturday playing with a new friend, the local rabbi’s son or daughter, and then when Shabbat was over, he’d say, “Goodbye, I guess I’ll never see you again.” But this last time at the Space Coast Chabad, he got to develop some more ongoing friendships, and one of them is planning to meet us at Disney World in a couple of weeks. It’s still no substitute for his real friends at home, which by the way prominently include the children of our Chattanooga Chabad family, the Perlsteins, but I think this trip would be much more difficult for Judah without Chabad. Sure, sometimes he meets kids at the playground, but much of the time there aren’t kids at our campgrounds because we’re traveling off-season, and even when there are kids there, he doesn’t connect to them as quickly or as easily as he does to the kids at Chabad with whom he already shares so much. The trip would also be more difficult for Merav and me without Chabad.
We often struggle about our religious observance. We have an ongoing debate about whether we are confusing Judah with our inconsistencies. But if we’re confused, it’s refreshing to be among people who aren’t. If we were Lubavitchers ourselves, things would be a lot different. But we don’t have that kind of faith. We do what we can. We are Chabadniks, not Chabad. They seem okay with that, and Judah seems okay with that for now, at least. We have now been to more than half a dozen Chabad centers around the country, and expect to visit many more. We like to joke that we are going to start a website, “RateMyChabad.com.” You know, Chabad of —— gets four stars for its kiddush reception, but loses points for not having a playground. Chabad of —— gets a top rating for its catered buffet lunch, but is marked down for overt fundraising. This Chabad’s rabbi is charismatic, that one not so much . . . But Chabad doesn’t judge us, and we try not to judge them.
We’re just grateful that when we arrive at a new place—no matter how foreign it may seem—if there’s a Chabad there, it never feels like Mars.
When you think of Siberia, you may call to mind the bitterly cold, remote area where prisoners were sent into exile under the czars and the Communists. But you may not associate Siberia with a warm, thriving Jewish community. Now, thanks to Chabad emissaries such as Rabbi Aharon and Dorit Wagner, that image is a reality.
The Wagners are Israelis, but immediately after their wedding they settled in Donetsk, Ukraine, where Aharon had worked as a Chabad emissary. After six months, they knew they wanted to go somewhere without a Chabad House, someplace where no emissaries had gone before, to revive the sparks of Judaism. They contacted Rabbi Berel Lazar, chief rabbi of Russia, and he recommended the city of Irkutsk.
“Until that day, we’d never heard of the city,” Dorit says. “We did an Internet search and found that it was in Siberia. We’d never been to Siberia, but Aharon’s brother and sister-in-law are emissaries in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia, so at least we knew where Siberia is on the map.”
The young Wagners first arrived in Irkutsk the day after Rosh Hashanah in 2003. The moment they got off the airplane, a heavy snowfall began. At that time there were no buses to ferry passengers from the airplane to the terminal, so they had to walk across the small airfield in the freezing cold. They thought it was a blizzard, but it was just their first small taste of winter in Siberia.
“When we got there, Dorit was pregnant with our first child. We had no idea whether or not there were any reliable doctors there. We didn’t know anybody,” Aharon says. “The first few months were extremely educational. Everything was complicated and required a lot of effort. We saw people pumping water from wells, and we were sure that we’d traveled back in time. We decided that it would be best to give birth in Moscow. The day that Dorit flew there, it was 37° F. It was our first real winter. We had no idea how we’d manage, but in the end we got used to it.”
Two years ago, on the day of the circumcision of their youngest son, the temperature was 43° F. The Wagners said that they were so full of joy and gratitude to G d, they didn’t feel the cold at all.
Like all emissaries in far-off places, the Wagners face a lot of challenges: Jewish education for their four children, kosher food, fundraising, a lack of Jewish community and more. The children have private teachers, and they also use Chabad’s Online School for young emissaries. The Wagner children already know that they can’t just go to the store to buy a candy, bread or yogurt, and that they can’t eat at their friends’ houses. These limitations mean that they eat very healthfully. The only food they can buy is unprocessed: fruit, vegetables, fish, eggs and starches. Meat comes from Moscow. Dorit learned to prepare her own dairy products, like soft cheese and yogurt. She also makes sweets and baked goods.
“We’re working hard on many problems, and there’s not always a solution,” Dorit says. “The most important thing is to look at the bright side, to remember why we’re here and to be happy that we are the Rebbe’s emissaries.”