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Idaho Statesman Article - Chabad Jewish Center

Idaho Statesman Article - Chabad Jewish Center

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The following article appeared on the front page of the Idaho Statesman on Sunday, December 5, 2004

COUPLE BRINGS JEWISH CHABAD CENTER TO IDAHO
They hold social events, classes, services at home


Troy Maben / TheAssociated Press

By REBECCA BOONE
Associated Press Writer
   BOISE, Idaho (AP) -- Idaho may be one of the last frontiers for orthodox Jews.
   For all the state's livestock, it's nearly impossible to keep kosher without shipping food from out-of-state. Despite Boise's burgeoning diversity there's only one Jewish synagogue and no private grade school includes Hebrew and the Torah among its courses. And the nearest mikvah -- a ceremonial immersion pool central to traditional Jewish family life -- is hours away in Salt Lake City.
   But all that could change now that Chabad Lubavitch is in town.
   Rabbi Mendel Lifshitz, 28, his wife Esther, 23, and their two young sons are part of Chabad, one of the largest traditional Jewish organizations in the world. Their west Boise home doubles as Idaho's only Chabad center, and they hold classes, religious services and social gatherings there.
   The family's goal is to provide a way for local Jews to grow spiritually, socially and culturally, Mendel Lifshitz said.
   "We're here to service a Jewish community. If I help even one person grow, then that's enough," he said.
   In Idaho, where Mormons and Catholics are the most dominant faiths, the rabbi is easy to spot. Chabad is a Hasidic organization, and Lifshitz' long beard and perpetually worn yarmulke offer visual proof of his beliefs.
   "He's a walking advertisement for Judaism," Esther Lifshitz jokes.
   Being so easily recognizable is a benefit, Mendel Lifshitz said.
   "Being here gives me the opportunity to preach without even teaching, as a living example of tolerance and diversity," he said. "It's an incredible experience for us."
   Until just a few months ago, Idaho was one of only six states without a permanent Chabad center. The last one established in the United States was in Utah, another Mormon stronghold, nearly 12 years ago, Lifshitz said. The only states remaining without permanent Chabad centers are the Dakotas, Montana, Wyoming and Mississippi, he said.
   There's no easy way to estimate the number of Jews in Idaho. The U.S. Census does not poll residents about their religion. But Lifshitz estimates that there are a couple of thousand Jews in Idaho, with as many as 80 percent of them unaffiliated with any specific dogma. His group believes that's enough to justify opening the Chabad Lubavitch of Idaho center, Lifshitz said.
   Chabad dispatched Lifshitz and his family to Boise to start the center.
   "Jews looking for a very involved community would probably not have settled in Idaho," Lifshitz said. "But there are quite a few Jews in our community, and they feel accepted here. Part of fighting anti-Semitism is Jewish people feeling comfortable and seeing their own culture being represented. That's what we do."
   But there has long been a Jewish presence in Idaho. Boise boasts the oldest synagogue West of the Mississippi -- Ahavth Beth Israel, built in 1895. The congregation there, mostly made up of Reform and Conservative Jews, is very active. And the state was the first in the nation to elect a Jewish governor, when Moses Alexander won the popular vote in 1914.
   The Lifshitz are already trying to make their beliefs more easily carried out in daily life. Mendel Lifshitz recently met with Albertsons officials about making more kosher food available at local grocery stores. In the meantime, they've started a kosher co-op, allowing residents to buy the kosher meats they stock up on in the deep freezer in their garage. Esther Lifshitz leads a "Mommy and Me" program and a women's group in the home focusing on Jewish issues. They hope to eventually start a Jewish preschool.
   "Boise is probably making history in the Inland Northwest as a leader in diversity," Lifshitz said. "Idaho has the opportunity to create a role model, an opportunity for Idaho to portray itself as tolerant of diversity and mixed cultures."
   Despite its mostly homogenous population and past public image as a haven for racist groups, the Lifshitzes were not worried about coming to Idaho from New York.
   "It's an unfortunate stereotype that's out there. I have family in New York that said, 'How could you live in Idaho?' but the fact of the matter is there are larger anti-Semitic groups headquartered just four hours away from New York. Here they're basically gone, and even if a few linger in northern Idaho that's still an eight-hour drive," he said.
   He does encounter some ignorance. People often try to shake his hand -- which is fine, except that many Orthodox Jews do not touch members of the opposite sex unless they are family.
   "No offense, it's nothing personal," he says to those who try. "There's your first lesson in rabbinical etiquette."
   Neither is Lifshitz offended by questions about his appearance or religion.
   "Why is there very little knowledge of the Internet in Rwanda? Because there's very little Internet there. If people don't know much about Judaism, it's our own fault," he said. "What I would do is encourage them to get involved. Not become Jews -- we don't believe in proselytizing -- but to welcome them into the community."
   The upcoming Chanukah holiday best demonstrates why Chabad has come to Idaho, he said.
   A major part of the celebration involves lighting a menorah -- a candelabra holding eight candles plus one used for lighting the others. 
   "We light the menorah at night, not to run away from the darkness but to fight the darkness," Lifshitz said. "Think about it -- light one candle in the light of day and it doesn't do much. But go to the center of darkness and it lights up a lot. Even though it may just be one little flame, that flame will grow even in the dark."
   Idaho may be a late bloomer when it comes to Jewish culture, he said, but that's OK.
   "Sometimes the late bloomers are the best. Here we're able to build upon all the experiences of Jews in America," he said. "Every candle, every flame counts. Even those in Idaho."

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