Jewish emissaries settle in Columbia
COLUMBIA — A young rabbi who moved with his family this month from Brooklyn, N.Y., to Columbia hopes not only to join the community here but also to create one.
Avremi Lapine and his wife are emissaries for their faith — an international sect of Orthodox Judaism known as Chabad-Lubavitch. Through active outreach to other Jews in Columbia, and especially to college students, they hope to encourage greater observance of the Torah and a closer connection to God.
The Lapines’ work will be based out of their home at 313 E. Brandon Road, near the southwest edge of MU.
That’s where they’ll open a Chabad house providing a center for fellowship, activities, learning and prayer, as well as a more traditional alternative to Columbia’s Reform synagogue, Congregation Beth Shalom.
The couple will neither compete nor work directly with Congregation Beth Shalom or Hillel, MU’s Jewish student center. Rather, Avremi Lapine said, “We’re going to complement what they already have.”
“We take a unique approach in Judaism,” he said. “We encourage a lot of happiness and serving God with joy.”
An outreach movement
Chabad-Lubavitch, founded in the late 18th century, combines the intellectualism of mainstream Orthodoxy with the joyful devotion of Hasidic Judaism, which emphasizes personal and mystical experiences with God over rote ritual.
Chabad is a Hebrew acronym for “wisdom, understanding and knowledge.” Lubavitch is the name of the Russian town that served as the movement’s hub for more than a century. The movement’s followers are often identified by their strict adherence to Jewish law and modest clothing.
Today, Chabad-Lubavitch is headquartered in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y. Several decades there were marked by racial tension with the primarily African-American community — tensions that ultimately led Jews and blacks to work together to improve race relations in New York.
The sect has been the subject of some controversy within Judaism because of its emphasis on overt outreach, an approach that was promoted by Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the sect’s last formal spiritual leader or “rebbe.”
Although Schneerson died in 1994, his followers have continued to carry his message to communities and colleges around the world. That sets it apart from other Jewish sects, which don’t typically try to recruit others to their views or practices.
But unlike some Christian sects that seek to convert nonbelievers to their faith, Chabad-Lubavitch practitioners say their focus is not on the conversion of outsiders but on urging fellow Jews to become more observant.
“It’s a worldwide network that has institutions all around the world reaching out to Jewish people to basically help them out with their spiritual needs and also their physical needs,” Avremi Lapine said.
For example, some Chabad houses run kosher food pantries to feed Jews in need. In bigger cities, Lubavitchers travel through Jewish neighborhoods in vans, called mitzvah tanks, to encourage devotion.
As part of that, they might urge men to wear the tallit, or prayer shawl, and teach them the accompanying prayer; they also might give Jewish women a pair of candles to light on the Sabbath.
Those efforts haven’t always been welcomed within the broader world of Judaism. In “The Rebbe’s Army: Inside the World of Chabad-Lubavitch,” author Sue Fishkoff wrote: “The movement’s highly public, in-your-face brand of Judaism makes it off-putting to some American Jews.”
But Avremi Lapine says Lubavitchers don’t expect everyone to worship as they do.
“We have our personal standards, but we accept everyone,” he said. “We don’t impose our standards on anyone.”
The Lapine family
Both the Lapines spent most of their lives in the heart of Chabad-Lubavitch life in Crown Heights. It is where they met, married and had their son, Mendel, now 9 months old. But they say they were thrilled when they were asked to leave their families and friends behind indefinitely to start a Chabad house in Columbia.
“It’s what we always wanted to do,” Avremi Lapine said. “We really wanted to be a part of the rebbe’s army.”
They and some of their friends are joining the growing ranks of Lubavitcher Jews dispatched to establish Chabad houses in college towns around the country, an outreach method that started in the 1960s.
“A prime time when people are searching is when they’re students,” Avremi Lapine said. “The opportunities are endless.”
Avremi Lapine, 25, recently graduated from rabbinical school. His wife, Channy, 24, taught preschool. Their upbringing and training emphasized gentleness and respect for others.
The Lapines will be distinct from members of Columbia’s Jewish community, which is largely Reform. Of the three main branches of Judaism — Reform, Conservative and Orthodox — Reform is the most relaxed and open to the modernization of Jewish practices.
By contrast, the Lapines adhere strictly to conservative Jewish customs. They don’t shake hands with the opposite sex. They eat only kosher food. When greeted with a casual “How are you?” their response includes a prayer: “Thank God, good.”
Avremi Lapine wears a yarmulke and a symbolic piece of cloth called a tzitzit around his torso; the fringes dangle from beneath his shirt.
Channy Lapine dresses in modest blouses that cover her collar bone and arms and, as a married woman, wears a wig in public to cover her hair.
The demands of their faith will face challenges in Columbia, especially when it comes to keeping kosher. “That’s the million-dollar question,” Avremi Lapine said with a laugh.
There are no kosher restaurants in Columbia, and even grocery options are limited. Kosher dietary laws indicate that only certain animals are fit to eat and only when ritually slaughtered so as to minimize suffering.
Meat and dairy, which can’t be combined, require separate cookware and specially arranged kitchens. Packaged food products must carry hechshers, tiny symbols indicating they were prepared under rabbinical supervision.
The Lapines are making plans to have kosher meat, cheese and milk shipped from providers in St. Louis and Kansas City and are checking into bulk kosher co-ops in those cities, too. They know which supermarket standards are OK, including certain Lay’s potato chips and some canned vegetables.
But the young couple is eager to embrace this adventure.
“We’re going to be missing a lot of what we have here: family, friends, convenient kosher food and everything we’re used to,” Avremi Lapine said in an interview shortly before the couple left Brooklyn.
“It’s going to be a new environment completely. But we’re excited that we’re going to be going out and helping Jewish students.”
Chabad-Lubavitch provided some start-up money for the emissaries, but they’ll have to secure the majority of their own funds. They began fundraising back in Brooklyn and will continue to do so in Columbia. Typically, much of the money donated to Chabad is given by non-Lubavitchers — sometimes even non-Jews — who support their efforts.
For now, the Lapines’ house will do double-duty as their home and the Chabad house. They hope to eventually grow their programming enough to afford a Chabad center separate from their residence.
Channy Lapine says she looks forward to catering to the needs of the Jewish families and students she’ll meet here.
“And it’s also going to be nice to have a big house and some grass,” she said.
The family’s home is an old, stone-faced structure with cornflower-blue shutters, white trim and an expansive front yard.
Starting this winter, programs at the house will be designed with Jewish students in mind. The Lapines plan to host regular Sabbath dinners on Fridays and hope to organize religious study sessions, activities for women, holiday celebrations and Jewish lectures. Channy Lapine wants to continue a form of her teaching work through children’s programs and activities.
“The most important thing is that it’s a happy home that’s open to all types of Jews,” Channy Lapine said.
Columbia’s Jewish community
Chabad-Lubavitch has sent representatives on scouting visits to Columbia for several years, Rabbi Yossi Feintuch said. For the past 14 years, Feintuch has been the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Shalom. He says he has long wondered if Chabad would establish a center here.
Feintuch’s first meeting with the Lapines was cordial, if a bit awkward. The couple had called on Feintuch to let him know about plans for the Chabad house, but when they arrived, they declined to enter the Reform synagogue.
Lubavitchers are not allowed in sanctuaries that lack a divider to separate men and women. Congregation Beth Shalom allows men and women to sit together at services, so it has no divider.
“They are coming into a bastion of liberalism as Jews,” Feintuch said. “By and large, the community here is comprised of quite religiously liberal Jews.”
Lubavitchers must also follow the directives of their religious leaders, including the teachings of the late rebbe and instructions from the organization’s current directors.
“You don’t find that in other branches of Judaism, even among other Orthodox streams,” Feintuch said.
For all those differences, Chabad will give Columbia’s Jews additional options to explore their faith.
“If someone would choose (Chabad) based on the teaching of the Torah or the spirituality of the services, then that would be good enough reason,” Feintuch said. “I’m not worried at all about Jewish competition. I think we already have enough competition in attrition and assimilation.”
Besides, he said, “competition for heaven is good.”
Brian Mitchell, director of Hillel at MU, says the Lapines will be a welcome addition to Columbia’s Jewish community.
“The point is to engage as many Jewish people as possible,” Mitchell said. “If (their) coming in is going to bring in more people to be actively involved in the community, I’m all for it.”
Mitchell estimates there are about 700 Jewish students at MU. Between 100 and 200 participate in programming at Hillel, which also serves students from nearby campuses. The organization, which supports student centers around the country, is not affiliated with any one branch of Judaism.
Although Mitchell says Jewish students here are mostly Reform or Conservative, some still might find a good spiritual home in Chabad:
“There might be some students or community members who feel more comfortable with the Chabad level of observance as opposed to how we observe here at Hillel.”
Dan Osburn is studying political science at MU and works at the front desk at Hillel. He identifies himself as a Reform Jew. But he, too, welcomes Chabad to Columbia.
“Anything that helps the Jewish population to have an identity on campus and any organization that meets people’s interests is a good thing,” he said.
An expression of faith
Brad Jacobson, an English teacher at MU’s Asian Affairs Center, was raised in a Reform household but seldom attended synagogue as a child. He is now involved with Congregation Beth Shalom.
A lot of people in America associated religion with boredom, Jacobson said. “Who wants to go to services when you can go to a cool movie or a baseball game?”
But when he traveled to Israel, where he now spends every summer as a volunteer, Jacobson found a type of Judaism that speaks to him. Although Orthodox rules might seem restrictive — one should not drive a car, write or take photographs on the Sabbath, for example — Jacobson found them freeing.
“It’s like hiking in the desert with no wristwatch,” he said. “It releases you from everyday mundane stuff.”
Jacobson says the Sabbath in Israel feels like a true celebration. He and his friends sit elbow-to-elbow to share a meal. Their voices fill the air with wordless melodies called nigguns.
“Everybody hums together, and it gets spontaneous and contagious,” he said. “When you do these nigguns with the people and they’re beating on the table, that’s the closest I’ve ever gotten to the feeling of climbing Mount Sinai.”
He hopes Chabad can bring a little of that magic to Columbia. Although he will continue to attend services at Congregation Beth Shalom, he is eager to see what the Chabad house offers.
“Usually Chabad has a lot of community and a lot of spirit,” he said. “It can make things fun, and I hope this rabbi can motivate people to enjoy it.”
The Lapines say they hope to do just that.
“Happy and warm,” said Channy Lapine. “That’s what Judaism is about, and that’s what we want to share with everybody.”