The state of Idaho is not a place where one would expect to find many Jews, but that hasn’t stopped Chabad Rabbi Mendel Lifshitz and his wife Esther. They moved to Boise, Idaho five and a half years ago with the goal of building up the local Jewish community. When they arrived, they were greeted by fields upon fields of potatoes, but little else. The state had only a single synagogue, a Reform congregation, but virtually no other organized Jewish community resources. However that’s exactly the environment that the Lifshitzes were looking for.
“I was working as a rabbi in Bal Harbor, Florida when we got married. Esther and I decided we wanted to do something special for other Yidden and help them,” Rabbi Lifshitz said. “I was doing kiruv work out there and helping them, I was very involved, but I realized as much as we were doing, we wanted to be in a place where we were really needed.
“In Florida or New York, rabbis are a dime a dozen. There are plenty of Jews that need to be reached out to, but we wanted to be in place where there’s not much going on and our presence would be crucial. We started looking into different options through Chabad. The name Idaho came up. The first time it came up, we didn’t know what to make of it. People hear Idaho and think of potatoes, not Jews.”
The Lifshitzes took an exploratory trip to Idaho to gauge whether they could make it work. They traveled the state, met with the few Jews they could find, and scoped out the Jewish resources. The low cost of living has attracted newcomers and even major corporations to the state over the last several years, and handfuls of Jews have been moving in. The Lifshitzes decided that Idaho was exactly what they were looking for. So immediately after Pesach, they packed up their bags and moved out west.
As soon as the Lifshitzes arrived, they began looking to meet local Jews. One day, Rabbi Lifshitz walked into a local office to meet a Jewish man whom he had heard worked there. Suddenly the man burst out of his office with a look of horror on his face. When he was told by the receptionist that a Rabbi had come to see him, he immediately assumed that there had been a death in his family, because he didn’t know any other reason why a rabbi would be visiting him!
Another time, Rabbi Lifshitz was shopping in a supermarket in Boise with his son. The two were speaking to each other in Yiddish when a man approached them. He introduced himself and said he was also Jewish. He had read an article about Rabbi Lifshitz in the local paper. The man said he grew up in a Jewish neighborhood in California and had moved from there to Idaho three years earlier. Having not heard Yiddish in years, his ears perked up when he heard it. Rabbi Lifshitz schmoozed with him and invited him for Shabbat dinner. The man took him up on his offer several weeks later.
“You never know what type of yid a person is and what will inspire him,” Rabbi Lifshitz said. “He’s looking for chicken soup and kneidilach, but his neshama is looking for a connection to Yiddishkeit.”
The Lifshitzes had several such experiences of Jews coming out of the woodwork to introduce themselves, but it was difficult when they first arrived. The challenge was compounded by the fact that Esther gave birth to a baby boy soon after they moved in and they were making a bris. They needed to invite ten Jews to the bris to make a minyan, but how could they go about finding them?
Their challenge was solved just in time, literally by a knock on the door. Rabbi Lifshitz opened the door, to find the local mailman hand-delivering his mail. The Lifshitz’s house had a mailbox by the street, but the mailman decided to bring the mail to the door to welcome the new family to Idaho.
The mailman stuck out his hand and introduced himself.
“I’m Hershel the mailman.”
Rabbi Lifshitz was too shocked to answer.
“Your name is really Hershel?” Rabbi Lifshitz finally stammered. “I’m Mendel. I wasn’t expecting to find a Hershel in Idaho.”
The mailman explained that he was originally from Long Island, New York. Other than knowing that his first name was Jewish, he had little other connection to Judaism. He had grown up in a mixed-marriage home, and when he was 11 and his parents got divorced, he moved with his non-Jewish father to Idaho. After that he had no other Jewish connections until Rabbi Lifshitz arrived.
Rabbi Lifshitz points out the clear Hand of G-d present in the story. This wasn’t Hershel’s normal route as he was just filling in for another mail carrier who was on vacation that week. However he knew of other Jews in the area, which helped the Lifshitzes to gather a minyan together for the bris.
The morning of the bris arrived, and the Lifshitzes were surrounded by an unexpected group of new Jewish friends. That group has grown significantly in the few years since then, and many people have taken on new mitzvot and other observances. The Lifshitzes have also brought many new Jewish resources to the state, from kosher food to Jewish education. Now when people think of Idaho, they don’t just think of potatoes, but they think of Jews too!
Michael Gros is the former Chief Operating Officer of the outreach organization The Atlanta Scholars Kollel. He writes from Israel. The Teshuva Journey column chronicles uplifting teshuva journeys and inspiring kiruv tales. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org To receive the column via email or see Michael’s articles published in other publications, visit http://www.michaelgros.com
Published in The Jewish Press January 2010