There’s no one quite like Rabbi Hirshy Minkowicz.
Well, that’s not entirely accurate. There are thousands of other Chabad rabbis around the world offering outreach, services and classes, their warmth drawing in Jews of all backgrounds and affiliations.
But for the past 18 years Rabbi Hirshy has served as a beloved rabbi and friend to Jews of all backgrounds in Alpharetta, Johns Creek and beyond.
When I first came in contact with a Chabad rabbi, it was in Tampa, Fla., about a decade ago. I grew up Reform and sort of floated away from any Jewish affiliation.
But, looking for a place to take our young children for High Holiday services, we happened upon Chabad, which didn’t require tickets. “Come, it doesn’t matter what you wear or what you know,” I was told. Despite my initial trepidation about going, I immediately fell in love with the genuine and unwavering warmth, kindness and lack of judgment.
I experienced the same feeling with Rabbi Hirshy and his wife, Rashi, who died two years ago at the age of 37. Though I lived nearly 45 minutes away, Rashi shared her friendship and guidance with me. When my husband and I needed advice, Rabbi Hirshy drove to meet with us, graciously giving his time and inspiration, as he does for countless others in his community and beyond.
As Chabad of North Fulton prepares to celebrate 18 years at a dinner event Sunday, Nov. 13, hundreds will gather to, as the event’s motto says, “toast to the past, present and future of our community.”
They also plan to move forward with Rashi’s Campus, a facility that will include a larger synagogue, classrooms, Hebrew school and facility for the summer camp.
“I met Hirshy a long time ago, shortly after they arrived,” said Mike Leven, the chairman and chief executive officer of the Georgia Aquarium. “I’ve been a friend of his for many years. I’ve admired his tenacity and his capability and what he’s accomplished.”
Leven was an early supporter of Camp Gan Israel, which was the only Jewish summer camp in the North Metro area; purchased part of the land for Rashi’s Campus; and is a major donor for the new synagogue and educational building. “I also admire that he’s very good and intelligent with the way he handles his funding. There’s no waste when you donate to Hirshy.”
In light of the anniversary celebration, he added, “I think the rabbi and his family have done an extraordinary job, and an inclusive one, including families that would not be involved Jewishly without his efforts and those of his family.”
Rabbi Hirshy and Rashi moved to Alpharetta 18 years ago, before Johns Creek officially existed, as a newly married couple, like the thousands of other emissaries sent to outposts around the world by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson.
The couple had eight children, and as a family, they served and continue to serve as a beacon of light to all types of Jews, growing a fledgling, home-based synagogue into a thriving community. After Rashi died, women in the area and around the world began doing mitzvot and holding events in her honor.
“Somehow over the past two years we have been able to hold our heads high,” Rabbi Hirshy said. “It could have turned out to be detrimental, but the community really rallied around us.
“After the first year there was a renewed energy and strength, and we’ve been able to keep the mood positive and move forward. … I’m very grateful to Hashem.”
The community has grown bigger than ever, he added, as Jews of all backgrounds have come together. “There’s a certain connection that people felt comfortable making because of what we went through.”
Even so, the challenge remains to get over that initial hump for people who have never experienced Chabad. But there’s something about the place that allows people to feel comfortable until they realize, “Wow, my family gets spiritual nourishment here.”
Of the anniversary celebration, Rabbi Hirshy said: “The number 18 signifies life. The experience we had makes us appreciate life much more. Now we have this moment to celebrate the life of our community. To feel and experience a Jewish community that thrives.”
The event is about celebrating and having fun, he added.
Most of the site work has been done for Rashi’s Campus, including underground utilities and a pad ready to build on. Chabad of North Fulton has raised about 75 percent of the money needed for the facility.
Chabad meets people at their own comfort level, not expecting anyone to do more or less than those around them. Many who attend are members of other shuls. There are no membership fees, and people often come to supplement what they already do, whether it’s an extra class or a holiday event.
“I think the world of Rabbi Hirshy,” said Johns Creek Mayor Mike Bodker, who attends Chabad of North Fulton. “I was fortunate enough to meet him when I moved to our area not long after they started. I have seen Chabad grow from an idea to the wonderful community that it is today.”
Organizers expect 250 to 300 people at the gala but would love to be surprised by more at the Alpharetta Marriott.
Melissa Miller, an event planner who belongs to another congregation, met the Minkowiczes when they moved to the area, and they’ve been friends since. “I support Chabad and Hirshy because they’re the center of the Jewish community there.”
Her children — she has two in college and one in high school — attended the Chabad of North Fulton’s camp and preschool, and the family has gone to Chabad holiday programs.
Miller said there’s no Jewish Community Center campus in Alpharetta, so “Chabad fills that void.”
Rabbi Hirshy has counseled her and her family, she said. “He’s always there, and he’s always welcoming to anyone. He’s the pulse of the community. People of all different denominations” go to Chabad.
“He’s such an awesome personality” that people from other areas want to help, Miller said. “Which is pretty amazing.”
“I’m excited to help organize our 18th anniversary gala,” Jeannette Sinasohn said. “I’m proud to be part of a community that is warm and welcoming to Jews from all backgrounds.”
Her family moved to Alpharetta nine years ago, and “the shul has been our second home since Day 1.”
“I love that everyone can be involved as much or as little as they want,” Sinasohn said. “As our lives change, our needs change. There is something for everyone, and everyone is important.”
What: L’Chaim to Life, Chabad of North Fulton’s 18th anniversary
Where: Marriott, 5750 Windward Parkway, Alpharetta
When: 6 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 13
Tickets: $90; www.lchaimtolife.net or 770-410-9000