By Mindy Rubenstein / mrubenstein@atljewishtimes.com (Photo by Michael Jacobs)
Rabbi Leima Minkowicz (left) helps the scribe roll the new Torah while his son, Rabbi Hirshy Minkowicz, watches.

A young girl sat atop her father’s shoulders as he danced with rabbis and other Jewish men from throughout the Atlanta community and the world. As her blond braids bounced, her hand reached out to touch the little bells of the shiny silver crown atop the Torah that had been completed moments earlier, the last of its letters placed delicately by the steady hand of Rabbi Chaim Meyer Lieberman, father of Rashi Minkowicz, who died suddenly a year earlier at the age of 37.

The celebration March 8 marked the rebbetzin’s first yahrzeit, or anniversary of her death, and included completion of the Torah scroll in her memory and the placement of the cornerstone of what will become Rashi’s Campus, the new $4 million home of Chabad of North Fulton.

“Rashi was truly an angel,” said Hamid Yousefzadeh, smiling as he headed into the large white tent on the Johns Creek property where hundreds gathered for the ceremony.

Originally from Iran, he and his wife, Farzenah, live in Johns Creek and have attended Rabbi Hirshy Minkowicz’s shul for 12 years, along with their two children, now 9 and 13.

“It is an honor to have such a rabbi to look up to and learn more and more from every day,” he said. His wife added that Rabbi Minkowicz and his wife were accepting and welcoming of Jews of all nationalities and backgrounds.

Judy Solomon-Acker of Alpharetta has attended Chabad for 13 years, beginning when her children went to Camp Gan Israel, which Rashi started.

“I really miss her,” she said. “They were such a great pair. They really complemented each other and have done so many great things. It’s magnificent.”

She added, “He’s an amazing guy, to get through all of it.” Her voice trailed off, but then she continued enthusiastically about his weekly emails and sermons. “I hang on to his every word.”

During the Sunday event nearly a dozen speakers shared personal reflections about Chabad and the Minkowicz family. Rashi’s mother, Sara Lieberman of New York, said: “Rabbi Hirshy, you inspire us in a way no one else could.”

She explained how she and Rashi used to talk on the phone regularly, discussing things that most mothers and daughters would: the children, clothing, recipes and holidays. But Rashi also looked to her mother, a longtime rebbetzin, for guidance in preparing her now-famous weekly Torah and Tea classes.

“Torah and Tea goes way beyond anything,” Lieberman said.

She also discussed the 600,000 letters and vowels of the Torah, which she said correspond to the souls of the Jews at Mount Sinai, and thus the Jewish people as a whole, with the synagogue sanctuary at its core.

“Chabad of North Fulton serves as a model for all Jewish communities everywhere,” she said. “The collective heart of the Jewish people here is beating fiercely and lovingly in honor of Rashi.”

Rabbi Minkowicz’s mother, Shoshana Minkowicz, turned Rashi’s name into an acrostic: R for her being a real person who left real tracks in a community whose people were her pride and joy; A for her being attuned, attentive and appreciative of every person; S for shlucha (emissary) because she lived that role to the fullest with her style, strength and smile; H for humility; and I for inspired because she was an inspiration and her community is an inspiration.

Rashi Marcus, a cousin of Rashi’s who worked at Camp Gan Israel a decade ago, struggled to compose herself while explaining that the event was a day of joy but that Rashi was truly missed. Noting that it was the month of Adar, known for joy, she said sometimes G-d makes it difficult to see the goodness. When she thinks of Rashi, she remembers her laughter. “It was a beautiful thing to be around.”

She said that whether hosting Shabbat for hundreds of guests or keeping the mikvah running, her oldest cousin on that side of the family — Rashi called herself the “geriatric cousin” — would always keep up her sense of humor.

Rashi’s daughter Tonia, now in fifth grade, spoke about one of her favorite memories. A picture in the kitchen shows Rashi as a child, and a guest once said Tonia looks just like her. That night, as Rashi tucked her daughter into bed, she said she felt fortunate that they looked alike because her daughter is so beautiful. That brief story brought many in the crowd, including some of the younger girls, to tears.

Son Mendel Minkowicz, the oldest of her eight children, who now attends high school in New York, spoke about his dream for Rashi’s Campus. “My dream has now come true.”

Todd and Gabrielle Starr are the chairs of the $4 million fundraising campaign for the campus, a project whose origins go back to January 2012. Todd Starr credited Anthony Shapiro, Sunday’s master of ceremonies, for making hundreds of phone calls to launch the fundraising, which has gained pledges for $3.1 million.

He said crews will begin clearing the land in a few weeks, and the new facility will open in January 2017.

“We are blessed to be led by an amazing rabbi and friend,” Starr said. “He’s the most resilient person I have ever met.”

Rabbi Yossi New, the director of Chabad of Georgia, noted that the weekly Torah portion, Vayekil, described the first Jewish capital campaign, to build the Mishkan, G-d’s dwelling place in the Sinai, and that the campaign was so successful that Moses had to ask people to stop giving. He expressed the wish that the Chabad of North Fulton campaign will be the second Jewish capital campaign ever to reach that point.

It’s impossible to understand what the Minkowicz family has gone through since Rashi’s death March 11, 2014, Rabbi New said. But the family serves as “an example of how to overcome adversity and transform darkness into light.”

In Jewish tradition, he said, women are the foundation of the home and are more responsible for the spirit and love within the home. Rashi’s legacy, in her community home and her personal home, serves as the inspiration for the new campus.

Johns Creek Mayor Mike Bodker, who attends High Holiday services at Chabad of North Fulton and has a close relationship with Rabbi Minkowicz, noted that the rabbi’s home is in Alpharetta, but the shul and Rashi’s Campus are in Johns Creek. He said he’s happy to see work start on the new facility but knows the rabbi will ring his cellphone every time any problem arises during construction.

Rabbi Minkowicz said he is making peace with everything that has happened. “Life goes on, and we keep marching forward.”

He said that morning’s 5K Run for Rashi provided a lesson on how he has made it through the past year. While he walked the 5K, his children were always ahead of him. He would catch up, only for them to move ahead again. In the same way, throughout the past year “I did not show them the way; they showed me the way. There is no way I’d be standing here today without them and the rock-solid community of Johns Creek.”

According to Jewish tradition, a groundbreaking features a cornerstone, which later is mounted on the side of the new building. Rabbi Minkowicz said none of the building’s donors wanted the honor of placing the cornerstone but instead thought his children should do it.

“I think that’s a tremendous thing,” he said. Yoel, Henya and Tonia Minkowicz took the honor.

The rabbi said his wife “put herself into creating this community. … She will be eternally remembered for her commitment and sacrifice.”

The potent energy of Jewish unity among the hundreds gathered, whether they wore black hats and beards or jeans and T-shirts, was comparable to the Torah scroll, which brings together letters and souls to form a single people.

The two-hour ceremony concluded with the completion of the Torah scroll, its last letters written by Rashi’s family and overseen by a scribe. Rabbi Minkowicz’s father, Rabbi Leima Minkowicz, lifted the Torah to display it to all gathered, and sons Naftali and Shaya dressed the Torah. A childhood friend of the rabbi’s, Naftali Berkowitz, and the project’s architect, Arie Kohn, joined the scribe in placing a silver crown atop the Torah, and a festive procession carried the Torah under a chuppah to the current synagogue building.

Food, music and dancing followed the procession.

“This would have brought Rashi a lot of pride and joy to see all her hard work coming to fruition,” said Dena Schusterman, who co-directs Chabad Intown with her husband, Rabbi Eliyahu Schusterman. “It’s really a beautiful event, but the true meaning of bittersweet.”

Dena Friedman runs Congregation Ariel in Dunwoody with her husband, Rabbi Binyomin Friedman. As a kindergarten teacher at Torah Day School of Atlanta for more than 20 years, she taught several of the Minkowicz children.

“She was a positive force in every sense of the word — at school, at home and in her community,” she said after the ceremony. “It’s no wonder this will produce something amazing. It should be an aliyah for everyone involved.”

During the celebration, Trudy Robbins of Toco Hills and her daughter, Tehilla, mingled among the guests. Tehilla is in class with Rashi’s daughter Henya at TDSA, and the family has spent Shabbat at the Minkowicz home and shul.

“I thought it was a beautiful way to honor Rashi,” Robbins said, “and for us to show our support for the community.”

Robin Varon and her family live in Sandy Springs and attend Congregation Beth Tefillah with Rabbi New. She said the beautiful event after Rashi’s death was bittersweet.

“Rashi was a very special person who dedicated her whole life to her family and serving her community,” she said. “It’s a huge tribute to her legacy and everything she did.”