BY MARCIA JAFFE / AJT //
Growing up in a small, Tennessee town, we were among the most observant Jews, yet were not exposed to traditional or Orthodox Judaism. We shipped kosher meat on a dry ice block via Greyhound bus from an Atlanta shochet; but, for example, had no knowledge of the laws of modesty.
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Is it similar to the disadvantage of not learning golf or tennis as a child, then bridging the gap to become competitive as an adult? Can one walk into Chabad at age 40 and catch up?
I first learned about Chabad 12 years ago when my children were in college. The Chabad rabbis embraced the students with home cooked meals and a family like environment. At the University of Florida, it was not unusual for Chabad to host 250 students for a gourmet Shabbas dinner with 15 varieties of challah. They often helped the rabbi’s wife with babysitting and got adjusted to sitting separately (male and female at services); the atmosphere was always warm.
Many faculty members mingled in, which was an added bonus. Students even emailed the rabbi for a special prayer to do well on a particular important exam! They carried their problems to the rabbi. Along the way they learned observance at various levels.
Although they attended Jewish Day School in Atlanta, my children were not among the most zealous by any means. So hanging out at the rabbi’s house in college seemed out of character initially.
Similarly at Tulane University, my son (now 31) has yet to reveal what sort of “trouble” the Chabad rabbi bailed him out of, but it was meaningful enough that he felt compelled to get up at 7 a.m. to attend morning minyans as part of the deal.
My children explained that I should not hug the rabbi upon meeting him, nor wear a mini skirt and décolleté top. So I began learning at Chabad here to be able to relate to my children.
Even now in my foreign travels, I seek out the Chabad house. Let me assure you that there is one in every nook and cranny (try Bangkok or Marrakech). It feels like home base even if we only walk the neighborhood; and all the rabbis know each other from our U.S. towns.
Six years ago, I was assigned to a young bilingual (yiddush) student (bocher) in the Chabad smicha class for a once-a-week “eye opening” session over the course of the year. What we had in common, what was worlds apart. He went to summer camp in Russia; we went to Hendersonville, N.C.
When I offered to introduce him to modest young girls in Atlanta, he explained how a formal matchmaker was already seeking an appropriate mate that he would “learn to love.” I spoke at the graduation ceremony, but by now knew not to hug him.
This, by the way, is a fascinating topic and a future column here will reveal how our Atlanta rabbis (across various sects of Judaism) met and courted their prospective wives – arranged or otherwise. And ”arranged” is not as structured as one might think, though there are rules.
Traditional Judaism is growing exponentially faster than other streams – yet some look at me puzzled; “Do you really enjoy studying with a Chassidic rabbi?” The visualization being of something somber.
Americans’ biggest fear is of public speaking, running out of money, or having poor health. Are we secular Jews afraid of a dark suit and beard; that we will be judged, questioned or have our ignorance exposed about our own religion which we may not understand?
Not so. After a very few minutes, Rabbi Yossi New, the son of an Australian fabric importer, has us “learners” laughing and engaged. He has problems with his Sprint bill and anguishes over the Atlanta Braves. We immediately feel his humanity.
He is open and honest, and sharing his own struggles. He giggles and mocks us combining his Aussie accent with our southern drawl. He hands out papers calling them, “Mah (my?) Paginations.”
Father of nine and grandfather of 14, he is head of Chabad of Georgia as well as Congregation Beth Teffillah’s rabbi and chazzan. One of his missions has been this outreach to the Jewish community at large by conducting five “Lunch and Learn” sessions per week with no link to a particular program. Many learners are actually members of other local synagogues.
Once a month Rabbi New also conducts a session in the Blue Ridge Mountains where he draws a crowd of 50! Quite a lot of hillbillies (don’t take offense, I’m from Knoxville) want to feel connected and seek answers to things that help us live a more meaningful life. As sophisticated and urbane as we aspire to be, we all need help in connecting the dots that bring our ancient texts into the focus of our everyday, complicated lives in an effort to make Judaism more relevant.
After 30 years, we keep coming. His challenge is to relate to all levels of learners, to be cabalistic and intellectual simultaneously. He is not wild about questions concerning U.S. politics or comparing Judaism to other religions.
“This is not a comparative college course,” he exclaims, “This is teaching about life!”
It was not always so easy. As a young rabbi, he scheduled his first lecture at Chapter 11 Book Store in Peachtree Battle Center with posters promoting, “How to be Mystical with Your Feet Firmly on the Ground.” Setting up a large table in the back of the store, only one, lone elderly woman showed up.
Rabbi New said to his young ego, “I’ll give the lecture for one, the same as for 100,” and therein stood the meaning. The woman, who wasn’t Jewish, was seeking a connection to her deceased Jewish husband. The rabbi learned he was the next stop after the palm reader. He guided the woman to realize that the Kadish connects the dead to this world and to her main relationships on earth. Instead of looking to the stars, he convinced her that her husband would be looking for her here.
But momentum grew, and our hero Phil Levetan, gets credit for nurturing the longest standing “Lunch and Learn,” which has morphed into our Tuesday sessions at the Selig office complex on Spring Street. Rabbi New calls Phil “a giant of a mensch.” Phil schleps to Publix and Costco to provide a delicious kosher spread.
“Phil is our anchor. He calls everyone each week to personally invite them to participate,” says Rabbi New. “He is humble and serves others. I am touched by him.”
Phil reciprocates by complimenting the rabbi’s teaching style. “He brings Jewish tenants into the way we live our lives. Rabbi New is an emissary and diplomat relating to all levels.” By the way, Phil (soon to turn 90!) never turns down a hug from the ladies.
Scott Glazer, musician extraordinaire, thinks that Rabbi New is dynamic because he, “cuts to the essence liturgically, and does it with such humor.”
We learn not just about the physical dimensions of the Sukkah, but how it relates to de-compartmentalizing our lives. He shares how he prioritizes, saying he would take a family member’s phone call even if it was interrupting an important business meeting.
Then his cell phone rings, and he exclaims, “See it’s Bernie and Arthur calling to make a $2 million dollar donation, and I’m not going to answer it because you are my priority in teaching this class!”
We roar, “Take the call!” He laughs heartily, but we get “it.” The New’s Sukkah back home in Melbourne doubled as a ping pong room year round, so we learn more about things that are permanent (did you know that a sukkah’s walls can be brick?) vs the roof which has to be temporary.
“Security is not man made,” he observes.
Bow tied, youthful Steve Barton, a senior VP with CBRE muses, “It amazes me how Rabbi New can take a Torah phrase and weave it into our discussions: sports, the opposite sex, some obscure song or musical group; and in some mystical way, he gives a sense that the topic is what is happening in my life.
“Some of us try to ‘trip up’ Rabbi New with an off-the-wall question, but he is able to answer in a way that leaves me with that sense of ‘aha.’ What do I get out of going? It makes me a better husband, dad, son and commercial real estate broker.”
Come delve into how you can be a better parent, manager, or spouse. No attendance rules. Come once a week or once in awhile. In addition to the Tuesday Selig Lunch and Learn, Rabbi New comes to the Stern-Edlin law office on Wieuca Road early Thursday morning; Beth Tefillah on Highpoint Thursday lunch, and conducts a text for more serious learners on Friday. Lunch sessions only ask for a $5-$6 donation. Can’t beat that!