Inspired by their own experiences growing up in Chabad families, Rabbi Yaakov Chaiton and his wife, Chana, wanted to start their own community.
So why Hamilton and Robbinsville, where they began outreach efforts in mid-July?
The answer: location, location, location.
While there are synagogues in the nearby Windsors, Lawrenceville, Princeton Junction, and Princeton, two summers ago, “The Roving Rabbis” — young Chabad educators who go through residential areas and commercial districts bringing Yiddishkeit to Jews with little Judaism in their lives — discovered that neither Hamilton nor Robbinsville had an institutional Jewish presence.
Like other young Chabad couples who want to open outreach centers, the Chaitons were searching for an opening. They looked at several possibilities but considered the area a perfect match for their goal of building a Jewish community from scratch.
They did have connections — Chana’s father is Rabbi Dovid Dubov, director of Chabad of Mercer County in Princeton. He was looking for a couple who are passionate about community work and looking toward a future with a community center and shul. “Other places, they have [these] already,” said Chana. “It was more of a challenge finding a couple who wanted to build something from nothing. It is a slow process and takes time, patience, effort, and will.”
She explained, “It may be hard for us, but what is important to us is that we reach Jews who are unaffiliated and don’t have anything and affiliate with them and make them feel it is important to be a Jew and have meaning in life.”
In Hamilton and Robbinsville, they are initially reaching out wherever they can to identify Jews who are seeking meaning or connection. Nursing homes and hospitals, for example, are places where people “could appreciate a visit and warm words.”
The couple has started having people over for Shabbat dinner. Also, realizing that many families have younger kids who are not getting a religious-school education, they started a Sunday monthly “Moments with Mom” holiday program, where children do a craft, hear a story, and eat a traditional snack.
Speaking with NJJN before Rosh Hashana, Chana said she was planning on providing individuals and families with an apple cake, honey stick, and New Year’s card. “My aim was 75, and I am seeing now that I am going to exceed that number,” she said. Yaakov led a pre-Rosh Hashana program at Robert Wood Johnson Hospital-Hamilton, where he visits weekly.
“Every single day, I meet someone new,” said Chana, who also regularly gets referrals to other Jews in the community.
“Jews are very spread out in this community,” she said. “And because there is no core of any Jewish presence, people really don’t know each other. They miss it and want some group to feel comfortable with.”
Yaakov’s passion for outreach developed at home in Johannesburg, South Africa, where his father was involved with both teen education and community activities and his mother worked with the Chabad kindergarten. “Growing up doing this work, most people automatically have a certain feeling toward doing it, and it is what they want to continue with their own family — that passion from the home,” Yaakov said.
Remembering Friday night dinners in Princeton with her family, Chana said, “As kids, it was exciting. We would look out the window when our guests would come. We were upset when we didn’t have guests.”
Her connection with the Princeton Chabad community was very tight. “Every person who had walked through our doors, I wanted them at my wedding,” she said.
The unique thing about a Chabad rabbi, said Yaakov, is the family involvement in the business of outreach. Even the children play a role. “The kids can say something and have an effect that the father can’t,” Yaakov said. He recalled how one boy, post-bar mitzva, would accompany his father and blow the shofar on Rosh Hashana for people too sick to go to the synagogue. At Shabbat evening meals, he would share some words of inspiration, and in the synagogue, he would greet people and help them find their places in the prayer book.
“It’s not like the father has a job and the kids do their own thing,” said Yaakov. “This is what we do as a family.”
Chana added that their baby son, Levi, is already playing his part. “He is the highlight of our dinners and steals the show,” she said.
Chana sees herself as doing whatever needs to be done to ease the work of her husband. “It is the rabbi who has the demeanor and presence that bring people together,” she said.
And yet she plays an active role herself, doing whatever she can to bolster their presence and serve their community. This summer, she baked hallah every Friday and gave it out to businesses, homes, individuals, and hospital patients. “People were really touched by it,” she said.
After the fall holidays, some classes are planned, including kosher cooking.
“Whatever needs to be done, we do. We don’t look at it as a nine-to-five job; it is my life,” she said, noting that they support themselves through donations. “People appreciate the cause, and when they do, they are happy to help out and partner with the good programs and good work.”
“The Chabad approach is that every single Jew is a Jew,” said Yaakov. “It’s not a matter of where they are affiliated, where they grow up, what they study, or what they do; we reach out to every Jew and give them what they need on their level.”
Making Jews Orthodox is not their goal, she explained. “Our goal is to bring the joy of Judaism — people should feel love coming to a seder, to Shabbat dinner. We encourage them to do whatever they can and more — everyone has to grow; but if someone is not on that level, that is completely fine.”
“What matters is that they are a Jew and have a neshama [soul] and want to bring meaning to their lives,” she said.