Every Friday morning, carloads of rabbinic students from Chabad of Western Monmouth County hit the shopping plazas along Route 9 in Manalapan, Marlboro, and Freehold. It’s not good deals the young men are in search of — it’s good deeds.
The students split up into five groups, visiting up to 100 businesses owned or managed by Jews. Just as the merchants dive into their workday, the young men make their entrance, offering hallah and a chance to put on tefillin and discuss the Torah portion of the week.
Longtime merchants along the Route 9 hub, who have welcomed the weekly visitors for nearly 15 years, say they look forward to the infusion of Judaism in their ordinary workday. The faces of the students may change from year to year, but the sentiment they spread remains the same.
On a recent Friday morning, Ira Kaplan and his son Brett, owners of Cruise Holiday of Marlboro, welcomed the visitors with beaming smiles. They store yarmulkes in their top desk drawer for such occasions.
“We look forward to their visits,” said Brett. “It’s a nice experience that makes you feel very connected to your heritage.”
“We just can’t let it get away,” said Ira, referring to Judaism. “These are hardworking boys. We enjoy the party they bring each week. They give their viewpoint on the Torah portion and bring it to life.”
The passion and energy of the students, as well as that of Chabad director Rabbi Boruch Chazanow and adult program director Rabbi Levi Wolosow, are contagious, the Kaplans said.
“Once Rabbi Chazanow spotted me driving near the intersection of Route 9 and 520,” Brett said. “He suddenly stopped in the middle of traffic and jumped out of his car to give me shmura matza.
“It was absolutely crazy, and I will never forget it.”
Wolosow keeps a close eye on the community and makes cold calls to new stores to identify whether they are Jewish-owned. He recently added an upscale women’s clothing boutique to his growing list of Friday destinations.
“We opened a week ago, and I already love these Chabad guys,” said Valentina Fainman, owner of Feminique Boutique in Manalapan. “They are unbelievably sweet and will help you with any question you ask of them. I try my best to stay connected to Judaism.”
In an adjacent shop, Shoes by Wayne Stevens, owner Lana Aveti juggled conversations with the yeshiva students, a NJJN reporter, and a customer seeking strappy silver sandals for a June wedding. “When they show up on Fridays I feel blessed,” Aveti said. “They teach me to appreciate all the blessings and all the good in life. They also helped me find a prayer book in Russian. I am blessed that I have them in my life.”
‘Awaken the spark’
In addition to the students from Yeshiva Beis Menachem, which operates out of Chabad, a carload of students come each week from the Rabbinical College of America in Morristown to help tackle the growing lineup of businesses. Two young professionals from Marlboro, Cory Stein and Mike Fleisher, also pitch in when they can. Chabad followers taught them both how to put on tefillin when they were teens, and now they are paying it forward.
“It’s very rewarding to see how much people appreciate the time you take on a Friday to help them put on tefillin and get in touch with God for just a few minutes,” said Stein, who helps run his family’s appliance company. “Once I visited a Route 9 barber shop that was packed with customers waiting in line. Not only did the barber put down his scissors to go in the back to put on tefillin, but many of his Jewish customers joined us too. It’s like an uplifting chain reaction.”
“The purpose of our Friday visits is to awaken the Jewish spark within,” said Fleisher, an accountant. “Every Jew I come in contact with is looking for something, and it is my job to try to find it. The responses vary as much as the people do.
“Even if all I accomplish after a few hours is that a Jew felt some pride in his or her Jewish identity, it makes it worthwhile.”
The chain reaction has made an impact in the life of Joel Russo, owner of the Snack Exchange sweets shop in Manalapan.
“When Chabad first came in to offer to put on tefillin, I hadn’t put them on for years and I liked the idea. But I wondered how my customers were going to feel about it,” said Russo. “One Friday a man in his 80s walked in for ices and was amazed to see tefillin being put on. He joined us by putting them on himself. He told us the last time he had put them on was 70 years ago at his bar mitzva.”
Russo’s 17-year-old son, Brandon, now also puts on tefillin, particularly before wrestling matches, and joins his dad for Sunday study sessions at Chabad.
Although it’s part of his weekly routine, the Friday visits never become routine, said Yeshiva Beis Menachem student Yoel Sebbag, 21, of Montreal. “It is so fulfilling to see people’s spirits lift,” he said. “They love to become more involved in their religion. They just don’t know how to start and where to go with it. It makes me really appreciate how important what we are doing is.
“We are reaching out to every Jew in love, whereas historically they were once hunted down in hatred.”