Pop-up Shabbat houses, High Holy Day programs at the Clubhouse, and Jewish music and art nights are among the offerings of the new Chabad in Montclair, begun in August by Yaacov and Ita Leaf.
They had just begun to settle in when the High Holy Days arrived. They quickly organized Rosh Hashana dinner and services, held at the Clubhouse, a trendy event space in Montclair, and Yom Kippur services and a break-fast in their new apartment in Montclair. Each attracted between 30 and 50 people, which surprised even the Leafs.
“When you’re really inspired by something, other people get inspired,” Yaacov said, acknowledging his enthusiasm and using the Chabad metaphor that “something that’s wet makes other things wet.”
The Leafs met with NJJN in their apartment on a mid-October Wednesday morning shortly after Simhat Torah. Ita had made brownies and other treats, and the couple’s two young children, Mendl and Bryna, entertained themselves, enjoyed some snacks, and tried to cajole their father to join them in play. (They were unsuccessful.)
The Leafs exude a youthful warmth they hope to capitalize on. Yaacov was quick to point out that he and his wife represent a “new age” of Chabad shluchim, or emissaries. For one thing, although he graduated from the Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbinical College of America in Morristown and technically earned rabbinic ordination, he eschews the honorific and has little interest in serving as congregation rabbi reigning over a community. For another, building a synagogue is not on his to-do list. Even his appearance suggests the younger, hipper idea of Chabad he is cultivating. Instead of the traditional black and white garb, he was wearing a blue patterned oxford shirt and gray pants. If he didn’t have the bushy beard, he could easily look at home on a college campus as an older graduate student. (He is 31, Ita 29).
As he put it, he just wants to meet people, “not to lecture them or bring them to worship, but just to farbreng [have a good time], to hang, to connect.” It’s something he did in Cyprus this summer, standing outside clubs, waiting for the young Israelis who often travel there before their army service. “I went to give them a dose of Judaism, but then I realized how much I have to learn from these kids — from the questions they ask; there’s a tremendous amount to be learned.”
In Montclair where, he said, some figures suggest that up to 70 percent of the town’s Jews are not affiliated, he believes there are similar opportunities, as long as he frames his message correctly. Although the fundamentalist outlook of Hasidism might seem at odds with the apparent political and intellectual leanings of Montclair’s denizens, it’s a chasm Chabad has a track record of traversing. “Look, it’s no secret that Montclair is a liberal place,” he said. “I’ve got to ask, does our message resonate here? Our message has to be presented for intelligent people who ask questions and want to understand things. We can give people the opportunity to study, grow, learn, and ask questions and see how Judaism is relevant.”
And that’s where the no-shul approach comes in.
For one thing, Yaacov isn’t a big fan himself. “I’m not a shul type of guy. Shuls are old-fashioned,” he said. For another, he added, he believes he’d be setting himself up for failure. “Honestly, if I went up to a typical Montclair guy and said, ‘I want to invite you to come at 9 a.m. on Saturday morning to shul,’ he’ll smile and say, ‘Thanks,’ but he won’t be showing up.
“Unless you’re already shomer Shabbat, there’s so much stigma. People think it’s a boring service. And around here, on Saturday morning there’s a farmer’s market and the kids all have sports.”
And finally, “Just the fact that we would have a mehitza” would turn people off, and “we won’t compromise on Halacha,” or Jewish law, he said. (At the High Holy Day services he used the most unintimidating but still kosher mehitza he could devise — a low-ish ivy-covered gate down the makeshift middle aisle of the worship space.)
One thing he does not want to do is clash with already established synagogues. To that end he’s reached out to the area rabbis and lay leaders, and did a joint Sukkot program with Emmy Atlas, The Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life’s Jewish family concierge for Montclair and its J Connection Montclair facilitator. (Montclair has two synagogues, the Conservative Shomrei Emunah and the Reconstructionist Bnai Keshet, as well as the Montclair Jewish Workshop, a secular cooperative Jewish school. The Reform Temple Ner Tamid in neighboring Bloomfield and Temple Beth Ahm of West Essex in Verona, are routinely considered part of the area’s Jewish community.)
Although the Leafs are targeting anyone who is unaffiliated, Yaacov said he is already seeing interest among students. “I think we’ll be able to fill a big void, especially with Montclair State University students,” he said. That’s a group he feels particularly good about serving, since his parents became ba’alei teshuva while at the University of Michigan. “The rabbi spoon-fed them chicken soup and Judaism,” he said. “Now I feel really good about giving back.” MSU has a Jewish Student Union affiliated with Hillel.
Ita is comfortable not only in the role of shlucha but also in Essex County— her parents run the Chabad Lubavitch book store in West Orange. “As a kid growing up, life was exciting. There were always people coming to our home and there was never a question — I knew that’s what I was going to do.”
Although Chabad Lubavitch headquarters offers support in terms of blueprints for programming, it does not provide funding. Each emissary couple succeeds or fails on their own financially. Still, for those raised in Chabad, being a shaliach is the highest calling, and as Ita said, “It’s not like the old days of Chabad anymore. It’s really hard to get placed.” She’s grateful for her father’s connections, which she acknowledged enabled the Leafs to secure their place in Montclair.
They are already at work on Hanukka programming and on creating a “pop-up” Shabbat house, in which they basically host a full Shabbat experience in the home of someone who wants to do so but doesn’t know how. They also think cultural offerings, such as Jewish music and art nights, would attract a good crowd.
Ita and Yaacov are both looking forward to building a community of learning. “I feel this is the most enriching life style I can live,” said Ita. Her husband agreed. “It’s a life of constant learning and growing and helping other people to grow. It’s the best way to not remain stagnant.”