May 27, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Montclair Chabad: If We Build It, They Will Come

Montclair, New Jersey is not a town that anyone would associate with a traditional Jewish presence. But it will be, if Rabbi Yaacov Leaf has any say in the matter. Rabbi Leaf and his wife, Ita, are shlichim (emissaries) from the Chabad movement and have chosen Montclair as their opportunity to bring the love and depth of Judaism to the broader Jewish community.

The couple has been married for seven years, brought together in part by their shared dream to perform outreach for Chabad. “We believe this to be the highest calling,” said Leaf.

Beginning their married life in an apartment in Brooklyn, they moved to Montclair with their two young children in August of 2014, fully intending to realize that dream. With the High Holidays rapidly approaching, the first question was whether to attempt Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur services with virtually no time for preparation or advertising.

“We decided to go for it,” said Leaf, “and it was the best move we ever made.” Approximately 50 people attended services, including more than 10 students from Montclair State University, a number that far surpassed what the couple had anticipated.

In addition to services, the Rabbi and Ita hosted over 60 people for meals in their home over the duration of the holiday, necessitating that he take on a new responsibility—cooking. “I davened, leined and spoke both days,” he said, “and I also started learning to cook. The hard part is preparing, but once Shabbos/Yom Tov arrives, that’s the fun part. The warmth completely envelops you.”

Building on the momentum of the high holidays, Leaf and his wife periodically hold Shabbat services and meals in their home. “Shabbos dinners are our forte,” he commented. “It is an opportunity to really get to know our guests, and is a non-threatening and non-overwhelming entree to Judaism for many of them.”

As of now, there is no regular minyan, but Leaf is constantly working toward that end, with the primary avenue being meeting people. Montclair is a warm and friendly town with a high concentration of Jews, and Rabbi Leaf is prepared to meet each and every one.

“I know that I can either wait for people to hear about us and approach me, or I can go out and find them. I believe if I create the foundation, people will commit. If we build it, they will come,” he remarked, channeling his inner Kevin Costner.

Another early success was the community outdoor menorah lighting held during Chanukah 2014, which Leaf organized with the full support of the town. The mayor of Montclair lit the shamash, and a Muslim bakery owner allowed the use of his store’s electricity for the menorah, completing the community feel by providing food for attendees.

“It was important for the local kids to see a menorah on display during the holiday season. It was a nice display of unity, which is what Chanukah is all about. It was a celebration of democracy and Judaism coming together,” commented Leaf.

Purim 2015 was another challenge, especially with the non-cooperative weather that day. Rabbi Leaf had to borrow a 4 x 4 in order to get through the snowy streets to reach five different locations where he had promised to do private Megillah readings for home- or hospital-bound individuals, after which he and Ita hosted a 60s-themed Purim party for 25 people who braved the snowstorm to attend.

“Getting 25 people despite the snow was a huge accomplishment,” Leaf said.

With that in mind, he is hard at work building the future of the Montclair Jewish community. He is already planning for Rosh Hashanah, through marketing and advertising and hopefully reaching as many Jewish people as he can. People in town already know who he is and while they may start out intimidated by his beard and formal attire, after meeting him and feeling his warmth, sincerity and intelligence, the hope is that they will be inspired to explore and engage further. He hopes to be a positive influence in the town through his connections with people, and has already begun making strong connections through kashering their kitchens, putting up mezuzahs in their homes, learning Torah at their level, visiting Senior Housing residents and more.

The next steps are less certain, but equally important. Leaf believes that people are thirsty for Judaism, and he intends to create a means to quench that thirst. He foresees periodic “pop-up Shabbat” experiences, where he and Ita will bring Shabbat to people’s homes, allowing them to invite guests while providing the ritual and, of course, the food.

“It’s a way to expand even further and reach even more people,” said Leaf.

He is also planning to run adult education classes in public, non-threatening spaces such as coffee shops and the town library. He already learns with people one-on-one, and gets as much out of the experience as they do. He believes that learning with people, either in groups or individually, is a strong forum for outreach. These people are already interested and this is a means to further that interest.

Leaf knows that shlichus of this nature requires capital. “Contrary to popular belief, Chabad doesn’t just hand us money for our outreach programs,” he said. Fundraising is vital to his efforts and requires him to—again—get out and meet people.

Not just a fundraiser, Leaf also needs to be a businessman, salesman and tech wizard, all while keeping his connection to his family and God strong. He has to network in order to get people through the door, while continuing to learn every day and never forgetting Halacha.

“There can be no compromise when it comes to Halacha,” Leaf stated. “I must be strict while also making people feel comfortable and connected to Judaism.”

His ultimate goal is to help people become more involved Jews. “Judaism adds tremendous meaning to our lives. We want to share that,” he said. Leaf knows that this is not always realistic in the present. He tries to live in the moment, taking comfort in believing that one small mitzvah begets the next and so on, creating a consciousness in people that transcends the particular action. “I am merely the middleman, here to connect Jews to Hashem in the moment that I am interacting with them,” he said. “I don’t ask what they did yesterday, nor what they intend to do tomorrow, I just help them connect and know in my heart that that will make a difference, no matter how small.”

The bottom line, for Leaf and Ita, is the outreach. “Whatever the outreach requires is what we will do,” he stated. “Hashem gave us the bracha to do this work. Now we have to do our part. It’s up to us, and every individual, to embrace shlichus in our own way, to make a difference in our own sphere of influence, in order to bring Moshiach.”

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