North

In suburbs, more Jews find a spiritual home in Chabad

As Passover approaches, Rabbi Mendel Gurkow of Stoughton gets on the phone each morning and talks to people who need matzo and a seder to attend. In Lexington, Rabbi Alti Bukiet spends his days preparing for a community seder being held at his synagogue on Friday night. In Swampscott, Rabbi Yossi Lipsker has been holding mobile matzo baking at synagogues, senior living homes, and at Whole Foods to explain the mystical qualities of unleavened bread.

Gurkow runs Shaloh House Chabad of the South Area, which draws Jews from as far away as Norwood, as well as Stoughton’s neighboring communities of Brockton, Canton, and Easton. He said focusing on the positive is a key part of his daily interactions with congregants.

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“The purpose of our lives is about finding the good in every single Jew and igniting the spark that’s within everyone, and that is my agenda,” said Gurkow.

Lisa Berenson has been traveling from her Norwood home the last two years to take Torah classes with Gurkow in Stoughton, and she also often comes for Shabbat services on Saturday.

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“It’s the real deal,” said Berenson, 61. “Chabad touches my spiritual soul. The other synagogues that I have attended left me kind of flat. When I go [to Chabad], I can ask a question and get the real answer.”

Just a couple of decades ago, few of Greater Boston’s suburban Jews had ever heard of Chabad. Since then, the Hasidic sect founded 260 years ago in Belarus — which focuses on the intellectual, mystical, and experiential aspects of Judaism — has uprooted the longstanding suburban model of mostly conservative and reform synagogues dotting the local landscape.

Since 1994, as local Jews have searched for a spiritual connection, Chabad has spread from seven synagogues to 26 in Greater Boston, becoming the fastest-growing Jewish movement in the state.

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Unlike traditional American synagogues, donations are optional and there are no formal membership dues. Rabbis take on lifetime assignments in their communities and are not paid. Instead, they raise money from local congregants or philanthropists, and most live in modest homes near their synagogues.

Chabad rabbis straddle two worlds. For secular Jews, the rabbis’ long flowing beards, black gabardines, and Borsalino fedoras conjure up images of Old World European Judaism. While committed to tradition and modesty, they also readily embrace technology. Chabad synagogues have modern websites with streaming video, and their rabbis always seem to be on their cellphones and on the move.

On a typical day, a rabbi may hold a morning prayer minyan, conduct a funeral, oversee an afternoon Hebrew School session, meet with a congregant who needs help, lead a Torah or Kabbalah class after dinner, and somehow find a way to spend time with his family.

While Chabad rabbis adhere to traditional, Orthodox tenets, few expect their congregants to adopt those principles.

“It’s not a question of them becoming more religious or becoming a participant in an Orthodox synagogue,” explained Rabbi Alti Bukiet, who has led Chabad of Lexington since 1991, and works up to 18 hours a day meeting with congregants about everything from personal matters to Torah study. “I’m here to help people be one with God, whatever that means, in everybody’s life. I am not here to place a label or a definition on a person’s relationship with God. That’s not my goal.”

Rabbi Mendel Gurkow teaches students at Shaloh House Chabad in Stoughton how to make matzo, demonstrating rolling pins must be re-sanded after use.

George Rizer for the Boston Globe

Rabbi Mendel Gurkow teaches students at Shaloh House Chabad in Stoughton how to make matzo, demonstrating rolling pins must be re-sanded after use.

Known for their nonjudgmental approach and their willingness to help fellow Jews at any hour, Chabad’s rabbis are becoming the face of traditional Judaism in the suburbs. Their synagogues, known as Chabad Houses, range from ornate 17,000-square-foot estates such as Beth Menachem Chabad of Newton to the Chabad Jewish Community Center of Mansfield, where Rabbi Yossi Kivman has run a small synagogue and Hebrew School out of his house since 2007.

Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, a Dorchester native who helps oversee the $1 billion Chabad world headquarters based in Brooklyn, said there are about 4,500 couples — rabbis and wives — who work as emissaries in 87 countries.

“We are rapidly expanding throughout the world,” said Krinsky, who estimated that about three new couples move to a new community each week.

In the lexicon of Jewish denominations, Chabad seems to defy definition. It has been led by seven rabbis over the last three centuries, including its last “rebbe,” Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who died in 1994. Throughout his life, Schneerson encouraged his followers to set up synagogues and learning centers in non-Orthodox communities to introduce secular Jews to basic tenants of Judaism such as prayer, keeping kosher, and the dictate that every good deed — or mitzvah — leads to another, making the world a more godly place.

After Schneerson’s death, Chabad leaders declined to name a new rebbe. Some expected Chabad’s movement to slow. Instead, it has grown faster in the last 20 years than in the previous century, and most Chabad rabbis attribute it to the connections made by the rebbe’s teachings and philosophy.

Rabbi Arthur Green, the Irving Brudnick Professor of Jewish Philosophy and Religion at Hebrew College in Newton, believes Chabad offers an authenticity that some Jews are seeking.

“They’ve tapped into a real longing of people for something more serious and more spiritually alive,” said Green. “Many synagogue services are rather dull, and something about Chabad captures a sort of new energy. They’re very old fashioned, and in some ways they are the old European product, but they have a kind of spiritual passion about them that people long for and don’t find in their liberal synagogues.”

Rabbi Yossi Lipsker, who set up shop over a convenience store in Swampscott in 1992 and has since built a synagogue, a Hebrew school, and a summer camp and has expanded to Peabody and Chelsea, said one of the reasons Jews resonate with Chabad is that people are eager to connect to one another, whether it be with other congregants or himself.

“Every person has a story, and it’s that story that brought them here,” he said. “The common thread is people connecting on a personal level. I think the most satisfying aspect of what I do is my connection with each and every person here.”

Joel Weingarten, 59, started going to Lipsker’s shul in Swampscott more than a decade ago, when his sons were attending Hebrew School. These days he’s a regular, and he even moved from Topsfield to Marblehead to be closer to the Jewish community.

“The personality of the rabbi has almost everything to do with it,” he said. “Chabad is very welcoming; very nonjudgmental, and it’s almost like being back in Grandma’s shtetl.”

Chabads in the suburbs
Chabad Location
Acton-Concord Chabad Acton
Chabad Lubavitch Jewish Center of Merrimack Valley Andover
Center For Jewish Life of Arlington - Belmont Arlington
Lubavitch Yeshiva Brookline
Chabad Israeli Center Brookline
Coolidge Corner Chabad Chai Center Brookline
Chabad Lubavitch of Cambridge Cambridge
Congregation Bais Chabad Framingham
Chabad Center of Lexington Lexington
Chabad Jewish Center Mansfield
Chabad Center Milford
Chabad Center of Natick Natick
Chabad Jewish Center Needham
Chabad Lubavitch at Chestnut Hill Chestnut Hill
Beth Menachem Chabad of Newton Newton
Chabad of Newton Centre Newton Centre
Chabad of North Andover North Andover
Chabad of Peabody Jewish Center Peabody
Chabad Center of Sharon Sharon
Chabad Serving Tufts University Somerville
Shaloh House Chabad of the South Area Stoughton
Chabad Center of Sudbury Sudbury
Chabad Lubavitch of the North Shore Swampscott
The Chabad House at Brandeis Waltham
Wellesley Weston Chabad House Wellesley
Chabad of Westborough Westborough
Chabad of Nashoba Valley Westford
DATA: Rabbi Yosef B. Friedman, executive director of Chabad Lubavitch International
Globe Staff

Steven A. Rosenberg can be reached at srosenberg@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @WriteRosenberg.
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