'Roving Rabbis' Travel Across Arizona

By Stina Sieg
Published: Wednesday, September 3, 2014 - 11:44pm
Updated: Monday, July 13, 2015 - 2:01pm
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(Photo by Stina Sieg - KJZZ)
Zalman Refson, left, and Yaakov Kaplan are "Roving Rabbis," Orthodox rabbinical students who connect to Jews in rural places across the world. Recently, they were here in Arizona.

The tiny, high-desert town of Taylor could almost be from another era. There are a few fast food joints and high-speed Internet. But there’s no movie theater, no home postal delivery, no high school in this heavily Mormon town. And definitely no synagogue.

But today, there are visitors: two Orthodox Jewish rabbis. They’re the first to say this isn’t the norm.

“Well, we do stick out,” said Zalman Refson, taking a breather in a hotel lobby. “I mean, just, yeah, we do.”

He and Yaakov Kaplan are young, bearded and dressed in black pants and long sleeved shirts — likely very uncomfortable in the Arizona heat. They’re two of the hundreds of rabbinical students who travel every year to rural places all across the globe in the name of Chabad, a movement within Orthodox Judaism. The Roving Rabbis program is based in Brooklyn, N.Y., and has been around for more than 70 years.

Refson and Kaplan have both done it more than once. But they’ve never done it in this state, in an area much better known for sending out its Mormon sons and daughters to proselytize than welcoming in Jews doing something similar.

Not that Kaplan would ever use the term “proselytize.” They don’t convert people, he said. He calls it more of a “conversation” with fellow Jews.

“We go to these places, and we try to just, you know, to bring a little bit of Judaism to their corner of the world,” Kaplan said.

So they keep a list of Jews they know about in these small towns. Often, people request a visit, or their family requests one for them. Some days, Kaplan will just pick up a phone book and start looking for Jewish names to call. There are more out there than you’d think, he said.

Like Janice Schwed, who was happy to introduce her fat, friendly goat.

“And this is Twix,” she said, giving a friendly pat. “This is our old girl.”

Schwed also has horses and chickens on these few acres outside of town. She and her husband, Ira, were both raised observant Jews in California, but haven’t been religious for years. These days, they hardly have any Jewish friends. Even so, they’re fiercely protective of their heritage. In the decade they’ve spent here, Schwed has met plenty of Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses who have come knocking.

“But there’s nobody, there’s no religion in this entire, small little six-mile town that is going to change the way that he and I feel about our background, our religion,” she said. “Because that’s ours.”

Over in neighboring Show Low, Hilda Lochanski-Smith invited the rabbis into her place. She’s never been all that observant, and likes to joke about her late mother loving ham — a food banned for traditional Jews. For the last few years, she’s even been attending a local Bible church.

But she says she’s a Jew first.

“I even have the mink coat to prove it,” she said, smiling. “Every Jewish woman at the age of 50 has to have a mink coat. Worn it twice! There’s no place to wear it in Show Low.”

Lochanski-Smith is like many of people the rabbis meet: a Jew who feels connected to her religion even though she’s never kept a Kosher house and spent years married to a non-Jew.

“When push comes to shove, you’re Jewish,  and there’s only one, Jewish tribe. Am I right?” she asked the rabbis, sitting in her livingroom. Kaplan replied.

“I second the motion,” he said. “If you’re Jewish, you’re Jewish.”

But the Roving Rabbis are sometimes seen as a threat to more mainstream Jewish congregations. They’re also criticized by more liberal Jews for promoting such a traditional version of the faith. In Chabad, women can’t become rabbis. People of the opposite gender can’t even shake hands unless they’re married or are close family.

Taylor resident Beth Hakenewerth knows these restrictions, as well as others.

“But I’m grateful that you guys came and talked to me,” she said, as the rabbis sat on her couch. “So, I feel a lot better.”

She had just finished telling the young men about the depression she slipped into after her father died. Around the same time, Hakenewerth found out her parents had never fully converted her into Judaism after she was adopted as a baby. The rabbis mostly just listened.

Kaplan said that sometimes people just “need to talk.” Other times, they have questions or worries.

His favorite part of this ground game “is when I see people which are happy that we came,” he said, “and we were able to help them in any way, shape or form.”

And it doesn't matter if he’s in small-town Arizona or small-town Estonia. He’s visited both for Chabad.

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