Deseret News, Aug. 17, 2002
By Carrie A. Moore Deseret News religion editor
“I greet you with my heart but not my hand.”
An ironic statement from a man who has become so culturally “hands-on” that Orthodox Jewish life would be much less celebrated in Utah were it not for him. Yet it is not at all ironic that Rabbi Benny Zippel strictly observes one of the tenets of his faith: A married man never touches a woman — even in a handshake — other than his wife.
Dissecting his statement further, you find the probable reason for the success of the fledgling synagogue he started here 10 years ago: He is both a disciple of God’s compassion and disciplined in his faith.
A pamphlet describing the philosophy of Chabad Lubavitch undergirds Zippel’s work: “to offer Judaism with love to every single Jew, regardless of background and/or affiliation. . . . There is no membership charge, and absolutely no conditions attached. We accept you ‘as is.’ “
As a result, some 300 Utah families consider his synagogue, known as Bais Menachem, 1433 S. 1100 East, their spiritual home.
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And that alone, the rabbi maintains, is reason to celebrate.
The fact that the synagogue will observe its tenth anniversary in Salt Lake City this month simply gives him an excuse.
So as they gather Sunday night at the University Park Hotel for a celebration dinner, members and friends of the congregation will rejoice in the progress of Orthodox culture and belief in a state where few would look for a Jewish stronghold. What they may not realize in all of the revelry is how close Rabbi Zippel came to being expelled from his adopted home altogether not long after he arrived in 1992.
Back then, Elder Loren C. Dunn, a general authority of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, met Rabbi Zippel just as he was scrambling to gain a foothold in Salt Lake City. They became fast friends, and when Elder Dunn asked the rabbi if he would like to meet President Gordon B. Hinckley, who was then serving as a counselor in the LDS Church’s First Presidency, Rabbi Zippel agreed. The meeting was cordial, he recalls.
“He (President Hinckley) said he believed very strongly in what I was doing and that if he could be of any help throughout my stay here in the work I was doing, I should always count on him without hesitating.” At the time, Rabbi Zippel was still a citizen of his native Italy, and with only a $30,000 stipend from Chabad to rent and furnish a synagogue, publicize his work and house himself and his family, he had no money to hire an immigration attorney.
His student visa for rabbinical school was expiring, so he filed an application for residency with the Immigration and Naturalization Service on his own, with a letter from Sen. Orrin Hatch recommending approval as a Jewish rabbi in Utah. The response was swift — he had been denied residency. He remembered President Hinckley’s offer and made a phone call.
“Within an hour he had me on the phone with Oscar McConkie,” one of the state’s top attorneys, who worked for several months on Rabbi Zippel’s behalf to help secure a green card. Five years later, he filed for naturalization and became a U.S. citizen.
Now he counts religious leaders of many local faiths as friends and serves the community in a variety of capacities, including a stint as an Olympic chaplain for athletes during the Games, and now as a volunteer chaplain for the Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Office.
They are duties he is glad to perform, he says, because they not only tie him to the larger community, but further the work of worldwide outreach that was initiated by his denomination’s seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe, or world leader, Rabbi Menachem Schneerson. The Brooklyn-based Lubavitcher movement has grown steadily toward international outreach after being forced out of Russia during World War I and then Poland during World War II.
There are now approximately 2,600 Lubavitch centers in some 2,000 Jewish communities worldwide, the rabbi said, adding that some of the centers are permanent facilities like Bais Menachem, while others are “personal centers” offered by individual Lubavitchers to facilitate Jewish holiday celebrations in remote areas of the world.
Rabbi Zippel said he often explains why his organization has two names: Chabad, which is a Hebrew acronym for wisdom, understanding and knowledge; and Lubavitch, which is “village of love” in Russian. The description is perfect for the two types of congregations he oversees, he said.
He views the group that actually comes to the synagogue as Chabad, and the dispersed congregation he finds in rural outposts in bordering states, as well as prisons and youth detention centers, as the Lubavitch. It is the latter group, he believes, that is in most desperate need of ministering.
That’s where the “out” in “outreach” comes in.
About 200 troubled Jewish youth from around the globe find themselves in Utah annually as participants in a wide variety of dependency and behavioral treatment programs. The rabbi said he spends one day each week traveling to various facilities, “helping them to succeed and thrive in their Judaism,” in meetings, classes and consultations with parents. While some facilities have only one or two Jewish clients, one center in Syracuse has a client population of 110 — 25 of whom are Jewish.
While he’s always been an advocate of religion, the rabbi says he sees faith taking on “an even greater significance” for troubled youths “because it helps them to find some cohesiveness within their own belief system. It’s implementing morals and values and giving them a sense of belonging” despite the tendency for troubled kids to see themselves as “very insignificant.”
Yet a belief in God, a sense of dignity, morality and personal empowerment is at the heart of Orthodox Judaism, Rabbi Zippel said. So is compassion, coupled with tradition and adherence to Jewish law.
While law and structure govern the lives of many branches of Orthodox Jewry, compassion gets a lot of emphasis in the Lubavitcher tradition, a branch of the 18th century’s Hasidic Jewish movement, the rabbi said.