Orthodox sect emissary tends to a Utah minority, and finds plenty of goodwill from the majority
SALT LAKE CITY — For almost 15 years, Rabbi Benny Zippel has been in a job that calls for an unlimited supply of optimism. Think of Captain Ahab going after Moby Dick with nothing but a fork and tartar sauce.
Day in, day out, Zippel’s mission is to spread the joys of being Jewish in a state where more than 70 percent of the population is Mormon and just about everybody else is from another Christian denomination.
“When I got my assignment, I had never even heard of Utah,” he confessed. “I actually had to go look it up in an atlas. At first I thought they meant Uganda.”
Zippel, 38, is a shliach–one of 4,000 emissaries of the late Lubavitcher rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, leader of Chabad-Lubavitch, an Orthodox sect dedicated to the strictest adherence to Jewish law. These troops fan out to every corner of the globe, encouraging Jews with even the most casual affiliation to elevate their faith beyond bagels and “Seinfeld” to keeping kosher, studying the Torah and observing holidays, including Hanukkah, which started Tuesday evening.
It is a tough sell, but the rabbi, born in Milan, Italy, is not deterred by the long odds. He is as exuberant at tending to the spiritual needs of Utah’s Jews–now estimated at about 1,300 households–as the day he arrived in 1992.
“Sure, it would be easier to do this somewhere else, but here I can make a real contribution,” he said. “In cities with a big infrastructure, it is often unclear who needs to do what. But in Salt Lake City it is very simple.”
That might include presiding over birth ceremonies, deaths, Sabbath dinners, study groups and yes, the annual lighting of the menorah across from Temple Square, the epicenter of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
In fact, Gov.-elect Jon Huntsman Jr., part of an old-line, high-profile Mormon family, was the guest of honor at Tuesday’s Hanukkah festivities at a church-owned shopping mall.
While Zippel is not the only rabbi in the state–there are four other congregations in Utahhe certainly has cultivated the highest profile.
His job description has ranged from serving as a chaplain during the 2002 Winter Olympics to working with at-risk Jewish teens. (Utah has more adolescent residential treatment centers than any other state.)
Over the years, his name has popped up more than 50 times in the Salt Lake Tribune, where he has weighed in on everything from “The Passion of the Christ” to Los Angeles Dodgers player Shawn Green’s refusal to play on Yom Kippur.
A gentle approach
Perhaps it is his gentle, self-effacing manner that makes Zippel the Beehive State’s most visible Jew. Or simply that with his full beard, traditional black suit and wide-brimmed hat, Zippel fits the stereotype of a rabbi–especially to those who never had met one.
“I never get tired of people asking questions about faith and ritual,” he said. “I see it as an opportunity . . . to educate and to make this world one step more refined.”
Being such a minority likely would make many Jews uneasy–especially given the Mormons’ history for proselytizing, a basic tenet of their faith.
“When I came, I didn’t know what to expect,” said the father of six children, ages 3 to 13. “Yet from the beginning, the Mormons have gone out of their way to make us feel welcome. We have never had any trouble.”
Indeed, Zippel can cite numerous examples of Mormon church leaders accommodating his religion. When the shopping mall management balked at the prospect of an 8-foot menorah, one phone call from Gordon Hinckley, president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, removed all obstacles.
“He told me that he believes very strongly in what I represent,” Zippel said. “They have the highest degree of respect for faith–even when that faith is someone else’s.”
Despite the warm welcome, building an Orthodox community has not been easy. Salt Lake City now has two Orthodox synagogues, and Zippel’s draws 40 to 50 worshipers every Sabbath. There also is a mikvah (ritual bath) and more kosher products on supermarket shelves, although meat is shipped in from Los Angeles.
Still missing, though, are amenities that families such as the Zippels take for granted in cities like Chicago: a traditional Jewish day school (all six Zippel children are home-schooled), social activities and dining options. When the Utah Chabad headquarters purchased the now-defunct Greek restaurant next door, Zippel said his children asked if they could just take the food from their own kitchen and sit in the booths. “They just wanted the experience of eating out,” he said.
Fluent in French, English, Italian, German, Hebrew and Yiddish, Zippel always assumed he would wind up in an urban center as an interpreter. But his love of Judaism and a meeting with Schneerson, who died in 1994, persuaded him to do otherwise. It was the Lubavitcher rebbe–a mere 24 hours before he suffered the stroke that left him speechless–who encouraged Zippel to go west, predicting that this remote outpost would be “a tremendous success,” Zippel said.
He became part of a wave of men in their 20s in the early 1990s who were eager to spread Schneerson’s ideals. In the last decade, the number of Chabad-Lubavitch centers has doubled worldwide to 600, including in such unlikely spots as Nepal and China.
The Brooklyn headquarters gave Zippel $30,000 in seed money to open the Chabad House in Utah. (In those days, he also was responsible for Wyoming, Montana and Idaho). By the end of 1993, the operation was self-sufficient. Donations come from a range of constituencies, including visiting skiers and parents of at-risk teens in treatment centers grateful that Zippel was crisscrossing the state, maintaining Jewish ties while their children were far from home.
“Despite his appearance, the kids could see right away that Rabbi Zippel was someone they could relate to . . . who wouldn’t be preachy,” said Jerry Schwimmer of Northbrook, whose now 20-year-old son spent his senior year at a residential treatment center in Utah. “He just knows how to bridge the gap.”
Those sentiments were echoed by Nancy Rebecca of Chicago, whose son, now 16, was at another facility.
“Despite the fact that I was non-practicing, Rabbi Zippel made us feel so welcome,” said Rebbeca, who attended a Sabbath dinner at his home. “I felt very connected to my faith.”
And her son? While in Utah, he had a bar mitzvah.
For Zippel, it’s all in a day’s work. “You just hope to leave things a little more gentle, a little more holy,” he said.