By: Aharon Loschak For three inspiring days, young Jews from…
International mitzvah program brings singles and young families together
It’s becoming a familiar storyline: As the coronavirus pandemic wears on, life in urban centers across the world is almost entirely disrupted, and so young urbanites are fleeing the metropolises for smaller, quieter places.
Suburban realtors talk of the influx of city-dwellers, and the media is filled with story after story about how this one has found refuge in this small town, and that one has found respite in another quaint corner.
For those involved with Jewish life, making such a move entails a unique challenge: finding their niche in a socially distanced Jewish community largely active only in virtual spaces. What’s more, while in the beginning days of the pandemic online Zoom events exploded, as time marches on a certain fatigue has crept in as people look for something beyond staring at a computer screen.
Kayla Bogad and her fiancé, Nadav Esan, are one such couple. Relocating last spring from Rochester, N.Y., to Raleigh, N.C., they were just acclimating to their new community of Chabad Young Professionals headed up by Rabbi Zalmy and Mushky Dubinsky. And then it happened: A pandemic raged wild, and community life was suddenly upended.
Not missing a beat, the Zoom events commenced, along with other innovative programs that managed to keep the threads of community tied together. “The reality is that eventually, we are all kind of sick of Zoom,” says Bogad. “Meaningful conversation in the age of COVID has been very hard, and it has been challenging to connect with my Judaism during these times.”
When Bogad got the message from Rabbi Dubinsky about a new program called “Connect10n” (connection with the number “10” in the middle), she was very excited.
Hands-On Activities, Including Candles and Challah
“The idea is that every week for 10 weeks, we focus on another one of the 10 mitzvahs that the Rebbe [Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory] promoted,” explains Dubinsky.
The project is a grassroots effort that was initially born on a WhatsApp chat between a few rabbis and has since spread like wildfire. The initiative, called “Connect10n,” is now being coordinated by the central CYP offices at Merkos Suite 302 in Brooklyn, N.Y., under the directorship of Rabbi Beryl Frankel.
There are multiple resources for the weekly campaigns with the subject matter different each time presenting an innovative, interactive program that works virtually, in person or both.
Those involved in the initiative are already sparking conversation and connections they would have never otherwise imagined. “A few weeks ago, we focused on the mitzvah of lighting Shabbat candles,” relates Bogad. “I try to keep Shabbat at home, but lighting candles is not always on my consciousness. That week, I made sure to light at home, and as I was about to light, my parents called to say ‘Hi.’ When they asked what I was doing, I explained that I was lighting Shabbat candles. One thing led to another, and long story short, my Mom sent me a new pair of special Shabbat candlesticks.”
Dubinsky’s own Bubby even got involved. How? As part of the larger Shabbat conversation, many in the community took to baking their own challah in honor of Shabbat. Bogad describes a lively WhatsApp chat where recipes, pictures, successes and failures (and yeast woes) are shared. When Mushky Dubinsky shared her Bubby’s recipe, Bogad tried it herself and then tweaked it, sharing it back, working her way all the way up the chain back to Bubby.
Word has it that Bubby is satisfied with the twist.
A House Full of Books
One of the particularly satisfying elements of this campaign is the underlying message it imparts: Judaism is practiced and celebrated at home. While communal institutions and synagogues are precious and cherished, the Rebbe strongly advocated that every Jew transform his or her own home, own life, into a personal space for G‑d. Rather than limit Judaism to select shining edifices, Judaism is there for the taking everywhere—kitchen, dining room and bedroom, first and foremost.
Indeed, one of the important elements of the Rebbe’s efforts to send Chabad-Lubavitch emissary couples all over the world was not just to create a robust network of synagogues, schools and community centers, but ambassadors who could serve as living examples. When Chabad emissary families demonstrate how their homes are Jewish homes, beacons of light—it shows everyone around them that they are capable of the same.
This message underpins every one of the 10 mitzvah campaigns the Rebbe launched: Each one is something any person can do anywhere, and most importantly, have a profound impact on the home.
In an uncanny twist of fate, the circumstances of quarantine have forced many to shift away from conventional thinking, opening the door to such ideas. After all, if everyone is at home anyway, what better time to focus on Judaism’s contribution to personal spaces?
In Austin, the capital of Texas, community members are doing just that.
Michael Morgenstern recently made the move from the bustling streets of Manhattan to the quieter ones of Austin. Immediately connecting with Rabbi Mendy and Mussie Levertov of the Chabad Young Professionals community, the only thing he lacked, in his words, was true kosher barbecue.
After many months in quarantine, the innovative programming of “Connect10n” was a welcome respite. “I particularly connected with the campaign about having a home full of Jewish books,” shares Morgenstern. “I didn’t put much thought into it before, but when I did, I really appreciated what a bookshelf of Jewish books can do to my home and my entire life.
“I have bought a number of new Jewish books, and nowadays, I cozy up on a Shabbat afternoon and read the day away. Instead of pop psychology, I’m now reading the new book Positivity Bias about the Rebbe’s positive outlook on everything in life, and it has really changed my thinking.
“Particularly in these COVID times, life can get somewhat drone-like. With my new knowledge, I’m appreciating how every interaction is full of meaning, and really, the ideas of this book inject life into everything.”
Bringing Competition to Ritual
If a shelf of Jewish books can transform a home, that can certainly be said about a mitzvah like mikvah, which cuts to the very heart of intimate family life. In anticipation of her wedding, Bogad certainly was aware of the mikvah, but others in her circle—not so much.
For the “Mikvah Week” of “Connect10n,” a social-media competition was held in which various Chabad centers posted a picture of their mikvah—each one more beautiful and state-of-the-art than the next—and people voted on which they thought was the nicest. The magnificent pictures, the competition and the conversation it sparked brought this key ritual to the minds of those who may have not otherwise thought about it.
“I was speaking about it to a friend of mine who’s already married, and she wanted to take part in it herself … and she’s excited about getting the opportunity to do so,” says Bogad. After securing a private tour with Mushky Dubinsky and reviewing mikvah safety protocols for COVID, plans are underway to do just that.
Adds Bogen: “This program and everything that comes along with it has really shown me that we will not let COVID get in the way of exploring Judaism.”