For more than two years, a movement in Hasidic Orthodox Judaism known as Chabad has been expanding in Bayonne. Knowing that many modern Jews living in the area are unaffiliated and the traditional synagogues are struggling to survive, Chabad goes into the community and performs outreach.
“It’s an outreach to Jews who maybe need some extra help with religious observance,” said Rabbi Yisrael Bennish, 32, co-director of Chabad of Bayonne with his wife, Shulamis Bennish, 28.
They do not own any buildings and host synagogue services and other programs in their midtown Bayonne home, though they do not advertise the address. People learn the location when they respond to some outreach, the rabbi said.
And they are always active with a variety of groups, including a children’s club, a teen club, a women’s group and a group for young professionals. They offer classes on “Kitchen Koshering” and do food package distributions. Their Chevrah Kadisha contingent assures that bodies are properly prepared for Jewish burial.
The Chabad also offers bar/bat mitzvah instruction for teenage boys and girls. They perform circumcisions and visit the sick in hospitals.
“The Chabad House Center (their home) offers everything Jewish for all boys and girls – all their needs,” Rabbi Bennish said.
But COVID has also forced them to change their approach. CKids intends to make children’s events engaging and meaningful as they did with the recent Tu B’Shvat Gummy Shop, a holiday event that celebrated fruit. A gummy kit was available for purchase to take home so the children could join a ZOOM call online and assemble a work of art with guidance from the rabbi.
The rabbi said some Jews go to their synagogue as well the Chabad.
“We are friends with everyone,” he said. “I do not think we are in competition.”
He said the same about the historic Jewish Community Center on Kennedy Boulevard, which typically offers Jewish programs. He noted, for example, that the JCC offers a pre-school, which the Chabad does not.
The Chabad has engaged about 150 families who interact with it on a regular basis, Rabbi Bennish said. Their High Holy Day services for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and the upcoming Passover, later this month, draw the most participants.
The rabbi and his wife also make home visits.
Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, known as “the Rebbe”, is the leader of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement. The organization is the largest Jewish organization in the world today.
The name “Chabad” is an acronym for Chochmah, Binah, Da’at (wisdom, understanding and knowledge), three levels they strive for. The name “Lubavitch” is taken from the name of the Russian village Lyubavichi, where the movement’s leaders lived for over 100 years.
Schneerson teaches that Jews could hasten the arrival of the Messiah if they practiced the traditions laid out in the Hebrew Bible and interpreted by the rabbis in the Talmud and other classical texts. It took root in the U.S. in the 1950s with Brooklyn as the epicenter. Under Schneerson’s leadership, the Lubavitch movement opens hundreds of centers, known as Chabad Houses, around the world where Jews could study, pray, receive social services and learn about Judaism. Other Chabads exist in Hoboken and Jersey City.
Rabbi Bennish, who is from Michigan, and his wife, from Minnesota, met at rabbinical college in Brooklyn. They have two children, and Shulamis works part time as administrative director at My Little Gan preschool in Hoboken.
The Chabad’s next big event is prepping for Passover, which begins on March 27 this year. Still working creatively because of the pandemic, they are preparing packages with the six ingredients needed to have a seder at home. They accept donations for it.
“The greatest joy I get is when I see people enjoy their Judaism,” the rabbi said.
And he and his wife make sure they do.