You don’t really understand what Hanukkah is all about?
You wonder why some Jewish men wear small black boxes strapped to their heads?
You want to know why Hasidic Jews prohibit handshakes between males and females?
Just ask, said Rabbi Mendel Danow of the newly formed Pensacola Chabad Jewish Center, a part of the Orthodox Jewish Hasidic movement that stresses a deeper quest for understanding of the nature of God and intellectual pursuit of the divine.
Just ask, Danow said. And seek answers. That’s what Chabad has stressed since its founding in Russia in the 1700s. In fact, “Chabad” is actually a Hebrew acronym that translates to “wisdom,” “understanding” and “knowledge.”
Rabbi Danow and his wife, Nechama Danow, moved from Brooklyn, New York, eight weeks ago to establish the first Chabad Center in the area, giving Hasidic Jews their first true home in Pensacola.
Some Pensacolians got their first glimpse of the rabbi and his wife and their first introduction to the Pensacola Chabad Jewish Center on Sunday night during the group’s lighting of the Grand Menorah at Pensacola City Hall to usher in Hanukkah.
“We had a beautiful event,” the 24-year-old rabbi said. “The mayor was there. It was a chance to meet so many people.”
The Chabad movement, centered in Brooklyn, stresses outreach and a more personal understanding of faith.
“In short, it’s to bring the hidden parts of the Torah, the more Kabbalistic realm of Judaism, more into the open,” Rabbi Danow said of the esoteric pursuits associated with the complex understanding of Kabbalah. “Even a simple person can understand or be expired by this depth of Judaism.”
He said Chabad allows a more personal pursuit of God.
“We should not just believe in God,” Danow said. “But we should know God and not just believe. If we are supposed to love God, shouldn’t we know God? How can you love something which you do not know?”
Both Danows said more and more Hasidic Jews, and those interested in Judaism, have found their way to the Pensacola Chabad Jewish Center, which is also the residence of the couple, who are expecting their first child later this month. They conduct Sabbath services there and also host Friday night meals.
Rabbi Dannow became interested in establishing a Chabad center in Pensacola after numerous visits to a Chabad center in Destin and learning there was no such presence in the most populated city in Northwest Florida. Swedish born, he has been living in the United States for years, but his wife is a newcomer to the United States. The couple met in Israel and have been married less than a year.
“I lived in Israel my whole life until I got married,” Nechama Danow said. “We lived a few months in New York before coming here.”
But, she said, it has been smooth assimilation.
“I have family in the United States,” she said, adding that many visited her in Israel throughout her life there. “They would come from the United States. That’s how I learned to speak English. It hasn’t been a big surprise to me.”
The Pensacola Chabad Jewish Center, located on cul-de-sac off Langley Avenue, is filled with a rich library of Jewish texts, from the books of the Torah to countless books explaining and examining the books of the Torah, which Christians refer to as the Old Testament. There are books from the Talmud, a source of Jewish law and theology; books from the Mishnah, which is the written collection of Jewish oral teachings; and many other books on Hasidic teachings.
Rabbi Danow showed those and then some of the items associated with Hasidic Judaism, including the tefillah, a small leather box containing small pieces of paper with verses from the Torah which are worn, strapped to the forehead, during morning prayers by Orthodox Jews.
“We welcome all questions,” he said. “And we welcome all who believe or who are interested in learning.”