Cindy Mindell – Jewish Ledger
Their first “office” in the area was a payphone at the University of Hartford.
Now, 33 years after Rabbi Yosef and Miriam Gopin were sent by the Lubavitcher Rebbe to establish a Chabad presence in greater Hartford, what has become the Northern and Central Connecticut region of Chabad counts seven centers and thousands of supporters. At its annual gala dinner on Oct. 19, Chabad of Greater Hartford – joined by the other Chabad houses in the region – will honor Rabbi Gopin for his contributions to the Jewish community.
“After so many years, it only made sense to honor Rabbi Gopin,” says Rabbi Mendel Samuels, director of Chabad of the Farmington Valley. “He’s a humble person and the idea has been brought up before, but he always wanted to honor someone else. The board decided it was only appropriate to honor him.”
Born in Israel, Yosef Gopin came to New York in the early ’70s to study in yeshiva and get his rabbinic ordination. Miriam, a native Australian, was studying in France and had come to New York to meet the Lubavitcher Rebbe and visit her sister. She extended her visit twice, first to attend her sister’s wedding, and then because she had met her future husband. After completing her studies in France, Miriam married Yosef in Australia and the couple returned to New York in 1974. Their first child of nine was born a year later.
When the Gopins first arrived as “shluchim,” or emissaries, most people hadn’t heard of Chabad, Samuels says. “Rabbi Gopin started from zero, getting one student after another. He paved the way for future emissaries.”
Before landing in Hartford, the couple took a detour to Amherst, Mass. to assist another Chabad rabbi at the University of Massachusetts and the other area colleges. Rabbi Gopin’s English was limited, Miriam says. “I don’t know how the students understood him. But he was like the Pied Piper: they just got his spirit and they would come home with him for Shabbat dinner. ”
In 1977, the Gopins rented a small apartment in West Hartford and quickly found that their appeal extended beyond campus work at the University of Hartford and into the greater Jewish community. “My living room and dining room were always full,” Miriam says. One of the first projects Chabad sponsored was sending several thousand mishloach manot – traditional packages of Purim treats – through the mail. In 1980, with the help of several donors, they bought a house on Farmington Avenue and expanded operations. In those early years, Rabbi Gopin was the only Chabad rabbi in the area, so he did everything, Miriam says, at the University of Hartford, UConn, and Wesleyan University.
In the mid-’90s, Chabad constructed a new building on Albany Avenue, where it operates today. In addition to centers in greater Hartford and at University of Hartford and UConn, the Gopins helped establish Chabad houses in New London, Litchfield, Simsbury, Glastonbury, and activities at Wesleyan University, as well as summer day camps throughout the region.
“There are several things I have seen obviously change from when we first came,” Miriam says. “For example, Purim was nearly a non-existent holiday. The synagogues would read the Megillah and have a small program, but one of our first Purim parties, at Beth David with Rabbi Cohen, drew 800 people. A few people gave mishloach manot. Now, thank God, everyone seems to be in on the act.”
The Gopins have seen more and more people come to Chabad House to buy a lulav and etrog before Sukkot, and shmurah matzah before Pesach, something the couple used to deliver to hundreds of offices in the area. “People tell us, ‘We can’t imagine our seder without authentic matzah,'” Miriam says.
People still come to Chabad House on Simchat Torah after celebrating at their respective synagogues, Miriam says, “because they expect us to last the longest. That’s one of my first memories: We had hakafot [dancing with the Torah] and my husband was the only one who knew the songs and did the dances, so he had to keep on going. Without him, it wouldn’t have happened. Now, thank God, he’s one of the old guys.”
Rabbi Yosef Wolvovsky was brought in seven years ago to establish the Chabad Jewish Center in Glastonbury and a Chabad presence at Wesleyan University. He describes Rabbi Gopin as “a transformational figure.”
“He has tirelessly worked to educate and inspire thousands of local families and has brought the joy of Yiddishkeit to the greater Hartford communityl” says Wolvovsky, who is married to Rabbi Gopin’s daughter, Yehudit. “On a personal level, Rabbi Gopin is a mentor and an inspiration. By his example, he uplifts the people around him, myself included. And he is still going strong.”
Rabbi Gopin is many things to many people, says David Chase, an early and staunch supporter. “He is a very effective, committed, and dedicated human being. He is a great religious leader and someone who proves himself to be very successful, even against tremendous odds,” he says. A “hidden asset,” Chase says, is the rebbetzin Miriam. “She is a wonderful human being and together they make a great couple.”
Chabad of Greater Hartford board member Coleman Levy met Rabbi Gopin when the rabbi walked into Levy’s law firm and proved “very engaging,” Levy says. He didn’t proselytize, but rather started out academically, setting up a weekly Talmud class at the firm.
“Rabbi Gopin helps people with emotional issues, youngsters with addiction, people with family problems,” Levy says. “He gives guidance to young and old, never rejecting anyone. Rabbi Gopin has been making people aware of their Jewishness and of Judaism, and has done a tremendous amount of good.”
Alan Lazowski, who chairs the board of Chabad of Greater Hartford, witnessed that caring and compassion firsthand more than 25 years ago, when Rabbi Gopin helped a cousin in need.
“Over the years, I have seen Rabbi Gopin and his fellow rabbis at the seven area Chabad houses that he has created touch the lives of hundreds of people through teaching, spiritual guidance, friendship and prayer,” Lazowski says. “Rabbi Gopin is one of the most unique and special individuals who can connect with anyone and have them immediately feel his warmth and goodness.”
Gene Rosenberg, co-founder of Bob’s Discount Furniture and a Chabad of Greater Hartford board member, met Rabbi Gopin 20 years ago, “and it was instantaneous friendship,” Rosenberg says. “I saw a man who had a tremendous commitment to perpetuate Jewishness and the Jewish religion. He has brought the community together, people from all walks of life. You feel honored to be part of the diverse group he’s brought together in one room.”
“Rabbi Gopin is available 24/7 to help the community, and I don’t know of one organization that hasn’t called on him because they know and love him,” says Rabbi Samuels. “The type of work he does, and that every Chabad rabbi does, under the tutelage of the Rebbe, is to make sure that every single Jew has a place to go and have a place where they feel that nobody’s judging them. Rabbi Gopin has created that. He is a real example of a community leader and a true emissary of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.”