TANIA VALDEMORO – Miami Herald
This weekend, Rabbi Yossi Wolff will translate and share the meanings of Hebrew prayers and songs of the Jewish New Year to Jews at the Chabad of Homestead & Cutler Bay.
It’s a role that the young and charismatic London-born rabbi feels is essential to the spiritual growth of his budding congregation spread across South Dade.
“I hired a cantor to lead the prayers while I explain them with a story, even a joke once in a while, to make sure people understand what is being said and what it means,” Wolff said.
Fifty to 60 Jews are expected to attend services for Rosh Hashana or the Jewish New Year and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
The religious services are free. Most synagogues usually charge for families to attend the High Holiday services.
“As a Jew, everyone is obligated to pray and we want to make it so that they can,” Wolff said.
Last September, the rabbi, his wife Mindy and their two school-age daughters moved to Cutler Bay from Brooklyn, N.Y. They started a new, Orthodox synagogue that is open to all Jews, regardless of their religious or in some cases, secular upbringing.
The couple belongs to the Chabad-Lubavitch, a Hasidic movement within Orthodox Judaism. They follow the teachings of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, who headed the Chabad-Lubavitch movement in the latter half of the 20th century.
“We were always looking to make a difference in a community that does not have a Jewish center,” Wolff said. “We have been told to light up the spark of every Jewish person.”
A handful of Jewish families regularly attend minyans or services and other activities at the Wolff home. [The Chabad is moving Yom Kippur services to a larger house to accommodate more people.]
The rabbi also keeps up with 100 or so nearby Jews through his mailing list.
The couple’s warmth and style of personal interaction have attracted local Jews — and kept them coming back.
What also has people returning: Mindy’s tasty traditional cooking of gefilte fish or boneless fish and cholent or meat and potato stew.
Joseph Perez, 35, of Homestead, brought his sons to the Chabad’s new Jewish Kids Club last week. As a warm-up to Rosh Hashana, Aaron and Samuel Perez blew a ram’s horn or shofar during the prayers. The children also dipped apples in caramel sauce.
“The rabbi is very open and caring about the needs of the family,” said Perez, who heard about the new synagogue from Rabbi Yakov Fellig of the Chabad of South Dade in Coconut Grove. “Until they came, there was no other community.”
Chabad members say Wolff has succeeded in forging a sense of community for them. The congregation has a men’s circle, a women’s circle and a new children’s club. There are plans to provide more study classes for the Torah this year.
Dan Wengier, 31, of Princeton, said his family feels comfortable praying at the Chabad.
“It’s a great environment. My kids love playing there with the other children,” he added.
As a member of the men’s circle, Wengier has bonded with the rabbi and other men through religious discussions, Kosher meals, bowling and deep sea fishing at Black Point Marina. They are now considering rock climbing and paintball.
“We mix the fun and the religion,” said Wengier, who attended Young Israel of Kendall, an Orthodox synagogue in Kendall before coming to Wolff’s Chabad.
As the new community grows in size, Wolff said he eventually wants to move the Chabad out of his home and into a storefront or another property with more space. For now, he is concentrating on the High Holidays and how he can make them meaningful for other Jews who will share those moments with him and his family.
Wolff will guide the adults during services during Rosh Hashana while his wife will lead the children in a separate religious program.
The youngsters will listen to stories, sing prayers and get a prize for their participation. A similar round of children’s activities are planned for Yom Kippur.
“A lot of people picture Judaism as studying. It’s much more than that,” the rabbi said.