For the past three weeks, Leibel Kahanov and Ephraim Zimmerman have traveled throughout Montana, encouraging other Jews in their faith.
The two young men are not hard to spot. They wear identical black pants and white dress shirts, yarmulkes – or skullcaps – on their heads and long, curly, dark-brown beards.
Kahanov, 22, of Jacksonville, Fla., and Zimmerman, 23, of Chicago, are members of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, one branch of Orthodox Judaism, which has its headquarters in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Both are rabbis who study at Yeshiva University in New York.
“Chabad” is a Hebrew acronym for the expression “wisdom, intelligence and knowledge” – words that describe the theology of the movement. Lubavitch is a town in White Russia, now Belarus, where the movement was based for more than a century.
Unlike other branches of Orthodox Judaism, the Chabad-Lubavitch movement seeks to reach out to Jews who have grown up without getting in touch with their heritage and their identity. For more than 40 years, it has sent out emissaries in pairs, both in the United States and beyond, to encourage nonobserving Jews to adopt Orthodox Jewish observance.
This is Zimmerman’s second time in Montana; he spent a month here in the summer of 2007. It’s Kahanov’s first visit, and both men said they have enjoyed their time here, among Jews and non-Jews alike. “People are very friendly,” Zimmerman said.
In one town, the pair knocked on the door of the wrong home after getting the address mixed up. Even so, a woman opened the door and invited the two in for refreshments and to chat.
“Back East, that wouldn’t happen,” Kahanov said.
The two men have driven throughout the state, from Kalispell and Missoula to Helena, Bozeman, Livingston, Billings and places in between. They bring books, tools for worship, knowledge and a helping hand.
Their work is easier because Rabbi Chaim Bruk and his wife, Chavie, opened a permanent Chabad-Lubavitch Center in Bozeman in 2007. So the two travelers use the center as their launching place and return there to stock up on kosher food before they again hit the road. They also get from Bruk names of people they can visit. Or they find people Bruk hasn’t yet met and they put those people in touch with the Bozeman rabbi.
“You used to meet someone, and that was all for a year,” Kahanov said. “But now there’s a Chabad center, so it’s not the end. It’s more of a beginning of a connection. That’s a very positive thing.”
In March, Kahanov traveled to Mumbai, India, the site of last November’s devastating three-day terrorist attack that left 166 people dead, including a rabbi and his wife who directed a Chabad center there, and four other Jews.
“There’s no rabbi there now, so they need people to keep the community going,” Kahanov said.
Volunteers there teach weekly Torah classes and put on Friday Shabbat meals. And they provide a spot where local Jews and travelers can come to “a home away from home,” he said.
The center was heavily damaged in the attack, and its work is now done elsewhere. But Kahanov stopped by the building a few times and called his visits there chilling. He also learned about Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg and his wife, Rivka, killed in the attack, from others who knew them. “I sort of got to know who they were,” he said. “Everybody told us stories. It was a sobering experience.”
It was also fulfilling, he said, to help continue and strengthen the work the couple had begun. “The terrorists were trying to fight their war with evil and violence,” he said. “We’re going to fight back by trying to add light, and if you bring enough light, it will dispel the evil and get rid of the darkness.”
Zimmerman said that is the philosophy of Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, also called the Lubavitcher Rebbe, the last in the line of spiritual leaders of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement until his death in 1994.
“The more I get involved, the more I appreciate the Rebbe’s compassion and approach to making the world a better place,” he said.
For a few more days, the pair will meet with as many Jews as they can, helping equip them to spread a little light in their own lives, to honor God.
“This is a message that applies to Jews and Gentiles alike,” Zimmerman said.