They’re a long way from home, and yet Yossi Matusof and Moshe Raices are exactly where they want to be.
For the second year in a row, Matusof and Raices, rabbinical students from Calgary and Iowa respectively, are touring parts of Alberta seeking out members of Jewish communities in rural areas.
The 21-year-old students arrived in Grande Prairie Monday night and leave today. Their journey, part of the Chabad Rabbinical Visitation Program that’s part of the Calgary-based Chabad-Lubavitch of Alberta movement, will also take them to places like Cochrane, Lethbridge, Medicine Hat, and Rumsey.
“Last year we focused more on southern Alberta, this year we wanted to take a step further and grow,” said Matusof, whose father Rabbi Menachem M. Matusof, founded Chabad-Lubavitch 20 years ago.
Matusof and Raices met at least five members of the Grande Prairie Jewish community, and sought out others by walking through Prairie Mall and other businesses and talking to people.
“Whenever we’ll stop in any city, if we don’t have any contacts, we’ll ask people in the gas station, we’ll ask around. This is an opportunity that doesn’t really come up too much,” Matusof said.
“This is our first time in Grande Prairie, but throughout our experience, usually people really aren’t used to rabbis showing up and they usually like the opportunity and invite friends.”
The young Chassidic rabbis are part of a worldwide program dubbed the “Roving Rabbis,” a summer outreach program with more than 500 rabbis and rabbinical students first conceived in 1943.
Their goal is to offer Jewish services to people who might not otherwise have the opportunity, as well as inspire and educate those who are curious and want to reconnect with their Jewish background. They come armed with everything from DVDs, Shabbat candles, mezuzahs, and kosher food.
“Sometimes we talk about their family history, and depending on the town the Jewish history of that town as well,” Matusof said. “We speak about inspirational stories and bring Judaism a little bit to life. When a person is living in a place all by himself, he appreciates the time to hear a little bit more about the religion.”
And, of course, the tour helps them in their studies, which they’re a few years away from completing.
“Sometimes we just meet with people and hear their stories, and some people we meet and they want to discuss Jewish philosophy or ethics, and we’ve learned with people as well, some actual studies of the Torah,” Raices said, who is from Postville, Iowa.
“We’re meeting people a lot older than us and have a lot of experience in life; a lot of people lived in a lot of different types of Jewish communities throughout their lives,” Matusof said.
The summer tour is winding down, but they’re already looking forward to next year, when they plan to push further north and visit places like Fort McMurray – and Grande Prairie again.