When violence between Israel and Palestinian militants intensifies — as happened in Gaza last week — American Jews thousands of miles away feel the pain and go on alert for possible repercussions.
“We’ve definitely heard concerns of antisemitism, especially as things escalate in the Middle East and Israel,” said 22-year-old rabbinical student Yosef Cohen of North Carolina.
“People feel it affects them, particularly people in bigger cities,” he said, “but it also makes its way into the suburbs.”
Among their tasks, Cohen and fellow rabbinical student Yosef Eagle of Maryland are in southern Colorado for about three weeks to encourage Jewish people to hold strong and practice their Judaism in the face of adversity.
“Standing proud is the best deterrent,” Cohen said. “I definitely find that works; those in opposition are forced to stand down against the pride of the Jewish people.”
Cohen and Eagle are among 700 students who have been dispatched around the world this summer as part of the “Roving Rabbis” program of the Merkos L’inyonei Chinuch. The school for the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, a branch of Hasidism, is based in Brooklyn, N.Y.
The pair of Yosefs are cold-calling — knocking on doors of more than 200 Jewish people that have had some sort of contact in the past with the Chabad Lubavitch of Colorado Springs and Southern Colorado. It’s the area’s only Chabad center, which is open to Jews of all affiliations, whether Reform, Conservative or Orthodox.
“Throughout the pandemic, people lost the in-person connection they had, so reconnecting, asking them how they’re doing and praying brings joy and smiles to their faces,” Cohen said.
Not all appreciate the unexpected visit, though.
“We’ve heard everything from, ‘I’m not interested’ to us spending over an hour in conversation discussing their life,” Cohen said. “There are varied responses.”
Local synagogue founder Rabbi Moshe Liberow and his wife, Zeldy, requested to receive a team of students to help reach the remote areas of southern Colorado as well as its central hub, Liberow said.
The students have visited Jews at their homes and businesses in Monte Vista, Durango, Telluride, Crested Butte, Manitou Springs, Monument, Pueblo and are in Colorado Springs this week.
Their purpose: “Unite the Jewish spark and build an awakening of the Jewish person to their roots,” Liberow said.
Students have been encouraging and inspiring people to grow in their Judaism, said Cohen, who aspires to become a pulpit rabbi at a synagogue after graduating in a few months.
They’ve assisted with mitzvahs, 613 commandments to be performed as a religious duty, such as lighting candles and donning the tefillin, small black boxes with leather straps that adult Jewish men wear during morning prayers.
Mitzvahs provide a spiritual shield of protection, Liberow said.
"The security of the Holy Land (Israel) gets strength, and Jews get tremendous support when we do mitzvahs for them, to extend an extra blessing," he said.
While in Crested Butte, Cohen and Eagle performed the Mitzvah of Teffilin on the streets with a Jewish man from Texas.
"It was very uplifting," Cohen said. "Even though they are so distant from any other Jewish community, we were able to bring a smile to their faces."
Such public displays also help foster amicable relationships with non-Jewish people, Liberow said.
The visiting rabbis program, which was suspended during the pandemic and has been reinstituted, originated in the 1940s to reach people living far away from Jewish centers. It's been going strong ever since, Liberow said.
“The idea is they’d encourage people to do good deeds and practice observances,” Liberow said.
The Jewish people are all about roots, he said, as more than 3,000 years of religious and cultural traditions and customs are as meaningful in the present as through the centuries.
The Chabad-Lubavitch movement promotes the belief that every Jewish person has a godly soul and is inspired often to connect to God and other Jews, Cohen said.
However, regardless of religious affiliation, non-Jewish people also have an obligation to promote goodness, kindness and compassion, he said.
“There’s always more you can do, and we’re trying to encourage everyone to do their best to make the world a better place.”