If you live in the Del Mar area, you or someone you know may have had this exact same exchange during one of the past three summers, as two young rabbis, part of Chabad Lubavitch’s Merkos Shlichus outreach program, went door to door to spread Jewish awareness and love of Torah to non-practicing Jews.
The Roving Rabbis program began in 1943 as a way to deepen the connection of Jews in remote communities. Today, the summer program consists of 400 young rabbis traveling around the world to spread knowledge about the faith they love so much.
“Through my involvement with the program, I’ve probably knocked on 3,000 to 4,000 doors,” Rabbi Heshy Dubrowski jokes.
This summer, the rabbi’s second with Roving Rabbis through Chabad Del Mar, he worked closely with families to deepen their understanding of core Jewish values and of Torah while extending the reach of Chabad in the area.
“I started off working with the established Jewish community in Del Mar — speaking with them, making house visits and showing the warmth of Judaism and special [nature] of the Torah,” he said. “Secondly, I walked around different neighborhoods trying to meet new Jewish families by just knocking on doors with mezuzot.”
Just the simple act of knocking on the door of a Jewish home became much more for the families inside, and for the rabbi himself.
“I get inspired to see men putting on tefillin for the first time, women lighting candles for Shabbat and speaking with children about the Torah,” he says. “The strength of Judaism is something that should be felt by everyone and [this program has allowed me] to share that.”
The Roving Rabbis program sends groups of two rabbis — one American and one European — to Jewish communities worldwide for all or part of their summer. Dubrowski traveled to San Diego this summer from Tampa, Fla., with a rabbinical student from Paris. He and his counterpart in the program, Mendush Naparstek, met with families at synagogue and in their homes, talking about Judaism mostly, but also connecting with families on other levels at times.
“The experience was really incredible,” Naperstek says. “We spoke with families for more than five hours at times, whether it’s about Jewish education, different questions in the Torah or anything.”
Making Judaism accessible is the main goal of the Roving Rabbis program, but answering tough questions is also part of the process for many participants.
“The first is the important role of the woman in Judaism,” Dubrowski says. “There’s a big misperception that throughout world Jewry women are second class.”
Dubrowski, who grew up in Chabad, says this is simply not the case. His parents, (his father is a rabbi, too) led a Hebrew academy in his hometown of Tampa, Fla. He says in his experiences, and through the Torah’s teachings, women take on some of the most important roles in Judaism as mothers and as children’s first teachers.
“The education of children and the peace in the home are all based around the woman, so when people look throughout Jewish heritage and look at our foremothers, women were always the most important role,” he says.
During home visits, the rabbis stress the importance of women lighting candles on Shabbat to bring more spirituality into the home. Dubrowski says the act is even more holy than a man wearing tefillin, exhibiting even more the high status of women in Judaism.
Roving rabbis also emphasize education during their visit, for which Dubrowski has a personal interest.
“Families sometimes feel as though it’s hard to get more involved in their Judaism, but the answer is through education,” he says.
Sending children to Jewish schools and programs at a young age, as well as attending shul during Shabbat, can bring a family that much closer to their faith, he explains.
“Through education, people see the warmth of the faith and form a long-standing love of Judaism,” he says. “It is of course increasingly important that families become involved while the children are still young, because as they get older, it’s more likely that they will feel disconnected.”
Daniel Lifton, a Del Mar teen who attended Jewish day school before entering high school, became one of Dubrowski’s “students” following a knock on his own front door. Lifton says the connection he feels to Judaism is correlated with the time he’s since spent at Chabad and with Dubrowski.
“I’d never really been able to ask anyone about the details of Chabad’s origins, and I felt comfortable asking [Dubrowski] because he was always around kids,” Lifton says.
In July, Lifton read from the Torah during services, and Dubrowski was on hand to help him study before the big day.
“He helped me with the reading, and I’ve been able to ask him a lot of questions during temple. It made me understand the reasons for doing things more clearly than before,” he says. “He knows a lot.”
Dubrowski also taught bar mitzvah lessons and Torah lessons to teens 14-16 at the synagogue.
“Jewish education is, at its core, the strongest form of outreach we can do,” he says, “but without parental involvement, we can do nothing.”
As a child’s first teachers, parents play a special role, Dubrowski says. The greatest way to increase a child’s understanding of Judaism is for the parents to become more involved.
During one of his neighborhood walks this summer, Dubrowski spoke with a father for four hours after simply knocking on his door.
“He now puts on tefillin once a week, all because he found a rabbi who he could connect to,” Dubrowski says.
But it’s not just parents who reap the rewards of having an almost personal rabbi. Teens like 16-year-old local Dean Meltz have also benefited greatly.
“I met [Dubrowski] about three years ago at 6:30 a.m. at shul trying to make a minyan,” Meltz says, “and he offered to teach me Torah.”
Meltz, who had not studied Torah since preparing for his bar mitzvah, says he studied with Dubrowski a few times a week with his sister and learned a lot about Judaism because of their interaction.
“He taught me who the first Jews were, and even after we were done studying we would play sports. My parents had him over for dinner, and he even got my dad to put on tefillin,” Meltz says.
Although Meltz describes himself as “not very religious,” he says he and his family attend Shabbat services every Friday and most Saturdays. After spending time with the rabbi, Meltz began to wear tefillin himself and has done so every day for the last three years.
“Having a rabbi in the house is awesome,” Meltz says, “and he definitely brought our family closer to Judaism.”
But Dubrowski says he doesn’t want to put off Jews who don’t consider themselves religious enough. Judaism is not all or nothing, he says.
“Many Jews feel they are not religious because they don’t adhere to all the mitzvot, but every mitzvah is a mitzvah for itself,” he says. “If you keep Shabbat at least once, then you did a mitzvah, and God appreciates it. If a woman lights candles once a month, that’s special, and it’s a mitzvah on its own. Every mitzvah counts for something.”
Dubrowski left San Diego to return home to Florida last month to pursue his goal of working with children. He plans to assist his parents at their Hebrew school before beginning his own Chabad academy in the future, teaching the littlest members of the tribe how to stay connected to their faith.
“One of the basics of Judaism is to love your fellow Jew, and Chabad’s message is to never look down on or judge another,” he says. “We don’t care how religious you are — you’re Jewish.”
Dubrowski says his time as a “door-to-door rabbi” was an unbelievable experience that allowed him to share his love for his faith with others in an easily accessible format.
“The Torah was given to all Jews on Mount Sinai, and when people see the message, they get involved — some just need us to go to them,” he says.
For more information on the Roving Rabbis program, visit www.chabad.org/blogs/rovingrabbis.htm.