Spreading Judaism in a state made up of mostly Mormons

Despite long odds, rabbi happy with work serving in Utah

December 12, 2004|By Bonnie Miller Rubin | Bonnie Miller Rubin,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

SALT LAKE CITY - For almost 15 years, Rabbi Benny Zippel has been in a job that calls for an unlimited supply of optimism. Think of Captain Ahab going after Moby Dick with nothing but a fork and tartar sauce.

Day in, day out, Zippel's mission is to spread the joys of being Jewish in a state where more than 70 percent of the population is Mormon and just about everybody adheres to some denomination of Christianity.

"When I got my assignment, I had never even heard of Utah," he said. "I actually had to go look it up in an atlas. At first, I thought they meant Uganda."

Zippel, 38, is a shliach - one of 4,000 emissaries of the late Lubavitcher rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, leader of Chabad-Lubavitch, an Orthodox sect dedicated to the strictest adherence of Jewish law. These troops fan out to every corner of the globe, encouraging Jews with even the most casual affiliation to elevate their faith beyond bagels and Seinfeld to keeping kosher, studying the Torah and observing holidays such as Hanukkah, which started Tuesday evening.

It is a tough sell, but the Milan, Italy-born rabbi is not deterred by the long odds. He is as exuberant at tending to the spiritual needs of Utah's Jews - now put at about 1,300 households - as he was the day he arrived in 1992.

"Sure, it would be easier to do this somewhere else, but here I can make a real contribution," he said. "In cities with a big infrastructure, it is often unclear who needs to do what. But in Salt Lake City it is very simple."

That might include presiding over birth ceremonies, deaths, Sabbath dinners, study groups and the annual lighting of the menorah across from Temple Square, the epicenter of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

In fact, Gov.-elect Jon Huntsman Jr., part of an old-line, high-profile Mormon family, was to be the guest of honor at Tuesday's Hanukkah festivities at a church-owned shopping mall.

Though Zippel is not the only rabbi in the state - there are four other congregations in Utah - he has cultivated the highest profile.

His job description has included serving as a chaplain during the 2002 Winter Olympics and working with troubled Jewish teens. (Utah has more adolescent residential treatment centers than any other state.)

Over the years, his name has popped up more than 50 times in The Salt Lake Tribune, where he has weighed in on such subjects as The Passion of the Christ and Los Angeles Dodgers first-baseman and outfielder Shawn Green's refusal to play on Yom Kippur.

Perhaps it is his gentle, self-effacing manner that makes Zippel Utah's most visible Jew. Or simply that with his full beard, traditional black suit and wide-brimmed hat, Zippel fits the stereotype of a rabbi.

"I never get tired of people asking questions about faith and ritual. I see it as an opportunity... to educate and to make this world one step more refined."

Being such a minority would likely make many Jews uneasy, especially given the Mormons' history for proselytizing, a basic tenet of their faith.

"When I came, I didn't know what to expect," said the father of six children, ages 3 to 13. "Yet, from the beginning, the Mormons have gone out of their way to make us feel welcome. We have never had any trouble."

Indeed, Zippel can cite numerous examples of Mormon church leaders accommodating his religion. When the shopping mall management balked at the prospect of an 8-foot menorah, one phone call from Gordon Hinckley, president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, removed all obstacles.

"He told me that he believes very strongly in what I represent," Zippel said. "They have the highest degree of respect for faith - even when that faith is someone else's."

Despite the warm welcome, building an Orthodox community has not been easy. Now Salt Lake City has two Orthodox synagogues, and Zippel's draws about 40 to 50 worshipers every Sabbath. There is also a mikvah, or ritual bath, and more kosher products on supermarket shelves, although meat is shipped in from Los Angeles.

Still missing, though, are amenities that families like the Zippels take for granted in large American cities: a traditional Jewish day school (all six Zippel children are home-schooled), social activities and dining options. When the Utah Chabad House purchased the now-defunct Greek restaurant next door, Zippel said his children asked if they could just take the food from their own kitchen and sit in the booths.

"They just wanted the experience of eating out," he said.

Fluent in French, English, Italian, German, Hebrew and Yiddish, Zippel always assumed he would wind up in some urban center as an interpreter. But his love of Judaism and a meeting with Schneerson, who died in 1994, persuaded him to do otherwise.

It was the rebbe - 24 hours before he suffered the stroke that left him speechless - who encouraged Zippel to go West, predicting that this remote outpost would be "a tremendous success," Zippel said.

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