All I needed to know I learned from the Lubavitche

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\ I say “nearly” because I knew nothing about the religion until I stumbled across a music group called “The Liberated Wailing Wall” at a Christian coffeehouse in Bellevue, Wash., in 1973. The debate on the group’s sponsor, Jews for Jesus, belongs to another blog post, but let’s just say my interest in things Jewish was piqued. It blazed up when I was assigned to live with a Sephardic Jewish family while an exchange student in Strasbourg, France in 1975. I figured their habit of substituting beer for Sabbath wine was due to proximity of the German border.\

\ When I returned, I signed up for a Sabbath course at the Mittleman Jewish Community Center in Portland, Ore. There I learned how to bake challah, the braided bread usually served on the Sabbath. I learned Hebrew songs, Israeli dance steps and how to say the Hebrew berakhot (blessings) over the Sabbath bread and wine plus a candlelighting blessing that only women recite. \

\ By 1983, I was working as a reporter in Hollywood, Fla., when into the newsroom walked one Rabbi Raphael Tennenhaus, press release in hand. \

\ Back then, the rabbi was a little-known 20-something from Montreal who was deputized by the Lubavitch headquarters in New York to bring his lively brand of Orthodox Judaism to Broward County. Rabbi Tennenhaus was one energetic guy and a genius at publicizing his tiny synagogue, Congregation Levi-Yitzchok Lubavitch. Back then, it was a storefront in Hallandale, one of Miami’s northern suburbs. He had just founded Chabad of South Broward, a Jewish educational outreach, and he was always coming up with outrageous publicity stunts. I still remember him hauling about town a “sukkah mobile;” a tiny house-like structure perched atop a U-haul trailer with Israeli music blaring from the loudspeakers. That was his way of publicizing the Jewish holiday of Sukkot. The Christian evangelists I knew from the Jesus movement had nothing on this guy.\

\ Although some of the Jewish reporters in my newsroom were not thrilled with him (the rabbi would not shake hands with unrelated women, for starters), I found him very interesting. Being that our newspaper sat in the middle of America’s fourth largest Jewish community, the management wanted some sophisticated religion reporting beyond the usual holiday piece. As I dove into features about the Jewish get (a divorce decree) and a local family who made aliyah (a move) to Israel, it was this rabbi whom I called for help in fact checking. channukah%20photo.jpg \

\ We became friends and I was introduced to his wife, Goldie, and their growing family. I attended services at his temple and showed up at their home for a Sabbath dinner. His children, who were quite young at the time, could already recite the 10 plagues of Egypt from memory, so I brought along a game of Bible Trivia and we used the cards that applied to the Old Testament. The kids won. It was this rabbi who told me the term “Old Testament” is offensive to many Jews and that if I wanted to get anywhere on my interviews, I should refer instead to the “Hebrew Bible.” \

\ In return, I helped the rabbi to see what was and was not considered newsworthy. He would always drop things off at my office, such as guides on candle lighting times for the Sabbath and bios about the messianic leader of the Lubavitch movement of Hassidic Judaism: Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, who later died in 1994. These days, there are workshops on Judaism for aspiring religion writers but back then, there was nothing, not even Google. Aside from sympathetic rabbis, my only reference book was the venerable “Jewish Catalogue: A Do-It-Yourself Kit.”\

\ I eventually moved away to Houston but the rabbi faithfully stayed in south Broward. I have since learned that his annual Hanukkah festival is now the world’s largest. Last year, it attracted 8,000 people and a congratulatory message from President Bush. This year, he’s expecting 10,000 people to attend a Hannukah blow-out next Tuesday at Gulfstream Race Track in Hallandale.\

\ He is also 50, the father of seven children and grandfather to four and his beard is a lot longer than when I met him at the age of 25. His much-expanded synagogue now owns the shopping center on Hallandale Beach Boulevard that once housed the storefront. \

\ A lot can be said for sticking with something until you succeed at it. \

\ For those of you who can manage the Hebrew, here’s the holiday blessing: “Baruch atah Adonai, Elohainu melech ha-olam. Asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu l’hadlik ner shel Hanukkah.”\

\ Or: “Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, king of the universe, Who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to kindle the Hanukkah light.”\

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\ A cold, blustery night is no deterrent to the crowd gathering for the lighting of the National Menorah, celebrating the first night of Chanukah, on the Ellipse in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, December 4, 2007. (James R. Brantley/The Washington Times)\

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\ Dreidel Man attracts much attention during the lighting of the National Menorah. A dreidel is a spinning top toy associated with the Jewish holiday Chanukah. (James R. Brantley/The Washington Times)\

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\ Julia Duin, assistant national editor/religion, The Washington Times\

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