A road trip for religion

Rabbi's bring their faith to rural Alberta

Graeme Morton, Calgary Herald
Saturday, August 1, 2009

Calgary-Herold-e.gifIt's a frequent rite of passage for young men to load up a car and head out on a long, summer road trip. Beaches, campsites, concerts and pubs top their itinerary.

But if you see a silver Toyota with 'CHABAD 1' on its licence plate rolling down the Alberta asphalt, it's carrying a pair of young Hasidic Jewish rabbis on a midsummer mission of spiritual outreach.

Yossi Matusof of Calgary and Moshe Raices of Postville, Iowa, both 21, have teamed up for a second summer of touring smaller cities and rural areas across Alberta as part of the international Roving Rabbis program. Organized by the Chabad Lubavitch movement, more than 500 young rabbis and senior rabbinical students are expected to visit 11,000 communities this summer.

Matusof, the son of Rabbi Menachem Matusof, executive director of Chabad Lubavitch of Alberta, and Raices are on the road to reach out to Jews who live in communities too small to be served by a synagogue or a resident rabbi.

"It's a definite plus to have this same pair back with us because they're familiar with the Alberta territory and they can hit the ground running, so to speak," says Matusof of his son and friend.

Their first week of roving took the young rabbis to the Red Deer, Didsbury and Olds areas.

"We ended up spending a lot of time last week in a shopping mall in Red Deer, because we met a number of Israelis working there," says Yossi Matusof. "And we were able to reconnect with a number of Jews in smaller towns that we first met last summer. We had one man open his door and say, 'Oh, you guys are back, good to see you.' "

The pair have their car's back seat packed with religious items such as mezuzahs, shabbos candles, books and educational/ inspirational DVDs to share with Jews in rural areas, many of whom are unaffiliated with any particular branch of the faith.

While they have a contact list from last year's travels, Raices says part of their summer trek involves a little spiritual detective work.

"Whenever we stop for gas, in the motels we stay in or at a restaurant, we always ask the people if they know of any Jews who might live in their town. You never know where an inquiry is going to lead," says Raices.

"When you're in a small, remote community, you think you're the only Jew around for hundreds of miles and you can feel pretty isolated in trying to practise your faith."

Part of their Alberta summer will be spent strolling the streets of Canmore and Banff, meeting with Jewish tourists visiting the two mountain resorts. Matusof and Raices are expanding their territory this year with planned treks north to Grande Prairie and/ or Fort McMurray before they leave on Aug. 18.

When they're not on the road, Matusof and Raices are in Calgary helping out with the day-to-day operations of the Chabad Lubavitch centre in Woodlands.

"We don't take a day off. There's so much to do. We get a good feeling when we've established a connection with people; you've accomplished something and perhaps helped someone rekindle their faith," says Yossi Matusof.

Next week, they're due to tour the Lethbridge and Medicine Hat regions.

Matusof and Raices are nearing the completion of their formal rabbinical training and will again team up this fall to serve as mentors for teenage students at Toronto's Yeshivas Lubavitch school.

While they're in Alberta, Matusof and Raices can be reached at 587-999-2815 or via e-mail at [email protected].