Judaism in a Suitcase

Laura Tester, Red Deer Advocate
Thursday, July 30, 2009

Red Deer Roving Rabbis.jpgTwo 21-year-old rabbis are finding how easy it can be to say “shalom” in Red Deer.

Yossi Matusof of Calgary and Moshe Raices of Iowa are the “Roving Rabbis”, bringing Judaism in a suitcase to Central Alberta and beyond this summer.

They expect to clock thousands of kilometres in their silver Toyota Corolla, bearing licence plate “Chabad1”, as they seek out Jews in rural areas.

They didn’t have to go far in Red Deer.

Walking through Bower Place Shopping Centre, they discovered a handful of Jews including Netanel Sofer. The young man from Jerusalem, Israel, is spending 10 months in Red Deer selling Dead Sea products.

Sofer easily identified the Orthodox Jews by their dark suits and wide-brimmed hats and the long beard that Raices is growing.

“It’s nice to see Jewish people here,” said Sofer. “It’s good for me.”

Last summer, Matusof and Raices wound up in Red Deer on the last day of their tour. They found one day wasn’t enough.

“We realized how receptive people were here, so this time we made Red Deer our first stop,” said Matusof. “Many people are excited about Judaism. They are very excited to learn so it’s definitely somewhere where we want to spend a lot of time.”

They connect with and inspire those who might feel isolated in their Jewish faith.

And they increase public awareness, too.

On their trip to the mall, one shopper was heard saying, “they look Amish.”

Raices said he hails from a community about an hour away from an Amish community, so he understands the comparison with the sect of Christians who wear plain, dark dress.

“We haven’t had any discrimination,” said Matusof. “People are very welcoming.”

They approach people to see if they are Jewish or if they know someone who is. Sometimes they’ll hear “shalom”, a Hebrew word for hello, as they walk by.

They were in Red Deer on Tuesday and Wednesday and plan to return soon, possibly Friday. Most people hear of them through word of mouth.

“Here, you have a community that is growing and they are looking to build a synagogue,” said Raices. “We’re part of a program which is specifically for a community that isn’t connected or is too small to have a rabbi or a synagogue.”

The Roving Rabbis was conceived by New York Rabbi Menachem Schneerson in 1943 and since then has bolstered Jewish communities worldwide. This year, more than 500 young rabbis and senior rabbinical students are visiting over 11,000 communities.

For the second year in a row, the Jewish organization, Chabad Lubavitch of Alberta, is conducting the Roving Rabbis program. Raices and Matusof toured last year, too.

“The program is all about caring for every Jew,” Raices said.

They’ve packed their car with videos, brochures and kosher food. They give out Shabbat candles to women, so they can light them on Friday night. Shabbat is considered a day of rest in Judaism and is observed from sundown Friday to Saturday night.

Last summer in Red Deer, Raices and Matusof gave away six mezuzahs, small pieces of parchment inscribed with passages from the Torah.

They placed tefillin, Bible inscriptions attached to long straps, on a store owner right in his Red Deer shop.

“It’s a Jewish ritual where we pray every day with these on,” said Matusof. “That’s something we try to do with people if they are interested. It’s very special for every Jewish man over the age of 13.”

Matusof and Raices are Hasidic Jews.

“There’s a definite emphasis on joy and the love of a fellow Jew,” said Matusof.

The young rabbis are just a few years from completing their lengthy rabbinical studies. They’ll be on the road until Aug. 19.

To get in touch, call 587-999-2815 or go online at