Roving the Countryside

Wednesday, August 19, 2009
By Sara Francis, Cochrane Times

When Ian Cohen answered his doorbell he didn’t expect to see two young rabbis standing on his front step.

“It’s not a normal thing to see, I was taken aback at first. I wasn’t quite sure why they were here. I didn’t know if they were bringing news from somewhere or how they found me,” said the Cochrane resident.

That was one year ago, and this time when those same two rabbis came knocking at his door last week, he was expecting them as invited guests.

For the past two summers, 21-year-old Rabbi Yossi Matusof and Rabbi Moshe Raices traveled to small towns in Alberta meeting with Jews like Cohen who don’t have easy access to an established Jewish community.

They are part of an international program called Roving Rabbis developed by the Chabad-Lubavitch movement. This summer more than 500 young rabbis and senior rabbinical students visited 11,000 communities.

The rabbis discuss the Jewish faith, perform Jewish rituals and pray with those who are interested.

“It puts you back in touch with your roots,” said Cohen. “Living out here you sometimes feel isolated.”

Matusof said they've generally always gotten a positive reception during their travels.

“When you approach someone with a smile you get a smile in return. It’s not at all about converting or adding people to the faith,” said Matusof, whose father Rabbi Menachem Matusof started the Chabad-Lubavitch chapter in Calgary 20 years ago. “It’s just to give them an opportunity they might not have. Sometimes they just want to speak about their heritage, the idea is to give people the opportunity to grow at their own pace, which people have been very receptive to.”

Cohen agrees, “their approach is very low key they don’t force themselves on you.

It’s a very simple conversation about you ,your family, how things are, they talk about themselves and their backgrounds.

Cohen is married to a Catholic who is raising their son in the Catholic faith. He often attends St. Mary’s parish in Cochrane with them and despite knowing this, he said the rabbis have not cast judgment.

“They are not trying to convert my family or impose my Jewish religion on my family,” Cohen said.

Cohen mainly celebrates his Jewish faith privately in his home, lighting the Menorah candles during Hanukkah with his son, or venturing into Calgary to be with his Jewish family for larger celebrations like Yom Kippur or Rosh Hashanah.

Since meeting a year ago, Cohen has gotten more support in his faith from the rabbis, who keep in touch via email and send him a Jewish calendar each year.

“It really puts you in touch with your youth because a lot of Jewish people once they grow up if they don’t have a lot of contact on a regular basis lose the celebration aspect of the religion,” said Cohen, who is interested to know if there are others Jews in Cochrane beside himself.

Matusof said it’s difficult to know how many live in the Cochrane area. The only way they find fellow Jews like Cohen is by looking up Jewish surnames in the phonebook, stopping strangers on the street and asking for tips and working off of their contacts.

While they did make a few short visits to Cochrane, this summer the main focus of their travels was northern Alberta.

“We didn’t spend too much time in Cochrane, but we visited some businesses and met with some Jewish people there in a few homes.”

As for the two rabbis studying at a rabbinical school in Calgary, this is not only an opportunity to educate, but to be educated.

“When you are learning you are not coming into contact too much with the outside world, when you are out speaking with people it makes it much more practical and meaningful when you have a chance to share with others,” said Matusof.