I grew up in Chicago, number seven in a family of 11 children. Being that I was born into a Chabad family, I was involved in Jewish outreach since I was in elementary school. My first experiences were when my father used to take me with him to the nursing homes when I was only seven years old. Starting in the year 2000, I began doing outreach more formally, and was lucky enough to have done this sort of work in over a dozen cities in a number of different countries. Be it running a Pesach program in Vilna, Lithuania, visiting Jews in the rural town of Whitefish, Mont., or distributing Chanukah candles in Charenton-le-Pont in France, reaching out to Jews has always been a part of me. So when Rabbi Yossie Shemtov called my wife, Mushkie, and I and asked if we’d be willing to move to Oro Valley permanently to build up a community there, it was a no brainer.
We opened our doors in Oro Valley in June 2012. As the only synagogue in town, and the only full-time rabbi in the area, a wide variety of things fill up my day. I am the go-to Jewish chaplain for Oro Valley hospital, and people call me frequently with their research questions. We run a program for nearly every Jewish holiday, and I have just opened up a Jewish cemetery in Marana, to name a few.
Something very different about myself as a Chabad rabbi compared to many other rabbis and organizations is that my focus is very much on the local as opposed to the global. While there are plenty of major global issues that confront the Jewish people and the world at large, I still believe that my entire focus needs to be on the individuals who live in Northwest Tucson. Where I choose to place almost all of my effort and time, is with the people that I know, their issues and their families. It’s not that I don’t think we can fix the world, it’s that I believe this is how. I take great pride in this mode of operation, and it keeps my mind very present in my community.
Another thing that gives me much direction is my discovery of what people really want when it comes to Judaism. In my experience, people want the truth. Some may think that if you alter Judaism you can thereby be saving it, because that’s all that people would be interested in. Nothing can be further from reality. Everyone knows that you can buy a cubic zirconia diamond for a mere fraction of the price of a real one, and yet people spend fortunes on authentic diamonds. Why? Because they want the real thing. I find that if you offer the genuine, traditional form of our heritage it will be accepted with open arms so long as it’s done in a friendly and non-judgmental fashion.
Most importantly though, I draw tremendous inspiration on a daily basis from the Rebbe (Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson). I am constantly wowed by his teachings and compassion for humanity. It makes perfect sense to me that he was recently named the most influential rabbi in modern history. He is most definitely the driving force behind my rabbinical career and every last one of my accomplishments. I
have big aspirations here and I work with a sense of urgency, because I firmly believe that the Moshiach (messiah) is ready to arrive, and that it is our duty to be prepared for that time.
Rabbi Ephraim Zimmerman is the spiritual leader of Chabad of Oro Valley.