Break out the schnapps! This year, Chabad of Arizona celebrates 40 years of serving the state’s diverse Jewish population with a gala dinner at Embassy Suites by Hilton Scottsdale Resort on Feb. 26.
Rabbi Zalman Levertov, regional director of Chabad of Arizona, says the celebration marks four decades of fulfilling the mission “to serve G-d by helping others and also to bring the beauty of Judaism to our people.” Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, in what is now Belarus, set forth this mission when he founded the Chabad-Lubavitch movement in 1775.
Born in New York, Levertov grew up hearing about his grandfather, a Chabad rabbi who perished in prison in the former Soviet Union while working for Chabad’s underground Jewish network. Strongly motivated to continue his grandfather’s work, he and his wife, Tzipi, originally from Argentina, set out to become shluchim, or emissaries.
In a system developed by the Chabad spiritual leader, the late Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, affectionately known as the Rebbe, couples are sent on a lifelong mission to build or strengthen Jewish communities. It’s what turned the small Chassidic group into to the largest, fastest growing Jewish movement in the world.
The approach is reflected in the movement’s name: Chabad is an acronym for the Hebrew words for wisdom, understanding and knowledge, the foundation of the movement’s Kabbalah-based philosophy. Lubavitch, the Russian town where the movement was once located, translates to “city of brotherly love.”
“We were very pleased,” Levertov says about being selected by the Rebbe in 1977 to establish a Chabad presence in Phoenix. “We knew nothing about the community but were anxious to find out. One of the Rebbe’s visions was to reach out to unaffiliated and assimilated Jews everywhere, including Arizona.”
Originally operating out of their home, the Levertovs organized a Talmud Torah Sunday School, Torah classes for adults, hospital visitation and student programming. By 1990, they had moved to a three-acre campus and expanded to build a mikvah and services for the
Levertov is particularly proud that all of his seven children are carrying on the Chabad legacy, working in in Arizona and other states. “Their work includes The Friendship Circle for children with special needs, Smile on Seniors and Camp Gan Israel in the Phoenix area,” he says. The goal was reaching out to Jews “making them more aware of their Jewishness [and bringing] them closer to their Jewish roots.”
The expansion of Chabad to other cities in Arizona began in 1983, when Rabbi Yossie and Chanie Shemtov were sent by the Rebbe to establish Chabad Tucson and Chabad activities at the University of Arizona. The Tucson network has since expanded, with Rabbi Yehuda and Feigie Ceitlin offering adult education, youth and holiday programming, Rabbi Yossi and Naomi Winner running operations on campus and Rabbi Rami and Chani Bigelman at Chabad on River.
In 2012, Rabbi Ephraim Zimmerman and his wife, Mushkie, were brought to Arizona to found Chabad of Oro Valley, serving Northwest Tucson. Their program includes Shabbat lunches, classes on Talmud and holiday celebrations. This December, the Zimmermans spent several days hand-delivering Hanukkah menorahs and candles to those who were unable to purchase them.
Zimmerman says it was a given that he would join Chabad’s outreach efforts. “Born into a Chabad family, I have been involved in Jewish outreach since elementary school days,” he says. “I can still remember visiting nursing homes at age 7 with my father.”
“We are the only full-time synagogue in Northwest Tucson,” he added. “It has been very gratifying to witness the diverse Jewish residents of this area blossom into a beautiful Chabad community. We want to connect with as many Jewish people as possible, be it for a listening ear, to put up a mezuzah in someone’s home or to be with them during their last few minutes on earth.”
Today there are 21 Chabad centers in Arizona, including the Greater Phoenix area, Tucson, Prescott and Flagstaff. Chabad stresses that all Jews are welcome to any activity, regardless of ability to pay.
The opening of the newest Chabad center in Arizona, serving Sierra Vista and Cochise County, was an especially emotional moment for Rabbi Yossie and Chanie Shemtov. Returning to the Grand Canyon State to establish the new center was their son, Rabbi Benzion Shemtov, his wife, Chaya, and daughters, Goldie and Rochel.
“What moved me most is the fact that Benzion has chosen this path at all,” the senior Shemtov says. “He grew up witnessing and experiencing the erratic life of a Chabad rabbi and yet has chosen the same for himself. I know Benzion and Chaya have the determination, passion and sincerity to carry on the Rebbe’s vision to not leave one Jew behind.”
For information on the Feb. 26 gala, call (602) 944-2753.
Barbara Russek is a freelance writer living in Tucson. She welcomes comments at Babette2@comcast.net.