A rabbi and rabbinical student drive 230 miles to provide a traditional burial

Original Article Published in the Chabad

When Rabbi Chaim Schmukler of Chabad of New Mexico in Albuquerque received a call from a Jewish man telling him that his homeless brother was in the city morgue in Amarillo, Texas, awaiting imminent cremation, the rabbi knew he had to act fast.

He immediately called his brother, Rabbi Bery Schmukler, in Las Cruces, some 225 miles to the south and just 45 minutes from the Texas border. The clock was ticking as the time for cremation approached, and Rabbi Bery moved into action.

“The man thought maybe we could say Kaddish for his brother,” Rabbi Bery told “He wasn’t expecting that we would actually bury him.”

But the rabbis knew that a proper Jewish burial was essential. Rabbi Bery called a funeral home in Amarillo to have the body transferred to the Jewish section of a natural burial ground in Belen, N.M.—a five-and-a-half-hour drive. He then set out on the three-hour drive from Las Cruces to meet the hearse driver.

Schmukler, co-director of Chabad of Las Cruces with his wife, Chenchie, sees Divine Providence at work throughout the whole process. Pinchus Sudak, a yeshivah student from London, was staying with the Schmuklers for a few days while on his way to the National Parks. The rabbi included the young man in the mitzvah of chesed shel emet—a mitzvah for which there is said to be no repayment in this world, only the next.

“We packed the car with 20 gallons of water, cloth, a shroud and soil from Israel—all needed for a kosher burial—and we set out on the 230-mile drive,” said Schmukler.

The rabbi notes that people often chose this burial site since no coffin is required, it is in a natural desert setting, and the cost is lower. The deceased was laid to rest in the Jewish section of the cemetery.

“We did the purification on site, cleaned the body and did the taharah on the desert floor,” recounted Schmukler. “We dressed him, said the prayers, and buried him in a shroud and tallit. The driver was watching in awe. He just had to see what we were doing. He even took my phone to take pictures.”

While this was the first time that the rabbi supervised a burial in the desert, he has organized funerals for elderly Jews in Las Cruces, a well-known retirement community given its warm weather and affordable cost of living. “We have a lot of seniors here and have saved some from cremation,” he said.

Schmukler estimates that 1,000 Jewish families live in Las Cruces, a town of 110,000 people. The Jewish community includes retirees, professors at New Mexico State University and medical students at the nearby Burrell College of Osteopathic Medicine at New Mexico State University. Tourists also often pass through on trips to the Southwest.

Schmukler’s Chabad House is one of four in New Mexico. In addition to his brother Rabbi Chaim Schmukler’s Chabad House in Albuquerque, which he co-directs with his wife, Devorah Leah, there are Chabad centers in Santa Fe and Taos.

“It felt like we were able to help a Jew when nobody else could,” said Rabbi Bery Schmukler. “It is about being there for another person. I hope it will inspire people to know that there are mitzvah opportunities out there.”

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Synagogue members and yeshivah students step up to ensure a proper Jewish burial

Original Article Published in the Chabad

NEW HAVEN, Conn.—The message on our shul’s WhatsApp group announcing, in caps, a MITZVAH OPPORTUNITY caught my attention. I admit to sometimes skimming or even ignoring such messages during a busy week, as they are usually about an upcoming class, a special Kiddush, or a kosher restaurant from out of town making a special delivery this week to our community. But “mitzvah opportunity” sounded important and even a bit time-sensitive.

Nonetheless, I ignored it for a day or two. I was sure one or two of the retirees would find the time for this 10 a.m. erev Shabbat mitzvah—not the best time to do anything but prepare for a Shabbat that comes in at 4:09 pm. But the text of the message kept playing over and over again in my mind:

Hi, all. Help is needed for a minyan for a funeral this Friday morning. Leonard Dipsiner, who was raised here in New Haven, just passed away at age 99 and has no immediate survivors other than his niece in NYC. His great niece is a friend of ours. The family would like to ensure that there is a minyan at his funeral. Can anyone assist?

When: Friday, Dec 10, 10:00 am

Place: B’nai Jacob Memorial Park (near SCSU)

If you can help with the minyan, please let me know

I began to picture this Jewish man—one who graced this earth for nearly a century—going to his final resting place without the proper respect, the kavod hamet, owed to everyone.

At our shul’s daily minyan midweek, I asked Len, a retired journalist and editor whose wife, Sue, had committed him to attend (via her response on the WhatsApp group), if he knew how the minyan was coming along. He had no idea.

Unsure that there would be a quorum at the gravesite, I reposted the “mitzvah opportunity” again on the WhatsApp group. This time, Aniko indicated that her husband, Andy, who survived the Holocaust in Hungary as a child, would be there. No other replies, though a few more details emerged:

…He was raised here in New Haven but spent most of his life in Atlanta, but the family plot is here

David, the friend kind enough to post this request, also wasn’t sure how the minyan was shaping up and suggested I write to the great niece, Rachel.

Reaching out to Yale and yeshivahs

In the meantime, others got on board. Someone from the shul posted a message on the board of another shul. A Yale graduate student, Miriam, shared the request within the Yale community. Ben, a young physician completing a fellowship at Yale quickly replied that he would come. Another wrote, “I will message a few people.”

The niece, Rachel, was relieved when I explained that I work part time at New Haven’s Yeshivas Beis Dovid Shlomo and would be willing to reach out to mesivta’s menahel, Rabbi Yosef Lustig. The busy menahel replied within seconds to my WhatsApp. Without hesitation, he said he’d have three students waiting downstairs at 9:40 a.m. for pick up in my old blue Ford Windstar minivan.

As I was driving to the yeshivah to pick up the students I received a nervous call from the niece, Rachel. She was concerned that we might not have a minyan. Due to a miscommunication, she was under the incorrect assumption that the other Chabad school in town had also been contacted.

As a result, I had told two people that we didn’t need them. Nevertheless, both were willing to be “on call.” Ronnie, the Yale mashgiach (kosher food service kosher supervisor) was willing to come with 10 minutes notice if needed on this busy erev Shabbat on campus. Another Yale student had offered to miss class to attend the funeral of a stranger—I had told him we’d be ok without him. Now I wasn’t so sure.

As Rachel drove up the Merritt Parkway to the cemetery, and as I drove from home to the yeshiva, we both did a quick calculation and realized we may indeed still be short. My first thought was to call the two “standbys”—until I realized that I was two minutes from the Chabad yeshiva!

I suggested to Rachel that I call Rabbi Lustig and ask for “two more.” We quickly did the math again and agreed that six post bar mitzvah males in my car (five students and me) plus the officiating rabbi plus two men from the shul plus a cousin of Rachel’s mother would bring us to 10. Rabbi Lustig agreed—as long as I could give the two additional students five minutes to get ready.

A Meis MItzvah

In the car, while waiting for our final two, I asked the three students—from Baltimore, New Jersey and Florida—if they knew what we were going to be doing. They answered, “A levaya.” A funeral. When I asked if Rabbi Lustig had provided additional details, they said no. “It is a funeral for a 99 year old man with no family.” “A meis mitzvah!” one exclaimed, referring to the Biblical imperative to attend to the remains of a dead person—especially one with no relatives.

The other two boys boarded the car and we drove to the cemetery, less than 10 minutes from the yeshiva, nestled between buildings of Southern Connecticut State University, and at the foot of West Rock Ridge. On this short Friday, the students would also go out in the community as they do every Friday—on mivtzaim (missions/visits)—to offices, stores, senior citizens housing, offering to wrap tefillin, sharing words of Torah, and wishing fellow Jews they encounter a good Shabbos. And this packed day was after being up until 4:30 am for a farbrengen. They made sure I knew it was the 5th of Tevet.

On this date in 1987, a United States Federal Court judge issued a decision in favor of Agudas Chassidei Chabad (“Union of Chabad Chassidim”) regarding the ownership of the library of the 6th Rebbe of Chabad-Lubavitch, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn. The Rebbe urged that the occasion be marked by purchasing, repairing and studying sefarim, Jewish holy books. For this reason, the yeshiva students were up from 11:30 p.m. to 4:30 a.m. the night before, learning words of Torah from their teacher, Rabbi Yosef Rivkin, the yeshiva mashpia.

When we arrived at the cemetery, the guys surveyed the landscape. We walked past the makeshift podium and under the tent erected by the funeral home. Without being told, they instinctively knew to remain standing, leaving the 7 seats for elderly guests. A local rabbi officiating the funeral chanted some Psalms and shared some details of the long life of the deceased. He noted that the person who knew him best would soon share more details. A 40ish man with a slight Irish accent began his remarks by noting that he referred to Mr. Dipsiner as Uncle Len.

After Yale Law School, Dipsiner served as an aerial combat photographer during World War II before opening antique shops in New Haven and Atlanta. (Credit: Howard Blas)

A Yale Graduate and Military Photographer

“Uncle Len was my godfather. He never married. He never learned to drive. He went to Yale Law School, then opened an antique store in New Haven. My brother and I loved the many cool objects in his store. When we were little, he bought us Legos. When we got older, the gifts became school tuition, car payments, help with houses. Uncle Len moved to Atlanta to be close to his closest friend, our father, Ralph.”

The crowd was intrigued A man with such a rich life story. And few blood relatives. The only non-Jew in the crowd knew the most about the deceased. “He used to tell us Chucky stories when we were growing up, which seemed part fiction and part autobiography. As I got older, I wanted to learn more. And I kept asking.”

Morgan’s persistence paid off. He learned that Mr. Dipsiner had been an aerial photographer during World War II, stationed in Belfast, Ireland—just 100 miles north of Dublin where Morgan now practices law and works as a musician. “He would lean out of the underside of planes and photograph enemy camps.” Morgan sensed there must be more. And he kept asking. Years later, Mr. Dipsiner shared the story of how he and fellow American soldiers went to Dachau after the liberation of the camp on April 29, 1945, by the 42nd and 45th Infantry Divisions and the 20th Armored Division of the US Army. They liberated approximately 32,000 prisoners. Mr. Dipsiner was responsible for chronicling what they saw in both photographs and videos. This was not an easy or pleasant undertaking. According to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum website, “As they neared the camp, they found more than 30 railroad cars filled with bodies brought to Dachau, all in an advanced state of decomposition. In early May 1945, American forces liberated the prisoners who had been sent on the death march.”

Morgan asked Mr. Dipsiner if he still had any photos or video. He did. Morgan suggested he donate them to the Jewish Historical Society of Greater New Haven. He did. Ironically, the museum is no more than half a mile from his final resting place. Morgan looks forward to the day when he can share this important first person account with his now 8 year old daughter.

As the rabbi was concluding, his niece asked to speak. She wished to thank the people who came out today to help a stranger have a proper send off. She thanked the older shul members but especially the yeshiva students. “This is true chesed shel emet, an act for which you can never be repaid,” she said.

The rabbi concluded with the kaddish and explained the custom of beginning to shovel dirt on the coffin to assist in the burial process. After a few minutes, the attendees walked to their cars. But not the yeshiva students, who wanted to finish covering the deceased with dirt.

They were told that they needed to wait until the tent and chairs were broken down, all cars were moved and the cemetery crew could come to hoist the very heavy cover on the gravesite. They waited patiently. One quietly asked if I could call the yeshiva to make sure there was water to wash their hands upon return to school. Two others sensitively asked the niece for the Hebrew name of the deceased. “He has no family to say kaddish. We will arrange for kaddish to be said at the yeshiva.” She promised to get it to me. The boys now know that Leibel Moshe ben Ephraim Fishel will never be forgotten.

The cemetery crew delivered two additional shovels. The five boys and I stayed another half hour. We shoveled and shoveled. The boys discussed the halacha (Jewish laws) of burial. “Which direction is the head? We need to make a mound with the dirt so it is high in the middle and slopes down. We need to use every bit of dirt. Let’s pick up the boards to make sure all of it goes in the grave.”

As we left the cemetery, I expressed my gratitude. They were already on to the next important mitzvah—fanning out around New Haven with pre-Shabbat business to conduct. One is a regular on my street. I will never forget these boys. These teenagers and their teachers have a lot to teach the community through their actions—about the importance of showing up and answering with a quiet and unhesitating “yes.” Thanks to them, I am sure 99 year old Mr. Dipsiner can rest in peace.

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The idea for an observant team came about when tristate-area youth grew tired of hearing stories from their parents of their own hockey-playing childhood.

Original Article Published in the JNS

At 9:30 p.m. on a recent Saturday night, players from the North Jersey Avalanche hockey league finished their game and walked off Rink 3 at the Ice House in Hackensack, N.J. They were tired and a bit dejected, after losing 4-1 to the Bandits hockey team, as well as mindful that in a little less than 10 hours, they would be back on the ice for a Sunday-morning game against the Devils—at 7:30 a.m.

The players—by then, ravished—took off their helmets, masks and pads, put down their sticks, and quickly devoured slices of pizza. Kosher pizza. Helmets were replaced with kipahs, and the lone girl on the team, Elly Younger, changed from her yellow Avalanche hockey uniform into a denim skirt and a blue long sleeve shirt.

The New Jersey Avalanche is a team of skilled skaters and stick-handlers, but it’s not your typical hockey club—the Avalanche are four Shomer Shabbat (Shabbat-observant) youth hockey teams of players ages 9 to 16.

Playing competitive hockey involves participating in four practices a week and competing in tournaments throughout the Northeast; and tournaments usually involve playing four games in a weekend. Scheduling is complicated for organizers who need to work around teams who cannot play from sundown on Friday until three stars appear 25 hours later on Saturday nights. Players and parents also have to make arrangements for kosher food, prayer services and Sabbath-friendly activities.

‘It was a good start’

The idea for an observant team came about when tristate-area youth grew tired of hearing stories from their parents of their own hockey-playing childhood. The parents wanted to provide their kids with the opportunity to try the sport on their own.

According to founder Tzvi Rudman, he and several parents approached the Englewood Field Club in 2001. “The rink was accommodating,” recounts Rudman, “even though the players could not play on Shabbat and Jewish holidays.”

North Jersey Avalanche hockey league member Elly Younger. Photo by Howard Blas.

And so, the team played most of their games on Saturday nights. “It was a good start,” says Rudman. “But the rink was outdoors, and it was small.”

They then approached one of the premier leagues in the area with four indoor rinks. The North Jersey Avalanche is a nationally ranked hockey organization under the guidance of Daniel May, Ice House hockey director and president who has more than 40 years of experience in youth hockey.

May and the Avalanche were willing to work with and accommodate the various needs of the young players. “The biggest and hardest part was explaining how the Shabbat start times and end times changed throughout the year. At first, they didn’t believe us,” recalls Rudman playfully. “They had to look it up! This is something we always took for granted. It was one of the most fascinating things.”

For his part, May says “we knew we could make the schedule work on our end but, we were concerned about league members’ cooperation with the schedule on their end. Fast-forward to today, we now have an observant team at almost every level. It takes a lot of extra administrative work—mostly by my wife, Monica, who schedules around 1,500 games combined for all 34 Avalanche teams, but she makes it work.”

The Avalanche started with one Sabbath-observant team in 2014—a number that has grown to four teams of 15 players: Squirts (ages 9-10), Peewees (ages 11-12), Bantams (ages 13-14) and Midgets (ages 15-16).

Rudman also notes that “there are no tryouts; you just have to say you want to be part of the team. That’s really nice.”

In spite of the commitment of time required for practices, games and travel, coupled with the sometimes challenging logistics of observing Sabbath on the road, the players and parents say they could not be happier with the results.

In fact, the big news is in late October, the oldest group won its division (Under-16, AA American) in the statewide 2021-22 New Jersey Youth Hockey League.

‘Prayer books, Torah scroll and meals together’

Michael Massel, who lives in Manhattan and attends the Shefa School, enjoys being part of a team and spending time with a diverse group of friends, both on and off the ice. “You get to play a sport. It is fun to play hockey with them, and also to chill with them and play mini-hockey at the tournaments.”

He admits, however, that “it’s also a little tiring.”

While the families seem pleased with the level of hockey, they are delighted with what their children have learned about being observant Jews and members of the Jewish community. Michael’s father, Morris, reports: “Our kids can be part of a team that is high-level hockey without compromise. They can live religious lives; there’s no such thing as a Shabbat problem.”

Massel also likes the fact that players and parents spend Shabbat together at tournaments. They bring prayer books and a Torah scroll, and eat Shabbat meals together. “We are all in it together, and the memories are unbelievable!”

Aaron Younger’s daughter, Elly, is the only girl on the team.” She attends YBH yeshivah in Passaic. “She loves skating, and she loves playing with the guys.”

Melanie Sosland of Englewood, N.J., has two boys in the league. Gabriel, age 11, plays on the Peewees, and Noah, age 14, plays on the Bantam. “They saw that other Englewood kids were playing, and they wanted to play as well,” she says.

Sosland concedes that playing four times a week is a big commitment but sees the benefits that go beyond sports. “It teaches a great work ethic and how to balance schoolwork with hockey. And the tournaments are amazing—with the Torah scroll and the kosher food. They will always remember it.”

North Jersey Avalanche hockey league member Michael Massel. Photo by Howard Blas.

Bringing Jewish observance “on the road” teaches the players to navigate sometimes complex real-life situations. They also have opportunities to serve as ambassadors for Judaism. Michael Massel recalls an incident where “one team had Shabbat issues in Delaware a couple of years ago, and the local Chabad pitched in.”

Rudman, the organization’s founder, recalls: “Seven years ago, the other teams on the road looked at us like we were from another planet when they saw our kipahs and tzitzit. Then we kicked butt during the games! Now, they all know our teams, and we are accepted.”

He also recalls a moving incident from a tournament in Providence, R.I. “We played a team with players from Colorado and Kansas. One kid came over and said, ‘I had two firsts this weekend—I saw the ocean for the first time, and I met a Jewish person for the first time.’ ”

“There is respect out there,” acknowledges Rudman, who takes the Jewish values and menschlichkeit piece very seriously, and encourages his players to remember that. In fact, he quips: “We sometimes send out reminders that we are being judged on a higher level.”

Rick Pomerantz of Englewood looks back with pride on what the league has accomplished over the years and on what it has meant for his family. His son, Alex Pomerantz, 13, is a second-year Bantam and attends the Moriah School. His father recalls that “the first year at the Ice House, Alex was one of three frum kids who played when there wasn’t a Jewish team. He loves the game and has since the first time he put on skates at 3 years old. What it has done is given him a chance to pursue his passion with high-level coaching, all without compromising our Judaic values. I know it sounds trite, but it’s true.”

He continues, saying “the teams have won tournaments, but if you speak to the parents, the most gratifying thing is that we have a beautiful minyan every day, and the entire group will eat together. The fact that we have been on tournaments with minyans of 40 men and had catered Shabbat dinners in [places like] Hershey, Pa., is unbelievable. It’s important for the kids to see that as religious Jews, you don’t have to compromise to do what you love.”

“There is no sport like hockey,” attests Pomerantz. “That’s why everyone who plays is passionate about it. The camaraderie and bonds that are made are priceless. Alex has made friends for life.”

Players on the Shomer Shabbat North Jersey Avalanche hockey league. Photo by Howard Blas.

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Original Article Published On The Chabad.ORG

KINGSTON, N.Y.—Rabbi Y. Yitzhak Hecht’s sense of humor is as admirable as his sense of determination. When I arrived at Congregation Agudas Achim, he greeted me enthusiastically and playfully with his smartphone in hand, ready to capture my reaction when he introduced me to my namesake, longtime shul member Howard Blas.

“Howard Blas, meet Howard Blas!” exclaimed the rabbi as we moved along into the congregation’s library and beit midrash, where the he shared news of a state-of-the-art mikvah set to open on Oct. 24, offered updates on daily Torah classes he conducts online with other Hudson Valley rabbis and enthused about the ongoing expansion of Chabad of Ulster County—just 90 miles (145 kilometers) north of New York City and 60 miles (95 kilometers) south of Albany.

When Hecht first walked into the synagogue 20 years ago, just a few days after the terrorist attack on Sept. 11, 2001, the once-thriving 137-year-old Orthodox synagogue had fallen on hard times. The city and its Jewish community had been decimated by the departure of its biggest employer six years earlier. Only two people attended Simchat Torah services the year before, and the shul had six rabbis in seven years, recalls local potter and artist Howard Vichinsky.

But the congregation found the hard-working and good-natured rabbi and his wife, Leah, irresistible, and they have been serving and helping grow the community ever since. Their own family has grown as well with seven of their eight children natives of Kingston.

Today, with more people than ever before working remotely, Kingston is becoming a destination for Jewish families in search of open space, good air quality, scenic views, small-town warmth, culture and access to Jewish life. The quaint city on the west bank of the Hudson River has an area of 8.6 square miles and 1.3 square miles, and is about a two-hour commute from New York City.

At the groundbreaking for Kingston’s new mikvah are, l. to r. Rabbi Avrohom Boruch Itkin, Rabbi Y. Yitzhak Hecht, Leah Hecht, Binie Itkin. (File photo)

The Ups and Downs of a Hudson Valley City

Kingston has had many ups and downs in its history, briefly serving as New York State’s capital in 1777 before it was burned to the ground by the British. The city flourished in the 19th century when natural cement was discovered in the area, and with its proximity to the Hudson River and connection to the transcontinental railroad system, it became an important transportation hub.

Jewish families began to settle in the city; in 1864, Congregation Agudas Achim was established by Jewish immigrants from the city of Amdur in Belarus. In the early 20th century, Kingston’s coal and cement industries began to decline. Small machine manufacturing and garment production soon grew, followed by the biggest boom in the city’s history: the arrival of IBM.

In 1954, the computing giant built a 2.5 million-square-foot factory and research center in Kingston and employed more than 7,100 workers at its peak, making up as much as 30 percent of the local economy.

In 1995, IBM abruptly closed its doors and left the city, abandoning the factory. Thousands of people were impacted, and many simply left.

Blas, who has served as shul president four times, worked for IBM for four years. His in-laws have been connected to Kingston and to the Jewish community there for decades. His wife’s grandparents were members, and his daughter is the fifth generation to be davening here, Hecht tells They have experienced Kingston’s ups and downs firsthand.

Invitation to opening of Mikvah

Blas recalls the years when the shul dwindled to only 25 members. “Chabad came in 2001. The Sept. 11 terror attacks happened that year, and Rabbi Hecht got here for Rosh Hashanah. The great energy he and his wife had at the start has only increased 10 times since then.”

“He started with a Sunday minyan, which we almost never had,” continues Blas. “Then he began Tuesday minyan with coffee and danishes.”

Blas credits fellow congregant, longtime president and dear friend Howard Vichinsky for getting him more involved in the shul. “I came because of him, and Shabbat was always a big thing for me.”

Today, the congregation has a daily morning minyan, and a full roster of services for locals and guests.
The Kingston congregation is more than 150 years old.

Roots in the Community

The Hechts have roots in the area that date back to the rabbi’s childhood. In 1953, his grandparents, Rabbi J.J. and Rebbetzin Chava Hecht, founded Camp Emunah in Greenfield Park, N.Y. Camp Emunah is the first girl’s overnight camp in the world of Lubavitch. The Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—personally visited the camp. Of the three times the Rebbe travelled outside of New York City after ascending to the leadership of Chabad-Lubavitch, all three were to Camp Gan Israel and Camp Emunah.

Howard and Renee Vichinsky moved from Brooklyn to Kingston in 1983 and have been actively involved since 1984. “I have been president for the last 26 years and gabbai for seven years,” reports Howard proudly. He, too, experienced Kingston’s ups and downs and worked hard to keep the shul going.

He observes, “over time, things change in a rural community. Kids go to college and don’t come back. Jewish farmers no longer farm. Businesses close. By the late 90s, we were in low tide.” He pointed out sadly, “One Simchat Torah, me and another guy—we danced with the Torah.”

Vichinsky also emphasized the toll that IBM’s closing had on the community. “Losing 4,000 jobs in a community of 24,000 was a lot. The community took a big hit.”

(Map: Chabad Locator/Google maps)

‘There are Reasons Why We Don’t Have a Rabbi’

As the community’s numbers dwindled, Vischinsky approached a rosh yeshivah in Monsey, N.Y., who agreed to send rabbinical students every other week to keep the shul alive. This arrangement went on for several years.

“In 2001, Rabbi Hecht knocked on my door and said, ‘I’d like to be the rabbi of the shul.” I explained, ‘There are reasons we don’t have a rabbi.’ Vichinsky was intrigued with Hecht’s unusual offer, acknowledging that “the congregation was a little nervous. They had no familiarity with Chabad. We took a chance, and it has been a wonderful partnership. It was the right combination. It is Chabad’s mission to bring in and bring Jews back to tradition. I have been very happy!”

Vichinsky details some of Hecht’s additional accomplishments, including the Jewish Summer Fellowship. “Ivy League Torah Study—a woman’s summer Torah-study program—needed a home, so we cut the social hall in half and made seven rooms.”

Seven beautifully furnished guest rooms are used regularly by visitors to the community. “There is a very good head trauma center in Kingston, and family members have stayed over several times. Or people who want to spend the High Holidays out in the country stay here.”

Vichinsky, a self-described baal teshuvah, enjoys learning and appreciates the many classes Hecht and other Chabad rabbis in the area give. “For me, it is an important part of my life.” Vichinsky participated in an earlier learning initiative of Hecht’s—a 10-year weekly study of the entire Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, the popular abridgement of the “Code of Jewish Law” authored by 19th-century Rabbi Shlomo Ganzfried. Their efforts were celebrated in a communal siyyum (completion ceremony) in 2016.

Kingston’s Jewish community is looking forward to again gathered in town on Chanukah for the menorah lighting. (File photo)

A Daily Connection That Will Survive the Pandemic

Hecht has built an extensive learning program that involves other area shluchim and has continued virtually during the coronavirus pandemic, including Rabbi Mendy Karczag of Chabad of Woodstock, Rabbi Moshe Plotkin of Chabad of New Paltz, Rabbi Avrohom Itkin of Chabad of Greene County and Rabbi Shlomie Deren of Chabad of Ellenville. “Daily Connection classes were at 9 a.m. and 9 p.m.—every 12 hours,” Hecht noted proudly. He invited the Woodstock rabbi to teach Tanya on Mondays, and the New Paltz rabbi to teach about holidays on Tuesdays. Hecht leads a “Shmooze with Friends” class on Wednesdays, and Rabbi Yaakov Raskin teaches parsha on Thursdays.

Hecht is proud of the learning program he has designed and built. “It is here to stay, no matter what, even after the pandemic.” And it reaches far beyond Kingston. Hecht references a member of the community who recently relocated to a small town in Mexico, noting that “she has her Yiddishkeit and community because of this.”

Vichinsky and Hecht speak with excitement about the mikvah, which will soon serve the community. Hecht has also helped expand the Chabad shluchim presence in Kingston and in Ulster County, noting that now “my sister and brother-in-law are here in Kingston. My brother and sister-in-law are 20 minutes away in Rhinebeck. And more young people are coming here.”

In addition, there has been a Chabad presence on the SUNY New Paltz campus—14 miles to the south—since the Plotkin family arrived 17 years ago. Vichinsky notes that “they do wonderful work with the college students. It gives them a religious alternative in a liberal college.”

Hecht has seen a shift in Kingston’s Jewish community over the years, “from mostly 50-year-oldplus adults who attended shul mostly on the High Holidays to younger singles and married couples in their upper 20s and 30s.”

He notes another important sign of growth—the fact that “we are slowly finding more kosher products in the stores.” Kingston isn’t far from major Jewish population centers with extensive selections of kosher food; both Monsey and Albany are an hour away.

The local Chabad shluchim have also found a creative solution for helping their children receive a Jewish education. “Four shluchim families drive their kids each day to Albany,” reports Hecht.

Families relocating from urban areas are already finding Kingston to be a desirable destination. Vichinsky has already noticed that “some families left the city during Covid and came to Kingston. It is touted as a place to be.”

Musician Ellie Macias had been planning to relocate from Brooklyn to Kingston even before the pandemic. In 2018, as their children got older and some were already out of the house, he and his wife purchased a house in Historic Hurley. They completed renovations just before March 2020. “Being in nature was very attractive.” Macias noticed a movement of others seeking an “alternative lifestyle and wanting to be in nature.”

Kingston’s cultural life also appealed to Macias. “There is a movement of musicians to the Hudson Valley. It has become a center for musicians.” Macias, originally from Gibraltar, studied Ladino Flamenco and jazz guitar at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. He now has a recording studio in his house.

Macias has noticed some young couples moving into town and feels there is “potential for more people to start to come.”

He acknowledges that the marketing of a shul can be a challenge. But he credits Hecht for his ongoing efforts to grow the community. “They are a great team, and they are amazing shluchim in terms of how much they give of themselves. They know everyone and genuinely enjoy chatting with everyone,” says Macias.

Macias is particularly pleased by the thriving congregation, as he has been saying kaddish daily this year in the synagogue thanks to the minyan there.

He also sees great potential in the future of Kingston as a whole: “It is a well-kept secret but once people know about this ideal lifestyle, they will come.”

Vichinsky feels the secret is already getting out. “Chabad in the Hudson Valley has grown exponentially over the last decade,” he says. As Hecht steps back and reflects on what the shluchim families have accomplished thus far in Ulster County, he reports: “This is what the Rebbe wanted from us—to see and feel a need, and to fill the needs of the community.”

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