Litchfield, CT – Eleven years ago, Rabbi Joseph Eisenbach and his wife, Mina, followed their religious faith and passion to Litchfield. Young and newly married, he was 23 and she was 19, they assumed their roles as emissaries of the centuries-old Chabad-Lubavitch movement in a town where being Jewish was rare and practicing Chabad Hasidism was more so.
Six children later-one more is on the way-the Rabbi and Mrs. Eisenbach are celebrating the Chabad Lubavitch of The Northwest Corner’s 10th anniversary and a move to a larger and more prominent facility on West Street in Litchfield.
“It is a tremendous milestone,” said Rabbi Eisenbach. “We have been blessed that the community has supported us.”
When the new building opens at 85 West St. in the next 12 to 18 months, it will house all religious services with enough capacity for the approximately 200 full-time families of the Chabad and add diversity to the center of a town spotted with churches. It is also a sign of the growing Jewish population in the county, whose members are increasingly touched by the Chabad’s outreach.
“The Jewish presence here is fairly new,” said Rabbi Eisenbach. “We introduce people to Jewish music, art and culture no matter what race or religion they are.”
The Northwest Corner is “one of the smallest” of the more than 3,000 Chabads worldwide, according to the rabbi. All have one common mission-to spread understanding of their culture, religion and history where a Jewish presence is needed. The word Chabad is a Hebrew acronym for the words wisdom, comprehension and knowledge, and is the philosophy that guides a person’s every action. Lubavitch is the name of the town in Russia where the movement began in the mid-18th century and means “city of brotherly love.”
As emissaries, Rabbi and Mrs. Eisenbach, called shluchim in Hebrew, evaluated their community, established programs to suit their surroundings and follow the teachings of the seven dynastic leaders of the Chabad-Lubavitch Dynasty, called rebbes. Many Chabads run soup kitchens, but in Litchfield, the focus is more cultural and religious.
People of all faiths have enjoyed annual holiday programs that include a Shofar factory, where they make rams’ horns for Rosh Hashana, and Chanukah On The Slopes in Woodbury, where people carouse to the tune of “Hava Nagilla.”
Since opening, Chabad has put on Klezmer On The Hills, a celebration of a genre often referred to as Jewish Jazz that hails from Eastern Europe. The Chabad also offers Friday night dinners with speakers like Alan Veingrad, a Super Bowl-winning NFL player who speaks about being an outsider because of his faith, and services like drug counseling, job and home placement programs.
“Our biggest effort for years has been with the youth,” said Rabbi Eisenbach. “There is a crisis among Jewish people that they don’t have knowledge of religion.” It is often a byproduct of living in an area where Jews are definitively a minority.
To engage the youth, Rabbi and Mrs. Eisenbach started a local chapter of Camp Gan Israel in Washington Depot. Now in its third year, the camp had its largest enrollment yet with just under 40 campers. It offers sports and arts and crafts, brings in children from Torrington and Waterbury by bus and awards partial scholarships to families in need. Following the Chabad philosophy, the camp focuses on education, but under the guise of fun. Mrs. Eisenbach, the director, frames each day with a theme like “honor your parents” and uses relay races to teach religious terms.
Michele Eykelhoff, who has a Jewish mother and Methodist father and grew up celebrating both traditions, now has four of her own children. She married a Catholic man, but her children attend the camp because it helps them get acquainted with Judaism.
“I met [Mrs. Eisenbach], and she is so nice and caring and a wonderful person that it was easy to be welcomed into the Chabad,” she said. “We help any time we can and the girls thoroughly enjoy the camp. We are still not extremely religious, but they still welcome us.”
“We make something tangible to the child-we want it to be fun and entertaining for the kids to connect,” said Mrs. Eisenbach. “Even if kids don’t get the lesson, they come out with pride.”
Mrs. Eykelhoff is also a member of the Jewish Women’s Circle, which Mrs. Eisenbach runs. Once a month women have an informal gathering with themes like African drumming or the role of women in Egypt. The program will soon include the Jewish House Tour, where women will rotate hosting the event. In the past, Niles Golovin of the Bantam Bread Company taught a Challah bread class.
“Women have the most important role in Judaism,” said Mrs. Eisenbach. “I consider myself a feminist even though many people might not think so because I have so many children. I believe rearing my children is the most important thing I can do. At [a dinner] I made a speech and people were surprised. I’m not the ‘rabbi’s wife.’ We are partners.”
That partnership and faith has helped them through challenging times. Leaving behind their families in Montreal, Canada, and West Hartford-both of their parents are emissaries and Rabbi Eisenbach is the fifth generation-they moved to an unfamiliar town that was not always accepting. Someone once shouted, “Where’s your horse and buggy?” at them thinking they were Amish.
“With the Rebbe there were never obstacles, only challenges,” said Rabbi Eisenbach. “There were challenges because we are all human beings. In Litchfield, if you are not part of the old school, there are challenges.”
Beyond cultural hurdles, there are also logistical ones, as each Chabad is in charge of its own funding. The Eisenbachs need to raise $500,000 annually to run the Chabad, which they cover through fund-raising, Hebrew School and camp tuition, and donations. They network, are in touch with realtors and contact Jews in the area for their database.
When the Chabad held its first program, only one person showed up. Valuations of success do not hinge on numbers for the couple. When asked how many members they have, Rabbi Eisenbach replied, “You don’t pay to pray, so there are no members.” By his count, the Chabad reaches as many as 5,000 people with its mailings and there are six full-time employees.
“It brings you together,” said Mrs. Eisenbach. “We came from West Hartford where you put up a sign and get crowds.” With time, they learned to adjust their expectations.
Rabbi and Mrs. Eisenbach’s commitment to their mission has impressed those who have passed through the Chabad’s walls.
Alain Levy and his wife, Maureen, of Thomaston have gone to the Chabad for eight years and sought guidance from Rabbi Eisenbach while Mrs. Levy converted to Judaism. It was after meeting the rabbi that Mr. Levy embraced his religion by following the Sabbath and reading the Torah instead of spending Saturday gardening and washing the car.
“He is one of the only rabbis I know who preaches what he does,” said Mr. Levy. “This is a person who believes in God. He follows all of the commandments, not just half. When you get invited to his home, you are part of the family.”
“The backbone of our mission is loving and caring for everyone,” said Rabbi Eisenbach. “Everyone can come in once a year or once a week. Everyone has to feel loved and welcome.”
As the Chabad prepares for the Annual Community Awards Dinner Oct. 29 and the first annual cocktail reception and silent auction to benefit The Children’s Fund of Camp Gan Israel Aug. 27 with the help of honorary chairwoman Joan Rivers, it continues to look to the future. In the upcoming months, it will launch two new programs: the Jewish Institute, a three-semester religious education course, and Friendship Circle, a program that matches teens with special needs children for companionship. Two Hebrew Schools will welcome 54 students.
When they came to Litchfield, Rabbi and Mrs. Eisenbach were told they wouldn’t last six months. Ten years later, they are still friends with Nathan Zimmerman of Bantam, the owner of Northwest Corner Properties who found them their first home and also gathered their first minion, or group of 10 worshipers, for their first service.
“The rabbi and his wife are wonderful humanitarian people,” Mr. Zimmerman said. “The are open arms to all. They have established a presence there to say, ‘If you are interested in your faith and you would like to participate in any type of religious event you are welcome.’ It is a wonderful outreach to the community at large.”
“It is a beautiful lesson of how love can break all boundaries,” said Rabbi Eisenbach. “Litchfield has given a lesson when you educate people, you will break through.”