Rabbinic interns 'revive Jewish sparks'

Just as many students took John F. Kennedy's challenge to serve their country by assisting people from developing countries in the Peace Corps, two Jewish student rabbis were on a similar mission in St. Charles for the Jewish Peace Corps.

Mordy Dinerman and Baruch Davidson, both 23, are rabbinic interns from New York who have been helping rekindle Jewish connections in the St. Charles area for the past two-and-a-half weeks.

The two students are part of a summer visitation program with the Jewish Peace Corps and Chabad of Greater St. Louis.

"It's sending rabbinic students from major Jewish population centers where there's lot of Jewish infrastructure and lots of Jewish life...to places where there is very little or sometimes no Jewish infrastructure," said Rabbi Yosef Landa, director of the St. Louis chapter of Chabad.

"Sometimes you just need to bring people together. There are isolated small communities and isolated pockets of Jews," Landa said. "In this case, St. Charles is a candidate because as far as we know the numbers are not enormous."

While the two rabbinical interns may not be able to increase the number of Jews, they can increase the spirit and strengthen the Jewish community that exists, as they did last Wednesday evening.

"We came to a Jewish home. There were 12 Jewish adults and some Jewish children. We ate together. We drank together. We talked and we discussed Jewish topics," Dinerman said.

While they encourage get-togethers, Davidson said a typical encounter involves going to people's houses, knocking on their doors or calling in advance to schedule a time to meet.

"We try to bring some warmth and some of the spirit of Judaism and we like to know that when we left, we left them with a smile on their face and a fire in their souls," Davidson said.

The principle of giving unconditional love and meeting spiritual and material needs of other Jews is the driving force behind the two students' visits.

"There is a fundamental principle that says every single Jew, no matter how distant they might be, geographically distant or even spiritually distant, from Jewish life, there is already living and residing in that Jew an eternal Jewish spark and what people like [Davidson and Dinerman] do is somehow awaken it," Landa said.

The two interns' goal is to spark Jewish growth, diminish the sense of isolation and introduce more Jewishness to the home, Landa said.

The first response from families and individuals is usually surprise when they see Davidson and Dinerman on their doorstep.

"The first couple of seconds, people are surprised but usually it's a matter of moments and with a smile, they pick up on the warmth. It's catchy," Davidson said.

"The meetings with Jewish individuals and bringing them together strengthen the Jewish community because knowing other Jews in the neighborhood in turns strengthens their Jewish identity," Davidson said. "Once people know they're not the only one out there, they're more ready to be open and proud of their Jewishness," he said.

"People are sometimes surprised when we tell them there are more Jewish people that we know about around the corner," Dinerman said. "Some think they are the only Jew in St. Charles."

The two interns also leave ways of maintaining and continuing connections with Jews through email and the Chabad Web site, www.chabad.org.

While the original visitation program was developed in a time when access to other Jews was more difficult, "nowadays wherever you are, you can have some Jewish connection. Web sites. Telephones have become less expensive. Travel has become less expensive," Landa said. However, he added that the need still exists for a personal, one-on-one conversation.

From St. Charles, the two will travel to Shanghai, China for one month to continue what they did in St. Charles.

Davidson summed up the goal of their visits in one line: "Our goal is to fan the Jewish flame, the heart of our Jewish brothers and sisters wherever they may be."