First appeared in The Daily Star newspaper, Oneonta, New York
The human proclivity to classify coffee as rich, dark, light, bitter, smooth, also classifies religion: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, the list goes on. Moreover, within each of those denominations we find factions: orthodox, modern, non-denominational, even inter-denominational.
Aside from the dirty laundry of religion that gets aired frequently—as it should—we can look into the face of faith and discover many layers, giving it a depth that shows no end.
With faith, not agenda, at the helm, the future of religion shows adaptability. At the time of this writing, First Baptist Church in Oneonta is continuing its mission locally and throughout the world in a new church building.
Established in 1834, First Baptist Church served faith from the corner of Chestnut and Academy streets for eighty years. “We moved 30 yards away, to a smaller place at 73 Chestnut Street,” said Philip Hulbert, church deacon at First Baptist Church. “Our tradition of focusing on a spiritual mission, along with making the building available to the community will continue with the time and resources we have today.”
The larger original edifice is currently in the process of being sold to Chabad of Oneonta, a Jewish organization. Once the legal process is complete, the building will again be a vibrant part of faith. As for symbols of sacredness, Hulbert said, “First Baptist members selected items and brought them to the new edifice.”
More interested in sharing spirituality than symbols, Hulbert added, “First Baptist Church welcomes people of all faith. Church services are at 10:30 a.m. on Sunday, with a concurrent Sunday School.”
The art of embracing people of many faiths is also seen in the Chabad organization currently meeting at 28 Walnut Street. Co-directors, Rabbi Meir and Fraidy Rubashkin welcome interested minds no matter what their background.
Husband and wife, Rabbi Meir and Fraidy depict an orthodox appearance, however visitors find a respect for a diverse range of how Jewish laws are observed. “We don’t cater to any group. We are all God created, to be loved and cared for,” said Rabbi Meir. “The Chabad Center has a unique founding principle that all persons offer something good and that all can be leaders.”
Accommodating the Jewish Student population, Chabad Oneonta adjusts to the college schedule. It began nearly three years ago when the Rubashkin family moved to Oneonta from Brooklyn, New York. Students have found family away from family at the Chabad Center.
“We have three young children and have fully invested ourselves in the center,” said Rabbi Meir. “The number of visitors to the center has grown so dramatically, it was natural to find and work with First Baptist Church members to purchase the historic building.”
Rabbi Meir, 28-years old, came with a background in Yeshiva education, “It was discussion style learning,” he said. “As I got older, studies became intense and focused on the study of traditional religious texts, primarily the Talmud and Torah study.”
Meir grew up in the Midwest, attending rabbinical schooling in Canada and New Jersey. He brought to Oneonta a compelling, upfront, alive, attitude. “The students know I’ll open the door if they knock at 2 in the morning,” said Meir.
The students also know they can contact the Rabbi and Fraidy through Facebook. “We use technology for good. We are not separate from the world but make the distinction between heaven and earth with the goal to infuse spirituality into earthliness,” said Meir.
A Chazak newsletter is printed twice a year and information is found online at www.chabadoneonta.com highlighting a quote from Maimonides (Jewish philosopher, 1135 – 1204): One good thought, one kind word, one good deed, can change the world.
The term Chabad covers a wide definition today, from a philosophy to an organization. In the mid-20th century, Menachem M. Schneerson, the 7th Lubavitcher Rebbe turned Chabad into a dynamic and geographically diverse religious movement in Jewish life. “We don’t need to lessen our religious convictions in the modern world,” said Meir. “We encourage participation in good deeds and observance of God’s commandments.”
When non-Jews think of Jewish traditions, Hanukkah comes to mind. But, “Hanukkah is a minor festivity,” said Fraidy, raised in a home grounded in the Chabad philosophy. “Hanukkah is misunderstood because it falls near Christmas, which is an important holiday for Christians.”
The major holy days on the Jewish Calendar are: the Sabbath, Rosh Hashanah (The Jewish New Year), Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement), Passover, Shavuot (The Festival of Weeks) and Sukkot (The Festival of Booths).
According to the Jewish calendar, on the 25th day of the month Kislev, year 5775 (December 17, 2014) Chanukah, or Hanukah begins. It commemorates the successful revolt by Jews during the Greco Roman period, more than 21 centuries ago. The Jews took back the Jerusalem temple. During the rededication, they found only a single cruse of oil to light the Menorah. Miraculously, the one-day supply of oil burned for eight days.
During Hanukkah, also termed Festival of Lights, celebrants light a single flame on the first night, two on the second, and so on until the eighth night when all eight lights are kindled.
“We give gifts to the children, however, Hanukkah is time for family,” said Fraidy. “This year will be quiet because the college students will be home for winter break.”
But in general, quiet, the Chabad Center is not. Every Friday evening when school is in session, Shabbos (Sabbath) dinner is served to an average of 87 students per night.
The women and men are divided. Fraidy and the women begin with candle lighting. She covers her eyes and welcomes light into the home. “We also teach the children at a young age the importance of giving,” said Fraidy. Coins are dropped into a box, the pushke, to collect and give to the poor.
Rabbi Meir goes into the other room with the men for prayer that pumps the soul.
“Then we eat,” said Fraidy. Students volunteer to help serve warm Challah, all types of salads and dips, piping hot chicken Matzoh ball soup, tantalizing chicken, Kugal and endless deserts.
Added to the feasting is singing, prayer reading (in Hebrew), and a mini-talk from Rabbi Meir on a subject grounded in the Torah. There is no reluctance to voice aloud at high decibels the prayers.
During a Shabbat celebration last month, State University Oneonta, alumna, Jillian Vell, 23-years old visited. “My sister, Samantha, also came because tonight has an Israel theme,” said Vell.
“We grew up with a Jewish mother and non-Jewish father,” said Jillian, seemingly undaunted by different spiritual paths. “When growing up, I chose to attend Jewish school, my sister chose public school. When we went to college, I came to Oneonta and became involved in the Hillel Jewish organization on campus, and was happy when the Chabad Center opened.”
Vell remembered a year when college was still in session during Hanukkah. The Chabad Center worked with Hillel at Oneonta State and other groups, to light a large Menorah on campus. She said “It was fantastic. About 200 people came. We had prayers, donuts and cider. Dr. Steve Perry and Dean Dr. Susan Turell were there.”
Chabad Oneonta also hosts Girls Night In, Boys Night Out, Ski Trips, Cosmic Dodge Ball, Passover Seders, and more. Funding comes from tax-deductible donations and planned giving. It is Chabad policy that each center is self-supporting. In the summer months, Rabbi Meir also leads a tour group to Israel.