10/30/2003

A Rabbi Who Loves God and the Minnesota Vikings

By Doug McGill
The McGill Report

Rochester, MN -- You see him sometimes flying down Second Street, heading from Saint Marys to the Mayo Clinic with the tails of his long black coat flapping behind him, a calm smile on his bearded face, a lidded cup of Starbucks coffee in one hand, a black fedora on his head and a Torah under his arm.

He is Rabbi Dovid Greene, and he stands by himself as striking proof that Rochester, far from being the "flyover country" we say to ourselves we are (almost hopefully), is in reality super-cosmopolitan.

Because Rabbi Greene is no ordinary rabbi. He is an emissary to Rochester of one of the fastest-growing Jewish organizations in the world, the Chabad-Lubavitch, based in Brooklyn, New York. The group descends from a mystical branch of Judaism that started in Poland in the late 18th century.

Brought to America by a handful of European Jews fleeing Nazism in the early 1940s, the Chabad-Lubavitch has since grown to number more than 200,000 worldwide -- a number that's had an outsized influence due to the group's zealous focus and global reach.

In Rochester that takes the form of Rabbi Greene himself, who with his wife Chanie runs the Chabad House at 730 Second St. S.W. That's the house with the 10-foot menorah -- the nine-branched candelabrum that symbolizes the role of Jews as a "light to the world" -- planted in the front yard.

Imitating Abraham

The Chabad House was opened in Rochester in 1988, when the Lubavitch community realized how much global traffic, including Jews from all over the world, came through the city seeking medical help. Between 15,000 and 20,000 Jews a year visit Mayo Clinic, Rabbi Greene estimates, and of those with whom the Chabad House has contact perhaps more than a thousand.

" We try to imitate Abraham who was known for two things -- visiting the sick and welcoming guests," Rabbi Greene says. Many mornings thus find Dovid and Chanie making rounds to the Methodist and Saint Marys hospital suites carrying brown paper lunch bags filled with kosher sandwiches, challah bread, and a small bottle of grape juice.

Those services are free, and Rabbi Greene supports the House with donations and from his work for local dairy farms that produce kosher foods, prepared under a rabbi's supervision.

A second part of his mission in Rochester, he says, is explaining Judaism to non-Jews or gentiles in the area. In this respect especially, the Chabad-Lubavitch break the mold of most orthodox Jewish sects, which see the secular world as a diversion from piety and thus emphasize retreat.

White Tassels

The Chabad-Lubavitch, by contrast, retain the intense piety and outward look of other orthodox Jews, yet stress that a full engagement with the world, including with non-Jews, is essential. While many orthodox Jewish sects have fought hard against assimilation into American culture, the Chabad-Lubavitch by contrast professes a twofold path -- retaining religious identity within the context of a fully engaged civic life.

Therefore Rabbi Greene spends a lot of time in local schoolrooms. The goal is not conversion, he stresses, but simply the revelation and explanation of himself as a devout Jew. He has spent many class hours answering young children's questions about what his various items of clothing mean.

The small black skullcap called a yarmulke that he wears, for example. "We wear that to remind ourselves that there is always a higher power above us, something greater than our mind or our bodies, that is God," he explains.

And what about those white tassels hanging from his belt? "Those are called tzitzis. In Hebrew every letter has a number, and the word tzitzis adds up to 600. Then there are eight strings and five knots on the strings, for a total of 613. The tzitzis reminds Jews of the 613 commandments they must follow."

Vikings Logo

As the gasps subside, Rabbi Greene adds that the seven laws God gave Noah are the essential ones, and are recommended for people of all creeds. (For those who are interested: no idolatry, no blasphemy, no adultery, no murder, no theft, no cruelty to animals, and the creation of courts of justice.)

Zealous God-consciousness is the hallmark of all "Chabadniks," as they call themselves. There are prayers and readings and reminders of God's earthly presence made incessantly throughout the day.

But take a closer look at Rabbi Greene's yarmulke. There you'll find cosmopolitanism mixed with piety, as I mentioned earlier. Right there on the side, stitched in loud purple as big as the Metrodome, is the Vikings logo.

" Oh, I'm a big fan," the Rabbi says. "Let's not talk about the disaster last Sunday, OK? I was asked once to move to Australia to run a Chabad House. But I looked into it and I finally said 'thank you, but I just don't understand Australian Rules football. Just can't figure it out. I'm culturally Minnesotan, so I'd better stay right here.' And I'm glad I did."

Copyright @ 2003 The McGill Report