NYC-based Jewish group branches out to Poconos

For the Pocono Record

Perhaps in December you caught a glimpse of a large, electric Hanukkah menorah strapped to the roof of an otherwise nondescript silver Buick motoring around the area.

In case you were wondering — the Chabad has come to the Poconos.

Rabbi Mendel Bendet and his wife, Shterni, are the directors of the new Chabad of the Poconos. They are emissaries, known as shlichim, sent out from Chabad-Lubavitch, a worldwide Jewish outreach organization.

Their mission is based in part on the principle that if Jews won't come to Judaism, they will try to bring Judaism to Jews.

Chabad-Lubavitch is a 250-year-old branch of Hasidic Judaism that emerged in Poland and is now based in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.

The word "Chabad" is an acronym for chachmah(wisdom), binah (comprehension) and da'at (knowledge), and "Lubavitch" is the town where the movement was based for more than a century.

Among its many programs and services, the Chabad-Lubavitch movement has established synagogues, Hebrew schools, child-care centers and nonsectarian drug treatment centers, as well as organized Jewish educational classes and services in communities and college campuses.

Originally from St. Paul, Minn., the 26-year-old Bendet studied and performed volunteer outreach in New Jersey, Nebraska, Canada, Paris, London and Brooklyn before becoming a rabbi in 2001. He and Shterni, now 22, were married in May 2002 and have a 9-month-old daughter, Chaya Mushka.

Shterni, who graduated from the Beth Rivkah Teaching Seminary, was born and raised in Brooklyn, and until she moved to the Poconos in mid-September, lived nearly her entire life just two doors down from "770," as the Chabad-Lubavitch headquarters is known.

Moving to the Poconos, away from her family, friends and the familiar surroundings, was a little bit of a culture shock for Shterni. But, she says with a laugh, there is always the telephone. Plus, one of her 12 siblings lives nearby in Clark Summit.

Although the Bendets do not watch television (it is not forbidden, but discouraged) or go to the movies (they have, however, both seen "Fiddler on the Roof"), they do have the Internet. Rabbi Bendet uses e-mail to send out a weekly "E*Torah" lesson as well as communicate upcoming events.

While they live according to strict interpretations of Jewish law, they don't want people to feel uncomfortable around them if they are not so observant.

For them, it is enough that someone is willing to try to connect to their Jewishness.

With Chaya Mushka alternating between her mother's and father's laps, the Bendet's talk about their hopes and plans for their Chabad House in the Poconos.

They understand that even though there are already a few synagogues in the Poconos, they believe there is a need for for the center.

"As more and more young families relocate here, there is an ever increasing need for a warm, friendly, Jewish center that promotes Jewish identity, continuity and awareness," said Bendet.

He recently began a weekly Torah class and a aturday morning Shabbat service. This month, Shterni is starting a twice-monthly Children's Jewish Craft club.

"It's an opportunity for a child to come and appreciate being Jewish," said Shterni. "It is important for every Jewish child to have a Jewish education. Sitting them down and giving them speeches doesn't work. We want to show them how the Torah can affect them even today.

"Many children have memories of boring services their parents schlepped them off to and we want to change that. Hands-on activities work and having a positive Jewish experience is the key. Learning should be fun."

Also in the works is a "Mommy & Me" program for young mothers and their babies or toddlers to have an opportunity to socialize and learn with others.

"Chabad helps people find how they'll be most comfortable finding their Judaism," Rabbi Bendet said. "For some people it might just be a bowl of chicken soup or a holiday celebration without the obligation of having to become a member of anything."

"We want to let them experience the warmth of a Shabbat dinner or the fun of a Purim party," he said.

To learn more about Chabad or any of these programs, contact Rabbi Bendet at (570) 420-8655 or


Copyright © February 07, 2004, Pocono Record
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