Making a place in the Poconos for Orthodox Jews

Rabbi & family create Jewish outreach center

For the Pocono Record


Shterni Bendet and her 1-year-old daughter, Mushka, prepare a Rosh Hashana feast in their East Stroudsburg kitchen. The Bendet family moved to the Poconos last year as sclichim – Jewish Orthodox missionaries – from Brooklyn.
Jason Farmer/Pocono Record


Shterni Bendet doesn't have the time to be this busy. She's packing up to move their family to a new home in a few days, preparing for Shabbat, handling two young children, getting ready for the upcoming High Holidays and starting Hebrew school classes at their Chabad Center. Her youth and energy are necessary at a time like this.

Along with her husband, Rabbi Mendel Bendet, and daughter Mushka, Shterni moved to East Stroudsburg last September — the only outwardly Orthodox Jews living here full time — to set up the Chabad of the Poconos, a Jewish outreach center to help meet the needs of Jews living in the area who are unaffiliated with any particular synagogue or religious center.

Rabbi Bendet estimates the number of unaffiliated Jews to be in the 80 percent range, meaning there is a lot of work to be done to reach so many people out there who, for one reason or another, have not yet joined a local synagogue.

Being the only Orthodox Jews in the Poconos hasn't always been easy, but the Bendets take it all in stride.

"We went into this with our eyes wide open, so we knew what to expect," said Rabbi Bendet. "There has been some inconvenience in terms of getting certain products that we need and rely upon, such as kosher foods and religious articles. Everything needs to be shipped, so that takes a little getting used to. But what does inspire us primarily is the fact that we feel that our convenience and our comfort takes a back seat to our mission, which is what we are truly here for, and that is bringing the light and warmth of Judaism to the Jewish people in the Poconos."

The Bendets are known as sclichim, or missionaries, and are a part of the Chabad-Lubavitch group of Chassidic Jews headquartered in Brooklyn. There are sclichim around the world in many locations, some quite remote, trying to send their message of love and bringing Jews from all walks of life closer to their faith.

Moving away from their large families (Shterni is the eighth of 13 children; the Rabbi is the oldest of 11) in their enclave in Crown Heights has been quite an adjustment for the Bendets, but they understood that when they decided to set up a Chabad Center in the Poconos.

Shterni talks nearly every day with her mother, and one of her sisters is in nearby Abington with her own Chabad Center, so family is never too far away. Rabbi Bendet's family, however, is in Minnesota although several siblings attend schools in New Jersey, so they often come for visits.

Having things ready at hand has been somewhat of a challenge for Shterni, but she adds, "We definitely try our best to be on top of it and have what we need. We do our monthly treks to Brooklyn, but on the whole more and more we are surprised at what we can find here. Every day there are less and less things we have to import from New York. It's just a matter of making it work, and it's actually exciting finding things you need locally."

Normally, the household and spiritual duties are well defined. The men focus on physical matters of faith such as praying at very specific times during the day, whereas women are allowed more flexibility because their primary duty is running the household.

That is not to say that the men are not equal partners in child-rearing. As Rabbi Bendet speaks, he rocks newborn daughter Faygie, who joined the family on June 25.

"We actually believe women are much more spiritual than men," said Rabbi Bendet. "The women don't need all these physical attachments to their holiness. They have that inborn. They are much more in tuned with their spirituality. Men need all the physical connections to connect them to their spirituality, whereas women don't need them at all."

Preparing for the upcoming High Holidays services has kept both of them busy.

"Rosh Hashana is a time of renewal. Everyone has the opportunity to sort of turn over a new leaf," said Rabbi Bendet.

"This is different than what we may find in other cultures where New Year's is a time of strictly celebrating and partying. Rosh Hashana has more seriousness. It is a happy holiday. We are commanded to rejoice and eat foods honoring the holiday as opposed to Yom Kippur, which is fasting," Rabbi Bendet said.

"Rosh Hashana is an awareness of renewal. This is the start to the New Year. Anything that is positive should continue and anything that is less than positive is something that maybe we can work upon.

"Everyone has to do that reflection on their own. This is about more than just showing up and going to services. This is an inner thing."

"On Yom Kippur, on the other hand, we are compared to angels. Our human side is sort of forgotten for about 26 hours," explained Rabbi Bendet, "and that is why we don't eat."

"Many customarily do not wear leather shoes during this time as well. We try to abstain from any association with the physical," he added.

"We are involved in a day-long spiritual quest during which God continues to judge us while at the same time we are begging forgiveness for anything. It's a time of spiritual connection. That is what the High Holidays are all about. Sometimes they are referred to as the 'Days of Awe,' " Rabbi Bendet said.

"During this time we believe that everything will be good and we will have a better year than ever. It's important to feel that way positively and that positive energy can actually influence that."

The Bendets are in the process of moving to a larger home to accommodate their growing family, and their plans include the establishment of a Chabad Center. They are starting several small Hebrew School classes beginning in October.

"At this point, establishing a center here is just a dream so for now we are focusing on being of service to the local Jewish people," said Rabbi Bendet.

Someday they hope to set up a center that will be more than just a synagogue. "It will be a center for every aspect of Jewish life. Something in which the whole family, literally, from young to old will find their place and feel comfortable.

"A 'synagogue' in many people's mind depicts a certain image which we don't want. People will come for what they feel comfortable, whether for children's programming, adult education classes or perhaps a summer day camp. It's not all or nothing," said Rabbi Bendet.

At this time, there are no membership dues to participate in Chabad services, although donations of any size are gladly accepted. Some programs do charge a fee for materials and supplies, but Rabbi Bendet makes it very clear that no one would ever be turned away for lack of money.

"Every Jew is naturally a member, so that makes every Jew in the Poconos a member here. How they act upon that membership is up to them. We welcome them for however much, or little, it may be. We want to meet everyone's needs, such as they are," he said. "We've been here for a year now and the response from the people we meet has been overwhelmingly positive.

"We are excited about continuing our work here. We are not just passing through. We are here to stay."