Rabbi Yosef makes a huge impact on Jews of Maryland

DAVID SAFFER chats to a British rabbi who is giving co-religionists in a faraway American state the opportunity to lead a full Jewish life

RABBI Yosef Chaim Sufrin is bringing Judaism to life in Clarksville in the American state of Maryland.

Making a difference within a community where no Jewish minister has presided before is no easy task . . . but Leeds-born Rabbi Yosef is making a massive impact since establishing a Chabad House there two years ago.

Situated in Howard County - home to around 20,000 Jews and equidistant between Washington and Baltimore - a Jewish way of life is taking hold for residents with various levels in affiliation.

"In many ways it's 'grass routes' Judaism," said Rabbi Yosef, who is married to Chaya Devorah.

"We want Clarksville to eventually become a centre for Judaism.

"Mainly it's a younger crowd who are attracted to our programmes, which is fantastic. Families are coming forward and want to experience Judaism."

Rabbi Yosef was educationally influenced through global travels to New York and Pittsburgh, followed by Pretoria in South Africa - where he gained his semicha - and a second Big Apple stint.

The elder son of Rabbi Mendel Sufrin and his wife Chana, he appeared predestined to follow in his father's footsteps.

"I had a phenomenal education and tremendous role models, which shaped and guided me," he said. "My parents continue to do so and I still seek advice all the time.

"When you are young you tend to take things for granted, especially the way dad was held in the community. But as you get older there is a whole new appreciation.

"I see even more now what makes him such a unique rabbi and why he is so loved in Leeds and beyond.

"Dad's level of caring on a daily basis for many years, the personal contact he has with people, the way everyone becomes an entire world in front of him and the only ones that matter is something to behold.

"No one is just another face. Dad always looks for the positives and that is what I am trying to emulate.

"Growing up, he always had a busy schedule but made family time a priority and I'm looking towards doing that with my own family."

Educationally, Rabbi Yosef has also benefited from studies with Rabbi Levi Weinberg and Rabbi She'ar Yashuv Cohen (Chief Rabbi of Haifa) while gaining his semicha in the Rainbow Nation.

"I enjoy Jewish law in terms of the practicals of halacha and philosophy but I've always had a drawing to the bottom line of what we end up doing," he noted.

"Looking towards yeshiva and a semicha programme, I wanted one geared to a communal rabbinical post.

"Pretoria is renowned for this. On top of studies we also did public speaking and counselling."

He added: "Pretoria has a very strong, laid back Jewish community and was a great year.

"The shul has 15 rabbis every year who get involved communally and learn with members one-to-one."

Rabbi Yosef has moved to an area familiar to his wife, who hails from Columbia, 15 minutes away.

"My in-laws, Rabbi Hillel and Chani Baron, have been in Columbia more than 25 years and have been really supportive," he said. "Their congregation is Ahavas Israel.

"Rabbi Hillel is very hands-on. In fact, he can actually say he built his shul with his own hands.

"Chabad is based in Columbia and Clarksville, but Rabbi Hillel reaches out to the whole of Howard County.

"And in time, he hopes to bring Chabad to other towns in the area."

Rabbi Yosef added: "Rabbi Hillel saw a need for a Chabad branch in Clarksville and Jewish people are eager to support us.

"River Hill High School attracts people to the area as it has a great reputation.

"When we started talking to Jewish people and they heard we were starting programmes, they were really excited. Howard County has pre-schools but no primary or high schools.

"Jews are Orthodox, Reform, conservative and re-constructionist.

"Rabbis work very well together and there is a Jewish Federation covering the county. They have also created a board of rabbis.

"There is no kosher butcher so we drive 45 minutes to Baltimore, which also has a Jewish high school."

For Rabbi Yosef, Jewish education in a nearby city is nothing new.

He was among secondary school pupils from Leeds willing to travel daily across the Pennines in recent years. Today around 100 make the journey to Jewish schools.

This personal experience will hold him in good stead in Clarksville.

Rabbi Yosef married Chaya in 2010 and following a year of study in New York the couple moved to the area.

"On our first day we went into a store and a Korean guy behind the counter had a Hebrew quote on his arm symbolising love between Hashem and the Jewish people," he recalled.

"Then looking at properties we saw a mezzuzah on the house next door to the first one we looked at. Both were signs."

The reality, though, of setting up a Chabad House is finances have to be in place. And for this young Chabad couple hard work has been a basis of success.

Dovetailing work as a kosher supervisor for local factories and fundraising, programmes were soon in place.

"A big hit has been monthly Friday night dinners and we've been averaging 35 people for some time" Rabbi Yosef said.

"It's open to everyone. Chabad does not believe in labels - they are for suit jackets.

"Everyone is welcome. It does not matter whether they are affiliated or not. We don't turn anyone away.

"We look to bring Judaism to people's lives, give meaning and provide activities not present at the moment."

Rabbi Yosef has recently started a Friendship Circle that serves special-needs children and Jewish Learning Initiative courses, including a six-week Art of Marriage course. Both have been a hit.

A Chanucah Chabad initiative, which involved placing a giant menorah in the main shopping area of the village centre, likewise proved popular.

"We put up advertisements, sent out press releases and more than 200 people showed up," he said.

"There were decorations everywhere, but nothing representing Judaism. So when Jewish people saw a menorah it made them proud.

"We also had a menorah on the car, which got noticed. The number of beeps we got on the motorway was amazing. People were so excited and it proved to be a reference point. When we later chatted to residents it's incredible how many had heard about or seen what we did.

"You have to find ways of communicating. Chanucah is now a major festival for us to interact with the local community."

Rabbi Yosef added: "There has never been a rabbi, synagogue or temple in Clarksville itself, which makes it so fulfilling bringing Judaism to the area.

"Driving around, we see lots of mezzuzahs so there are clearly Jewish people. It's incredible. When we speak to people they tell us about streets that are practically all-Jewish."

Rabbi Yosef pointed out a major difference between challenges of Judaism in the UK and America.

"In the UK you have United synagogues, everyone feels more traditional, but in the US it's fragmented," he said.

"In London, Manchester or Leeds you go to shul and it's pretty much the same.

"Clarksville Jews used to travel to nearby cities for High Holy Day services, but we held them for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur for the first time last year.

"We lived in an RV - a motor home - outside a rented hall for services so could walk to shul and got a crowd of around 50 people.

"Before Pesach, we gave out 50 boxes of shmurah matzo to local people and held communal sedarim, which attracted people.

"We've also been holding monthly services, which keeps them unique till people commit. Then hopefully we can make them weekly. It's a step-by-step process."

Services take place in the Sufrin home.

"One of the reasons we were attracted to our house was the basement," Rabbi Yosef said. "It has its own entrance with a large space so it is ideal to hold regular services."

He was also quick to praise the work of his wife and her impact on the community.

"Chaya's interaction with local women is incredible," Rabbi Yosef said.

"Whenever Chaya bakes challah she always makes extra which we go out and give to people. It's another way of meeting more people and has proved successful.

"Everything will always be non-judgemental, which is so important.

"The River Hill area is new and that is where we are located. It's ideal for young Jewish families to get in touch and we intend to make it work."

For generations Jews have punched above their weight to make an impact. Rabbi Yosef is proving true to that indomitable heritage.

© 2012 Jewish Telegraph