BEYOND BROOKLYN:
Sandi Kahn Shelton - New Haven Register 4/8/01

The Yaffes came to Branford to reach out to Jews along the Shoreline

Rabbi Yossi Yaffe is the first to admit that he looks scary. Really, though, he doesn’t mean to frighten people.

"People here in Branford don’t quite know what to make of me," he says with a smile that lights up his brown eyes. It’s just that Yaffe, 31, is a Hasidic Jew, and according to the traditional laws he follows, he must dress plainly, wear a full beard and a yarmulke. His wife, Rochel Baila Yaffe, 26, is required to wear clothing that covers her elbows and knees at all times, and to wear a wig that covers her natural hair.

Walking with his wife and three children, ages 4, 2, and 1, on the Sabbath, he sees people staring at him curiously — or even fearfully. He smiles and says hello.

Back in Brooklyn, where they moved from two years ago, the Yaffes felt right at home, walking to services, eating in kosher delis and being with others who follow the Hasidic tradition of Judaism.

But the Yaffes won’t be going back to Brooklyn, even though they know their lives might be easier there among people who practice the same religion and share their lifestyle.

They have moved to Branford to create an "outpost" of traditional Judaism, to offer support and education to those who may want to reconnect with their heritage. The Chabad of the Shoreline offers support and education to any Jew who wishes to participate, regardless of their involvement with Judaism.

Today, the Yaffes will have a Passover Seder in their small house, welcoming 30 guests and performing the longtime rituals of the Seder meal.

Joel Blumen of Madison will be one of their guests. "It’s very nice to have the Chabad on the Shoreline offering a traditional public seder," he says. "I’ll have a family seder, too, but the traditional one is also very warm and meaningful."

Traditional Judaism is rare for the Shoreline area. Most Hasidic Jews in the area live in the Westville section of New Haven. But that’s exactly why the Yaffes don’t live there.

"We knew when we married that our goal was to move out and help people who would like to study more about their traditions," says Rochel Baila. Until they came here, she was in school at Barnard College and Yossi worked at a Jewish children’s organization.

Now that they’re here, they’ve started the Chabad, reaching out to Jews on the Shoreline with children’s programs and traditional Friday night Shabbat dinners in their home. Rochel Baila, who teaches at the Hebrew Day School in Orange, has given seminars for women, and Yossi has run classes in nursing homes as well as spoken to kids at Branford High School. Together, they’ve celebrated the High Holy Days at the John B. Sliney School in Branford and transformed Screaming Mimi’s, formerly a children’s arcade and party spot in Guilford, into a place to celebrate Hanukkah and Purim. Yossi holds weekly seminars in Talmud study and Jewish mysticism.

The message they bring, they say, is that every positive act has infinite value, and the importance of strengthening the bond between human beings and God. "We’re not a proselytizing religion," says Yossi. "We don’t set out to make everyone else become Jewish. Everyone, not only Jews, has a divine mission in this world. We don’t ask people to convert, but we do believe everyone can be a good human being."

Hasidic Jews, despite what Yossi calls their "scary" appearance, actually practice a friendly, joyful religion that stresses the worth of every Jew. "Our religion," he says, "is full of life and love. We don’t look down on people or judge them for how observant they are. We believe in serving God through joy."

The movement to send couples around the world to strengthen Jewish communities began after World War II. At that time, the rebbe, or head rabbi, from a branch of Hasidic Judaism called Lubavitch, came to the United States from Europe and was saddened to see that so many Jews were uninvolved in their heritage, Yossi says. There are now some 2,500 couples all over the world doing what the Yaffes are doing: setting up outreach centers to help create a Jewish community.

Although there are active synagogues in Madison and Deep River, which are affiliated with the Reform movement of Judaism, Blumen says the Chabad on the Shoreline "offers an important additional opportunity for those who want to experience a somewhat more traditional approach. Jewish folks from all spectrums are warmly invited to attend and to ask questions."

The Yaffes say they’re looking forward to tonight’s traditional Passover meal, which includes certain foods and a ritual of asking questions.

"Passover is a family time," says Yossi. "With Jewish holidays, you’re not simply reminiscing about something that happened in the past — you’re reliving that past. Passover, which celebrates the Jews’ leaving Egypt, has 15 steps through which we hope to engender the feelings of slavery and liberation. It is a time when we have the chance to experience personal liberation from our own constraints and limitations."

Children are to ask the questions: "Why is this night different from all other nights? Why do we eat unleavened bread? Why do we eat bitter herbs? Why do we dip our greens twice? Why do we recline?" And then, says Rochel Baila, the adults tell the children the story.

"When I was growing up, seders lasted until 3 or 4 a.m.," she says. "You tell the whole story and then you talk about your heritage and what it means."

"In the Hagadah (the Jewish book about the Seder) we encounter four sons," says Yossi. "There’s the wise, the rebellious, the simple, and the one who doesn’t know what to ask. But some would say there’s also a fifth son — one who doesn’t even make it to the seder. There are people who are totally disconnected. That’s who we’re hoping to invite to our seder."

» For more information about the Chabad on the Shoreline, call (203) 488-8358, or go to http:/www.jewishoreline.org.