The roving rabbis

Jewish leaders-in-training visit the North State

Shlomie Kagan, left, and Mendel Karczag ask passersby in downtown Chico, “Are you Jewish?” The men are in town as part of the worldwide Roving Rabbis program.

Shlomie Kagan, left, and Mendel Karczag ask passersby in downtown Chico, “Are you Jewish?” The men are in town as part of the worldwide Roving Rabbis program.

How kosher:
According to the website, the student rabbis subsist on a diet of matzah, canned fish and canned vegetables for weeks on end.

Two wispy-bearded, tall, thin young men wearing long black coats and wide-brimmed hats walked the sidewalk in front of Chronic Tacos in downtown Chico on Friday, Aug. 3.

To say the least, they stood out from the everyday downtown Chico crowd of shoppers, business people, employees and panhandlers.

“Are you Jewish?” they enthusiastically asked a curious passerby. The negative answer didn’t dampen their enthusiasm, and after a brief discussion they agreed to an interview that led to this story.

Mendel Karczag and Shlomie Kagan were in town as part of an effort called Roving Rabbis, in which rabbis-in-training go to places in China, India and rural Northern California, where Jewish communities are small and members supposedly have lost touch with their roots.

Karczag and Kagan, both 21, are part of the Chabad Rabbinical Visitation Program out of the Chabad-Lubavitch Chasidic movement of Orthodox Judaism, based in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, N.Y. It’s the largest Jewish organization in the world, they said.

Each summer, according to, hundreds of rabbinical students “spend their summers on the road, sharing their passion for Jewish life and bringing Jewish awareness and observance wherever they go.”

Karczag himself is from Brooklyn, and Kagan is from Monsey, N.Y., a bit farther upstate. Both speak with thick New York accents. They will spend a total of three weeks in the area, staying at the Chabad Jewish Center at Chestnut and Fourth streets when in Chico and getting around in Rabbi Mendy Zwiebel’s car. It’s no coincidence that the rabbi’s wife, Chana, is Kagan’s sister.

“We prearranged the stay because of that,” said Kagan, “but someone would have come here as part of the program regardless.”

The Chabad Center also serves as a center for Chico State’s Jewish students.

On the day of the interview, Karczag and Kagan were headed to Redding by way of Red Bluff and had meetings set up with members of the Jewish communities in those towns. Before coming to Chico, they’d spent the early part of the summer working in a Chicago high school.

Kagan said there are really two parts to the mission—getting a feel for and an understanding of smaller Jewish communities and bringing to them the Orthodox Judaism in which he and Karczag have been immersed. They’ve each been studying to become rabbis since they were 13 years old.

“We want to meet the people and see what it’s like to live over here,” Kagan said. “Because as rabbis-in-training you never know if you might end up in a smaller Jewish community, and therefore you need to have a feel for what it is like.

“We also want to meet with the members of that community. You know, many people are just too busy living their lives and taking care of all the mundane things and they sometimes forget about their Jewishness.”

The men said they’d discovered that Chico has a very small Jewish community, as is typical in the more rural parts of the nation, particularly out west.

“We have a friend doing this in Orange County, and he’s telling us that he’s meeting so many more Jews right now,” Karczag said. “Chico’s is very small, but on the other hand it is very inspirational to see. Even though it’s such a small community, everyone still has their Jewish traditions, their thing that they are still Jewish about.”

Karczag said the smaller communities have something he and Kagan can learn as well.

“There is always the big ‘hoo-ha’ in the larger cities,” he said, “but here there is something we can learn from someone living in a smaller community.”

He said the Chabad Center and the Congregation Beth Israel on Hemlock Street, led by Rabbi Julie Danan, are the main institutions serving the local Jewish community.

The rabbis said their initial impressions of Chico have been positive so far.

“It’s been very, very welcoming,” Kagan said. “Even people who are not Jewish are saying, ‘How are you enjoying Chico?’ They welcome us and they try to think of any Jewish friends to help us out.

“Everyone is very welcoming and understanding. And you know, coming from New York, that’s a bit of a change. No one has time for you there, because they all are running around cutting business deals or whatever.”

Kagan said they’ve received very little in the way of negative responses when contacting local businesses and people on the streets. He said they walked into one business—he couldn’t remember the name—where they got less than a warm welcome.

“This lady who was working there said, ‘We don’t have time for this now.’ So we left. A few blocks down the street another lady pulls up in car and says she’s not Jewish, but that she was working in the office and talking on the phone when we came in. She said she felt really bad how this other lady was rude to us. She said she really wanted to apologize. This lady drove all the way to catch up with us to apologize. That’s very touching.”

He said he understands the less-than-pleasant encounters.

“When people are rude, you can’t really blame them,” he said. “They are in the middle of doing something, and they are busy, and then these rabbis come in. They don’t know how to react to that.”

Karczag said that just three days after arriving in town, their presence was getting some notice.

“We’ve made calls to people to set up meetings, and one of them said, ‘Yeah, my wife saw you walking downtown.’ It gets back to us because this is something they don’t see every day; rabbis with beards in downtown Chico.”

They said they had visited the mall the day before and met one man who said he wasn’t Jewish but that his wife was. He gave them her contact information. They also met some Israelis at the mall and did a tefillin procedure with them.

That involves a leather strap wrapped around a person’s arm and another wrapped around the head and jaw.

“It is a commandment of God that reconnects us,” Kagan explained. “It helps put together your mind and heart and hands and focus you for the purpose of God. People call it the Jewish blood-pressure test.”