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Saving Faith

Rabbi Rapoport of the SU Chabad House teaches students how to balance college and religion.

If you've ever seen a man with a bushy beard walking around campus with a big plant and something that looks like a lemon, chances are it was Rabbi Yaakov Rapoport.

During Sukkot (a Jewish holiday in the fall), the Rabbi tries to get SU students to go into the sukkah (a temporary hut constructed to celebrate the harvest) and recite prayers with the lulav (plant) and the etrog (lemon).

Photo: James R. Evans
Rabbi Yaakov Rapoport prays with a lulav bundle as he leads a small congregation of Jewish students during a morning service for Hoshana Rabbah.

Rabbi Rapoport, of the Chabad House, helps students relate to their Judaism in the whirlwind of college life.

There are a lot of things competing for student’s time at SU — whether it be dome column jumping or wearing UGG boots and spandex  — but Chabad shows students that they can do all of these lovely activities and still have time for religion.

“College allows for it. You have to just want it,” Rapoport said.

But what is Chabad?

Chabad, part of the Hasidic movement (a branch of ultra-Orthodox Judaism that emphasizes joyful observance of G-d's commandments), is the largest Jewish social network in the world. In Hebrew, Chabad means wisdom, knowledge, and understanding. The movement tries to enhance spirituality, awareness and observance among the Jewish people through a series of religious and social service programs.

If that confused you, don’t worry. The rabbi can break it down.

Rabbi Rapoport compares his job to that of a lamplighter. Gas lamps do not produce any light on their own. A lamplighter has to provide the spark.

This is what the rabbi does. Instead of igniting lamps, he ignites souls. 

Rabbi Rapoport and his wife Chanie Rapoport brought the first Chabad House to Syracuse in 1984. Before that, there were individual students and community members who tried to cultivate Jewish life, but there was no house for them.

The first house was a few miles away from campus at the end of Euclid Avenue. When the Rabbi and Chanie moved to 113 Berkeley Dr., their home also served as the Chabad House. Today, the Rapoports still live on Berkeley and have a separate Chabad House at 825 Ostrom Ave., much closer to campus.

Rapoport says that Chabad tries to emphasize the value of every Jewish person in the community. The Rabbi explains that previously in Judaism, non-scholars were seen as insignificant. Chabad stresses the importance of simple people, even if they do not always understand what is in the prayers.

If the whole is missing the part, it is not whole, Rapoport says. He tries to teach every Jew that he or she can serve God.

Rapoport wanted to be a Chabad Rabbi ever since he was a young boy. He followed in the footsteps of his uncle, who is also a Chabad Rabbi.

He was offered positions in Chabad Houses abroad, but decided to stay in America because he grew up here. He has been visiting colleges campuses since he was 16.

The Rabbi works on the SU campus as well as in the community and says that there will be another full time rabbi on campus soon.

The Chabad House hosts holiday services, Shabbat dinners, information tables at SU and classes. The rabbi tries to be noticed in campus.

He used Levi Strauss as an example. If Strauss didn't advertise his jeans, not many people would have bought them. Not because they weren't good quality, but because nobody would have known they existed. "You’ve got to go out and be aggressive in your marketing,” Rapoport says.

During the Rabbi’s time in Syracuse, he has made some lifelong relationships through his work. He was recently in California attending the wedding of a former student who graduated 12 years ago. Another SU alum of 1985 wants to fly Rapoport to Israel for his son's bar mitzvah.

“Those are the moments where you see the work of many years,” Rapoport said.

The Chabad House has hosted different guests, such as Don Alon, a survivor of the Munich massacre at the 1972 Olympic Games, and services like a memorial for the Mumbai terror attack.

Beyond formal programming, Rapoport also helps people one-on-one. He recalled a few students coming to him to get his religious take on tattoos.

The rabbi told them that even though Jews can be buried in a Jewish cemetery with a tattoo (contrary to the popular myth), he found it seriously un-kosher.

“Having a tattoo is like walking around eating a ham sandwich (a big Jewish no-no) for the rest of your life,” Rapoport joked.

Rapoport's commitment to helping others and sparking their souls is ongoing.

"It is like the message of Hanukkah," he said. You light a candle the first night, you did a good thing. You made light in the world. You can sit back and rest now, right? No, you have to light another one the next night. And the next night. And then you lit seven candles! But that’s not enough! You have to light an eighth one.”

The mission is to teach students that it is a joy to be Jewish, and to help them develop a visible and active connection to their religion. Rapoport hopes that the lessons he imparts to students at SU carry over into their lives in the future. Becoming a professional and pursuing a career does not mean that religion has to go by the wayside, he said. There is a way for them to coexist.

So the next time you see Rabbi Rapoport on campus, say "Shalom" — Peace, hello, goodbye.

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