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Rabbi helps people find common roots in cultural Judaism

When several hundred of Reform Judaism's rabbis convened late last month to discuss their faith, they ended up adopting a new statement of principles designed to draw many of the "old ways" back into vogue among congregants.

They decided the movement has strayed too far from the Orthodox rituals and traditions -- like adhering to kosher food laws and wearing the traditional skull cap -- that for centuries gave Jews a unique sense of identity.In Utah, Rabbi Benny Zippel has seen a groundswell of this same search for identity in his own congregation, Bais Menachem, which was comprised seven years ago of only one family -- his.

Now about 200 families -- most of them Jewish -- call his congregation home, many of them "living cultural Judaism rather than the actual religion. My congregation is geared to anyone wanting to get further into Judaism. All of them are not necessarily religious now, but they're one more step toward it than they were before."

An ultraorthodox rabbi himself, Zippel sees an innate yearning in many Utah Jews who are looking for greater meaning in their personal lives through learning more about Judaism and its roots.

"I think people as a whole have made tremendous progress and different Jewish customs and rituals are a lot more observed and practiced now than they were seven years ago," he said.

For example, Zippel held the first public Hanukkah celebration in memory seven years ago in December during what most Utahns think of as the Christmas holiday season. "A public menorah lighting was something totally foreign and people were very hesitant and uncomfortable with it at best. Now it's reached a point that at this past Hanukkah we had about 500 people there."

People in general have a natural tendency to fear any sort of change, he said, "even though subconsciously they might know that is a change for the better and not the worse. Anything that involves a change is looked at somewhat cynically.

"Yet Judaism believes very much on focusing on the positive aspects of life, rather than on the negative. If you just bring to people's attention how important a public celebration is where we show our kids, family members, friends and neighbors how proud we are of our religion, people actually learn to get comfortable with that."

When he first moved to town, the idea that somebody should walk to synagogue on the Sabbath "was almost totally unheard of. Now there are several families in town that have relocated and come to live around the synagogue, specifically to be able to walk to services on the Sabbath."

Why?

"The Torah teaches that one of the 39 actions that the Talmud brings down that a Jew is forbidden to engage in on the Sabbath is creating and igniting an electric spark." As ultraorthodox Jews, "we don't do anything associated with electricity on the Sabbath -- lights, TV, car. We walk rather than drive to services. If we want to visit, we just walk there together. Walking to synagogue on the sabbath is part of Judaism."

That type of strict adherence to a set of biblical proscriptions is what spawned the Conservative and Reform movements within Judaism in the first place. Those groups have modified such practices in their own ways over the past several decades, looking more toward the individual and each person's uniqueness as a major focal point.

Yet there is evidence that even among local Reform adherents -- Reform Judaism is the more 'liberal' of the two -- that the yearning for symbolic ritual and meaning Zippel sees in so many is being examined and, in some cases, acted on.

Eileen Hallet Stone, co-author of a recent book called, "Missing Stories" that examines the history of ethnic groups in Utah, believes there is "a kind of movement towards getting back to one's religion. More and more in today's way of life, people are craving stability. We live in a mobile environment rather than an extended family like we used to have. For that reason I think we're leaning toward community and religion to find maybe a connection with our roots."

While acknowledging that she's not particularly religious, Stone says she finds her own Judaism in that category.

Apparently, several other local Jewish women do as well. Stone was recently invited to join a local women's group called the Rosh Chodesh, women of all Jewish affiliations who meet once a month "to pray, remember and renew their mothers' rituals and to celebrate the cycles of the year and their lives."

While the feminist interpretation and application of some Jewish rituals may differ from Orthodox tradition, Stone says she sees it as another evidence of the need for connectedness within the wider Jewish community.

In a departure from the sometimes condemning stand many ultraOrthodox Jews take regarding other forms of Judaism, Zippel said his ministry "caters to needs of all Jews and all forms of Judaism. It's very unusual, but that's all part of the tremendous vision" that the founder of the Chabad Lubavitch movement, of which Zippel is a part, had.

In that spirit, Zippel has organized a retreat for the entire Jewish community June 9-10 in Park City. The focus will be on "the preciousness of every single Jew no matter where he or she may find himself," Zippel said.

For information, call Chabad Lubavitch of Utah at 467-7777.