Idaho: The Next Jewish Frontier?
Idaho: The Next Jewish Frontier?
June 1, 2023

BY RABBI MENDEL LIPSHITZ

 

Since the pandemic, more remote workers are coming to Boise, Idaho, trading dense, urban cities for a down-to-earth, outdoorsy place seen as desirable to relocate.

No one could be more excited than Rabbi Mendel Lifshitz, director of Chabad Lubavitch of Idaho and his wife Esther, who have 11 children. For 18 years, the religious couple has slowly eked out a Jewish community despite the relatively small number of Jews.

 

 

All that has changed in the past few years.

“During the pandemic, we’ve had a really huge spurt,” he said. “It has opened people’s eyes to the fact that they can choose where to live as opposed to being told where to live. I’d say more people moved here in the last two or three years than have moved here in the whole decade.”

Among the many newcomers are Jews who have found their new and sometimes first spiritual home in Chabad of Idaho. They are attracted to Chabad’s authenticity and welcoming attitude. Every Jew is encouraged to participate, regardless of affiliation and ability to pay.

Israeli-American Dan Berger, an entrepreneur, left the east coast for a road trip to pass time during the first wave of covid. “What I didn’t realize is that I was actually following my spirit.”

Boise became his new home and “Chabad has become a key part of my integration. It has given me the spirituality I was seeking, but more so an authentic community of people who share the same values.”

Chabad of Idaho is in the midst of expanding facilities including building a mikvah, after a successful fundraising campaign. Berger is chair of the building committee.

The Lifshitzes started a Hebrew school many years ago with three students. Now there are 30. They are running a camp this summer with over 25 children. There’s a women’s circle, adult education and teen programs. Then there are regular Shabbat services and a community dinner on the first Friday of every month.

Lifshitz remembers when “we couldn’t get a minyan together. Now we have one every week.”

Boise is atypical for a city of 230,000. “There’s no Jewish Federation, no JCC. There’s a Reform temple and there’s Chabad. That’s it,” Lifshitz said.

“When we moved here there was really zilch as far as traditional Jewish life,” and only 750 to 1,000 Jews. Now it has doubled. Until the Lifshitzes put down roots, roving Lubavitch rabbis visited Boise for four decades.

“There was never any attempt or undertaking to establish a permanent presence until we were asked to do so.
“We had Chabad in our house,” said Lifshitz, who, like his wife, is in his early 40s. “We opened our doors and reached out to anybody we could meet.”

With such a small community, the Lifshitzes took the approach of cultivating one Jew at a time. “The Jewish community in Idaho is handcrafted. It’s not assembly-line Judaism. The Talmud teaches us that every person is an entire world and you really feel it out here. You know every person on a first-name basis. We’re connected and we have deep relationships with people.

“We offer basically everything that a very large Chabad center offers just on a microcosmic scale.” Still, the community has grown so much that “we literally cannot keep up. We need to hire more staff.”

The nearest big city is Salt Lake City, five hours away. “There are so many challenges here. There’s no kosher food so we make a community order to ship in.”

The Lifshitzes were assigned to Boise when they asked the Chabad Lubavitch organization for a posting in 2004. Esther was from South Africa and Mendel, from Cincinnati. She had never heard of Idaho. Before settling in Boise, Lifshitz, then a rabbinical student, had been on assignment in over 30 countries. “Boise was a big change for us. Both of us decided after we got married that we were interested in pioneering somewhere. We got more than we bargained for.”

What the Lifshitzes like about Boise is the friendliness, down-to-earth mentality and openness to Jewish tradition. “I love the fact that we came to a blank slate where we could really paint the tapestry. That was a big challenge, a big calling and an even bigger privilege. That has been really something remarkable, rewarding and enriching.”

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