ST. GEORGE — “Are you Jewish?” The question was recently asked across southwest Utah last month as part of an outreach program involving a motor home called the “Mitzvah Tank.” Packed with rabbinical students from New York, the motor home’s visit to Cedar City helped one man embrace his Jewish faith and heritage.
If asked today if he’s a Jew, 39-year-old David Hensler, of Cedar City, will give you a resounding, “yes.”
On the path to reclaiming lost roots
Though he was born into the Jewish faith, Hensler had not received any formal upbringing in it, nor did he have much interest for religion in general until entering college. His parents had also divorced early in his life and his Jewish heritage wasn’t something that was heavily promoted, he said.
Though he was surrounded by evangelical Christians as he grew up, he still identified as Jewish on some level. This sentiment was bolstered by his parents telling him to “never forget you’re Jewish,” he said.
However, when it came to Judaism proper, Hensler said he knew very little.
As the years wore on, Hensler moved to Utah in his early 30s and married. The woman was a Latter-day Saint herself, but hadn’t been the most active in her faith, either. That changed, however, as she chose to become active to the point she was able to participate in ceremonies at the LDS Cedar City Temple.
Hensler said he was supportive of his wife’s journey of rekindled faith, yet it caused him to become introspective. As their children were getting older, Hensler said he came to the decision that he no longer wanted to “tinker around with what ifs” when it came to the question of his own faith. Hensler’s wife and her family proved to be supportive.
Like his wife, Hensler started his own faith journey that led him to find and contact the Chabad Lubavitch of Utah online. Based in Salt Lake City, the “Chabad,” as it is commonly known, put Hensler in contact with Rabbi Mendy Cohen, who oversees the Chabad of St. George.
Cohen is one of 4,500 rabbis across the globe who are a part of the Chabad sect of Hasidic Judaism. The sect emphasizes outreach and sending rabbis to Jewish communities wherever they may be. Cohen and his family came to Washington County last year. Prior to that, a pair of Chabad Lubavitch rabbinical students visited St. George as a part of their training.
Through his contact with the Chabad, Hensler was able to meet with other Jews in Southern Utah who gathered at Cohen’s home in late March to observe the Purim holiday.
“It was a wonderful experience,” Hensler said. What came next as Passover rolled around would change his life, he said.
Coming of the Mitzvah Tank
While the St. George area has an established, yet small Jewish community called the Beit Chaverim, Cedar City does not. This has led to a sense of isolation among the handful of Jews that live there, Cedar City resident David Karmeli said.
“Here, there are Jews looking for somewhere to go and connect to their roots,” Karmeli, 60, said. “You feel left out here.”
In an effort to connect with the greater Jewish community and gain a revitalized appreciation for the faith and heritage, Karmeli also contacted the Chabad Lubavitch of Utah about providing Passover services.
Between Karmeli’s request and coordination through Cohen, a large RV packed with rabbinical students from New York were sent to southwest Utah to help strengthen the local Jewish community while also helping them reconnect with their heritage and legacy. Along the way, the students supplied items related to Judaism and the Passover holiday to those they met.
“I don’t know of any other organization that does this,” Karmeli said. “It’s very impressive. They are there to provide for us.”
The Mitzvah Tank rolled into Southern Utah during the Passover season between April 19 and 27. Sightings of the behemoth motor home the rabbinical student used were seen from St. George to Cedar City to Zion National Park. It was hard to miss, given the large banners adorning the sides and rear of the motor home that read: “Are you Jewish?” and “No Jew will be left behind.”
The Mitzvah Tank was also characterized as a “mobile synagogue.” The mix of students staffing the RV were originally from Jerusalem, Moscow and the Ukraine, with each attending a Chabad Lubavitch college in Brooklyn, New York.
Mendy Rabinowitz was among the students that came to Utah.
“It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life,” he said, noting that it is a goal of the Chabad to send its rabbis out into the world to establish support for Jewish communities worldwide, just as Cohen is in the possess of doing.
While in Southern Utah, the Mitzvah Tank made one-on-one home visits to members of the Jewish community across the region.
“They were able to come and lift the spirits of local Jews,” Cohen said. “They brought them the spiritual needs they yearned and hungered for.”
That was particularly true for Hensler.
Gathering for Shabbat and the end of a journey
In Cedar City, Rabinowitz and the other rabbis-in-training met at Karmeli’s home to observe the Shabbat, or Jewish Sabbath. Hensler and several other area Jews were invited to attend as well, and did.
“I met so many Jews,” Hensler said. “It really was a great experience.”
Prior to attending the Shabbat service, Hensler had been invited onto the Mitzvah Tank where he discussed Judaism with the students and was given a copy of a Torah, one of the Jewish holy books.
“That was the beginning,” he said, as the meeting at the Mitzvah Tank opened the veritable floodgates for what would later take place at the Shabbat service.
While attending, Hensler learned that a part of the Shabbat service that involved a teacher reciting a particular prayer or scripture from the Torah required the presence of 10 men. He ended up being the 10th man in attendance.
This allowed one of the rabbinical students to not just read the religious text as much as sing it. This was another facet of the faith of which Hensler said he was thankful to be a part.
“Everything was a first experience for me,” he said as he continued to discover elements of Judaism he had never known.
As the service progressed, it was learned that Hensler never had a bar mitzvah, a Jewish ceremony boys undertake at age 13 that marks their eligibility to participate in public worship. It was decided to remedy that issue, as well as give Hensler a “Jewish name,” something else he had missed out on as a child.
“This was a very exciting thing,” Hensler said, adding it would be the first time the students partook in the ceremony as well. “I had an official bar mitzvah at 39 years old. It was amazing.”
From that point on, everything felt right and was the way it was supposed to be, Hensler said. The whole experience gave him a sense of wholeness he had not had before.
“It was like the end of a journey for me,” he said. “My wife says I’m a changed man because of it.”
Rabinowitz called the experience “a gift from heaven,” adding it was one of the most special experiences he’s had in relation to other outreach trips.
“We actually made an impact,” he said.
Karmeli was also pleased with the overall experience and praised the Chabad for its outreach efforts and the rabbinical students’ fervor.
“The soul of Judaism is what they bring to you,” he said. “This was a big deal, not just for me, but for other people here.”
The Mitzvah Tank eventually had to move on. At least for one man, the motor home and its students left behind a life that felt whole and changed for the better.
“We’re letting every Jew know they can have a home,” Rabinowitz said.
Anyone interested in learning more about Judaism or the Chabad Center of St. George, which offers Jewish education, outreach and social service programming for families and individuals of all ages, backgrounds and affiliations, contact Rabbi Mendy Cohen at 443-619-6630, or visit the Chabad Center website.
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