Have Faith: Chabad on the Vineyard

This Jewish community is based on tradition, but open to the nontraditional.

A shabbat gathering at Chabad on the Vineyard. —Courtesy Rabbi Tzvi Alperowitz

I met Rabbi Tzvi Alperowitz the way I meet a lot of people, through emailing back and forth over the past year. We finally met in person last Sunday when I visited Chabad on the Vineyard for the first time. Raised in the Midwest in the 1960s and ’70s, I never knew anyone who was Jewish, and I had zero understanding of Judaism. I was always confused around the idea that it is both a culture and a religion, and as I got older, I became more intrigued by that idea.

I didn’t bring much understanding to the table with me last Sunday either, so the rabbi had his work cut out for him.

We first took a tour of the Chabad House on Causeway Avenue in Vineyard Haven. The home is being renovated, and Alperowitz and his family live in the upstairs apartment. The downstairs is an area where services can be held, and a beautifully carved ark (where Torah scrolls are stored) and bimah (a sort of platform table where the scrolls are read from) newly arrived from New York are at the ready. Another larger room will be a library, where visitors can either check out a book or read while they are there. The library will also contain a Judaica gift shop where you can purchase mezuzahs, Kiddush cups, shofars, menorahs, any Jewish item for all the holiday observances. There’s also a restroom and a small kitchen downstairs. Outdoors there is a lovely patio area where Shabbat services are currently held. All in all, it’s a very nice space that should be up and running within weeks.

I wanted to understand what Chabad is and isn’t, so we sat outside on the front porch and talked for a while. The rabbi explained that Chabad is a community that also has services, a place that is warm and welcoming, and without judgment. A place open to every denomination of the Jewish faith — Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, all groups.

“We are not a synagogue,” he said. “We are a community space that does services. Each synagogue has a different feel, and I think people will want to come here for the things that are unique to Chabad.”

So what makes Chabad unique? From what I understand, it is a gathering place where people are comfortable with sharing their stories and ideas, socializing without worrying about who comes from what background. It’s also a place where children can learn about the Torah, and learn to speak Hebrew. It’s a place for cocktails on the patio and Shabbat dinner. It’s a place that’s welcoming to anyone, and it’s a place to explore Jewish culture and become more aware of the things that bring us together more than those things that divide us.

“Every Chabad is a local entity,” Alperowitz explained. “Some do services, some do summer camps, whatever the needs are in the Jewish community, so every place is different. All Chabad Houses have that same warmth, but they all do different things based on the needs of the community.”

One of the reasons Alperowitz is so pleased to be starting a Chabad on the Vineyard is because he was raised in Chabad. He is the third generation in his family to live this way. His grandfather began one of the first Chabads in the movement that began after the Second World War. That Chabad opened in London, which explains why Alperowitz originally came to the U.S. from Bournemouth, England. His brother moved to South Dakota in 2016 to open a Chabad there, in a place where no rabbi had lived for decades. Chabads are spread throughout all 50 states now, and across the world. It is one of the largest Hasidic groups and Jewish religious organizations in the world, according to Wikipedia.

“It’s a Jewish community that is as broad and diverse as the Jewish people themselves,” Alperowitz told me. “We have atheists at the dinner, Jews that are exploring … you can be who you are and connect with Judaism. Everyone is made to feel welcome and invited, it is traditional yet welcoming to everyone, including Jews who don’t have religion.”

He said that Chabad is a place where you can connect with Judaism even if you are not practicing.

Chabad on the Vineyard itself has moved forward at a pretty good pace, hosting a Critical Conversations speaker series at Slough Farm that begins Tuesday, July 11, with former Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. The series continues on Tuesday, July 25, with the editorial team from the Tablet magazine, including journalists Alana Newhouse, Liel Liebovitz, and Stephanie Butnick. On Tuesday, August 15, Congressman Ritchie Torres (D-NY) will visit, and the series wraps up on Tuesday, August 29, with bestselling author and historian Walter Russell Mead, joined by Rabbi Meir Soloveichik, the director of the Center for Torah and Western Thought at Yeshiva University.

Another exciting endeavor is the first-ever Jewish Culture Festival on Tuesday, August 8, in Chilmark.

“We’ll focus on art, music, and food this year,” the rabbi explained. “We’ll have foods from all the different subcultures of Jewish life — Arab lands, Morocco, and Eastern and Western Europe — from all around the world.”

The festival will offer kosher wine tasting, food demonstrations, klezmer music, an art show, panel discussions, and more.

The concept of Chabad is intriguing; imagine a place where the focus is on coming together and not on the reasons why we aren’t together.

“You’ll find people from the Jewish community from all levels of observance and beliefs, from all types of political background,” Alperowitz said, “but we’re nonpolitical. That’s not what it’s about. We focus on Jewish tradition and that which is unifying. I think that’s what appeals to people.”

I left having a better understanding of Chabad, and the feeling that Rabbi Alperowitz and his young family are completely happy to be here.

“We love the Island,” he said. “We love the calmness and we love the friendliness. For whatever reason, I don’t think people realize what a beautiful community this is. What I really like is that everyone is a first-name contact. You call a store, you’re talking to the owner. It’s very unique. It really gives people the ability to be themselves here. This is a blessed place.”