For the past eight weeks, a young man with a white shirt, sport jacket, wide-brimmed black hat and long beard has been knocking on doors all over Novato. He’s not selling anything. He would just like to be your friend.
He’s Rabbi Menachem Landa — straight outta Brooklyn via Montreal via San Diego, and now he is making northern California’s Novato home.
(Can anyone in town remember the last time we had a rabbi living and tending to a flock here? Is this a first? If not, it’s rare nonetheless.)
“I love this town. I’m so fortunate to be here,” Rabbi Menachem, 26, said one recent day. “The people have been so nice. I introduce myself, to Jews as much as non-Jews, and they seem thrilled to hear there is a rabbi in town. I’m honored. I’m only here seven weeks and it feels like I’ve known some of these people forever.”
Rabbi Menachem is in Novato with his wife, Adina, and their two young children to establish Chabad of Novato, one of 4,500 Chabad centers around the world. The rabbi said he envisions a brick-and-mortar Chabad Jewish Center of Novato someday, but for now he’s handling all his duties out of a home on the east side of town.
There are other Jewish centers not far from here — Congregation Rodef Shalom in San Rafael, B’Nai Israel Jewish Center in Petaluma, Congregation Kol Shafar in Tiburon among them — but Novato, with no temple, has been underserved. Chabad of Mill Valley and Chabad of Marin in San Rafael have both been existence for decades, and now Rabbi Menachem is setting up shop right here.
“I was at Trader Joe’s with my kids and met a woman — a lifelong resident, she said — who had never run into a rabbi in Novato,” Rabbi Menachem said. “She’s in her 50s and single, and one of the things rabbis do is connect people. She said she’s on board for whatever we do.”
The Landa family landed in Novato three days before the Jewish holiday of Purim, on which it is appropriate and traditional to dress up. Rabbi Menachem and Adina dressed up their 1-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter as a king and queen and pulled them around in a wagon, knocking on doors.
“One woman who answered said, ‘God has answered my prayers!’” Rabbi Menachem said. “It turns out she has a 12-year-old son who is getting ready for his bar mitzvah. She was so happy to see us, and of course we were so happy to have that kind of reception. Word is getting out.”
Part of the Chabad-Lubavitch mission is to utilize the Internet to “unite Jews worldwide, empower them with knowledge of their 3,300-year-old tradition, and foster within them a deeper connection to Judaism’s rituals and faith,” according to its website.
“We’re not reform or conservative,” the rabbi said of Chabad. “Labels are for shirts, not people, you know? A Jew is a Jew. We were born into this. … We work more to connect Jewish pride and touch lives of people who, if we weren’t here, probably wouldn’t connect.”
Rabbi Menachem grew up in Montreal, got married three years ago and moved to Brooklyn, the hub of American Judaism. He had four siblings living there with their families. Adina is from San Diego, and they spent some time there before coming to Novato.
“I was reading a lot about this place — a city of almost 55,000 people with no Jewish center, and I felt like it was the thing to do,” Rabbi Menachem said of the move. “You might think it’s crazy or ambitious or naive to leave where we were. It’s a big sacrifice — we have no family here and we have most of our Kosher food shipped up from L.A. — but we feel like we’re creating a family here.”
When he’s not knocking on doors, he’s planning special events, Kosherizing a kitchen, visiting senior care facilities, holding Shabbat candle lightings and watching Adina make her soon-to-be-famous challah bread. Adina also runs a women’s circle.
A big focus for Rabbi Menachem now is the planning of a Shavuot service on May 27; Shavuot commemorates the giving of the Torah to the Jewish People 3,324 years ago at Mt. Sinai.
“We’re doing some traditional things but we’re also making it an ice cream party,” Rabbi Menachem said. “Hey, we’re here for the future generations, so the kids need to get involved.”
Speaking of ice, the rabbi is a huge hockey fan. He’s Canadian, so that’s pretty much the law.
“I don’t skate on ice, though,” he said. “You’d think since I’m Canadian, of course he does. No, I’m into roller hockey.” (I told him about the pickup games out at Hamilton, so let’s hope one of the players sees this and reaches out to him. If he scores three goals in a game, we’ll have to call it a yarmulke trick, yes?)
The rabbi said he still has many neighborhoods to explore on his door-to-door campaign.
“People might be scared when they see the beard,” he said with a laugh, “but from the reception I have been getting from Jews and non-Jews, it’s like, ‘Welcome, Rabbi, great to have you here. … Judaism is alive, it’s not just a history or a science. It’s a way of life, and I think it’s exciting.”