Riders Brake for Some Judaism in Postville

Rabbis, yeshivah students and campers greeted participants in the “Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa,” offering kosher food, conversation and the chance for Jewish men to wrap tefillin as they pedaled through Postville.

From Chabad.org by Eric Berger:

Joy Allen, a Jewish hairdresser from the San Francisco Bay Area, has been participating in RAGBRAI—the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa—with her father, brother and nephews for a decade. The seven-day ride covers more the 400 miles across the state, but it’s not a race and not very steep, which means there is time for a lot of stops.

“Iowa is unique in that it has just amazing hospitality,” said Allen, 52. “You can do whatever you want. You can stop and chat with the Amish or spend time with the Jewish community.”

Allen did just that last week in Postville, a small city of just a few thousand people in the northeast corner of the state. Chabad runs a synagogue, yeshivah and Jewish day school in town, and on Friday, local emissaries and rabbinic students parked themselves alongside the bike route and distributed blessings, bottled water and Shabbat candles. They also asked Jewish men and boys over the age of 13 to put on tefillin.

Rabbi Aron Schimmel and Rabbi Mendel Raices, directors of Chabad of North East Iowa, greeted some of the 20,000 riders with other rabbis and community members, including 50 students from the local Gan Israel day camp. “We are stopping people who are taking a break from the race asking them if they are Jewish,” the rabbi said a few hours before the start of Shabbat. “We met Jews who have never worn tefillin before.”

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Tefillin Campaign, started by the Lubavitcher Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—before the start of the Six-Day War in June 1967.

Music, Prayer and Food

Schimmel, who has lived in Postville for 20 years—home to about 60 Jewish families—said in all that time, bike riders in the event, coordinated by the Des Moines Register, had never pedaled through town before. He said people seemed a little surprised to see the men in their black coats and hats in the heat of the afternoon.

“We had people asking who we were. It’s a bit unusual seeing a bunch of Orthodox Jews in the middle of the cornfields,” he acknowledged. But the cyclists weren’t surprised to learn that most in the Jewish community were drawn to Postville by jobs at the Agri Star Meat and Poultry plant, which has a large kosher division.

The rabbi estimated that a few hundred people interacted with the local Jewish community during the race. In addition to offering tefillin, the rabbis played Chassidic tunes and even danced with some of the riders. “To have so many people stopping by in this small town, I never dreamed that such a thing could happen,” said Schimmel.

In the middle of a conversation, one man mentioned that it was his father’s yahrtzeit, the anniversary of his passing. So the rabbis gathered together a minyan—10 Jewish men required for a public prayer quorum—so that he could recite the Mourner’s Kaddish.

A deli stand also offered kosher food to riders. One person who initially turned the down the request to wrap tefillin recharged himself with a sandwich—and changed his mind.

“You see what kosher food can do?” quipped Schimmel. “Much more than all our words!”

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