Rabbi Mendy Gurkov, religious leader of the new Chabad Jewish Center of Upper Passaic County, received his ordination in 2008, spending a year after yeshiva working in Moscow, where he “interacted with different people, experiencing what it means to be a rabbi.”
“To see different people, who didn’t grow up religious, and connect with them on their level and share the warmth of Judaism with them – that was a great year for me,” he said.
The son of Rabbi Michel and Chani Gurkov of Wayne – who themselves run a Chabad center – the young rabbi said, “I was always helping out, running different holiday and bar mitzvah programs. As an assistant rabbi all my life, I wanted to be a rabbi and continue this amazing work.”
Now, he said, he has that chance in an area that “doesn’t offer many Jewish programs.” In September, the fledgling congregation/Chabad center began serving the Highlands area including Ringwood, Wanaque, and West Milford. Officially opened on Sept. 15 with a wine tasting and kabbalah lecture held at the Holiday Inn in Wanaque, the center, at least initially, will base many of its events either at that location or at the Gurkov’s home.
The rabbi said he planned to move by late September to a townhouse not far from the hotel. He and his wife, Esty, have a newborn daughter, Toby.
Events may also be held at the Ringwood Public Library, he said.
“I’ve been working for four or five months to meet as many Jews [in the area] as I can and hear their views,” he said of efforts to establish a presence in the area.
“They’re very spread out. The first response from most Jews is that they think they’re the only ones living here. They need to realize they’re not alone. They need to be brought together by programs, to gather in one room.”
Gurkov said he has a passion to reach out to Jewish people.
“I grew up with the model of being lamplighters, lighting up the community with yiddishkeit,” he said, noting that only time will tell how the new center will fare in the area.
Gurkov said the idea for the Chabad congregation arose some seven months ago.
“The idea was a mix,” he said, combining his desire to serve the area and the enthusiasm of the community.
“Many people are very happy with our coming,” he said. “They feel that there isn’t such a strong Jewish presence in Wanaque.”
Ultimately, he plans not only to hold services, but also to establish a women’s circle and Hebrew school, and to offer Shabbat meals.
“It sounds comforting [to them],” he said. “They won’t have to drive 25 minutes to another community.”
Gurkov will be the rabbi as well as leader of the Chabad center, offering help for “any Jewish-related issue,” whether bar mitzvah lessons, funerals, counseling, or Torah study. For worship services, he will bring in a cantor, and services will be in both English and Hebrew.
“Bringing everyone together is a challenge,” he said, “starting from scratch, spreading out. We really have to make it happen.”
The Chabad rabbi said his goal is to become “the Jewish home in the town for everyone – where everyone can come for Jewish programs, meals, classes, lectures, and seminars. [People should feel] like there’s a place to go to, be for the holidays.”
That, he said, will not only enhance the lives of Jews already living there but, hopefully, attract more Jews to live there.