Chabad has made it their mission to open their doors to unaffiliated Jews while casting no judgment upon their past or current lifestyles. Starting in the 1970’s, they have encouraged Rabbis to set up communities in the far reaches of the secular Jewish world. They serve as “Lamplighters” of Jewish souls.

Rabbi Avi Zweigel and his family were living in Florida in 2003 when they learned about Ashland’s growing Jewish community. They soon made the move and established a congregation. Late last year, with the help of local fundraising, they purchased a building on the main street in town to be used as a synagogue and Jewish center. It had previously been occupied by a Starbucks. The Rabbi is known for his accessibility and attentiveness. He figures that the number of Jewish households in the area has grown to about 1800.

Richard had grown weary of urban life as a teacher in inner city L.A. Him and his wife moved to a conservative rural area in Idaho. But they missed having a Jewish community. Although they were far from “religious,” they had grown up in a liberal, Reform Jewish congregation and sorely missed the ethnic and spiritual connection.

When reflecting on his Idaho neighbors in an interview, Richard explained that they saw him as someone to convert, not someone to accept as he was. So he began traveling to the nearest Chabad center in Washington. Eventually he began staying over at the local Rabbi’s house on the Sabbath.

While passing through Ashland Richard was struck by the warmth of Rabbi Avi and the diversity and openness of the town. He never considered exploring other denominations of Judaism when the spark reignited in him. “I always believed in God. But I have a problem with Conservative or Reform Judaism. They make light of the miraculous and they don’t go into depth. I need to be with community. You need something to guide your life. There’s a love at Chabad.”

Richard is optimistic about the Jewish future of Ashland. “I think there’s a spiritual draw here. It’s a freedom and an acceptance. It’s kind of cozy. I think the Jewish community is going to grow,” he said.

Steven was completely alienated from Judaism. He lives just outside Ashland. But after years of declining invitations to a Passover gathering by Rabbi Avi, he finally accepted one. Although he still does not consider himself “religious,” he has been genuinely overwhelmed by the warmth of the Rabbi and the satisfaction of having a closer connection to Judaism.

In a recent testimonial he wrote,

“I began to feel like I was coming home. I was on my way back to a place I had always belonged, but never really understood. Suddenly it became clear that I am not a bad Jew. I have just been wayward in a world filled with mixed messages and cynicism over religion.

Maybe it’s the result of getting older and wanting to know more. For whatever reason, I am no longer a completely lost and confused wayward Jew. I am beginning to find my way back. Talk is cheap, but I have been listening to the Rabbi’s words and witnessing his actions. They are consistent. He is available, willing to make time and always wanting to include people in celebration and observance.”

Like many college towns, Ashland may not be as diverse and open-minded as generally perceived, depending on who is doing the perceiving. The world view at college campuses almost monolithically sways to the Left, as does the culture of the general population in college towns.

Judaism’s emphasis on personal discipline, delayed gratification, chastity, support for Israel, and family values may run counter to a modern, socially liberal agenda. Colleges often breed hostility to Israel and Shakespeare was instrumental in promoting a devastatingly negative image of a Jew in his play The Merchant of Venice. So there may be aspects of the local culture that conflict with a blossoming Jewish identity.

In Steven’s case a half hour’s distance from town suits him well. He expressed his aversion to the eccentric types he encounters in town. “I just like the mountains and scenic beauty. The culture is too much for me to handle for more than a few hours at a time.”