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Rabbis Head to Great Outdoors
by The Wall Street Journal
JACKSON, WYOMING — Chabad Rabbi Zalman Mendelsohnstrolled the streets here in one of the West's most picturesque tourist towns, looking for Jewish travelers.

"Shalom! Shalom!" he shouted, approaching a family lingering near Jackson's town square. "Are you, by any chance, Jewish?"

They were. He invited them to attend Friday night services at the synagogue he runs in the basement of his nearby home. But they planned to observe Shabbat in Utah.

"Well, then," Rabbi Mendelsohn said, "please give my regards to Rabbi Zippel in Salt Lake City." He whipped out a business card and offered a blessing for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.

Rabbi Mendelsohn belongs to the Chabad Lubavitch, Hasidism's largest movement, which is on a mission to serve Jews. Some 3,300 Chabad houses have opened world-wide to foster Jewish enrichment, including aiding travelers who may arrive in need of kosher food, counseling or a person to pray with. Many Chabad houses are in large cities and university campuses.

But recently they have been popping up near U.S. national parks. Rabbi Mendelsohn, who grew up in Miami, came to Wyoming in 2007 after working as an itinerant rabbi at Chabad houses in Singapore, China and Nepal. Besides prayer books, Shabbat candles and kosher meals, the 30-year-old rabbi plies his trade with a camp stove, snowboard and motorized canoe.

Rabbi Mendelsohn says so many religious Jews have been adding Jackson to their itineraries he has hired a secretary to handle their phone and email queries. Do Yellowstone lodges have kosher kitchens? (No.) Are there hotels within walking distance of his synagogue? (Yes.)

"My husband can only eat bison meat and we were wondering if you could order some for us while we are on our trip," wrote one visitor from Maryland, adding: "If possible we would like 4 one-pound packages of ground bison, 5 bison fillet steaks, and 3 one-pound packages of chicken breast."

Jewish visitors often hope to sample "authentic" Wyoming fare. But as there are no kosher ranches or slaughterhouses nearby, he imports kosher bison—from an online purveyor in Queens, New York.

The Yiddish-speaking Mr. Mendelsohn, who is fluent in Hebrew and French, joins a cadre of youthful Chabadniks promoting Judaism near Yellowstone, Yosemite and the Grand Canyon. The Chabad archipelago has also spread to Vail, Colo., Ashland, Ore., and Bozeman, Mont.

Then there is "Shabbat in a bag," the takeout parcel Rabbi Dovie Shapiro of Chabad of Flagstaff offers Jews bound for the Grand Canyon. "Candles for Shabbat? A bottle of kosher wine? We have it," he says.

Rabbi Shapiro says Chabad houses near national parks let Orthodox Jews be more creative in their recreation. They also remove an obstacle: Those already flocking to Las Vegas and Los Angeles might skip encounters with nature if they suspect there is no way to eat kosher or properly usher in the Sabbath on Friday.

"Rabbi Shapiro's house is an oasis in the desert, both spiritually and physically," says Moshe Gantz, a Flushing, N.Y., merchant. He visited the Flagstaff Chabad last month as part of a circuit around the Grand Canyon, Bryce and Zion national parks.

California's Yosemite and Sequoia national parks are part of the Chabad Fresno's domain, ministered by Rabbi Levy Zirkind. "I can say truthfully," the Montreal native says: "We put Semites into Yosemite."

Rabbi Zirkind sends rabbinical students to Yosemite and the surrounding area to assist Jews. One act of kindness, or "mitzvah," might be helping an elderly newcomer hang a mezuza on the doorway of his retirement condo, he says. Another would be conducting a Sabbath service at an RV park.

Rabbi Zirkind once sent Yaacov Ginsburg into Yosemite to administer to Jewish campers and ended up giving the Los Angeles-born man a lifelong pursuit. Today Mr. Ginsburg hikes trails in Bryce Canyon, Zion and Yosemite finding Jews who wish to pray. He carries the sacred black tefillin prayer boxes devout believers are required to don for morning prayers.

"In a place like Yosemite, there are a lot of Jewish people in a relaxed vacation mode. I reach out to them," the 53-year-old real-estate developer says. "I don't get a physical paycheck for doing this but the benefits are out of this world."

Chabad leaders say their mission isn't serving as a travel service for Orthodox Jews. Nonetheless, there is an interest in making the wider world, especially wilderness areas, accessible to religious vacationers.

"Without the Chabad, visiting Wyoming would be much more complicated," says Eli Bienenstock, a Toronto physician who vacationed with his family in Jackson in August. "It would come at a spiritual price, which for me could be a deal-breaker."

He skipped a trip to Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons a few years ago, before his youngest child was walking, because there was no eruv—a rabbi-certified private place—between the Chabad and a hotel. This summer, the family of seven took advantage of Rabbi Mendelsohn's hospitality, ordering $350 of Sabbath fare delivered to their hotel and hearing a Torah reading Saturday morning.

In Grand Teton National Park on a weekend last month, Rabbi Mendelsohn and his wife shouldered baby harnesses to tromp the woods with three children in search of co-religionists. He carried the traditional shofar ram's horn that Jews blow to welcome the coming New Year.

This time of year, Rabbi Mendelsohn blows his shofar whenever he finds a Jewish person, coaxing from the instrument staccato notes that sound remarkably like an elk's call. Visitors on the trail seemed charmed, if a little bewildered, meeting a rustic rabbi blowing his horn.

"It's beautiful hearing it out here in the wilderness," said New Yorker Susan Kurtz, who was on horseback. Richard Erenstone, of Lake Placid, N.Y., found it "delightfully out of place."

Such encounters give the rabbi an opportunity not only to practice his faith, but also to hone his delivery of a running joke. "I hope this doesn't attract any elk," he said.

Write to Joel Millman at

A version of this article appeared October 1, 2012, on page A1 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: To Assist Devout Vacationers, Rabbis Head to Great Outdoors.


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