Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Rabbi Yeruchem Eilfort, of Chabad at La Costa, in Carlsbad, California, came to my attention at about the turn of this century. I traded trees with a distant cousin, and there, smack dab in the middle of a lot of generic, not particularly Jewish-sounding names was “Yeruchem” married to “Nechama” and the two had a large number of offspring, all the children having Hebrew or Yiddish names.  

This was interesting, because until now, my two siblings and I had been the only orthodox people in the family. I had to know more about this new third cousin, so I asked for contact information and sent off an email. Thus began a two-decade long relationship with the Eilfort family, who visit us whenever they make the trip to Israel.

Nechama and Yeruchem Eilfort in Jerusalem
Nechama and Yeruchem on their most recent visit to Jerusalem in January, 2020.

Now you could have knocked me over with a feather when I learned that Yeruchem was a Chabad rabbi. Chabad would seem to be the last place a descendant of the Kopelman clan would find a home. This family’s history is steeped in the Lithuanian yeshiva tradition, sort of the anti-Chabad. Our families, however, like so many other Jewish American families, had become more secular after many years in the West. And when Yeruchem and my siblings and I found our separate ways back to the traditions, he found his way back, like so many others before him, through Chabad.

Yeruchem and Nechama were my cousins on paper, but in time came to feel like true family. We have shared values. And we kind of just hit it off.

The seed for the following interview was planted in the wake of Poway and the murder of Lori Kaye, HY”D. Naturally, when I heard the news of Poway, I worried about the Eilforts and wondered how close they were to Poway. Now it seemed, we’d both been hit a little too close to home: the Eilforts in Carlsbad, so close to Poway, and me with the Tree of Life massacre where my former up-the-street neighbor, Mrs. Mallinger, HY”D, had been killed, so close to my childhood home. I decided to speak to Yeruchem to hear what he had to say about antisemitism and what steps he’d taken to secure his community:

Varda Epstein: Can you talk a bit about how you came to Chabad? About your wife and family?

Rabbi Yeruchem Eilfort: I came to Chabad through Camp Gan Israel, the worldwide Chabad camp system. It showed me that everything I had previously learned about Judaism wasn’t actually true and that Yiddishkeit was not something reserved for history books, weekends in the synagogue, or afternoons in Hebrew School. Instead the Chabad camp experience showed me that Judaism was about life and how we live it.

My wife comes from a long line of Chabad Chasidim. Her grandmother, a’h, was a Yerushalmi [Native Jerusalemite - V.E.] and came from a line of Yerushalmim dating way back. Her grandfather came from Russia and studied in the Lubavitch Yeshiva in Lubavitch before going to Chevron [Hebron – V.E.] and learning at the Lubavitch Yeshiva there before the 1929 massacres.

Regarding our family, we have eight children, five of whom are married, and we have, Baruch Hashem, twelve grandchildren, Baruch Hashem! Of the five married couples four of them are on Shlichut, Baruch Hashem.

Eilfort family
The Eilfort family

Varda Epstein: When did you receive your Shlichut in Carlsbad? Can you explain how that works?

Rabbi Yeruchem Eilfort: After we got married in 1988 we were offered a position in Irvine, which we took after a few months of living in Brooklyn. The Rebbe, ztz’l, gave us his blessings to go on Shlichut. A year later we came to Carlsbad in the summer of 1990. We came to this area for the opportunity to start a new community.

Upon our arrival in San Diego, my wife and I immediately started building our community. We went to the local public library and used the phone book to call Jewish sounding names. We had a meeting in a family’s living room and engaged the attendees in conversation to determine how we could be of service to them.

We started by offering High Holiday services in a local hotel. Then we started having Hebrew school in a family’s living room. Then we held Shabbat services in various people’s homes on a monthly basis. By the following summer we moved permanently to the area and held services in our home every Shabbat.

Quickly we outgrew our house and needed to rent a space that would become our Chabad House. After 20 years we were finally able to purchase our property and then we built our building, which is approximately 12,000 square feet located on two stories.

Chabad at La Costa in the early days
Chabad at La Costa in the early days.

Chabad at La Costa today.

Varda Epstein: Can you tell us a bit about what it’s like to be a Chabad rabbi? What are 
your duties? Your wife Nechama’s duties? What is a typical day in the life of Rabbi and Rebbetzin Eilfort? How many people do you serve?

Rabbi Yeruchem Eilfort: Being a Chabad Rabbi entails wearing many hats. It is a different system where everything is the responsibility of the Rabbi. I am responsible to raise the money and pay the bills in addition to giving classes, conducting davening/services, counseling, fulfilling pastoral-type duties, and making sure the building is in good order. There are fixed classes that I give every day, but other than that my schedule is extremely flexible. I spend a lot of time writing – it is one of my passions, and Baruch Hashem, I am able to spend time learning every day. I also try not to neglect myself so my wife and I walk daily.

On a typical day I get up around 5am, I read the news, walk, learn, teach, daven, learn some more, and then by 10am begin my more mundane duties. Usually, if I don’t have an evening class, I am pretty wiped out by 10-11pm. We oversee three communities touching about 500 Jewish families regularly, but there are many more who are at least peripherally engaged. We also are involved with numerous non-Jewish families who are genuinely interested in the Torah and Judaism.

Varda Epstein: How has all that changed with coronavirus? After all, Chabad is known for  outreach, for being hands-on and very social. What is the impact of the global pandemic on Chabad and on you and Nechama and your congregation in particular?

Rabbi Yeruchem Eilfort: The coronavirus has forced us into finding new ways to touch and inspire people. It is not all bad (actually, I am a big believer in ‘Gam zu l’tovah!’ [This is also for the good – V.E.]. We have taken our classes online and created the Chabad Virtual Academy.

We have, in fact, tripled the number of classes that we offer. It has been extraordinarily difficult to fulfill many of the duties clergy typically offer. We have had to ‘think outside of the box’ a great deal. For instance, we now deliver weekly “Challah and Chicken Soup (penicillin for the Jewish soul)” on Erev Shabbat [Literally “Sabbath Eve,” here means Friday afternoon – V.E.], which people love. Many people, who are out of work, volunteer to make the deliveries plus our three Rabbi/Rebbetzin teams do many deliveries.

Bags of challah rolls Chabad at La Costa
Challoh rolls
chicken soup
Chicken soup

Shabbos food packages awaiting delivery at Chabad at La Costa
Shabbos food awaiting delivery 

Shabbos food packages
"We do 25 soups and 32 bags of challahs (2 smallish rolls in each) on average. Sometimes a few more," says Rebbetzin Nechama Eilfort. "My daughter and daughter in-law (Muka Rodal, Chabad of Carlsbad N, and Chaya Eilfort, Chabad of Encinitas) designed the labels.
"The people who receive these packages range from some dealing with chemo to others who miss shul so much that this gives a Shabbos feeling to the people we want to connect with. There are about 12 families who get a delivery every week."

We do house visits where we stand by the sidewalk and the people we visit stand by their doorways and we schmooze. We make a point of continually calling people so that our connection remains strong.

Pesach was ‘different’ as we were not able to offer Community Sedarim for the first time in 30 years. So instead we developed a ‘Seder to Go’ program where we delivered all of the seder ingredients and a how-to guide to hundreds of local families. We did the same for Shavuot, though we did offer services to a minimal number of people - scrupulously keeping the governmental guidelines, like having the minyan [quorum] outside in our breezeway and making sure the chairs were distanced and everyone wore masks that we provided.

This is a challenging time, no doubt, as many people have lost their jobs and are scared. We made a giant banner that we posted in front of our building, “This Too Shall Pass!” And it will. 

A sign, "This too shall pass" was put up outside the shul to give people hope during the coronavirus epidemic.

Varda Epstein: How far away is your congregation from Poway? How did the news of what happened there come to you and your congregation? What did that feel like? What was/is the effect on your congregation? Have you rebounded?

Rabbi Yeruchem Eilfort: We are located about 30 miles away from Poway. The shooting happened on Acharon shel Pesach [last day of Passover – V.E.]. We were just starting Yizkor [memorial service – V.E.] when a Carlsbad police car pulled into our lot.

My wife, who was outside, went over to ask what was going on. Details were very murky at first but as time went on we found out what had happened. It felt like I had been punched in the gut.

That night, motzee Yom Tov [with the conclusion of the holiday – V.E.], my wife and I went to the hospital to visit Rabbi and Rebbetzin Goldstein. We brought several pizzas with us, as it was Rabbi Goldstein’s custom to make pizzas at the end of Pesach for his family. She was shaky (and who can blame her?). He was steady, though it is impossible to understand how. We were in a state of shock. We knew the victims and we knew the community well. And, when it hits that close to you, you cannot help but think, “There but for the grace of Hashem . . .”

We immediately went into full action mode to reassure our congregants while trying to be supportive of the Poway community. I was honored with going to the White House as part of an entourage of rabbis. Since that time we have had to hire an armed guard to stand in front of our building on Shabbat and during larger events. We also formed a security committee and had them professionally trained.

Contingent of Chabad rabbis at the White House. Rabbi Yeruchem Eilfort is third from left
Contingent of Chabad rabbis at the White House. Rabbi Yeruchem Eilfort is third from left.
White House Meeting with California contingent
Yeruchem gets this close to President Trump

We have always been very sensitive to the need to be able to protect ourselves. We have watched and admired how our brothers and sisters in Eretz HaKodesh [the Holy Land – V.E.] have dealt with implacable hatred. It has now come to our shores.

Honestly speaking, this trend started several years ago. The fact is that we are more prepared now and stronger than ever before. Our community has been extremely resilient. I encourage our community to be trained so that they can protect themselves and thank G-d that I live in a country where that is still (largely) legal.

Varda Epstein: What should we, as Jews, take away from the global pandemic? What should we be doing in response to this plague, as Jews?

Rabbi Yeruchem Eilfort: How many pages may I use to answer? Seriously, our job as Jews has always been the same, the only difference has been the strategies we need to employ to fulfill our mission. Our mission is, as the Midrash states, to make this world into a dwelling place for the Almighty. This means to reveal the fact that G-d is the Commander-in-Chief, and that the Torah is His manual and our Constitution.

The pandemic has forced us to expand our minds and use ever-more creative means in bringing the Torah to the Jewish people and the world. This offers us the opportunity to really stretch our minds and consciousness in finding ways to be ‘there’ for the Jewish people.

I think that people’s minds are opening up to new possibilities because all of their old assumptions and their comfort zones are being challenged. The shell of the seed has to rot before the true growth potential found within can grow. I cannot help but think these are the birth pangs of Moshiach’s [Chabad-speak for “Mashiach,” the Messiah – V.E.] speedy arrival!

Selfie of Nechama Eilfort at the yearly Kinus Hashluchos, the International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Women Emissaries. I asked Nechama to describe this event. She wrote: "Three thousand women descend on Crown Heights, both shluchos and baale batim for the lay leader program. There are 11 concurrent workshops all day, on Thursday, Friday, and Sunday, with farbrengens on Friday night and Shabbos. (This year I arrived a day early for a Kallah Teacher Training course that I am taking. We had Halacha and medical professionals 8am - 8pm on Wednesday as well.) The workshops focus on family, mental health, Halacha, hashkafa, and learning. There's separate programming for the Shluchos and lay leaders. There are also sheitel  macher booths, vendors, and this year, a carrot juice bar and a bakery (think cheesecake!) that set up the entire weekend to feed us baked goods that they sell par-baked and can ship anywhere."

Varda Epstein: Why has antisemitism proliferated in recent years? Do you think coronavirus has helped or hurt this situation?

Rabbi Yeruchem Eilfort: I think antisemitism has proliferated in recent times due to numerous considerations, not least of which is the internet. The readily available antisemitism of the fringe groups (on the left and right) can enter every household. Of course the potential goodness brought about through technology is also proliferating. The greater the potential good something brings, the greater the potential evil that same thing can bring.

This means that we must double and redouble our efforts to make people understand how beautiful and beneficial Judaism really is. We must make people into “Judeophiles,” lovers of Judaism.

I believe that coronavirus has exacerbated the antisemitism. Whenever there is increased pressure, people who have a predisposition to the fringe are more likely to actually move into that fringe. When people suffer they look for reasons and often scapegoats.

Unfortunately some feel the need to find others who they can blame for their misfortune. The Jews are an easy target in that we stand out, we are relatively few in number, and we are disproportionately successful. That is why we have to be exceedingly careful lest we cause a chilul Hashem [Desecration of God’s name – V.E.].

The interior of Chabad at La Costa, in Carlsbad, California
The interior of Chabad at La Costa, in Carlsbad, California 
Aaron HaKodesh (Holy Ark) at Chabad at La Costa 

Varda Epstein: Why does antisemitism exist?

Rabbi Yeruchem Eilfort: The Torah says that Esav hates Yaakov, but does not tell us why. I imagine that there it is a combination of factors behind antisemitism. Factors like jealousy, fear of the unknown, and ingrained behaviors all play a part. Sometimes, when one has an active conscience that constantly ‘nudges’ him/her to do more, he/she can come to hate that conscience.

I think that in some way antisemitism helps us remember that our mission is not yet complete and helps prevent us from becoming comfortable in this dark galut [exile – V.E.].  

The welcoming exterior of Chabad at La Costa, at night.

Varda Epstein: Can you talk a bit about the origins of the push for bail reform in New York? Do you think the new legislation has made things worse?

Rabbi Yeruchem Eilfort: I am not an expert on this subject and do not know too much about it. The Torah commands us to be empathetic and sympathetic; it demands ‘colorblind’ justice. However, there seems to be a strong push in this country to try to explain and justify unlawful behavior. When duly constituted laws are denigrated, a whole slew of negative repercussions follow.

The current riots are a perfect example of this. People are reacting emotionally instead of objectively to what happened to George Floyd. It appears that he was tragically murdered by a policeman who had him already subdued. The policeman should face the full consequences of his actions, and I believe he will.

But as awful as police brutality is, it is not widespread and when it does occur, other policemen should not be indicted for the sin of the one or the few. Likewise it does not justify the wanton destruction and lawlessness that we are seeing. I am all for giving a person a second chance, but not at the expense of the safety of law-abiding citizens. 

Varda Epstein: It’s easy for Jews, as victims, to point fingers and say what others should do about antisemitism. Is there something Jews can do about it on a personal level, other than taking security measures?

Rabbi Yeruchem Eilfort: I would recommend the advice offered by the Rebbe [the late Grand Rabbi of Chabad, Menachem Schneerson, ztz’l – V.E.] as to how to counter antisemitism. We must all become a dugmah chaya, a living example of how a Jew is to live. By so doing we make people pro-Jewish, for they will clearly see the blessings we bring to the world when we fulfill the divine commandments!

Yeruchem and Nechama Eilfort
Yeruchem and Nechama Eilfort 

Read more Judean Rose interviews:

·         Kalman Samuels on Shalva, Yossi, and “Dreams never Dreamed”

·         Arnold Roth: Ahlam Tamimi is Not in Hiding. Why is She Free?

·         Shai Glick and Btsalmo: Unmasking the Disguise and Fighting for the Real Human Rights

·         Betina Thorball to BDS: Herbalists Have a Right to Professional Neutrality

·         David Collier’s Report on Amnesty International Reveals Its Toxicity and Hate

·         Richard Landes: The Man Who Gave Pallywood a Name

·         Genie Milgrom: “I Could Just Feel my Grandmothers Through the Papers”

·         Phyllis Chesler: The Radical Feminist Who Refuses Your Intersectional Anti-Israel Slot

·         Otzma Yehudit’s Dr Adva Biton: Finding Strength to Fight for Others

·         Ryan Bellerose: Indigenous Has Nothing to Do with Time and Everything to Do with Connection

·         Akiva Fuld: “I’m Doing This For Me”

·          A Father Speaks Out: The Murder of Malki Roth and the Refusal of Jordan to Extradite the Beast Ahlam Tamimi (Arnold Roth)

·         Israel's Jewish Indigenous Land Rights: A Conversation with Nan Greer, Part 1

·         Israel's Jewish Indigenous Land Rights: A Conversation with Nan Greer, Part 2


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