After 25 years in Mormon land, Rabbi Benny Zippel’s mission remains the same: Reach out to every Jew, every Utahn

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rabbi Benny Zippel, left, wife Sharonne Zippel, Sheina Zippel and her husband, Rabbi Avremi Zippel, at the Chabad office in Salt Lake City on Friday, May 11, 2018. Chabad Lubavitch synagogue is celebrating its 25th anniversary in Utah.

For Rabbi Benny Zippel, the upcoming 25th anniversary of his Chabad Lubavitch congregation is more than a celebration — it is a recommitment to sharing Judaism and interfaith friendship in Utah.

“In many faiths, there is an underlying principle that if you are not a member of that specific faith, you cannot be saved or redeemed,” Zippel says. “I would like the people of Utah to know that is not the case with Judaism. Every single individual, man, woman, child or senior ... has an inherited meaning and purpose to reveal godliness in this world.”

Zippel, his wife, Sharonne, and their then-1-year-old son, Avremi, came to Salt Lake City in 1992. They were among 4,500 “emissary families” sent out globally by the late Rebbe Menachem Schneerson to found new communities for the Crown Heights, N.Y.-based Orthodox Jewish Hasidic movement.

“We started with a handful, with the very few people we knew here when we came,” Zippel says, noting that today, while 50 men, women and children attend weekly Sabbath services at 1760 S. 1100 East, Chabad Lubavitch measures its flock in wider terms.

“We consider every single Jew in Utah, whether they contribute [money to Chabad], are observant or not, as, by default, a member of our community,” the rabbi says, noting that more than 1,800 households are on Chabad’s mailing list and receive all the organization’s publications throughout the year.

“As time has gone on, more and more people are coming out of the woodwork,” Zippel says, “seeking their inherent bond with our Father in Heaven through discovering their Jewish heritage.”

More, perhaps, than other movements within Judaism, Chabad is known for its outreach — not just to other Jews, but also to build up community and interfaith relations.

One such example is Project H.E.A.R.T. (Hebrew Education for At-Risk Teens), begun by Zippel some 25 years ago. Every month, the program reaches out to troubled Jewish youths from across the nation housed in more than a dozen residential centers in Utah treating emotional, psychological and substance abuse issues.

Zippel says the welcome he received shortly after arriving in Utah may have been best expressed during a meeting at the LDS Church Office Building with eventual Mormon church President Gordon B. Hinckley.

“That meeting was incredible,” Zippel recalls of a session that foreshadowed decades of amicable relations with Utah’s predominant Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “He said to me, ’Brother Benny, I want you to know I strongly believe in the success of your mission here in Utah, and I want you to count me as your friend.’”

Zippel said Hinckley maintained personal contact with him not just up to the LDS leader’s death in 2008, but, in a poignant way, after his passing as well when son Richard Hinckley contacted the rabbi.

The elder Hinckley, it turns out, had been gifted an ornate menorah (a sacred Jewish candelabrum) by an Israeli government official years before. One of his last wishes was for his rabbi friend to have it.

“We have it right here, in our offices,” Zippel says.

Other milestones for the rabbi and Chabad in Utah include Zippel’s choice as the Jewish chaplain for Utah’s 2002 Winter Olympics. In 2007, then-President George W. Bush invited him to the White House Hanukkah celebration, and, in 2014, the Utah National Guard honored Zippel with its Bronze Minuteman Award for his community outreach efforts.

That same year, son and now Rabbi Avremi and his wife, Sheina, joined the synagogue to oversee its educational, cultural and religious instruction youth programs.

The elder Zippels — parents of six grown children and with four grandkids — will be guests of honor at Chabad Lubavitch of Utah’s “An Evening of Song & Celebration” gala May 31.

A 6 p.m. cocktail reception will be followed by dinner beginning at 7 p.m. at the Utah Cultural Celebration Center, 1355 W. 3100 South, West Valley City. All seats for the event have been sold, with 450 expected to attend. Benny Friedman, a Brooklyn-based Jewish music recording artist, will perform.

The gala will honor three Utah couples, according to a Chabad news release. Scott and Jesselie Anderson will receive the Benefactor Award. Robert and Sue Prottas will get the Partner Award. Adam and Dganit Slovik will get the Activist Award.

Gov. Gary Herbert and Mormon apostle Dieter F. Uchtdorf are scheduled to attend, along with other Utah interfaith leaders.

“Our vision is to share with all our guests, how it is that a young couple arrived in Salt Lake City in 1992 with little more than the shirts on their backs,” Rabbi Avremi Zippel said in the release, “and have brought Chabad to where it is today.”