In fall 1992, Rabbi Benny Zippel got a blessing from his leader and a mission to move from Brooklyn to the Beehive State. Little did Zippel realize then that the young Jewish family man — with his wife and baby son — were being sent to their Promised Land.
The assignment from the late Rebbe Menachem Schneerson, leader of the Chabad Lubavitch movement, an Orthodox Hasidic group started in Russia more than 250 years ago, was as simple as it was clear: Strengthen Jewish awareness and identity in the high desert headquarters of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
And so the energetic rabbi — with his beard, black coat and broad-brimmed hat — immediately went to work.
That first year, Zippel established a branch, began to send out weekly mailings to hundreds of Jewish families, and lobbied grocery stores to create kosher food sections. He also organized Utah’s first public menorah lighting for Hanukkah at a shopping center on Salt Lake City’s east side.
At the time, some saw it as a brash idea, violating the boundaries between church and state but, 30 years later, a giant menorah lighting on the first day of Hanukkah — at the state Capitol, no less, and attended by the governor and other elected officials — is welcomed by Utahns as a celebration of faith and religious diversity.
It is part of the Chabad’s public ministry, which has expanded dramatically to include: a Jewish day school, Jewish preschool of the arts, Jewish heritage night with the Utah Jazz, adult education, a kosher food truck, spiritual care for teens at treatment centers, and public menorah lightings across the capital city and, for the first time this year, in Utah County.
That’s because Zippel’s son, Rabbi Chaim Zippel and his wife, Esty, have just accepted the task of creating a branch in a county dominated by Latter-day Saints and home to church-owned Brigham Young University.
Indeed, statewide Chabad expansion is a family affair for the Zippels, made up eventually of six children (four boys and two girls), their spouses and kids.
There now are branches in Salt Lake City, Park City, St. George and Utah County, and four of the five rabbis are in the Zippel clan — all but one operating out of their homes.
Raising up rabbis
The eldest child, Rabbi Avremi Zippel, was not yet a year old when the family arrived in what would be his mountain home.
“My first birthday,” he says, “was the first Chabad activity in the state of Utah.”
The family first settled in a house on 1300 South, just east of Uintah Elementary School. Within a few years, however, they purchased property for a synagogue several blocks away, at 1760 S. 1100 East, with a home nearby since they couldn’t drive on the Sabbath.
“For me and my siblings, it was the life we knew,” says Avremi, who directs the Salt Lake City branch, supervising day–to-day activities, youth and family programs, the preschool, food truck and more. “It seemed normal.”
While others speak of balancing work and family, their household had no such line. The kids were all home-schooled until 14, when they were sent to a Jewish boarding school in Chicago.
They knew their family was a “curiosity,” Avremi says, but that didn’t faze them.
“We observed our parents committed to building a life here,” he says. “It was the most blessed way to grow up.”
For Chaim, being a religious Jewish child was “a challenge. Everyone else in our tradition was going to a religious school with their friends, but we didn’t have one.”
Like his brother, though, Chaim was inspired by his parents’ example of sacrificing the chance to live a comfortable Jewish life among fellow believers for the ability to support Utah’s tiny Jewish population.
When the opportunity came to return to the state as part of that effort, Chaim jumped at it.
“Our son [who is 3½ months old] and children to come,” he says, “will feel that same sense of pride.”
His wife, Esty, was born in Israel and reared in New York, but she, like her father-in-law, relished the prospect of serving teens in Utah and even pushed Chaim to take the position.
“I always had a passion for volunteering and working with at-risk youths in Brooklyn,” she says. “I really wanted to leave a big impact and wanted to do more for the people around me.”
Daughter Chaya Zippel Cohen and her husband, Rabbi Mendy Cohen, married in Utah and now run the Chabad branch in St. George. She felt embraced by the Latter-day Saint populace.
“I felt so respected in such a religious community,” she says. “It was so loving and supportive, I never felt weird or different.”
Like her siblings, Chaya went with her father as he served Jewish teens at treatment centers and now does the same with such centers in St. George — as well as providing services to Jewish tourists, who come to the nearby national parks.
Her parents “gave over their lives to helping others,” says the young mother of three. “This is what I wanted to do with my life.”
Seeing and being a light
Part of the mission, as Benny Zippel saw it, was to “keep the spark of Judaism alive.” Nothing fits that goal as well as visibly celebrating Hanukkah, which begins Sunday.
The eight-day Jewish holiday, also known as the Festival of Lights, commemorates the historic victory of the Hebrew Maccabees over the Syrian Greek army and the subsequent miracle of an oil lamp that remained lit for eight days in Jerusalem’s holy temple.
As such, the menorah serves “as a symbol of Salt Lake City’s dedication,” Zippel says, “to preserve and encourage the right and liberty of all its citizens to worship God freely, openly and with pride.”
Though only about 60 to 70 people attend Chabad’s weekly synagogue services in Salt Lake City, Avremi says, these holidays and other events attract between 1,500 and 2,000 attendees.
Chabad is “creating a model for engaging their Judaism that does not entail attendance at services,” the young rabbi says. “We do not have a membership model, where you pay dues to belong to the community. Every Jew in Salt Lake City is part of our community.”
It’s an approach that appealed to the rising generation of Zippels.
“I was an ordained rabbi and could have moved wherever I liked,” Avremi says, leaning into his designation as Utah’s first homegrown rabbi. “But we had developed a lifetime connection to this community, and it affected us profoundly. We expect to be part of it as long as life will take us.”
Benny Zippel is pleased and proud of his family members and their efforts to expand an understanding of Judaism in this unexpected place but he is not finished.
“The rebbe drilled into our minds that it’s OK to feel good about an achievement,” he says, “but never to feel complacent.”
There is still, he says, much to do.