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Serebryanski has a way of breaking through barriers

The Serebryanski FamilyTHE simple truth: It’s very difficult not to like Rabbi Yossi Serebryanski.

Kids like him, so do old folks.

Reform Jews seek him out, as do his fellow Orthodox, and plenty of Jews in between.

Gentiles are drawn to him, too, despite his bushy black beard, yarmulke and black suit that boldly and proudly proclaim his Jewishness.

It could be his ready smile, or his even readier sense of humor – a combination of witty wordplay, Yiddish irony and heimische folk hilarity.

It could be his inherent hipness, for even though he is a chasidic rabbi and insists that “I don’t do pop culture very well,” you’d never know it. He’s amazingly up to speed on current events, trends and modes of thinking. He can talk the talk, even if he’s not entirely willing to walk the walk.

It could be that people sense the rabbi’s depth — his unapologetic love of Judaism and Torah and Chabad, the movement to which he has belonged since birth; his obvious and joyful love of G-d.

Or it just might be his warm and open-armed approach to humanity in general — his unwillingness to pass judgment on his fellow Jews, no matter their denominational persuasion or level of Jewish knowledge or extent of Jewish observance.

In the 10 years that Rabbi Serebryanski and his wife Chanie have run Chabad of South Denver, encompassing the neighborhoods around DU and Washington Park, they have made a great many friends, among whom, it is safe to say, are many Jews who have no other contact with the organized Jewish community.

There is perhaps no better illustration of this dynamic than the Serebryanskis’ annual Rosh Hashanah tradition of conducting Tashlich — the ceremonial washing away of sins — at the big lake at Washington Park.

The sound of Rabbi Serebryanski blowing the shofar in the autumn gloaming at the park has become a neighborhood tradition, attracting not only unaffiliated and often youthful Jews in the area, but many non-Jews as well.

This year, more than 100 people attended.

“For some people, this is what they do — once a year they touch base with Judaism,” the rabbi says.

“The question is, can I give them a touch of tradition and of meaning that works for them? And if they want more, they know where I am.”

The pintele Yid — the hidden Jewish soul — is something Rabbi Serebryanski stresses. The concept is central to his thinking as a Chabad shaliach, or emissary, and provides the foundation for his life’s work in Jewish outreach.

“It is the essence of who a human being is,” he says. “They are created in G-d’s image, so when they get in touch with themselves, they get in touch with G-d. They are a part of that. And they own it.”

The rabbi loves the Jewish belief that Jews are automatically children of G-d, and that they need no threat of damnation in order to be “saved.”

“Judaism doesn’t have that threat, because you can’t be more a child of G-d than you are.

“Developing the knowledge of that relationship — that you may not want to live with yourself, but G-d’s living with you — is such a powerful idea.”

He smiles a trademark smile, bright enough that even his considerable beard cannot conceal it.

“I’ve got the great job of telling people that they’re there already,” he says. “I’m almost just a concierge, letting them touch base a little bit with their tradition.”

From Russia to Melbourne to New York to Denver

ASKED to relate his own life’s story, the rabbi finds it useful to first discuss his family tree.

It goes back a couple of generations, to the time of his grandfather and father, both of whom, like Rabbi Serebryanski, spent their lives as Chabad rabbis.

His father’s family was from Russia, the nation in which they were safe from the Holocaust but from which they desperately wished to escape after the end of WWII and the commencement of severe anti-Semitic measures.

They did so by buying and forging papers of Polish citizenship. which allowed for their “repatriation” to Poland.

Once there, the family spent time in Displaced Persons camps, then made it to Paris and finally to Australia, to which they received permission to immigrate.

Their Australian sponsorship was based on their willingness to work in a Jewish collective farming experiment in a remote Victoria township called Shepparton. Rabbi Serebryanski compares it to the unsuccessful Cotopaxi Jewish settlement in Colorado.

His grandfather — known as Reb Zalman — was not deterred by Shepparton’s location in “the boonies,” nor its scarcity of Jews, and thus founded a yeshiva there.

“My grandfather was convinced that for Judaism to have a continuity in Australia, there would have to be a yeshiva,” says Rabbi Serebryanski, making no effort to conceal his pride in his grandfather’s own form of outreach and community building.

“His legacy is that there is one of the oldest, private, Jewish day schools — it’s just called the Yeshiva — in Australia. It educated the first round of Jewish community leaders who then went on and opened up their own institutions.”

The family eventually moved to Melbourne and Rabbi Serebryanski’s father — known as Reb Aron — went to New York in search of a wife in the early 1960s. He was successful in that quest — marrying a Jewish woman from the Bronx — and fathered three children in New York (including Yossi, the third to be born) before the family moved back to Australia.

Rabbi Serebryanski thus grew up in the Melbourne Jewish community, specifically its Chabad component.

It was a small but “culturally knowledgeable” community, he says, “which now, in retrospect, had its advantages and disadvantages,” he says. “For example, I couldn’t get away with anything.”

When it came time for his own education, the youthful Serebryanski went back to New York.

It was taken for granted that he would seek a smicha (rabbinical ordination) but not assumed that he would necessarily pursue a rabbinical career.

In fact, although most of his brothers earned smicha, only he is working in a directly rabbinical field.

“Out of my family, I have a brother who is a scribe, a brother and brother-in-law who are teachers, a brother who is an accountant and a brother who is a computer programmer,” he says. “I’m the only shaliach (Chabad emissary).”

Rabbi Serebryanski is asked why, since he was raised in Australia, his present accent is decidedly American, spiced with a touch of “yeshivish” New York.

He picked that up, he says, from his New York-raised mother, adding that since he has always had an uncanny knack for accents, he has the luxury of more or less choosing which one to use.

He slides effortlessly into the classic Aussie dialect, speaking in tones that call to mind Crocodile Dundee and the windswept outback.

“I can do a pretty good Jamaican too,” he adds, suddenly speaking in an accent that would make Bob Marley proud.

After his ordination, his marriage and 17 months in a Chabad kollel, Rabbi Serebryanski took his first job – as a mashgiach, or guidance counselor, at the Rabbinical College of America in New Jersey.

He preferred the people-oriented job, he says, to a more academic position.

“I was never the top of my class,” he acknowledges. “If I had free time on my hands, trying to crack an original text just for the fun of it wasn’t my thing. I was hanging out with the guys a lot more.”

At the college, the rabbi counseled students who were having emotional or behavioral issues or undergoing personal crises. Without going into details, Rabbi Serebryanski says there were plenty of such problems.

“In a  yeshiva, you usually don’t end up going to the mashgiach unless you are on the edge, unless you’re pushing the envelope,” he says.

“You take a bunch of teenagers living in a building, fun is going to happen, especially when you don’t have televisions and you don’t encourage dating or anything of the sort.

“I was very good at what I did, but it was very draining. It was working with people who were brought up in the observant community who were having trouble fitting into the system and weren’t really in tune with what the underlying issues were.”

It was difficult work, he says, but it provided valuable experience for his next career step as a Chabad shaliach. After the birth of their son Mendel a decade ago, the Serebryanskis’ decided to “go out there.”

“Due to a number of interesting alignments,” he says, “Denver had become available at that time.”

Denver’s “pro-Semitism”

The rabbi admits that he had hardly heard of Denver when he was assigned to join Chabad’s growing Colorado team.

Since arriving here in 2001, he says he has nothing but praise for a community that has more or less adopted him and his family.

He grew up accustomed to racism and anti-Semitism, he says, describing Australia as a “balkanized” community, bristling with anti-immi- grant resentment.

“Australia has a lot of that English thuggery,” Rabbi Serebryanski says. “You don’t walk past a bar in Australia dressed like a chasidic Jew. You will be thumped.

“Over here, I walk into a bar in Denver, people buy me drinks — not that I walk into a bar all that often. They’re curious. I get stopped and people thank me for what Israel is doing, as if I’m the ambassador of Israel to the United States.”

He calls it “pro-Semitism.”

“Denver has been unbelievably friendly to my wife and I,” he says.

“It could be that’s the people I attract, but people have time for people in Colorado. In New York, if you’re important, you’re busy. You need to have two or three cellphones.

“In Colorado, the more important you are, the more time you have to do what’s important in life. Just a very different quality of life.”

In discussions with the local Chabad leadership, the Serebryanskis were asked to serve a large area constituting Denver’s southern suburbs. They, in turn, wanted something a little more specific and central.

“If you look at that Jewish community triangle of the West Side, the East Side and the Southeast, there’s a center that’s hollow,” the rabbi says. “So we moved next to the University of Denver to become immediately relevant to the student population, while we would do other outreach work in the community.”

There are plenty of Jews in that hollow space, he says, but relatively few of them maintain regular connections with synagogues or Jewish organizations. These are the people Rabbi Serebryanski aspires to work with.

“We’ve developed a very fluid community which includes a lot of people who are on the margins of the traditional Jewish community,” he says. “They have the rabbi on the Rolodex, so if these people want to do Jewish, my wife and I are there for them.”

Spiritual arsonist

The “if” in that last sentence is crucial to understanding Rabbi Serebryanski’s approach.

“If” people want to do Jewish, is a lot more challenging than it sounds, and the rabbi is far from naïve on the difficulties in facing that challenge.

He has any number of obstacles to overcome:

The Chabad movement itself has yet to regain full credibility after divisions within its ranks over the role and status of its former leader, the late Rabbi Menachem Schneerson and, locally, over issues that caused considerable controversy.

Jews today are marrying less often than they did a generation ago, and often later in life. They are having children at a more advanced age. All of these dynamics work against the prevalence of the family unit in modern Jewish life, traditionally an important trigger for community identification and activity.

Cultural assimilation is only growing stronger in the digital age, with virtual communities joining ever-more welcoming secular communities in offering social alternatives to young Jews. It amounts to cultural competition, and the Jewish community is often the loser.

The way that younger Jews identify with Judaism is itself changing, with the traditional synagogue-federation model increasingly losing out to such entities as chavurot and other non-traditional venues for Jewish interaction.

“How do you service those people,” Rabbi Serebryanski asks, “because they’re not going to pay $2,000 to go to a synagogue that they don’t think they need?”

It’s a daunting list of challenges, the rabbi agrees, but not an overwhelming one.

They keys are patience, gentleness and not insisting upon any sort of absolute endgame or objective.

Chabad’s approach in general, and Rabbi Serebryanski’s approach specifically, is low pressure.

“I moved out of enforcement and went into sales,” he quips, “so I don’t worry how they’re going to integrate ritual and practices into their life. What my wife and I do is share ritual and practice and people have the freedom to integrate it into their lives the way it works for them.”

He cites the Lubavitch chasidic text, Tanya, part of which concerns the motivations behind the effort known in present day Judaism as outreach.

A prevalent Jewish response to assimilation, the rabbi says, is one driven by the fear that “people who identify Jewishly in the US are on a downward trajectory,” due to social changes.

“How do we stop the flood?” he illustrates.  “There’s a crisis! The house is burning! They apply something called triage. How do you move somebody from living an American life to living a fully observant life? They refer to that as being on a path. The connotation is that there’s an endgame and unless you get to the endgame, it was a good try but you struck out.”

That is not Rabbi Serebryanski’s approach.

“Tanya talks about reaching out because there’s a biblical commandment to love your fellow as yourself. If that is the motivation for sharing the Jewish experience, then you’ve achieved your goal. It’s not a means to an end, it’s an end in itself.”

That philosophy, he says, allows him to approach people – including the totally unaffiliated, the partially affiliated, even the classic non-conformist – “where they are.”

When Rabbi Serebryanski casts sins into the lake at Wash Park or invites guests into his sukkah after the High Holidays he compares the effort to lighting small flames.

“You could say I’m a spiritual arsonist, trying to drop matches into people’s lives,” he says. “What I hope these people walk away from is having experienced a joyfulness in being Jewish and practicing Judaism.”

Infertility: A lonely journey

THAT approach reflects Rabbi Serebryanski’s down-to-earth and practical approach to Judaism and Jewish outreach.

Which doesn’t mean that he doesn’t believe in miracles.

The rabbi and his wife Chanie have their own evidence of the miraculous, in the form of their twin daughters, Shaina Bracha and Perel, who have just now entered what their mother calls their “terrific twos.”

The twins were born despite overwhelming medical opinion that after the birth of their older son, the Serebryanskis would never again be able to conceive children.

“Infertility is in many aspects a uniquely lonely journey,” the rabbi says. “Freud would have a field day doing therapy with infertile couples because the core of who we are as human beings is our ability to reproduce.”

After the couple lived in Denver and wanted to enlarge their family, they came face to face with the challenge of infertility. They went to a well-respected and renowned infertility clinic and went through considerable effort and expense to reverse the medical condition behind the issue.

None of it worked.

After “exhausting ourselves emotionally physically, and financially, with no signs of any hope or promise,” as Chanie puts it, the Serebryanskis faced disappointment.

Adds the rabbi: “We had that conversation with ourselves and we made the decision that if G-d wants something to happen, G-d can do whatever G-d wants. We left it at that.”

In the meantime, other things took place.

One was the 2008 murder of the Chabad couple in Mumbai, India and four others by terrorists. Another was the determination of a Conservative Jew — a reproductive endocrinologist by profession — with ties to his local Chabad rabbi from the Philadelphia area, to use his medical skills to replace the six people lost in that attack.

The physician put out an email, seeking in particular Chabad sluchim having infertility issues. Indirectly, the email landed in Rabbi Serebryanski’s inbox.

One thing led to another. The Serebryanskis consulted with the physician and a lengthy treatment regimen was prescribed, with the ultimate objective being an effort at in vitro fertilization.

The couple had just about finished the preparatory phase and were preparing to fly to Philadelphia when tragedy struck – the death of Chanie Serebryanski’s mother. They had to fly to Boston instead, for the funeral and ensuing shiva period.

Sadly, they informed the physician that they would have to miss the final procedure.

But the doctor was not to be deterred. He insisted on calling colleagues in the Boston area who would complete the preparations for the procedure, even in the midst of shiva, allowing the final phase to take place as scheduled.

As it was.

“And it worked,” the rabbi says. “Better than I expected. Thank G-d. We were pregnant with twins.”

Chanie Serebryanski says that what most struck her about the experience was the unselfish helpfulness of the endocrinologist, of the doctors who assisted with the preparations, of the people who served as contacts and go-betweens — “the love of Jews for those they never met,” she says.

Rabbi Serebryanski complains semi-seriously of traditional new parent fatigue, jokingly noting that Amnesty International defines sleep deprivation as torture, but it’s clear that he is extremely happy with the outcome and that he gives full credit to the Divine for the new members of his family.

“It’s been an unbelievable journey,” he says of the process by which the twins were born, describing that journey as ultimately ineffable and immeasurable.

“If G-d could be measurable,” the rabbi says in a voice that wavers between emotion and awe, “He wouldn’t be G-d.”

Copyright © 2011 by the Intermountain Jewish News

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IJN Assistant Editor | [email protected]

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