Monday, May 16, 2005

Speaking real to the Jewish soul

By the grace of G-d

Speaking real to the Jewish soul

By Steven Rosenberg - Boston Globe

For the last 17 years, Rabbi Shmuel Posner has been singing Hebrew and Yiddish melodies every Friday night in the basement of Chabad House, his educational center that sits between a funeral home and a tanning parlor in the heart of Kenmore Square. Step out of the streets and into the warmth of the room, and you'll find up to 75 people sitting at long row tables, welcoming the Jewish Sabbath with Hasidic songs as they eat challah, sip wine, and pass along trays of gefilte fish, chicken, noodle pudding, and sweet cake.

The people at the table represent a microcosm of the Jewish diaspora, with emigrants from the former Soviet Union, South Africa, Iraq, and South America mixing with students, professionals, and seniors from the Boston area. Few are strictly observant of Jewish laws or customs, and for many, their initial appearance is motivated by interest rather than spiritual hunger.

Down in the Commonwealth Avenue cellar, where Old World meets the 21st century, Posner sits surrounded by his wife, Chani, and their ten children. ''My dear friends,'' he says, and within seconds the conversations in English, Russian, Hebrew, and Spanish cease. Part Billy Crystal, part drummer Max Weinberg, and part Baal Shem Tov, he draws people into the conversation with a combination of one-liners, music, and Torah. At the end of his talk, the rabbi will invariably raise his cup of wine and offer a toast to a time when people will recognize the world as a place where God dwells. Then he will start a song, leading to clapping and singing.

''It's much more than just coming here once to experience Shabbes [Sabbath],'' Posner says. ''People are looking for meaning, and there's something inherent in the Jewish soul that drives them to connect with who they really are.''

A fast-talking former New Yorker, Posner descends from the branch of Lubavitch Hasidism, one of the only sects dedicated to outreach among secular Jews. Posner fields dozens of calls each day, balancing his cell phone on his shoulder while replying to e-mails from the thousands who have proclaimed him their rabbi. When former congregants return to visit, they take their place along with students and neighborhood residents who file into his second-floor office, presenting their personal dilemmas before Posner offers up his own remedies.

''He's an in-your-face guy in a nice way,'' explains Alan Wilensky, who first met Posner 15 years ago. ''He shoots out questions to students and older people like a Las Vegas emcee or a group therapist, but when he senses that someone's getting uncomfortable he breaks the tension with a piquant anecdote.''

Tomorrow at 6:30 p.m., 150 of Posner's congregants will gather for a Megillah reading to mark the beginning of Purim, which documents a Persian king's last-minute revocation of a death decree for all Jews. Down in the basement, a Hasidic jazz group will perform, and Posner and his Hasidim will dance and offer up a L'Chaim (usually a Crown Royal) to celebrate the miracle.

''It's a time to get real,'' he says, before excusing himself to take another call.

To visit the Chabad House of Greater Boston check out

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