For Jews, Snohomish County can be a lonely place

EVERETT — As far as ultra-Orthodox Jews are concerned, Western Washington might as well be the end of the Earth.

“It’s very, very lonely,” said Zevi Goldberg, a Chabad rabbi who moved to the region a year ago from Brooklyn, N.Y., where he was born and raised among this country’s largest Orthodox Jewish community.

Goldberg lives in Seattle now, where he at least has the company of other rabbis in the Chabad movement, which sends rabbis throughout the world to open Jewish education centers and synagogues in underserved regions.

Now, Goldberg is considering another move, one that would land him in a place that, for an Orthodox rabbi, may be even more isolated: Snohomish County.

“The philosophy of Chabad is to reach every single Jew, no matter where they are,” Goldberg said. “Rabbis will open up centers in the most remote places in the world, as long are there are Jews there.”

If Goldberg comes to Snohomish County, he’ll be the only rabbi here. Rabbi Harley Karz-Wagman, who was based at Temple Beth Or, Everett’s Reform synagogue, left a year ago for a new assignment in North Carolina. Rabbi Yossi Mandel, a Chabad rabbi who opened an Orthodox center in south Everett two years ago, left town in recent weeks to be with his extended family in Pittsburgh for personal reasons.

Mandel left behind a congregation he said numbers about 250 people. The congregation grew quickly because there are few opportunities for Jews in Snohomish County to get religious education, he said.

“Snohomish County is almost entirely uncharted territory as far as Jewish communities,” Mandel said.

It’s impossible to know for sure how many Jews live here. According to a recent report by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 1.7 percent of all Americans are Jewish. The same number of Americans are Mormon. There are more Jews in the United States than Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Orthodox Christians, Buddhists and Hindus.

About 1 percent of Washington state’s population is Jewish, according to the same report. The state has higher percentage of Jews than many Midwest and Southeastern states but lags behind California, Illinois, Pennsylvania and New Mexico.

Still, parts of the state boast thriving Jewish communities. Rabbi Daniel Lapin, the Zionist founder of the American Alliance of Jews and Christians and a frequent television talk-show guest, lives on Mercer Island. Bellevue is home to a handful of temples and synagogues.

It’s not Brooklyn, but it’s not South Dakota, either, where, according to the Jewish Virtual Library, a branch of the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, the community numbers just 295 people.

Karz-Wagman led Temple Beth Or for six years before leaving a year ago for North Carolina. He said when he left that a larger Jewish community there was part of his reason for leaving Snohomish County. The temple’s leaders said then they didn’t expect to hire a new rabbi for a year or more. To fill the void, the congregation has borrowed teachers from rabbinical schools to lead sacred ceremonies. Otherwise, the temple’s members are on their own.

When Mandel first arrived in Everett, he said he believed there to be 3,000 or more Jews in Snohomish County.

With enough work, he said, the Chabad congregation could grow far beyond the 250 people it currently claims.

“I’m sure that with enough work, it will grow to much more,” he said.

Reporter Krista J. Kapralos: 425-339-3422 or kkapralos@heraldnet.com.

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