Heels, as Jewish mysticism explains, have certain advantages over the head and intellect. The heel actualizes the intellect’s will. The heel takes us to where we need to go.
Milwaukee is host to a program that actualizes heels to carry out the work of the heart, called Judaism at Home. Its director, Rabbi Mendy Mann, walks from door to door, from home to home, with the hope of meeting every Jew in the Milwaukee area.
Why? “I’m there to provide a service to anything Jewish they’d like to have,” Mann said — a sympathetic ear, an encouraging smile, a person to learn with, a resource, a nonjudgmental friend.
Or, as it says on the project’s website: “Judaism at Home aims to make Judaism meaningful, relevant, and comfortable. Ultimately, Judaism can and should be as comfortable and familiar and ‘you’ as your home is. We want people to feel ‘at home’ when they do a mitzvah.”
A recent Milwaukee Jewish Federation study says that more than 30,000 Jews live in the Milwaukee area. Every Milwaukee Jewish organization is already doing outreach to them.
But this outreach comes from a distance, from the message board of a webpage, from an office to a mailbox, and can feel impersonal and as though it is being done for an ulterior motive.
Mann said that is exactly the impression he is trying to avoid. “We don’t want you as a number,” he said. “We care about you as an individual, as a human, and all someone needs is a kind face at the door. You count, and without you there’s no me. It’s not a cliché.”
What if I’m not looking for a rabbi to knock on my door and I’m perfectly content the way I am?
“You’re you and you are precious just the way you are,” said Mann, “But why turn away from an opportunity just to connect, to be told you mean something?”
Mann and his wife and co-director Chaya Mann have met close to 1,200 Milwaukee Jews in their two years in Milwaukee, he said. They’ve done so by going from door to door and highlighting the message “that the center of Jewish life is, in fact, your home,” as the website states.
When asked how Mann is received, he notes, “Most people are so appreciative and happy I stopped by.”
And Mann said he is not here to take you away from whatever a Jew’s current affiliations are or are not.
“You’re already a member. You’re Jewish!” he said. “Ultimately there’s no such thing as Orthodox, Conservative or Reform, there’s just being a Jew. There’s your essence, a Jewish spark. I’m not trying to bring them to any organization.”
The program is initiated and funded by Lubavitch of Wisconsin. As Mann explained, the idea extends the practice of Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chasdism, who in the mid-1600s traveled from town to town in eastern Europe to knock on doors, to add warmth, to tell every Jew good actions have a cosmic affect.
This idea was further developed by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, and here in Wisconsin through the local Lubavitch branch.
According to the website, the rabbi was born and raised in Michigan and studied at the Michigan Jewish Institute. He further studied at the Rabbinical College of America in New Jersey and received ordination from the Central Chabad Rabbinical Court in Israel.
He has worked in communities as diverse as Detroit, Winnepeg, New York City and Melbourne.
His wife earned degrees in education and Jewish studies from Bais Chaya Mushka in Montreal and is a former summer camp director and pre-school teacher. She and the rabbi have four children.
When asked why he chose Milwaukee, Mann said it was because “The Milwaukee Jewish community is beautiful. People are so friendly. I thought it would be the perfect place to approach people who are happy to see me.”
For more information, Mann can be contacted directly on his cell phone, 414-544-5664, or at his office, 414-678-1613, or by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Joshua Becker is a Spanish teacher for Shorewood Public Schools and a freelance writer. His website is Joshuabecker.info.