In Iowa, Rabbi Opens Home for Troubled Jewish Boys

By Nathaniel Popper

Published July 07, 2006, issue of July 07, 2006.
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CLAYTON COUNTY, Iowa — In a small Mississippi River town like Guttenberg, breaking news events are a rarity, so reporter M.J. Smith has been drawn to what she calls “faith in action stories.”

One of her recent columns in the Guttenberg Press (which did not produce the Bible, but is 110 years old) was about a methamphetamine producer in the Oakdale Correctional Complex who was trying to get his life on track. Another week, she covered a church that was negotiating for lower prescription drug prices.

One faith she never had seen in action was Judaism, as it is said that the only Jew in Clayton County is an older man who converted to Lutheranism a few years back. But that all changed this year, when a Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi bought a plot of land in the hills between the Mississippi and Turkey Rivers in order to establish what he calls a “youth village” for Jewish youngsters who have gone astray.

Smith set out to explain the troubled boys and their leader to a curious town where, until now, diversity has generally referred to different Protestant denominations. The series of articles that appeared this spring served as an introduction for both sides, and they were hinged on the primary point at which Lutheran Iowa and Orthodox Brooklyn meet: a fervent belief in God.

“We all try to listen and find our way, and what God’s trying to tell us today,” Smith explained over coffee at Guttenberg’s café, Buzz, which looks out on the banks of the Mississippi. “This is just a guy who heard Him and took a very bold step to do what the voice said.”

Much of Smith’s first article revolved around the first time that Mendel Weiss, the 34-year-old rabbi, happened upon the hilly bluffs above the Mississippi where the youth village, Eitz H’Chaim, is located. As he tells it, “For me, right away, I felt holiness there — I felt Godliness there.”

A few counties north of Guttenberg, in Postville, the meeting of Hasids and farmers went less smoothly, when a number of rabbis moved in to run a kosher slaughterhouse in the early 1990s. The feuding was enough to elicit a book on the cultural clash.

While there has been no fighting in Guttenberg, the relationship did not start without its share of skepticism. Smith said that the first rumor floating around town was about the very un-Iowan way in which Weiss purchased the land: On seeing it, he had impulsively offered to buy it on the spot.

“The common approach, if you were going to sell a parcel today, is that you might have an attorney take sealed bids for a lovely parcel like that one,” said Smith, who is a neatly coiffed Lutheran woman. “This was a determined man who had a lot of money — that was pretty unusual.”

There was also the concern about what an influx of troubled boys might mean for the town. In her article, Smith attacked that concern head-on by explaining that the boys “will not be frequenting places like Joe’s Pizza, where Christian girls hang out. After all, intermingling is forbidden.”

Weiss, at least, has done the necessary intermingling. He went to the high school principal, seeking school supplies, and had an unexpected brush with the familiar. The principal was from the Canarsie area of Brooklyn, and he told Weiss, “I haven’t seen an Italian or a Jew in 20 years.”

The principal connected Weiss with Smith, and after a few phone calls the reporter had scheduled a visit to Weiss’s property.

The road from Guttenberg to the property runs alongside the Mississippi River, past a number of good fishing spots, until it begins to climb up the bluffs. One dirt road leads to another, which finally passes through a shallow creek that rings the property.

Smith first made this journey during a January thaw, when the roads were thick with mud. The boys were living in cabins warmed by wooden stoves.

Even today, during a summer visit, the settlement has a somewhat ramshackle feel. There are two model cabins, where baby goats and chickens wander on the porch among weight-lifting equipment. The main house is not fully covered in siding, and an impromptu synagogue in the basement is composed of beat up desks.

But Weiss has the kind of scruffy boyish charm that can overcome all this and give a bunch of Jewish mothers enough faith to send their children to rural Iowa. He is also a good people reader, and he quickly explained to Smith that the boys were not deviants in the plain American sense of car thieves and drug dealers. They were, instead, boys who had struggled with the demands of Talmud study.

One of the boys is Motty, a freckled 17-year-old from Brooklyn who “slept or ditched class during yeshiva.” Motty ended up in a trade school in Canada, studying auto mechanics, and had “fallen away from religion.” His brother introduced him to Weiss; soon the teenage boys became interested in moving to Iowa because of Weiss’s open attitude toward religion. One of Motty’s favorite activities has been the religious meditation that takes place in a cave that the boys found.

The transition to a more religious life for Motty was not immediate, and Weiss did not force it. But Motty says that one night, after he and another student got into a fender-bender with one of the school’s cars, he awoke with a different view.

“I was lying in bed for two days, and things just started making sense,” he said.

As a reporter, Smith found many of the same elements in Weiss’s life story. He grew up in a Lubavitch home in Miami Beach, Fla., but after a childhood battling with attention deficit disorder he lost interest in religion and found an interest in girls and cigarettes while at a yeshiva in California. The interest in religion returned soon thereafter, but Weiss has continued to bounce around. Last year, he and his wife moved to Postville for the peace and quiet that was offered by the community of Hasidim at the slaughterhouse.

The familiarity that Weiss and his students have with secular culture has made the adjustment to Iowa easier than it might be for most Hasidim showing up in a rural town. One night, a crew from the camp went to a local bar.

“We walked in, and the jukebox literally stopped,” said Mitch Rimlin, a man from a nonobservant background. Rimlin has taken time off from his computer programming jobs to teach at the school and learn religion from Weiss. “It was a little uncomfortable for 15 minutes. Then we started drinking and shooting pool. One guy with tattoos on his face said he was in the Israeli army.”

Another introduction came when a group of boys went to a Clayton Ridge High School basketball game.

“There was some attention paid to their behavior,” Smith said. “But they were just like anyone else.”

“Now,” Weiss said, “I know that the success of my program will depend greatly on my ability to acclimate into this community. I know I can’t just be there like a commune.”

Smith’s article helped the transition process. Afterward, Weiss began getting hellos in town, and the neighbors who hadn’t stopped by introduced themselves. When Motty got in his car accident, the doctor treating him was Smith’s husband. Weiss had the chance to thank her for the article.

In explaining the current good relations, Weiss gives a nod to Smith’s piece; however, he says that the more powerful social lubricant has been the religious beliefs he has developed while living in the hills — religious beliefs that have taken him a ways from his Miami Beach roots but make perfect sense in eastern Iowa.

“A lot of the problems of the Jewish people are because they moved from one ghetto to another,” Weiss said. “When you make a living in money, it’s easier to disconnect the source of your living as being God. That’s why these agricultural areas are more religious than other places. These people are more in touch with God’s part in their success or failure.”

But there are more immediate concerns. As Smith put it in one of her articles, “In these days and months to come, Rabbi Weiss will pray for the answer to a current challenge. He is exploring the question of whether to bring a dairy, bee-keeping operation or dairy on the farm.”

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