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Yisrael Greenberg came to El Paso in August 1986 with his wife Chana and newborn son Levi as an emissary of Chabad, an Orthodox Jewish movement with no history in the community. To say this Orthodox rabbi stood out in a predominantly Hispanic community is an understatement.
“I was the only one to look the way I look in El Paso,” he said with a smile. He came to El Paso with a mission, to bring traditional Judaism to a city where it had little presence. Thirty-four years later, his success can be measured in a new West Side synagogue that opens this week.
Like other Chabad rabbis, Greenberg was inspired by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who sent emissaries throughout the world to drive a Jewish spiritual reawakening in the aftermath of the Holocaust.
“The leader of the Chabad movement from 1950, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, he had this philosophy in his teachings that a person came to this world for a mission. No such thing as a person comes to the world and just by default of parents, the child came to the world,” said Greenberg, 59.
“What is the mission? Number one, the mission is to do for others because if the mission is to do for yourself, that’s not a mission. Any animalistic living creature cares for himself. That’s a part of our nature. To do for others, that’s already a spiritual thing, that’s already a G-dly mission,” Greenberg said.
He said he sees his role as similar to that of an ambassador.
“We are coming to a place to share a message. Yeah, we know, we are different. That’s why we come to share the message. If you would be the same as the people here, I wouldn’t come here,” Greenberg said.
Bringing Chabad to El Paso
The rabbi was born in Russia and immigrated to Israel as a child. As a teen, he came to Brooklyn to study at the Rebbe’s Central Chabad Yeshiva. His wife, Chana,was born in Milan, Italy, to parents who were among the first Chabad emissaries. They were married in 1985.
“A year later, we’re looking for a community, two different communities were available, but the Rebbe kind of supported us to go to this community, to El Paso,” Greenberg said.
“Somebody asked me, do you know where El Paso’s at? I never heard the word El Paso. If I heard the word Texas it was already a miracle,” he said. “To me, it didn’t make a difference, El Paso or any other city. There’s a Jewish community there. They need help. We’ll come.”
El Paso has a small but longstanding Jewish community. Solomon Schultz, who was El Paso’s mayor when the railroads arrived and transformed the city in 1881, was Jewish. El Paso has two Jewish synagogues — Temple Mount Sinai and Congregation B’Nai Zion — that date back more than a century. Greenberg said there was a need in El Paso for a more traditional form of Judaism.
“We came, there was a group of people that were very happy that we came, they wanted a little bit more traditional Judaism, because, as you know, Chabad offers Judaism with a smile — but Judaism, not watered down Judaism,” he said.
Chabad’s new El Paso synagogue
Greenberg’s first Chabad house in El Paso was a small facility next to his family’s West Side home. Chabad has been in its second El Paso synagogue, on Westwind, for more than a quarter century. The new center opening this week is at 6516 Escondido, around the corner from Chabad’s current location.
While Chabad’s mission focuses on meeting Jewish spiritual needs, the El Paso center also has engaged with the general community through charity efforts. It’s annual Hanukkah menorah lighting draws large numbers of Jews and non-Jews.
“I’ll tell you, for the past 30 years, we had almost every mayor come and light the Hannukah candles. I saw the mayors come and go and I’m still the same,” Greenberg said with a chuckle.
Greenberg moved to El Paso knowing it was a lifelong commitment. He said he is in El Paso “until the Messiah will come or till the last Jew leaves town.”
Since 2011, Greenberg has been assisted in rabbinical duties by his son Levi. He was born in Brooklyn and moved with his parents to El Paso shortly after he was born in 1986. Levi Greenberg studied in Chabad schools in the Midwest, Israel and Argentina. He met his wife Shainy in Brooklyn and they were married in 2010. They and their first-born daughter Musia moved to El Paso in 2011
He is deeply committed to working with his father and building on his work.
“I don’t think you’ll be able to find too many people here that identify as Orthodox. But you’ll find many people that identify as connected to Chabad,” Levi Greenberg said.
The new synagogue cost $2.5 million to build and furnish. Yisrael Greenberg said the new, larger center will allow Chabad to concentrate its functions in one location.
“I think it will be inviting more people to come and people will have less of an excuse for not coming,” he said.
Chabad’s mission remains unchanged in its new El Paso center.
“The question is, are there Jews there? You can reach those Jews. You can go and engage them and engage them in one mitzvah and one Torah class or whatever it is. That’s already a reason to be there,” Levi Greenberg said.
Cover photo: The new Chabad Lubabitch Center for Jewish Life. (Justin Hamel/El Paso Matters)