Building their congregation 'one family at a time'
Miriam and Rabbi Zushe Greenberg celebrate opening of $3 million Chabad synagogue in Solon.

By: ELLEN HARRIS for the Cleveland Jewish News

When Randi Mashmoor bids L'Shana Tova to worshippers attending Rosh Hashana services at Chabad of Solon's new synagogue next week, she will add her own silent prayer of gratitude.

Randi has been involved with Chabad since 1998, after she and her husband moved to Solon when they were expecting their first child.

When their son was born, the couple contacted Chabad's Rabbi Zushe and Miriam Greenberg to arrange for a mohel (ritual circumciser) to preside at the baby's brit (ritual circumcision). "My husband is Israeli; he wanted to make sure we did everything right," Randi explains.

On the appointed day, the rabbi (everyone calls him "Zushe") turned up at the Mashmoor home with the mohel, several of the mohel's sons, and several members of the Chabad congregation.

"Zushe wanted to make sure we had a minyan (quorum of ten)," explains Randi. "Even though we were strangers, he got all these people to make sure we had a kosher bris."

Because the ceremony fell during Succot, Randi discovered that the mohel, his sons, and the rabbi had walked all the way from the Greenbergs' house to the Mashmoor residence- a round trip of about eight miles. Later, she learned that the mohel and his family had stayed with the Greenbergs overnight because they would have been unable to drive home on yontif (holiday).

"Zushe and Miriam embrace the Jewish community without expecting anything back," marvels Randi. "Miriam runs the women's groups, coordinates plans for the new synagogue, runs the preschool, has seven kids, and still manages to invite every Jewish family they have been in contact with to Shabbat dinner."

The Greenbergs have inspired her to make her own home more Jewish, she says. "For every holiday, I make sure I do more than I did the year before." The Mashmoors' two youngsters have learned about Shabbat by attending Chabad's preschool. "Chabad has truly changed our lives," admits Randi.

The Mashmoors are among 500 Reform and Conservative families from Solon, Twinsburg, Orange, Aurora, Moreland Hills and other suburbs who make up Chabad Jewish Center of Solon's congregation and helped build its new $3 million synagogue. Some 90% of them had previously been unaffiliated.

Thirteen years ago, when the Greenbergs came to Solon, there was no organized Jewish presence in the area. Starting from scratch, the couple built up their Chabad center in a storefront location "one family at a time." In the early years, sometimes only a handful of people showed up for services and programs. The Greenbergs remained undaunted. They are Chabad shlichim (emissaries) who are dedicated to carrying the message of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, sparking interest among Jews to become more committed to their religion.

Both Zushe and Miriam were, quite literally, born into the movement. Miriam, 33, is the daughter of Rabbi Leibel and Devorah Alevsky, who established the Chabad center in Beachwood. Miriam has nine siblings, including seven who are shlichim in Argentina, Shanghai and Israel. Miriam's grandparents are Zalman and Shula Kazen, who head Chabad's Zemach Zedek congregation in Cleveland Heights and run the Russian Immigrant Aid Society and the kosher food pantry on Lee Road.

Zushe, 38, was born in Russia but grew up in Israel. He has 17 siblings, including Chabad shlichim in Alaska, France, British Columbia and Russia.

The couple met in Crown Heights, N.Y., headquarters of the Lubavitcher movement, when they were studying at yeshivot. They married and were determined to become shlichim themselves. Miriam's mother suggested the couple go to Solon. "There are lots of Jews out there, and nothing Jewish for them," she told them.

With the Rebbe's blessing, the Greenbergs came to Cleveland in July of 1991 with their one-week-old son. Using money they had borrowed from their family, they rented a house in Solon, living on a very tight budget.

During that first fall, the Greenbergs held High Holiday services in a nearby Days Inn. They drew enough people for a minyan at Rosh Hashana services, and attracted about 25 people to Yom Kippur services. "It was the biggest achievement of our lives," the couple claims.

But attracting a core group of congregants proved to be an uphill battle. First, the Greenbergs had to let people know they had arrived. They held picnics, Purim celebrations, Chanukah parties and model seders. They introduced themselves wherever they went, and when they met a Jewish family, they invited them for Sabbath dinner.

The couple soon learned their biggest challenge was overcoming suspicion from other Jews who believed the Greenbergs were trying to "convert" them to Orthodoxy.

"The challenge of breaking through was to get people to recognize that we accept and respect all Jews. Some non-observant Jews feel that Orthodox people consider them second-class Jews. They don't realize that Chabad is different," say the Greenbergs.

Phyllis Lester first met Zushe Greenberg at Solon's Giant Eagle supermarket soon after he arrived in the area. With his beard and yarmulke, the rabbi was pretty easy to spot, she admits. Besides, his rickety old station wagon with a menorah on top was parked outside the store.

Phyllis became involved with Chabad when she asked the rabbi to preside over her son Jonathan's bar mitzvah. Jonathan wanted an intimate family ceremony instead of a lavish Saturday morning affair. The family went to the Greenbergs' home for the service, the rabbi arranged for a minyan, Jonathan read from the Torah, and then the guests all went out for breakfast.

"That's the beauty of Chabad. They take each person at their own level," says Phyllis, who has lived in Solon since 1968.

She became more involved with the congregation when her husband, Bob, lost his business a few years ago. Trying to help him out of his depression, she urged him to go to services at Chabad, saying, "You need balance in your life."

Finally, her husband gave in and starting attending Chabad events. There he made a whole circle of new friends from the congregation and now serves as president of the Men's Club.

"Until my 40s, I would clench my fist at the thought of going to a temple," he says. Now, he davens (prays) and puts on tefillin (phylacteries) most days. "Zushe doesn't pressure people to become more observant. He just happens to be exceptionally warm, intelligent and understanding," Bob says.

As part of their outreach work, Zushe and Miriam lead a number of Torah study and discussion groups. Some are intimate gatherings held in private homes; others are public events.

On a recent summer evening, about 25 young mothers, all casually dressed in jeans and T-shirts, crowd into a Solon home to hear Miriam Greenberg lead a discussion of Blessing of the Skinned Knee, a parenting book by Wendy Mogul based on Jewish teachings.

The dialogue is by turns humorous and serious. One participant says, "I have enough of being bossed around by small people." Another suggests breaking up fights by putting all the siblings in the same room and insisting they stay there until they resolve their own problems.

Some of the mothers ask how they can keep their kids from attending PG-13 rated movies or watching suggestive television programs when "everybody does it."

"You can't change society, but you can change yourself," replies Miriam. "The biggest gift you can give a child is to stand up for your belief. We do what is right or wrong based on G‑d, not on what other people are doing."

On a splendid July morning, a dozen women gather at the home of Loren Frieder to engage in a lively discussion with the rabbi about Jewish life. The group has been meeting weekly in Frieder's Moreland Hills home for the past 11 years.

As a newlywed, Loren had begun studying about Torah and women's roles in Judaism with Miriam's mother. When the Greenbergs opened Chabad in Solon, Loren organized a study group of her own.

Studying with the rabbi, she says, has helped her improve her character. "Working with Chabad has influenced me not to judge people so harshly, to be a kinder person, and be more respectful to my parents and family," she says.

Although Loren belongs to a Conservative congregation, she prefers participating in Chabad of Solon. "I feel much better there. It's smaller; there's a family sense of community. When I listen to Zushe, I know where his views are coming from."

Ilene Savin joined Loren Frieder's group shortly after it started. "There are very few people in the world from whom you can get unconditional love and support," the Pepper Pike resident says. "But I've gotten that from Chabad."

Ilene is speaking from painful experience. Eight years ago, her brother committed suicide. Devastated, she turned to her religion for answers. "Other rabbis said to me, 'We really can't tell you why' such a thing would happen. But Zushe said to me, 'Everything is G‑d's will. It was his time to leave...He had suffered (with mental illness) too much.' That explanation gave me great comfort."

When Solon residents Stacey and Paul Ehasz got married, they decided to raise their children as Jews, even though Paul is Catholic.

"I was never religious," says Stacey, although her family had belonged to the old Hillcrest Synagogue. While she was skeptical about Chabad at first "because I knew it was Orthodox," Stacey decided to send her youngsters to Chabad's preschool and Hebrew school.

She is delighted with her decision. "They make it a very fun place for the kids with holidays, games and projects," she says.

Now Stacey is taking a Torah study class that Miriam Greenberg leads. "I don't feel like I'm a more religious person," she says, "but I'm more conscious of being Jewish."

No matter how much Miriam and Zushe Greenberg have accomplished in the past 13 years by building their congregation, schools and day camp, they declare their work is far from done.

"The secret of building a congregation in Solon is patience," they agree. "It could take a family up to five years to get comfortable with Chabad. After that, we've made a friend for life.

"We're still looking for people who don't come to us. I go to them," adds Zushe. "I'm looking for my brothers, just like Jacob in the Bible. You could say I'm selling Judaism."

He is especially concerned about helping to stem the high rate of intermarriage among Jews. "I want every child who comes to preschool here to marry within the Jewish faith," the youthful-looking, red-haired rabbi declares, rapping his knuckles on his desk for emphasis. "We never put a price tag on Judaism-that's why we don't charge dues. We can't afford to lose a Jewish person."

The Greenbergs acknowledge they are involved with Chabad "24/7," even brainstorming about new program ideas on Sabbath. The two never get tired of working together, says Miriam. "We don't come home from different ends of the workplace. We're a team."

It has never occurred to the Greenbergs to hire a babysitter and arrange for an evening away from Chabad. "There's no division between our Chabad work and the rest of our life," says Miriam. "Chabad is our life."

Growing the bottom line

For a congregation that has no required dues or mandatory building campaign, raising $3 million for a new synagogue could represent an impossible challenge. But thanks to the generosity of Gary Waxman and other donors, Chabad Jewish Center of Solon planned to open its new building last week with a series of celebrations.

Waxman made the lead gift for the 19,000 sq. ft. synagogue, which included helping purchase the 3-acre lot on Harper Road in Solon and tearing down the existing houses before construction began. Waxman is also helping to bring Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel to keynote a gala dinner on Oct. 17. The event will celebrate Chabad's new synagogue and the congregation's bar mitzvah year.

"There is such a need for these services in Solon - most Jews there have no connection to Yiddishkeit," says Waxman, 43, a leading manufacturer and distributor of doors and hardware products.

He was brought up as a Reform Jew and never put on tefillin. A meeting with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Schneerson, 13 years ago "changed my life," he says. Now, he studies Torah every day and davens at home. "My purpose in life is to give back whenever I can."

"This is about so much more than a building," Waxman continues. "The kids who go to Chabad schools will have a deep-rooted basis of Judaism. The new synagogue and all it represents will impact people who aren't even born yet."