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Next Generation of Bluegrass Rabbis Comes of Age in Kentucky

Next Generation of Bluegrass Rabbis Comes of Age in Kentucky

New learning center in Louisville marks three decades of building community

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The extended Litvin family has lived and worked in the state of Kentucky for more than 30 years. Here, they celebrate the marriage of Sheina Litvin to Rabbi Yanki Biggs; the couple is moving back to Louisville to serve the Jewish community there. (Photo: Elisheva Golani)
The extended Litvin family has lived and worked in the state of Kentucky for more than 30 years. Here, they celebrate the marriage of Sheina Litvin to Rabbi Yanki Biggs; the couple is moving back to Louisville to serve the Jewish community there. (Photo: Elisheva Golani)

Much has changed in the last three decades for the Jewish community in Kentucky, as the Litvin family has spread their roots in a community they are proud to call home. Even after all this time, new developments are in the works. Take, for instance, a Jewish Learning Center that opens this week, which under its wide umbrella will offer adult-education classes throughout the year for working professionals, parents, retirees—for anyone who wants to further their Jewish knowledge.

Growth, intellectual and physical, has been the modus operandi for this large family. Like other Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries who have resided a long time in one place, the Litvins have made all they do about the local population and its needs. Indeed, it’s a thriving family business, with four sons and two daughters having chosen to follow their parents—Rabbi Avrohom and Goldie Litvin, co-directors of Chabad of Kentucky—in their work, which began back in 1985 when the Litvins arrived in Louisville, the largest city in the state.

The family is now ingrained in this city founded in 1778 by surveyor and soldier George Rogers Clark—making Louisville one of the oldest cities west of the Appalachian Mountains—and named after King Louis XVI of France. (By 1790, some 200 people lived there; today, the population of the Louisville metropolitan area has surpassed 1 million.) Eight of the nine Litvin children were born and raised there, and are now accompanied by two brothers-in-law and three sisters-in-law.

According to Rabbi Avrohom Litvin, “our family truly works together with the goal of reaching out to care for and love every Jew in the state of Kentucky.”

‘Drawn to Their Approach’

Twenty years ago, Larry Singer moved from New York to Louisville—with its humid climate and bouts of severe weather, along with a penchant for sports and outdoor activities—where his wife Adele was living at the time. Although he had attended daily minyan and Shabbat services before relocating to Kentucky, upon meeting the Litvins, he says he was “drawn to their approach, to the Torah Judaism they teach.”

The new Jewish Learning Center, or JLC, will offer classes for all ages with a stress on evening adult education. Rabbi Avrohom Litvin, left, regional head Chabad-Lubavitch emissary and co-director of Chabad of Kentucky, accepts a certificate from the mayor’s office on the center’s opening.
The new Jewish Learning Center, or JLC, will offer classes for all ages with a stress on evening adult education. Rabbi Avrohom Litvin, left, regional head Chabad-Lubavitch emissary and co-director of Chabad of Kentucky, accepts a certificate from the mayor’s office on the center’s opening.
The “JLearn” program will tackle subjects such as Hebrew reading, Pirke Avot (“Ethics of the Fathers”), Rambam, Chassidic philosophy, Jewish femininity and more. Specialized classes for seniors and teens are also in the works.
The “JLearn” program will tackle subjects such as Hebrew reading, Pirke Avot (“Ethics of the Fathers”), Rambam, Chassidic philosophy, Jewish femininity and more. Specialized classes for seniors and teens are also in the works.

“I find it informative and interesting, and I became very active in Chabad, as did my wife,” says Singer, now 65. “We both take part in learning opportunities, and one Sunday each month, we sponsor a morning program called ‘BLT: Bagels, Lox & Torah,’ which draws about 20 to 30 people. It’s great,” notes Singer. “We eat and we study. My wife also studies with Goldie every Shabbat afternoon, and I study with the various rabbis on Sundays and Thursday.”

The couple looks forward to the opening of the new Jewish Learning Center because it will offer the community a central location with a host of educational opportunities.

Classes started at the center in September, though the official opening takes place on Nov. 7. Starting Nov. 10, the newest adult-education initiatives begin. Members of the extended Litvin family will be on hand to teach for 60 minutes each on Thursday nights as part of a concept called “JLearn,” which will tackle subjects like Hebrew reading, Pirke Avot (“Ethics of the Fathers”), Rambam, Chassidic philosophy, Jewish femininity and more. Specialized classes for seniors and teens are also in the works.

JLC instructors toast a l’chaim to the new venture, from left: Rabbi Yanki Biggs, Rabbi Shloimie Litvin, Rabbi Shmully Litvin, Rabbi Avrohom Litvin, Rabbi Mendy Litvin, Rabbi Chaim Litvin and Rabbi Boruch Susman
JLC instructors toast a l’chaim to the new venture, from left: Rabbi Yanki Biggs, Rabbi Shloimie Litvin, Rabbi Shmully Litvin, Rabbi Avrohom Litvin, Rabbi Mendy Litvin, Rabbi Chaim Litvin and Rabbi Boruch Susman

A Warm and Welcoming Community

Goldie Litvin, who grew up as the daughter of Chabad emissaries in Pittsburgh, recalls that they moved to Louisville on Purim 32 years ago as emissaries of the Lubavitcher Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—to increase Jewish awareness and foster Jewish identity in this pocket of the South (with their 15-month-old son Shmuel in tow). She says she had no idea what to expect of life there, although like other Americans was familiar with certain associations: Kentucky Fried Chicken; bourbon (nearly 95 percent of all bourbon whiskey comes from Kentucky); and a famous horserace, the Kentucky Derby.

A memorial to the 1890 tornado stands on Main Street in downtown Louisville. The city has been known to get turbulent weather. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
A memorial to the 1890 tornado stands on Main Street in downtown Louisville. The city has been known to get turbulent weather. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

More importantly, in terms of Yiddishkeit, “what we discovered was a historically rich Jewish community where Jewish affiliation was high but Jewish observance, which had existed there previously, was not then common,” she says.

The couple dove right in, sometimes misconstrued by the general population as being Amish, as opposed to Chassidic. Holiday programming such as a Model Matzah Bakery, a Shavuot learning program and children’s ice-cream social, and a sukkah mobile were instituted to increase Jewish pride and awareness, and to build Jewish unity. Next were programs for Jewish women and seniors. Then a Gan Israel Day camp was added. Each Jew and their individual needs were important to the Litvins, as they had been directed by the Rebbe. By the end of the first year, a Purim feast was arranged, which has become the largest annual community celebration throughout the city.

Goldie taught challah-baking classes, organized women’s programs and created innovative children’s educational options. One big issue was the lack of a Torah day school in such a metropolitan area—so the Litvins started one. First, they opened the Gan Torah Preschool, and as the need grew for further education, the Louisville Jewish Day School was established. In fact, their own grandchildren are among those attending both the preschool and the day school, where Goldie serves as principal. She wears a number of other hats as well, including overseeing the mikvah.

The Louisville Waterfront Park exhibits rolling hills, spacious lawns and walking paths on Louisville’s waterfront in the downtown area. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
The Louisville Waterfront Park exhibits rolling hills, spacious lawns and walking paths on Louisville’s waterfront in the downtown area. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

For more than 30 years, Rabbi Avrohom Litvin has remained immersed in reaching out to help all Jews in Kentucky. One of his first efforts was to connect with Jews previously unserved. “I immediately got involved with the soldiers at Fort Knox, and with the high school and university students,” says the regional head shaliach. He adds that he was well-received by these constituents right away. “Louisville is a very relaxed, Midwestern type of town—a bluegrass community,” he says, which offers immediate homespun hospitality not unlike the kind of warmth and welcoming associated with Chabad centers.

With the blessing of the Rebbe, he led the Orthodox Congregation Anshei Sfard for more than 25 years, including bringing kosher availability to the city and refurbishing the mikvah to modern standards. The rabbi retired from that position to focus his ongoing efforts on reaching out to the unaffiliated, especially young adults and families with children in Louisville, and in neighboring communities and cities that continue to be served by Chabad to this day.

A giant baseball bat adorns the outside of Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory in downtown Louisville. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
A giant baseball bat adorns the outside of Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory in downtown Louisville. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

“My family is from up East, but my husband is a native of Louisville,” says Deborah Goldberg, 49. “We have 17-year-old triplets and a 16-year-old, and the Litvins offered us great Jewish programming. My husband and I attend their classes, and our children have participated in the various holiday programs and social activities while they grew up, and continue to enjoy them now, as teenagers. Along the way, we have all become good friends.”

That’s what happens in a small community, made even smaller when it comes to just its Jewish members, which in Louisville number around 8,500.

The Push to Keep Growing

Besides Shmuel (Shmully), who was born in New York, the eight other Litvin children are Kentucky natives. All but one currently reside there, even after studying at yeshivahs and seminaries away from home for a time. While this gives their parents great joy and much nachas, it is something that Rabbi Avrohom and Goldie Litvin never just assumed would happen. Chabad families settle in all parts of the world, where they are needed by Jewish communities, and for parents, it’s never a given that children remain nearby.

Young children enjoy a bubble show at the Chabad House.
Young children enjoy a bubble show at the Chabad House.
The Litvin children on the left, circled, at Gan Torah Preschool in 1996; on the right are the current grandchildren who attend now.
The Litvin children on the left, circled, at Gan Torah Preschool in 1996; on the right are the current grandchildren who attend now.

“Our children, who could have gone to bigger cities with more diverse culture, find there are still areas here they can help grow and want to help make that happen,” notes Goldie Litvin.

Though he is the oldest sibling, Shmully just recently received his semichah (rabbinical ordination), having pursued a different professional career first. He has now joined his father, three of his brothers and his two brothers-in-law for a total of seven rabbis in one family in one community.

In addition to all of their regular activities, they are now focusing on the opening of the new JLC.

Rabbi Shmully and Devorah Litvin (Photo: Elisheva Golani)
Rabbi Shmully and Devorah Litvin (Photo: Elisheva Golani)

“This is a highly needed addition to the Louisville Jewish Community,” explains Rabbi Avrohom Litvin. “It will house the Louisville Jewish Day School, Gan Torah Preschool and JLearn. Soon, we will also be opening a local chapter of Friendship Circle to provide programming and support for children with special needs and their families. We’ll have seven rabbinic couples available for classes and a variety of learning opportunities.”

Covering Communal Needs

Rabbi Shmully organizes the adult-education program with a focus on reaching out to the young-adult community within the greater Louisville area. Among other things, his wife, Duby, is known for her expertise in baking—a much-needed function since there is no kosher bakery in Louisville. Many people’s first taste of challah or traditional Jewish baked goods is the result of “Duby’s Bakery,” which currently operates out of her home, though she is currently looking for a storefront.

Rabbi Chaim oversees the daily schedule for Chabad of Kentucky. He is responsible for all holiday programming, such as upcoming Chanukah activities at locations across the state. He has already arranged for the mayor to help light a giant menorah at the Fourth Street Live entertainment complex in downtown Louisville and a family skating Chanukah event on the first day of the holiday. His wife, Fraidy, will be leading classes for women at the new Jewish Learning Center.

Rabbi Boruch and Chaya Susman, and their children (Photo: Elisheva Golani)
Rabbi Boruch and Chaya Susman, and their children (Photo: Elisheva Golani)

Rabbi Boruch Susman directs programing at the Louisville Chabad House, where he arranges TGIS (“Thank G‑d It’s Shabbat!”) dinners, BLT (“Bagel, Lox & Torah”) classes and family fun days. His wife, Chaya (nee Litvin), holds a Chumash class for women, which rotates among different homes; teaches at the day school; and runs the Gan Israel summer day camp. She also hosts a themed Shabbat dinner once a month, where the food and decorations highlight a different country.

Rabbi Shlomo (Shlomie) and Shoshi Litvin run the Rohr Chabad on Campus at University of Kentucky (Chabad of the Bluegrass) in Lexington. In their first year of operation, they have already outgrown the original Chabad House and have recently moved to a larger one directly adjacent to the campus center.

Chanie Namdar (nee Litvin) lives with her husband, Benny, in Jerusalem, where they are active with Chabad there.

Rabbi Chaim and Fraidy Litvin, and family (Photo: Elisheva Golani)
Rabbi Chaim and Fraidy Litvin, and family (Photo: Elisheva Golani)

Sheina Biggs (nee Litvin) and her husband, Rabbi Yanki Biggs, are currently moving back to Louisville, where she will teach in the school, and take a leadership role in the development and implementation of Friendship Circle. One point of business the rabbi will be working on is ensuring and enhancing the kosher status of Kentucky bourbons so that more people will be able to enjoy the highest-quality bourbons with the highest level of kosher observance.

Rabbi Mendy Litvin provides support to his siblings by heading the “Shofar for Shut-Ins” program, helping to build sukkahs and providing kosher supervision. He is also active with teens in Louisville.

And Rivky, 12, and Kehos, 9, assist their parents and siblings in their various activities.

If this family had a theme, it would be this: Many hands do much work.

Rabbi Shloime and Shoshi Litvin, and their baby daughter (Photo: Elisheva Golani)
Rabbi Shloime and Shoshi Litvin, and their baby daughter (Photo: Elisheva Golani)
Rabbi Avrohom and Goldie Litvin, co-directors of Chabad of Kentucky (Photo: Elisheva Golani)
Rabbi Avrohom and Goldie Litvin, co-directors of Chabad of Kentucky (Photo: Elisheva Golani)
Purim 2000
Purim 2000
Purim at the Stadium, 2010
Purim at the Stadium, 2010


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jim dallas November 11, 2016

what a family what energy! see what can be done! Reply

Noah W. MD November 10, 2016

Shmully, A (Nice) Blast from the Past! Hey Shmully,
It's been a few years. I'm glad I found this article. Your looking good & it seems like your doing great.
This put a smile on my face & evoked memories of us hanging out & schmoozing.
All the Best,
Noah Wollner Reply

Risyl Edelman November 9, 2016

The Litvins Amazing efforts on the part of this magnificent family. May you continue to have much hatzlocha and brocha all in good health! Goldie - you are such a source of nachas for your parents. Reply

Edna B.C. Canada. November 8, 2016

Really enjoyed seeing how you all live in a close knit community.Everyone look's so happy. Blessings. Reply

Anonymous November 8, 2016

Amazing !!! Reply

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