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A Peek Into Small-Town Jewish Life in Munster, Ind., Where the ‘Little Things’ Count

A Peek Into Small-Town Jewish Life in Munster, Ind., Where the ‘Little Things’ Count

Chabad center expansion helps couple serve a tight-knit community

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Rabbi Eliezer Zalmanov, co-director of Chabad of Northwest Indiana with his wife, Chanie, jumps for joy back in October 2015, when this property was purchased for Chabad in the small town of Munster.
Rabbi Eliezer Zalmanov, co-director of Chabad of Northwest Indiana with his wife, Chanie, jumps for joy back in October 2015, when this property was purchased for Chabad in the small town of Munster.

“Where every Jew is family!” is exactly the kind of slogan one would expect to find in Munster, a bedroom community 30 miles southeast of downtown Chicago, just across the Indiana border. With a population of about 23,000, less than 10 percent of which is Jewish, Munster offers what residents call the best of both worlds: a lower cost of living and the slower pace of small-town life with convenient proximity to the Windy City and its wide array of offerings.

Rabbi Eliezer and Chanie Zalmanov, co-directors of Chabad of Northwest Indiana, have been serving this Midwestern community since they arrived there nearly 14 years ago, bringing Judaism to people of varying ages and backgrounds.

“It’s the nature of a small town that we service everybody,” Zalmanov tells Chabad.org. “Some come for shul, some for classes, some for the Passover seder—different things speak to different people.”

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Dana Kaplan-Graves, who grew up in Munster, and her husband, George Graves, have been involved with Chabad for about five years, ever since their daughter Elizabeth was born. “They plan programs for the family that you just can’t pass up,” she says. “Everyone has a good time!”

The Chabad center has become a place where Elizabeth can interact with other Jewish children, which is especially important because she is the only Jewish student in her kindergarten class, says Kaplan-Graves.

The 41-year-old high school teacher adds that “whether it’s a Shabbat dinner or a Purim party, there is a sense of community in Chabad events, of unity. You feel that you’re not alone.”

Of the 23,000 residents, about 10 percent are Jewish. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Of the 23,000 residents, about 10 percent are Jewish. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

A major highlight this year was the opening of a dedicated Chabad center next door to the Zalmanov residence, which has served as the program’s home base for the past 13 years. The new space is a home that underwent extensive renovations thanks to a successful matching fundraising program that garnered generous support from the community.

“It’s about 900 square feet with a kitchen and a large multi-purpose area that serves as the sanctuary and classroom,” describes the rabbi. “There is also a very large backyard. It suits our needs perfectly.”

Larger programs, such as the recent holiday celebration “Purim in Outer Space,” are held at the nearby Jewish Federation of Northwest Indiana or other local facilities. “The Federation has been very gracious; our Jewish community is very united,” says Zalmanov, a native of Brooklyn, N.Y., who had done religious outreach around the world before settling in Northwest Indiana.

Programming is varied, and includes weekly Torah study and women’s classes, Shabbat services, monthly Kabbalat Shabbat and dinner, Sunday-night kosher Chinese dinners and movie get-togethers, guest speakers, and holiday parties and programs.

“We plan as a team. While for some I’m the face of the organization, my wife is actually the engine that makes things happen,” says the rabbi. Chanie Zalmanov is an Indianapolis native and elementary-school teacher by trade. Her dedication to Chabad began with her parents, Rabbi Avrohom and Nini Grossbaum, who have served as co-directors of Chabad-Lubavitch of Indiana in Indianapolis for more than 35 years.

“The advantage of being in a small town,” says Chanie Zalmanov, “is the close feeling many in the community have to our family. Personal simchas are often the best attended events we host.”

Elizabeth Graves, far left, and other children at this year’s “Purim in Outer Space” event.
Elizabeth Graves, far left, and other children at this year’s “Purim in Outer Space” event.
John Doherty, second row, an active community member who has called Indiana home for 15 years, hears the Megillah read on Purim. In front are Elyahu and Leah Herszberg.
John Doherty, second row, an active community member who has called Indiana home for 15 years, hears the Megillah read on Purim. In front are Elyahu and Leah Herszberg.

‘A Haven of Spiritual Growth’

For those who cannot come to Chabad, the rabbi and his wife bring Chabad to them: visiting individuals at home or in the hospital, bringing challah to the elderly or homebound, and in the past few weeks, delivering boxes of shmurah matzah to Jewish homes for Passover.

“We want to remind people we’re there for them,” says Zalmanov, who is also part of the Chabad.org “Ask the Rabbi” team, where questions on every Jewish matter can be asked online and privately answered. “Even if they’re not ready to make any life-altering commitments, we’re there for the little things—the little things count.”

These “little things” can range from attending a Saturday-morning service to a Chanukah menorah-making program for kids at the local Home Depot store to a nursing-home visit that includes the warmth of some homemade chicken soup. Just as importantly, local residents start to recognize faces and the personalities that go along with them. And the link to it all is being part of the extended Chabad community.

To John Doherty, 57, the Zalmanovs have become like family. Born in Chicago and raised in the non-Jewish household of his Jewish mother and non-Jewish father, Doherty gradually discovered his Jewish heritage, and now enjoys studying with the rabbi and participating in various programs.

“Chabad has become a haven of religious, spiritual and social growth. It’s a balance, very satisfying on all accounts,” says Doherty, who has lived in the Hoosier State for 15 years in an even smaller town than Munster, working as a power-plant technician. “I try to serve as a link to those on the fringe,” he says, speaking of people wanting to affiliate, but more hesitant to do so.

From left: Vitaly Kovtonenko, Shay Shmoul and Ruslan Kovtonenko
From left: Vitaly Kovtonenko, Shay Shmoul and Ruslan Kovtonenko
Sisters Shoshannah Aumock, Leah Kovtonenko (with her son, Niko) and Alisa Shortell at the annual menorah-lighting and Chanukah party.
Sisters Shoshannah Aumock, Leah Kovtonenko (with her son, Niko) and Alisa Shortell at the annual menorah-lighting and Chanukah party.

When the Zalmanovs arrived in Munster in 2003, they were a young couple with a 6-week-old baby. They are now the parents of six children: Shayna, Mendy, Yudi, Dovi, Leba and Leah.

“It’s been an honor to see the rabbi grow as a parent and family man,” says Doherty.

Zalmanov and his wife are hoping the new building will draw more people to participate, although they note that the local Jewish community has remained stable over the years, trending towards older individuals rather than young families.

“Hopefully, there will be more new people, more families with children,” says the rabbi. “It’s a small-town operation, but it keeps us occupied.”

The Zalmanov family
The Zalmanov family
Guests at the third-birthday celebration and first haircut (upshernin) of Yudi Zalmanov.
Guests at the third-birthday celebration and first haircut (upshernin) of Yudi Zalmanov.
The renovated building now open for use
The renovated building now open for use

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