For motorists on Ridge Road, one of the main arteries of Munster, Ind., the sight of a bearded rabbi lugging an oversized ornate cabinet across the busy street has become a yearly spectacle. It is Rabbi Eliezer Zalmanov transporting a specially constructed holy ark from the cozy sanctuary in his home to the Center for Visual and Performing Arts, where he and a cadre of volunteers set up a makeshift synagogue to accommodate the large crowds that join the congregation for the High Holidays.

Zalmanov’s congregation—Chabad Lubavitch of Northwest Indiana, which caters to a cluster of Chicago suburbs that have leapfrogged over state lines into the state of Indiana—is among hundreds of Chabad congregations that move into hotels, tents, municipal buildings, and even firehouses to accommodate High Holiday turnouts that seem to get bigger every year. The most well-attended services are on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), which is observed this year from sundown on Friday, Sept. 13 until the evening of Saturday, Sept. 14.

With a Jewish population of about 250 families, Zalmanov’s weekly Shabbat services in Munster are attended by just a few dozen regulars. Over the High Holidays, he says the crowd is “much larger and more diverse, with many people who are not so familiar with the prayers. We go out of our way to make the services as meaningful and welcoming as possible; I do a lot of explaining.”

Lighting the Fire Within

In central New Jersey, Rabbi Shmaya and Rochi Galperin of the Chabad Jewish Center of Holmdel have been holding services at the local firehouse since 2009—not just because it offers more room, but because it is a well-known landmark familiar to locals.

“When we first came to Holmdel in 2008,” says the South African–born rabbi, “we advertised services in our home. I looked out the window and saw people passing right by. They did not know which house was ours. We had 15 people that Rosh Hashanah.”

On a whim, Galperin stopped by the local firehouse to introduce himself to the volunteer fire brigade. He soon discovered that they had a hall that could suit his needs. The next year, services were held in the firehouse, and attendance spiked to nearly 100 people.

Rabbi Eliezer Zalmanov of Munster, Ind., transporting a specially constructed holy ark from the cozy sanctuary in his home to the Center for Visual and Performing Arts.
Rabbi Eliezer Zalmanov of Munster, Ind., transporting a specially constructed holy ark from the cozy sanctuary in his home to the Center for Visual and Performing Arts.

Fire Chief Doug Ziemba Sr. says he and Galperin have developed a very close friendship. “The rabbi is a great guy, and we just hit it off from day one. All the firemen know and love him, and they just ask him about all kinds of things Jewish. He is a teacher to us.”

Ziemba adds that “the rabbi comes by when we are working in the station and helps out. He doesn’t eat our [non-kosher] food, and we are cool with that.”

Over the years, Chabad of Holmdel has come to hold almost all of its programs in the fire station—from Purim parties to menorah lightings. In fact, Chabad’s board of donor plaques hangs permanently in the firehouse; the holy ark is stored there as well.

At High Holidays time, when an additional room is needed for the children’s program, the fire chief’s office is converted into a classroom. There the children play, pray and learn about the holidays while their parents worship. Galperin says he often sees firemen rushing out to an emergency during services, and he whispers a personal prayer for their safe return. The average congregant, he says, would have no idea; the firemen don’t turn on the sirens until they are far away—far enough so that it won’t disturb services.

“The firemen are just so accommodating and helpful,” stresses Galperin. “One year we had a fire-themed Purim celebration as a tribute, and of course, it was held in the fire station.”

Eat, Pray, Sleep

In Uptown Houston, a tony area in Texas known for high-end retail shops and trendy boutiques, Rabbi Chaim and Chanie Lazaroff hold services in the posh Hilton Houston Post Oak Hotel, in the exclusive Galleria area. In addition to having more room than their bursting-at-the-seams Chabad center, which caters primarily to young professionals, holding services at the hotel allows people who live too far to walk to move in for the holidays, when driving a car is forbidden by Jewish law. With catered gourmet meals and four-star accommodations, people are attracted to the hassle-free holidays.

This year Rabbi Mendel and Tzippy Weiss of Chabad of North West Dade and Miami Lakes, Fla., are renting a building they hope to purchase for a Chabad center. They expect between 85-100 congregants for the High Holidays in a town with fewer than 300 Jewish residents.
This year Rabbi Mendel and Tzippy Weiss of Chabad of North West Dade and Miami Lakes, Fla., are renting a building they hope to purchase for a Chabad center. They expect between 85-100 congregants for the High Holidays in a town with fewer than 300 Jewish residents.

But it’s not just about convenience.

“The prayers are very moving,” says Professor Dan Silvermintz, who has been attending these services for five years now. “Rabbi Chaim has a way of igniting people’s spirits and making each individual feel welcome. A lot of people choose to stay for the holiday meals as well. We find it’s a time to meet people and enjoy delicious food in really luxurious surroundings.”

The rabbi says he has been holding High Holiday services and meals in hotels for the past eight years. “In fact, it was the first thing we ever did here in Uptown,” he says. “When people showed up, we realized that there are actually Jews living here, and we decided to open up our Chabad center.”

At the opposite end of the continent, over the northeastern border in Dollard-des-Ormeaux, a heavily Jewish suburb of Montreal, Canada, Rabbi Leibel and Chana Fine and more than 200 fellow Jews gather in the social hall of Or Shalom, a congregation that serves the French-speaking Moroccan Jewish community. In an area where synagogue affiliation is quite high among its 10,000 Jewish residents, the Fines reach out to unaffiliated Jews, many of whom have not been to synagogue in years.

The rabbi says the two groups complement each other very nicely, and Chabad helps facilitate the joint children’s program for the children of both congregations.

In Santa Cruz, Calif., known for its mild year-round weather, Rabbi Yochanan and Baily Friedman’s congregation simply meet in a large tent erected in the Friedmans’ backyard. Friedman reports that for nighttime services, congregants may sometimes bring sweaters, “but by the morning, everyone is nice and toasty.” After services, the group heads indoors for a standing-room-only reception in the Friedman home. Of course, no food is served on Yom Kippur, when Jews abstain from eating and drinking as part of a 25-hour fast.

Friedman makes sure that the tent comes down right after Yom Kippur, as it occupies the same spot where he will soon build his sukkah, the thatch-covered booth in which Jews celebrate the eight-day holiday of Sukkot.