With a total population of half a million, earning it the title of least populous state in the union, Wyoming hasn't really figured highly on any rabbi's list of must-see Jewish communities. Except for Rabbi Zalman Mendelsohn's.

Zalman, 26, wife Raizy Mendelsohn, 21, and newborn Chaya Mushka are soon heading to the mountainous state’s Jackson Hole valley to take up positions as the state's only full-time Jewish spiritual leaders.

So what drives a couple of Chabad-Lubavitch Chasidim to pack up their New York apartment and head west, and to Wyoming, the second least densely populated state, of all places? It isn't the kosher food. Raizy Mendelsohn says they will be ordering six months-worth of provisions from a supplier in Chicago. And it isn't even the legendary snow peaks that has the resort area and gate to Grand Teton National Park beckoning. Despite being born in Canada, she spent half of her life growing up in Israel and is more of a warm-weather person. The rabbi, though calling himself an avid snowboarder, is leaving his gear behind.

Their entire raison d'etre in this venture is the small Jewish population spread over Wyoming's 97,818 square miles. It's a figure that might make other rabbis blush.

"The way the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, educated us," explains Zalman Mendelsohn, "we know that even one person alone provides endless opportunities to inspire."

A grant from the Rohr Family Foundation, secured by Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky of Lubavitch World Headquarters, is making the move possible.

Community Excitement

Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Zalman Mendelsohn helps a Jewish resident of Wyoming affix a mezuzah to his doorpost.
Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Zalman Mendelsohn helps a Jewish resident of Wyoming affix a mezuzah to his doorpost.

Karin McQuillan, a retired writer of mystery novels, is excited about the couple's move to town.

"People are hungry for Jewish learning," she says.

Besides having no rabbi, Jackson's tiny community doesn't have a home. McQuillan says most people are looking forward to the permanent newcomers.

For his part, Mendelsohn fell in love with the place after several summer visits to Wyoming as part of the summer community visitation program coordinated by Merkos L'Inyonei Chinuch, the educational arm of Chabad-Lubavitch. The initiative has been dubbed by participants as the Jewish Peace Corps and, more recently, the Roving Rabbis program.

"It was phenomenal," Sue Dyer remembers of those first meetings with Mendelsohn and a fellow rabbinical student.

Dyer, a native of New York who lives in the old railroad town of Laramie in the southeastern portion of the state, quickly developed a connection with Mendelsohn and his companion when they first showed up in the summer of 2005.

Her family soon hosted them each summer.

"They all feel very welcome here," she proudly shares.

"Zalmy started calling me Bubby," she laughs. The moniker stuck.

"I'm old enough to be his mom, not his grandmother," she adds, "but that's beside the point."

On each successive visit, the Florida-born Mendelsohn discovered more and more people interested in exploring their Jewish heritage. He and his wife settled on Jackson, because of popularity among tourists. The locale is just 55 miles from Yellowstone National Park.

"There are probably 500 Jewish people in the Jackson area out of a total population of 10,000," he estimates, "and about three million tourists each year, including a large number of Jews."

According to professor Ira Sheskin, director of the Jewish Demography Project at the University of Miami, large percentages of American Jews are not part of a formal community. But in Wyoming, Raizy Mendelsohn asserts, that seems to be changing.

"We keep getting reactions like 'We need you to move!' " she says.

Before moving out full time in May, the couple will continue commuting from New York to lead services and get-togethers, including a Purim party hosted by the McQuillans next week.

Still, the couple's imminent arrival has left Dyer, who lives six hours from Jackson, wanting more.

They're "bringing back tradition," she says optimistically. "I know they'll be coming down here too."