By Carrie A. Moore, the Deseret News - Jan 10, 2004 


Little more than a decade after an Italian immigrant with a dream made his way to Salt Lake City, plans are in the works for Utah's newest Jewish synagogue and religious school.

Building permits are expected to be approved this week for the new Utah Campus for Living Judaism, to be built on the site of the current building that houses Chabad Lubavitch of Utah at 1433 S. 1100 East. Grounded in Orthodox Judaism but intended to foster Jewish life among those of all affiliations, Rabbi Benny Zippel said the center will become "a beacon of light for the surrounding community," along with more than 2,500 other such centers worldwide.

It will become "a place that warmly welcomes every Jew in our community and even beyond that, every person in our community beyond the Jewish faith," says the rabbi, whose decade-long odyssey of faith in the Beehive State developed only after his application for a green card was initially rejected.

In 1992, just as he was struggling to organize the local Orthodox community, Rabbi Zippel was still a citizen of his native Italy. With only a $30,000 stipend from the worldwide Chabad organization to rent and furnish a synagogue, publicize his work and house himself and his family, he had no money to hire an immigration attorney.

With his student visa for rabbinical school expiring, he filed an application for residency with the Immigration and Naturalization Service on his own, including a letter from Sen. Orrin Hatch recommending approval as a Jewish rabbi in Utah. The application was denied, and Rabbi Zippel was desperate. He called on one of the new church leader friends he had made — LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley — for help.

"Within an hour he had me on the phone with Oscar McConkie," one of the state's top attorneys, who worked for several months on Rabbi Zippel's behalf to help secure a green card. Five years later, he filed for naturalization and became a U.S. citizen.

In the meantime, the rabbi went to work. He purchased the building that has served as his synagogue, Bais Menachem, back in 1994. "It was a very nice temporary facility that allowed us to get started, but it was clearly not something that was going to accommodate us for long."

Some 300 Utah families now consider the 2,500-square-foot Bais Menachem their spiritual home, and a variety of programs to help educate them and reach out to the community have been formed since the synagogue's purchase.

Fellowship has always been at the heart of the congregation, yet the existing synagogue provided no space for communal Shabbat dinners on Friday nights after services. The congregation also hosts a three-week summer day camp and a two-week winter day camp that have grown too large to be hosted at Bais Menachem. The Talmud Torah Hebrew School for elementary school children and a preschool program, along with adult-education classes and a library of Orthodox materials, have all outgrown the existing space as well, he said.

But unlike many area churches, who are overseen by a board of directors that makes financial and property decisions, Bais Menachem is under Rabbi Zippel's leadership. After consulting with Rabbi Yossi Mandel, the congregation's program director, and several key members of the congregation, the decision was made to tear down the old synagogue and an adjacent building that has housed the Hebrew school and Mikvah to make way for the new center.

Fund raising began in September, and so far about $700,000 has been donated to the $3 million effort, including "generous donations" from the LDS Foundation and the George S. and Dolores Eccles Foundation. The rabbi is eager to publicize the building campaign because an anonymous donor has offered to match, one to one, every dollar he is able to raise during the "pre-construction" stage.

With 12,000 square feet of building space on which to work after demolition is complete, construction crews begin work on the sanctuary, the social hall, two strictly kosher kitchens — one for meat, the other for milk, as Jewish law requires — classrooms, a teen lounge, computer lab and administrative space.

The building will also feature a Star of David dome over the sanctuary, and a rooftop garden Chupah, or traditional wedding canopy, where couples can be married under the open sky.

Once demolition permits are granted and building permits are in place, the work can proceed, the rabbi said. He's been warmed by the response of the East-Central Community Council, which gave unanimous support to the center's design and "sent their chairman to the Planning Commission to support our plan." Area neighbors have also attended meetings to offer their support for the project.

While the new center is being built, the congregation has moved to temporary headquarters in a rented building at 1309 S. 1100 East, about a block north of the old synagogue.

Rabbi Zippel knows he and his congregation have literally lived the American dream since his reprieve from the status of immigrant struggling to stay in the United States, but he's not surprised that God's work is moving forward in Utah.

"It's a very big statement to me and the people I've been working with that this is the right time and the right project to undertake because of the tremendous support we've received both financial and nonfinancial from general community. It's been absolutely remarkable to us and means more than words can adequately express."