To Rabbi Zalman Tiechtel, all Jews are family
By: Mackenzie Clark | @mclark59
When a student mentioned his plans to spend Passover in Oklahoma with a friend’s grandparents, Rabbi Zalman Tiechtel wouldn’t let him leave the Chabad Center empty-handed.
Instead, Tiechtel used tissue paper to wrap some delicate handmade matzos, or unleavened bread eaten during Passover. He placed them in a cardboard box with a note wishing the family a happy holiday and sent the student on his way.
To those who don’t know him, this may appear to be an act of kindness toward strangers. For Tiechtel, it’s simply a message of love to his extended Jewish family.
Along with his wife, Nechama Tiechtel, the rabbi directs the Rohr Chabad Center for Jewish Life. The center serves as a “home away from home” for Jewish students at the University and is open to all who want to learn more about the faith and culture.
The center’s motto is “labels are for shirts, not for people,” and its services are not limited to members of a particular denomination of Judaism.
“What defines your Jewishness has nothing to do with your level of practice, your affiliation, how you label yourself — it is simply the fact that you are part of the Jewish family,” he said.
Born and raised alongside 12 siblings in Brooklyn, N.Y., Tiechtel experienced major culture shock when he, his wife and his firstborn daughter, Mina, moved to Lawrence 9 years ago. (Listen more about his move here: https://soundcloud.com/mclark59/rabbi-zalman-tiechtel-on-moving-to-lawrence-kansas)
“I remember the first time I saw what happens at a four-way stop sign in Kansas,” he said. “In New York, it doesn’t work, because everyone would try to go first; in Kansas, everybody’s waiting for you to go first. That is something which I really appreciate.”
Although it was difficult to leave behind his neighborhood — one abundant in kosher delis, kosher bakeries and synagogues — Tiechtel said he believes his life in Lawrence is his destiny, and he was brought here by faith and fate.
“Everybody has a calling, and if we’re willing to listen and hear it, then we will be able to achieve our life’s purpose,” Tiechtel said. “I believe that me being in Lawrence, Kan., is not by default. This is the purpose of my soul’s journey into this world.”
Tiechtel said he learned of the University’s need when he met a rabbi from Kansas City “by divine providence.”
“I had this dream of moving anywhere — it made no difference to me where — where there was potential to contribute to the community,” he said.
Tiechtel and his family “fell in love” with Lawrence and signed a lease on the spot when they stumbled upon a duplex near campus. He said at that point they didn’t even realize this would be a prime location for students.
Two months later, the students who lived on the other side of the duplex moved out and the Tiechtels leased the other side. The Chabad Center’s popularity grew, and in 2008 the family purchased the property.
“The only mistake we made is that we underestimated the potential for success,” he said.
The Chabad Center, 1201 W. 19th St., offers Jewish students Shabbat dinner every week. At the first dinner in March 2006, the Tiechtels welcomed just a handful; now, an average of 50 to 80 students attend each week.
His family has grown as well; he is a proud father of four daughters and three sons, ranging in age from 4 months to 9 years. He also calls himself a “proud Jewhawk.”
Tiechtel said his daily schedule varies, which he likes. Some days he visits hospitals and prisons, and he is in charge of fundraising for the Chabad Center. He often talks to concerned parents of students at the University. He frequently meets with students for personal talks or to plan events, which is a major part of the Chabad Center’s purpose.
“The biggest obstacle for growth for college students today is stigma, and we are here to rewrite the experience,” he said.
Tiechtel said no matter what his schedule holds, he aims to do three things each day: make time to pray three times, have a personal interaction with a student and do something outside his comfort zone.
Despite his honest smile, life is not always easy for Tiechtel and his extended family. In 2008, he lost a fellow rabbi and childhood friend from his neighborhood in Brooklyn. The friend and his wife were killed in a terrorist attack at their Chabad house in Mumbai, India.
Last April, a shooting at the Jewish Community Center in Overland Park shook the Jewish community. “The J,” as its attendees call it, is where three of Tiechtel’s children attend school.
Tiechtel said in times of challenge, what drives you will determine how you move forward.
“The only way we were able to overcome that hardship in 2008 was by remembering why we’re here,” Tiechtel said. “If you focus on the purpose and the mission, you win. You keep on going.”
— Edited by Yu Kyung Lee