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Hanukkah is a busy week for Wyoming's only rabbi

Chabad Rabbi Zalman Mendelsohn and his wife Raizy
Kyle Mackie
Kyle Mackie
Chabad Rabbi Zalman Mendelsohn and his wife Raizy

Tonight is the last night of Hanukkah, and it's been a busy week for Chabad Rabbi Zalman Mendelsohn, the only ordained rabbi in the entire state of Wyoming.

By the fifth night Mendelsohn had already driven about 1,000 miles across the state, from Jackson to Cheyenne and back again, plus a quick stop in Denver to pick up kosher catering.

"One of the things that often happens being a traveling rabbi is that there are snowstorms and there are those dreaded blinking lights that come on and say, 'Road Closed.' And here you had planned on doing a wedding or a bar or bat mitzvah or a funeral and you're just stuck," he says.

Mendelsohn leads the Chabad Jewish Center of Wyoming based in Jackson but travels quarterly to Casper, Laramie and Cheyenne - about 300 to 430 miles. The center isn't the only Jewish community in Wyoming, population 577,000, but right now, Meldelsohn is the only full-time ordained rabbi in a state larger than the whole United Kingdom, though there's at least one more in training.

"It's been a labor of love and a journey of a lifetime," he says of his 14 years on Jackson.

Avi Kantor, a member of the Jackson congregation, says the rabbi and his wife, Raizy helped ease their move to Wyoming from a larger Jewish community in Philadelphia.

"They were very welcoming," Kantor says, "opened up their home to us, and really made it possible for us to transition here and keep up our traditions and keep up the practices that were important to us back home."

Mendelsohn says the history of Jews in Wyoming dates back to the state's early pioneers. And Jackson's Jewish community has grown by a couple hundred members during the pandemic, partially because of people leaving cities but also because many are looking for a renewed sense of meaning.

"We've just been through a pandemic where many of us lost the courage and the conviction to be able to continue on. Many of us have lost faith in humanity," Mendelsohn says, "and now the message is: Don't lose faith. You have a bright light to shine with the world around you."

And that, he says, is the most important lesson of Hanukkah this year: Even when things seem dark, you can always find your personal reserve of oil.

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Kyle Mackie
Kyle Mackie is an associate producer in NPR's Content Division. Prior to joining NPR in 2022, she was the news director at KHOL/Jackson Hole Community Radio in Jackson, Wyoming. The station won its first three Regional Edward R. Murrow Awards and multiple Society of Professional Journalists "Top of the Rockies" awards under her leadership. Mackie helped launch, hosted and produced KHOL's flagship weekly podcast Jackson Unpacked. She was also a key member of the reporting, production and editorial team behind the limited podcast series Facets: Voices of the Mountain Life, which won the 2022 Local Independent Online News (LION) Product of the Year Award for the small revenue tier.