Young Hasidic rabbi plies his faith in Caribbean playground

Orlando Sentinel/November 25, 2007

By Mark I. Pinsky

Cancun, Mexico - When Orlando businessman Eytan Tayer visits this glitzy Caribbean resort two or three times a year, he sometimes feels he has left his Judaism behind.

"I was always looking for something," he says -- a place to observe the Sabbath, or to find kosher food.

No more. The next time Tayer, 37, heads for the Yucatan to check on his clothing stores, he'll have the benefit of a resident rabbi. Mendel Druk, a young emissary of the Hasidic sect known as Chabad-Lubavitch, and his wife, Rachel, have set up shop in the Mexican playground.

It would be hard to find a more incongruous posting for a pious rabbi than Cancun. Druk's Brooklyn, N.Y.-based community is the Jewish version of evangelicals, except that their mission field is focused on wayward, traveling and scattered Jews.

In addition to traditional congregations such as those in Maitland, Daytona Beach and South Orlando, the Lubavitchers literally troll the world for Jews who are separated from their faith.

Tech-savvy but rooted in the 18th century, the bearded rabbis dress like the Amish and -- when the spirit moves them -- pray with the fervor of Pentecostals. The Hasidim are Judaism's original men in black.

"Our dress code doesn't exactly fit into Cancun," Druk admits.

He wears Chabad's distinctive dark slacks, white shirt and black, broad-brimmed fedora, which he says serves as both a neon sign and a magnet for other Jews. But in deference to the climate, Druk eschews a tie and buttoned collar, as well as the sect's dark wool, serge or gabardine suit jackets.

Chabad emissaries require "a doctorate degree in dedication and devotion," says Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, head of the organization's educational arm, with a chuckle. "This applies to the men and women equally."

For the Druks, the match with Cancun was an arranged marriage, much like their own. After a preliminary site visit, Kotlarsky says, "They were immediately drawn to the people there, as were community members to them. Both sides wanted it; it was a natural fit."

Kotlarsky oversees the 4,000 Chabad families worldwide.

"The entire process is elective; no one is ever told to go anywhere," he says. "The very process that a couple goes through -- looking for the right place, pairing with a community looking for its best match, ensures that the right couples are posted to the most appropriate destinations and that they have the inner strength to contend with the unique challenges they know they will face."

Despite the resort environment, Druk is no beach-combing, barefoot rabbi. He doesn't try to dispense advice and spiritual counseling amid barely dressed sun worshipers.

"We have to be careful to make our honest judgment not to compromise our Torah standards," he says. "Believe me -- they don't want me on the beach."

For the same reason, Druk prefers to do his spiritual cruising near the hotel check-in counter, rather than around the pool.

"I go to the lobby," he says. "A fool I'm not."

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.