The Nevada desert

"From Paris to Manchester to..."

By Chana Kroll

EVERY FRIDAY, like so many of his colleagues throughout the world, Rabbi Shmuel Attal takes a pair of tefillin and heads to local businesses where he knows there are Jewish employees. Over the years, he’s come to know many of them as friends. Yet, when Rabbi Attal first started making the rounds near his Las Vegas Chabad House not everyone greeted the presence of a rabbi with enthusiasm.

There was one man who told him quite plainly to leave.

Rabbi Attal wasn’t flustered- he took the approach that the best way to answer hostility is with kindness. So every week he made sure to wave and smile at the man who had spoken so rudely to him on his first visit. Over time, the man—an Israeli immigrant—began inviting the rabbi in for coffee. Eventually, he put on tefillin. Then, he asked the rabbi to come to his housewarming party when he purchased a new home. Rabbi Attal agreed, and asked if he would accept a tzedakah box and mezuzahs as a housewarming present, to which the man agreed. Today, he and Rabbi Attal have a close friendship- and with Rabbi Attal’s help the man had both a Jewish wedding and a traditional bris for his son.

“Sometimes, a person says no to putting on tefillin, or they seem very negative in general,” reflected Rabbi Attal, “and you just want to leave, but if you take the time to get to know the person you often see that under the initial hostility is a very warm and friendly person. Often, these are the people who end up being the most passionate about Judaism and about being a part of the Jewish community- they just need to be given a chance, to feel accepted. The hostility disappears.”

Las Vegas is lauded as something of an engineering miracle- given that the city is built on a desert plain subject to flash floods and other inhospitable weather conditions. Since arriving in the city in 2002, the Attals (together with their colleagues, the Harligs and Schanowitzs), have engineered a few miracles of their own in what was once a spiritual desert—especially for Jews.

As a young married couple, Rabbi Shmuel and Shaina (nee Cohen) Attal knew that their desire to reach out to their fellow Jews could take them anywhere. In fact, it had already taken them from Manchester, where Shaina grew up and where Shmuel attended the Manchester Yeshiva, to Brunoy, France where he worked as the assistant principal to Rabbi Nemanov.
Yet, they both felt they could best serve the Jewish people as a whole by going out as Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries to a place with fewer Jewish resources. For several years they continued to live in Brunoy, doing whatever they could to further the cause of Jewish education there, while keeping an eye out for a community in need of a Chabad House.

A little over seven years ago, they got a call from Rabbi Cunin, director of Chabad Lubavitch in California. As a young rabbinical student, Shmuel had gone to Los Angeles to spend a summer Rabbi Attal and his daughter with the working with Rabbi governor of Nevada. Cunin as part of the now famous “roving rabbis” program of Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch- the educational office of the Lubavitch movement. He made quite an impression on Rabbi Cunin, who as the first Lubavitch emissary on the West Coast of the United States has played a role in the establishment of Chabad Houses across the state of California and in neighboring Nevada.

Rabbi Cunin called that day to ask Rabbi Attal if he would be interested in traveling to Las Vegas, Nevada, to look into a unique opportunity there—providing programming and synagogue for a multi-lingual community of Jewish immigrants living in the Las Vegas area. Rabbi Harlig, the head of Chabad of Las Vegas, called the next day to extend an invitation to Rabbi Attal to come visit the community and see for himself what starting the new Chabad House in Las Vegas would entail.

By the time these two phone calls took place, Rabbi Attal had already- albeit unknowingly- made it through a daunting vetting process. The community for which he would be opening a Chabad House was a mix of Israeli and Moroccan Jews, among others. Rabbi Harlig was looking for someone who could teach classes in English, French, and Hebrew, and who could understand and develop a connection with Jews from a wide variety of cultures.

On his initial visit to Las Vegas, Rabbi Attal passed another test- he gave a series of classes, one in each of the languages he would be working in. Response was enthusiastic in each of the communities. In fact, the Attals are still in touch with individuals from those initial classes.

After that introductory tour, Rabbi Attal returned to France where he and his family packed up their things, applied for visas, and were soon on their way back to America to establish the Chabad Hebrew Center in Las Vegas—but not before consulting with a trusted friend and advisor.

Twenty years ago, Shmuel arrived in Manchester, alone, as a fifteen year old yeshiva student from paris, France. Immediately, this young student connected with his new Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Akiva Cohen, at Yeshivas Lubavitch Manchester.

“I spent hours talking to him,” recalls Shmuel. “We could speak about anything- about topics we were studying in yeshiva, Shaking the lulav on Sukkos about life in general—a student could always speak to him, at all hours, and about anything. We could even say that we disagreed with him and he would discuss it with us. He took our concerns and our ideas seriously. He cares for each student almost like a son.

“I even ate at his family’s house—they went out of their way to be a second family for me.” Rabbi Attal studied at Yeshivas Lubavitch Manchester for three years, and he credits his experiences there with shaping his life, giving him the sense of purpose he has, and enabling him to do the work he is now engaged in.

Both Shmuel and Shaina teach widely, with Shmuel also volunteering for the Jewish Burial Society and helping other local Chabad rabbis supervise the kashrus at area restaurants.

Their Chabad House has flourished. A few years ago, they were assisted by local families in purchasing a 2 1/2 acre plot of land in a prime location where they hope to one day build a large synagogue and a community center, as well as a daycare center and preschool. For now, the economic crisis has slowed their plans but they are still moving forward.

While they await completion of the center, major holidays can be a challenge. For Yom Kippur last year, they leased hotel space for 400 people and held services in the hotel’s ballroom. For purim and pesach, they hosted more than 100 people for each meal. They opted to have the meals at their current Chabad House, but the (crowded) experience left them looking forward even more to the new, expanded center they still hope to build.

Over the years, the Attals have helped many Jews reconnect with their heritage- so much so that more than fifty local families have opted to move from Las Vegas to New York or Miami where there are larger Jewish communities and more options for study. The Attals hope to one day build the community up enough that families will not have to leave, but Shmuel is nonetheless happy when people tell him they feel that he has caused them to want to be a part of a larger Jewish community.

“We miss them, but they went with our blessing,” he says of the families who have moved. “We keep in touch.”

They still maintain a close connection with Manchester as well. Whenever possible, in their busy lives, they make a trip back to the community which shaped each of them—and visits always include both time with Shaina’s family and a long talk between Shmuel and Rabbi Cohen.

“I feel like I take up so much of his time, that perhaps I am bothering him, but he just smiles and says ‘bother me anytime.’ So I do- I bother him.

“I don’t think you can find a rosh yeshiva like him anywhere in the world—I still seek his advice, and his advice is always very straight and very good advice.

“I went to four yeshivas in my life but my time in Manchester was special. I was so inspired there that for the last 2 1/2 years I was there I woke up 4:30 a.m. to squeeze in additional hours of Torah study—no matter how tired I was.”

All told, the Attals have seen a great deal of Divine providence in their work and are optimistic about the continued growth of their Chabad House.

They could not afford a funeral or a burial plot. they were thinking to cremate his body to save money. It is tragic that a family could be in such a difficult situation economically.
I asked them to give me a day.

One story in particular sums up what Shmuel sees as a guiding hand in what he does.

“We had been in touch with a woman who was going through a painful divorce—we had met her really by chance, and she needed emotional support so we helped her as much as we could.

“One night, a few months after we had met her, we got a phone call from her at midnight. Someone had just killed himself. He was 75 years old.

“I immediately went to the address she gave me to see if there was any way I could comfort the family, to help them. It turned out they were in a very difficult situation financially. They could not afford a funeral or a burial plot. They were thinking to cremate his body to save money. It is tragic that a family could be in such a difficult situation economically. I asked them to give me a day.

“Thank G-d, I was able to raise the money for a burial plot and for a proper funeral. I had people meanwhile say Tehillim and watch over the body while I went about getting the money and arranging everything, we prepared the body for burial, he had a Jewish funeral and Jewish burial.

“In the end, because they were so relieved and so grateful, the family stayed in touch with us. Today, one of their sons is married to a woman who works at a Chabad House in California and the whole family is involved with Chabad in some way.

“I think what touches people and keeps them involved is that they see that we are a community—this is an especially dramatic and a very sad story, but it is also true in much smaller ways—we help each other. We try to be there for people whenever they need us— people know they can call anytime day or night, and we will do whatever possible to help. That’s why we’re here—out of Ahavas Yisroel.”