After Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7, Rabbi Yitzchok Kahan opened the doors to his Chabad in Medford.
Forty people showed up to the Main Street home for a candlelighting ceremony and service on the following Friday night. Some said they hadn’t stepped foot in a shul in a long time.
In the following days, they kept showing up. The Jews who live near this South Jersey Chabad house opened their wallets and helped it send thousands of dollars to Israel.
But they did more than just throw money toward the ongoing war effort. They asked Kahan about how to wrap tefillin, put a mezuzah on the front door and light Shabbat candles. The rabbi said he distributed more than 500 Shabbat candle kits.
“Although we can’t hold a gun and protect our brethren there, we can do our mitzvot and hold a spiritual connection,” the rabbi said.
And as a Jewish institution well established in the community, the Chabad house was prepared to help.
Rabbi Kahan and his rebbetzin, Baily Kahan, have been in Medford since 2005. They run a day camp with more than 200 campers. They host menorah lightings in nine different Burlington and Camden County towns every Chanukah. They welcome in Jews from Medford, Mount Holly, Marlton, Mount Laurel and other towns for Shabbat dinners, Torah studies and challah bakes.
Earlier this month, the Chabad got approval from the township to upgrade its Main Street home, Kahan said. Construction is underway on a deck, a lobby and a library.
“I want people to feel that they are coming to a comfortable place,” the rabbi said.
In the 2000s, Medford was not a comfortable place for the rabbi and rebbetzin. The natives of Crown Heights, Brooklyn had never even heard of it.
After the rabbi’s year of study, they wanted to build their house in Brazil. Rabbi Kahan had spent time doing outreach work there with an uncle. But when the Kahans spent Yom Kippur and Sukkot there, they decided to return to the United States.
That’s when they received a call from Rabbi Mendel Mangel, the director of the Chabad Lubavitch of Camden and Burlington Counties. He needed a rabbi to run a day camp in the area.
“He said, ‘Do you want to start a camp, move to Medford and start a Chabad house?’” Kahan recalled.
The couple came to explore the community and talk to residents. They learned that “most of the Jewish population was in the Cherry Hill area,” Kahan said. But there were also Jews in Burlington County, and Medford was only a short trip from Crown Heights.
“As you get married, settle and have a child, you realize that being close is a nice benefit,” Rabbi Kahan said.
The rabbi and rebbetzin moved to the area, established the Gan Israel Day Camp and started building their house. They began by inviting people over for Shabbos. A few years in, they started organizing Shabbat and High Holiday services. In 2013, they bought an old home on Main Street and became part of the downtown.
The rabbi is now a chaplain in the Medford Township Police Department. In December, he organized a Chanukah walk to a brewery, game room, community center and toy store. More than 300 people came to drink Chanukah beer, build Lego dreidels and light a menorah on Main Street.
Kahan’s email list includes more hundreds of names. Between 30 and 50 people attend the Chabad’s Friday night services, and 25-30 come on Saturday morning. Baily Kahan’s classes on Torah and other subjects attract 10-15 people.
Rabbi Kahan said 100% of the Chabad’s budget comes from donations from people who are involved. Some Jews who attend weekly Chabad events give, and some who attend less frequently give as well.
More local Jews have been activated by the situation in Israel, according to Kahan.
“It spurred a lot of anger and pain. But, on the other hand, it made people realize that we need to reconnect,” he said. “It’s opened up hearts and feelings in a positive way.”