Quick-witted and matter-of-fact, Rabbi Benny Zippel’s sense of humor makes him popular in the community.
“The bathroom is down the hall, but it’s a $15 charge,” Zippel said as he guided an interfaith tour through the synagogue here, not waiting for the laughter that followed.
The interfaith tour is just one of many ways Zippel involves himself in the Utah community. Though he is now an easily recognized and beloved public figure, when he arrived 15 years ago from Newark, New Jersey, he was just getting started.
Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the leader of the Chabad Lubavitch movement, sent Zippel to Salt Lake City in July 1992 with only $30,000 to establish a synagogue. After that was gone, Zippel, his family and followers were on their own. Today, the Chabad Lubavitch synagogue of Salt Lake is a thriving place of worship and an active force in the community.
According to the synagogue’s website, “Chabad” is a Hebrew acronym for three intellectual pursuits centered on the Torah: wisdom, comprehension and knowledge. “Lubavitch” is the name of the town in Russia where the movement was based for over a century. The Chabad-Lubavitch is a form of Hasidism or religious devotion with an emphasis on bringing Jews back to their heritage.
The Chabad-Lubavitch of Utah focuses on reaching out to Jews locally and helping them to come back to their heritage and find purpose and meaning in life. Zippel has instituted many outreach programs in the community that aim to help young jewish people in the community.
In addition to running the synagogue and all of its programs, Zippel takes time twice a week to travel to Utah County and work with troubled Jewish youth in residential and wilderness therapy programs.
“In a given year, we have anywhere between 300 and 500 Jewish kids from all over the world that are here in Utah for therapy,” Zippel said.
He aims to help them understand their purpose and said even though they are only one in seven billion people on earth, they matter to God.
Tami Harris, the chaplain of Heritage Schools, has been a friend of Zippel’s for 15 years. She said when President Gordon B. Hinckley died in 2008, Zippel was one of the first to honor the prophet by speaking of the loving way in which he welcomed the Rabbi to Salt Lake City when he first came.
“The Rabbi is a force for good in the community,” Harris said.
Zippel’s program, Project H.E.A.R.T. (Hebrew Education for At-Risk Teens) aims to help troubled Jewish youth learn about their heritage and overcome behavioral issues. Zippel visits many schools weekly to address disorders like ADD, ADHD, bulimia, anorexia and ODD.
Harris said Zippel has a tremendous influence on the youth at heritage schools. She said if she can get a child in the same room with Zippel, she knows he will make a difference in that child’s life.
Students who have met with Zippel at Heritage School have gone on to work in the military, fields of psychology, teaching, and other wonderful careers, according to Harris.
Brent Hall, the executive director of Discovery Academy, a treatment center for troubled youth, said Zippel visits Jewish students weekly and tries to help create a connection between the students and their Jewish heritage.
“A lot of these kids don’t link immediately to their faith,” Hall said.”Rabbi Zippel is … a voice in the wilderness, a light in the dark night to these students.”
Zippel is very successful in bringing students to the kosher Jewish festivals at the Chabad-Lubavitch Synagogue in Salt Lake City. Hall said a handful of students recently attended the festival of Purim in February and are looking forward to another excursion in September.
“He has a relentless passion to get the religion of their forefathers to these Jewish kids and help them understand where they came from,” Halld said.
Zippel said he helps teens recognize their purpose and denounces the practice of using tragic events like the Parkland shooting as a platform to further political agendas on topics like gun control or mental health.
“We’re missing the boat!” Zippel said. “The main point is the average teenager in America in 2018 is lacking meaning and purpose. He or she has no clue why they are here. I deal with them seven days a week.”
Zippel uses a metaphor to teach kids, showing how it’s impossible to draw a perfect circle without a compass or a center to guide the pencil. He said our lives are the same. No matter the God we worship he said, “Without a center, our attempt to design — to create perfect circles — (is) a total failure.”
Zippel believes everyone needs a center to guide them in their purpose in life. His center is God.
According to Zippel, it is Jewish tradition to teach children to give away part of their earnings every day, even if it is just a dime or a nickel.
“You don’t take what you have for granted,” he said. “You are appreciative for what you have.”
Addressing anti-Semitism, Zippel explained that he was born and raised in Italy, and his mother was a Holocaust survivor who spent two years in a concentration camp. Zippel said though he hesitated to mention Hitler’s name in a sanctuary, there’s an important lesson to learn from the notorious dictator.
“We are to learn from Hitler how to love a fellow person … and recognize his or her godly spark within them,” he said. “When you reject God from your midst … you have an Auschwitz, and you have a (recent shooting at) Parkland and many more.”
Zippel said he disagrees when people tell him he is a charitable person. He said he is simply doing his duty.