For years, Rabbi Mendel Popack and his wife, Estee, wanted to move to a community with no Jewish infrastructure, either religious or social, and create a place for people to celebrate Judaism.
They remember driving through Stapleton to visit Mendel’s family. “We were amazed with what we saw here and thought it’s such a perfect place,” Mendel says. “People want it; it’s just not available.”
In March, they moved to Stapleton and started what they call a Jewish Life Center.
Groups like the Jewish Life Center exist all over the world. There are 15 Jewish centers in Colorado; this is the first in Northeast Denver. Mendel and Estee are among 3,800 couples worldwide who move to a community and dedicate their lives to sharing Judaism.
They host Jewish dinners, events and discussions in their house or rent public space. They offer a nonthreatening, friendly environment for anyone in the community to express their Judaism.
“We want to help every Jew be able to relate to their Judaism in their own way, wherever they’re at in their life,” Estee says. That is the goal of Chabad-Lubavitch, a 250-year-old movement to bring Jews back to Judaism.
Rebbe Schneerson, who is the heart and brainpower of the movement, taught the ideal to “love all Jews.” Lubavitchers embrace Jews of all affiliations and levels of observance to the Torah.
“We believe labels belong in department stores on suits and shoes and other types of garments, not on people,” Mendel says. They like to say they’re “Just Jewish.”
Judaism has been a part of both of their lives for as long as they can remember. The son of a rabbi, Mendel grew up going to a synagogue in Denver. Estee grew up in a large Jewish community in New York, and her religion quickly became a part of her identity.
At 14, Mendel began a long series of travels. From Los Angeles to New York to Paris, and many places in between, he studied and taught Judaism. By his later teens, Judaism was no longer just something about himself, but something he “could share with other people.” He went to rabbinical school in Australia.
Meanwhile, Estee ran programs for youth and adults in Jewish communities in Guatemala, Puerto Rico, Ukraine, Philadelphia, and a whole list of other places.
Estee laughs when she says they are finally done with traveling. She sits on the couch in their Stapleton home. Yehuda, their 2-year-old son with shoulder-length curls that won’t be cut until he is three—a Jewish tradition—climbs all over her.
She wears modest clothing. It’s impossible to tell her curled auburn hair with side-swept bangs is actually a wig. Observant Jewish women often cut or pin their hair and wear a wig to keep their natural hair only for their husband.
Mendel sits in a chair and holds their 3-month-old baby boy, Aizik. Mendel wears the traditional kippah head covering and his beard long.
The two talk openly and genuinely about their Judaism. They emphasize many times they welcome every Jew and also non-Jewish person. They pause to offer sweets and iced coffee. Then they continue to explain that Judaism is a part of their daily lives but how they practice their religion doesn’t dictate how others should.
They believe the Jewish Life Center can thrive in Stapleton and say they have received strong support so far. They have some ideas for the future but will base what they do on the community’s needs.
“We are here to service the community. As we assess the community, that’s where we want to help. If there’s a need for a synagogue, we can certainly do that, but we didn’t come to build a synagogue.”
They plan to start a Hebrew school, beginning with ages 6 to 12. Estee hopes to start a Jewish Women’s Circle to give mothers in the neighborhood a night out. Mendel is excited about the possibilities with the Anschutz Medical Campus. He’d like to help medical professionals understand a Jewish perspective for treating Jewish patients. He is also set to meet with the dean of the university to discuss possibly teaching an elective course about Judaism and medicine.
To learn more about the Jewish Life Center and upcoming events, call 720.515.4337 or email info@JewishStapleton.com.