Raizy Mendelsohn sees life as a combination of the physical and the spiritual, and that carries through even to the little things.
Like pausing before taking the first sip from a bottle of sparkling water.
“I made a blessing on it,” she said. “I took something that’s physical, and I was able to elevate it for its Godly component. When we see life as not just a mere physicality, but see the deeper aspect, then we realize that everything in life has a purpose.”
Mendelsohn finds purpose in a life oriented not to what she needs but to what is needed of her.
“It affects every moment and every aspect of my life by turning my day from being just about myself to seeing how I can make a difference in the spiritual and material needs of others,” she said.
Mendelsohn has a full plate, or, as she put it, “My life is busy with blessings.”
In addition to raising their children, she and her husband, Rabbi Zalman Mendelsohn, run the Chabad Jewish Center of Wyoming, an organization whose mission includes providing for the spiritual and material needs of all Jews living in and visiting the Equality State, regardless of their background or affiliation.
Chabad Wyoming, which was established in 2007, is one of around 4,000 Chabad centers, she said, all run by couples. The Mendelsohns moved to Jackson Hole in 2008.
“We are here for life,” she said.
The Mendelsohns are Chassidic Jews — the only such family in Wyoming — but they didn’t come to Jackson to proselytize or create a Chassidic community.
“We are not here to turn anybody into anything,” Raizy Mendelsohn said. “We are here to bring the beauty of Judaism to any Jew wherever they are at. Just to be a kind, helping hand to anybody in need and love every individual as a creation of God.”
This year she was nominated one of Wyoming Business Report’s “Women of Influence” in the nonprofit category.
“Under Raizy’s dynamic leadership, Chabad has developed into an indispensable resource for Wyoming’s Jewish community,” the magazine said. “Raizy teaches, inspires, uplifts, counsels, lectures, feeds and serves, all while homeschooling her six beautiful children.”
Chabad offers religious services, holiday programs, education and more. The Mendelsohns can advise people on practical matters, like finding kosher food or a mezuzah or other things related to Jewish life. They offer counseling, visit people in the hospital and host large Shabbat dinners. When the pandemic arrived they gave out masks.
Raizy Mendelsohn teaches women and girls. The subjects are whatever interests them: Hebrew reading, Chassidic philosophy, Jewish history, portions of the Torah relevant to their lives, the deeper meaning of Shabbat — not the dos and don’ts, but the why’s.
Mendelsohn emphasizes that she and her husband are co-directors of Chabad Wyoming who brainstorm and plan together. It’s not a “rabbi and wife of” situation, but “a rabbi and a rebbitzen.” Judaism celebrates women, she said, and the idea that “Chassidic women can’t do this or that” is a misbelief.
“It’s a misconception that Chassidic women have no agency,” she said. “We don’t just cook and clean; we are the foundation in our homes and pillars in our communities.”
The Torah, she said, recognizes that the man has certain strengths and the woman has certain strengths.
“Those strengths have to be utilized and celebrated, but that doesn’t mean we have to do each other’s roles. That’s an important and fundamental teaching that the Torah has given us.”
Mendelsohn was born in Toronto, and her family moved to Israel when she was 12. She met her husband in New York City, where he was teaching and she was running an organization for special needs children.
A friend of his mother approached a friend of her mother: “I know a great guy. Maybe you know a girl for her.”
Before the young people met, her mother thoroughly checked him out — his goals, how he treated people, the kind of person he was ... that kind of thing. When they finally got together, it was to see if the chemistry was right and if they saw each other as life partners. There was no question of premarital intimacy. When it’s right, you know, Raizy Mendelsohn said. The wedding came quickly after the engagement.
“We date to marry,” Mendelsohn said. “Before we even went on our first date we knew we had similar goals and ideals and wanted to lead a life of reaching out with love to others and being there for fellow Jews.”
Their oldest child is Chayale 12. Next come Chanie, 10, Rochel, 8, Menachem, 7, Levi, 4 and Devorah Leah, 21 months. They’re growing up multilingual.
“Raizy and I speak with each other in English,” Rabbi Mendelsohn said. “Raizy speaks with our children in Hebrew. I speak with our children in Yiddish. The kids speak with each other mostly in Yiddish, with a sprinkle of Hebrew and English.”
The older Mendelsohn children concentrate on Judaic studies from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and tackle secular subjects before and after. They are connected online to the children of Chabad rabbis all over the world who live in places where there is no Jewish schooling.
When online school ends the kids go into non-electronic mode. There are no TVs, no smartphones, no video games. Inside they have an “amazing playroom” with lots of board games, Raizy Mendelsohn said, and outside they have a swing set and trampoline.
“Our house is filled with joy and happiness,” she said.