WHEELING, W.Va. — One week after Ofer Goren, the Israeli mime, performed at Temple Shalom here, the national director of the organization that sent him came to town to plan future programs and to pitch a conference in Israel for leaders of small Jewish communities around the globe.
Motti Isaak, founder and director of Soul Train, also visited Morgantown last week, sizing up what the leaders of these communities would like to see from his organization and urging them to send someone to his conference.
“Israel is the biggest resource center in the world (for Jews),” Isaak said, “and we can be a small resource center for small Jewish communities.”
Founded in 1999, Soul Train’s mission is to bring Jewish and Israeli enrichment programs on a regular basis. All the programs come from Israel and all of them are experiential, bringing the best of the Jewish state to Jews far away.
The programs can be entertainment, such as Goren’s pantomime performance, but Soul Train has also brought teachers and lecturers, Israel fairs and day camps.
Isaak, however, would like his programs to become more “tailor-made” to the participating communities.
“I prefer to come with something people want in their community,” he said.
How small are these communities? Goren performed for a crowd of 40 people in Wheeling last week, and he said it was the largest turnout on his U.S. swing. In some towns, he played for audiences as small as seven people.
But Isaak isn’t concerned about the size of the turnouts, he wants to infuse Jewish life and communities that have few if any outlets for it.
“Our mission is not to bring a 1,000 people to a place,” he said, adding, “If one member [of a community] comes to a program, that’s because he wants some level of Judaism.”
And he’s convinced that Soul Train is making a difference. In one community in Montana, the Jewish residents’ previously unorganized community finally secured a building to hold services. Closer to home a family in West Virginia made a connection with a Soul Train performer, stayed in touch and decided to have their son’s bar mitzva in Israel.
Soul Train currently visits 35 small Jewish communities in the United States (none in Pennsylvania), in addition to communities in Scotland, Serbia, South Africa and Namibia.
A native of Copenhagen, Denmark, Isaak, 58, is today an Orthodox Jew from the West Bank. He’s also a former activist in the settler movement and a past general secretary of Moldet, a far right- wing Israeli political party that advocates a voluntary transfer of Arabs from the West Bank.
But Soul Train is apolitical, he said. His performers and teachers come to Reform and Conservative synagogues, and reach out to Jews of all worship expressions.
But some people still question Soul Train’s motives. In one community, Isaak said, he got into a rather intense conversation with residents.
“I explained for more than an hour — no agenda, agenda. At last one woman said, ‘I know why you came here, to get our money.’ ”
That astounded Isaak because Soul Train performers volunteer their services, and the programs are free.
Currently Soul Train is adding no new communities to its schedule for budgetary reasons.
Where communities don’t have Soul Train, Isaak would hope larger cities nearby might reach out to Jews in these small towns. He doesn’t understand why they don’t.
“I’m surprised by that,” Isaak said. “I think they should do it.”
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)