Rabbi Bergstein

Rabbi Yitzchok Bergstein looks like he belongs in 19th-century Eastern Europe — black suit, white shirt, bushy beard, wears a skull cap, sometimes a fedora, and keeps all 613 laws in the Torah — rather than on Randolph Street in 21st-century Oak Park.

Bergstein chuckles a lot because he loves the life and lifestyle Chabad Hasidic Judaism has given him. The reason he and his family moved to Oak Park in 2008 was to share that lifestyle of shalom, if you will, with members of the Jewish community in this area.

He explained that Chabad kept to the old-fashioned traditions and lifestyle of the shtetl, all for the purpose of maintaining an environment conducive to the nurturing of an authentically Jewish lifestyle, not to live in the past but to live well in the present.

Bergstein sends messages by email and drives a car. What is important is to take profound, ancient teachings and apply them in life-giving ways to the present.

Take sex, for example. On Jan. 13, Bergstein showed a film called The Lost Key, which begins by declaring that our culture is having a crisis with sexuality. We know more about sex from a physiological perspective and see it everywhere but don’t really understand it in a profound way.

According to the documentary’s website, the film “explores how a sexual relationship can go beyond mere physical pleasure and become a spiritual experience where two become One.” Bergstein explained that the word “One” is capitalized, because the oneness experienced in real intimacy is truly divine.

The film’s creator and director, Ricardo Adler, and his wife said Hasidic teachings “completely transformed our intimate relationship. … We’ve experienced what Kabbalah describes as the highest form of physical intimacy, Oneness. It changed our marriage forever.”

The screening of the documentary illustrates what Bergstein’s mission in the Oak Park area is about, i.e. “to give every Jew the ability to celebrate Judaism,” by showing them how the ancient Jewish laws recorded in the Torah and Kabbalah are not burdens but gifts from God, how ancient teachings can be very fresh. 

“The film,” he explained, “was about what relationships, love and intimacy are all about from the perspective of Torah law. The Torah is not some archaic book of laws that restrict enjoyment and remove any kind of pleasure from the world. On the contrary, in the law there are guidelines and restrictions that only enhance one’s relationship.”

On Jan. 17 and 24 Bergstein taught a two part series called Justice and the War on Terror, in which he examined the 5th, 8th and 14th amendments to the U.S. Constitution but also what Jewish law says about torture. Again, his goal was to show how Jewish law can inform the present debate regarding how to respond to terrorism.

Currently, he is offering a class that began on Feb. 21 called the “Jewish Course of Why.” Published by the Jewish Learning Institute, the class is based on the responses of 30,000 people who submitted their “biggest questions about Judaism.” Included is everything from Why do Jews eat gefilte fish? to Why does the Bible sanction slavery? to What does Judaism say about Christianity?

Bergstein noted that every Chabad House is funded on its own from local supporters and community members, and he does not see his work as being in competition with local rabbis and their congregations. 

“The establishment of this Chabad Center,” he said, “is to serve the needs of all Jews, to be an open door for those searching in Judaism with a great emphasis on the unaffiliated. We don’t picture ourselves as competition.”

To learn more about the Chabad Center go to www.OakParkJewish.org or contact Rabbi Bergstein at rabbi@oakparkjewish.org or 708-524-1530.

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Tom Holmes

Tom's been writing about religion – broadly defined – for years in the Journal. Tom's experience as a retired minister and his curiosity about matters of faith will make for an always insightful exploration...