Chabad To Open in Biloxi-Gulfport, Mississippi


Chabad To Open in Biloxi-Gulfport, Mississippi

by Zalman Schreiber - Biloxi, Mississippi

July 17, 2014

Rabbi Akiva and Hannah Hall, and their eight-month-old daughter, Leah, are preparing to put down roots in the Biloxi-Gulfport area in southern Mississippi in time for the High Holidays. This brings the number of states represented by Chabad to 49.

There are roughly 1,600 Jews in Mississippi, and more who visit the  Biloxi-Gulfport area, a popular tourist destination beautifully restored since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, making the area ripe for Jewish educational and social opportunities, says Rabbi Hall, himself a Mississippi native. The young couple plans to focus their activities in the Gulf area and in communities further north.

The State’s Jewish population, which reached an all-time high of about 6,420 in 1927 has been in steady decline since. The first Jews arrived in what is now the state of Mississippi in the mid-1700s when the area was under Spanish control. The first Jewish community was established 1800 in Natchez. The Jews of Natchez bought land for a cemetery in 1840 but did not formally organize one of the state’s oldest congregations, B’nai Israel (Children of Israel), until 1843.

Rabbi Zelig Rivkin, Chabad emissary to New Orleans recruited the Halls to this post. “Akiva’s intimate knowledge of Mississippi, its culture and its people, make him well suited to the position,” Rabbi Rivkin told lubavitch.com

Born and raised in Mississippi, Akiva was a teenager, when he encountered Chabad.  

“Akiva called me as a young teenager with no affiliation to Judaism. He said that he had been reading about Chabad online, and wanted to come for a Shabbos,” recalls Rivkin. 

Akiva’s curiosity about Judaism began while visiting his grandfather in Las Vegas for a summer. His grandfather, who is not Jewish, insisted on sending him to a Jewish day camp, and enrolled him in Chabad’s Gan Israel camp. 

After joining the Rivkins for a Shabbos, Akiva’s interest grew. Soon he was wearing a kippa and tzitzit to public school--the only student to do so. But he had the support of his parents, who, recalls Rabbi Rivkin, "bought new dishes for him to keep kosher.”

Akiva became a frequent face at the Rivkins, observing Shabbat and Jewish holidays with the Chabad family. He studied regularly with one of the Rivkins sons. Soon after, he was accepted to a mainstream Chabad Yeshiva, Yeshiva Ohr Elchonon Chabad in Los Angeles.

After obtaining his rabbinic ordination he  married Hannah Black, of North Hollywood, CA. She grew up in Bakersfield in a family that were members of the local Reform temple. When she was about 10 years old, Rabbi Shmuli and Esther Schlanger came to town to start a Chabad center. Through her relationship with the Schlangers, Hannah, too,   embarked on a transformative journey. 

Akiva and Hannah have made friends and established contacts among local Jewish residents who want to support Chabad in the state and see Jewish life grow there. For the Halls, the challenge is exciting. 

"The thought of coming to a place with such a dearth of Torah, and being able to bring Jewish people close to Torah is quite remarkable,” Rabbi  Hall told lubavitch.com

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