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PeopleTalk: A Q&A with Rabbi Laizer Labkovski

Rabbi Laizer Labkovski serves the Jewish Discovery Center in Amherst with creative flair. As program director for the center, he turns heads with Kosher Pizza Night, Lego menorahs and a Labor Day party that recently attracted 250 people to picnic in the parking lot of the Hopkins Road facility.

Ordained at age 21, Labkovski is willing to go the extra mile to engage his congregants. For Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, he’ll take his shofar on the road as he makes house calls, walking to the residences of homebound faithful to blow the ram’s horn. His challenge is that Jewish law prohibits driving on Jewish holidays, so each visit may him take hours to complete.

“I was first alerted to the need in our community by a woman who asked if I could perhaps blow shofar for her father, who lives in a nursing home,” Labkovski said. “At the age of 96, he was not able to get out, but he still wanted to observe the central ritual of this holiday.”

Labkovski and his wife, Chani Labkovski, have 10 children ages 2 to 20. They are expecting their 11th.

People Talk: What is the significance of the shofar?

Rabbi Laizer Labkovski: It’s from Genesis, when Abraham was asked to sacrifice Isaac to God, and then God told him to stop. Abraham saw a ram and brought that for sacrifice. Tradition tells us that God took the ram’s two horns and turned them into a shofar, one that he blew when he gave the Torah on Mount Sinai, and the other you blow at the coming Messiah. It serves as a wake-up call to tell us a new year is coming. It’s time to shape up.

PT: How many homes do you personally visit to blow the shofar during Rosh Hashanah?

RLL: Every year, I have a couple of nursing homes that I traditionally go to, and I do services there. We also have a list of people who ask that we come to their homes, so I walk five or six miles each way. I create a route six miles out with as many stops as I could. I wear sneakers. Last year I did four nursing homes, 13 or 14 private homes and the hospital, too.

PT: Does that keep you from celebrating the holiday with your own family?

RLL: No, we have services here in the morning, and then I go home to eat a holiday meal.

PT: Were you born to be a rabbi?

RLL: Or community work, certainly. That’s my calling. I feel I am able to contribute. You have to use your talent for what is best.

PT: At what age did you hear the calling?

RLL: From a young age, I decided it was something I wanted to do.

PT: You are one creative rabbi. Tell me a recent innovative plan.

RLL: We have Hanukkah, and I want to make it exciting for children, so 10 to 12 years ago, we started to every year have a different type of menorah. One year, we did a 6-foot Lego menorah. We did an ice menorah with blocks of ice, a chocolate menorah, jelly bean menorah. Every year, I come up with something new.

PT: What is a kosher pizza?

RLL: It would not have any meat or pastrami. It’s cooked with kosher ingredients and is not available here in Buffalo. It’s either plain with cheese and tomatoes or with vegetables.

PT: Are chicken wings kosher?

RLL: Yes, but not with (blue) cheese. We cannot mix milk and meat together.

PT: Do you think most people understand you?

RLL: Some people look at me with the beard and the kippah and say: “Oh, he’s ultra orthodox. That’s not for me.” We deal with that. Once they get to know me, they see I’m just like them. We follow the orthodox way of life, but we don’t see ourselves as an orthodox community. We’re here for the general community. These labels – orthodox, conservative, reform – ... divide rather than unite us.

PT: What are you an expert in?

RLL: My specialty is Jewish law. I was ordained a judge under Jewish law. ... Many large cities have it. It settles issues of religion or monetary law.

PT: What do you do for fun?

RLL: Study and spend time with family.

PT: When is the last time you went on vacation?

RLL: For family gatherings we are able to get away. I enjoy what I am doing. This is my life.