February 2020
Robyn Barnett:
Harford Chabad Ignites the Jewish Flame

Although Robyn Barnett’s parents had grown up in kosher, observant Jewish homes, she did not.

Living in an Italian neighborhood in Brooklyn, until age 10, Robyn said her family attended services on the high holidays, her mother cooked some traditional Jewish foods and they had a “perfunctory” seder, where candles were lit every Friday night, but Robyn never learned the blessings.

“Down the hall from us in our apartment building lived the rabbi of the Orthodox shul,” she remembered. “You would hear them singing Passover songs late into the night. When I asked my mother about it, she told me one day maybe someone would invite me to a “real Seder.’”

Nevertheless, Robyn said her parents instilled in her a “sense of Jewish pride,” and Robyn brought that Judaism connection when she married a more observant Jew and took on keeping a kosher home as a joy and a challenge.

And Robyn kept seeking a deeper connection to her Judaism. 

She and her husband began attending Friday night services where “there was always a lively discussion during the oneg,” she said. “I actually found myself looking forward to attending. And when we had children I wanted them to know more about Judaism than I did growing up.”

“My basic stumbling block from feeling connected to Judaism was being unfamiliar with the services,” she said. “I do not read Hebrew and when I first started going, I felt so lost and out of place.”

But Robyn kept learning, teaching her children and seeking more engagement with her Judaism, with regular Shabbat dinners and a family sukkah. They joined a group for young Jewish families, which she and her husband eventually ran.

“Although we were not temple-goers, we wanted our children to grow up in a kosher home so they will always be reminded that they are Jewish,” she said. “We strictly observed the dietary laws of Passover. Our two daughters attended Hebrew School, and both had a bat mitzvah.”

She read and took classes, even studying for two years so, as an adult, she could become a bat mitzvah.

Although familiar with Chabad, she had limited interaction and understanding of it, beyond Friday afternoon visits from Chabad “mitzvah trucks” when she lived in New York. And that limited knowledge left her with “a pretty negative impression of Chabad at that time,” she said, although she did buy a Chabad cookbook when she was married that helped her learn about holidays and life events.

“It gave me the prayers that I needed, and traditional holiday recipes,” she said. “I did become more involved with Chabad as my children got older. We participated in the Model Matzah Factory and my younger daughter developed a relationship with a Chabad couple from the next town.” 

When she and her husband Michael were relocating to Bel Air from New Jersey, Robyn got in touch with Rabbi Kushi, and was happy to find the rabbi and his wife Fraida were opening a Chabad Center there.

Harford Chabad embraced Robyn and Michael’s quest for a community where their connection to their Judaism could deepen and grow. The center welcomes Jews at any point on the Judaism-connection spectrum, from the non-observant to the observant, into a community of learning and striving to serve every Jew, every family, through its religious, social and education programs. After all, the word Chabad is constructed from three Hebrew words: “chochmah” or wisdom, “binah” or comprehension, and “da’at” or knowledge.

“The first Chabad event I attended was a Shabbat dinner at Kushi and Fraida’s house,” Robyn said, adding that she and Michael now attend Shabbat services weekly, attend Torah study classes, holiday celebrations, and Shabbat dinners. Robyn also goes to most of the women’s events, such as Torah and Tea and the monthly Challah Bake. 

Robyn appreciates that the smaller, more intimate community that Harford Chabad offers is welcoming and warm and still growing. She is finding that deeper connection to her Judaism and a deeper involvement with the Jewish community that she has been seeking since she was a girl. And, in the spirit of Chabad, she reaches out to others who are also seeking.

“I feel very welcome at all of the events. As I am a regular synagogue goer, if I see someone I don’t know in the women’s section I welcome them and try to make them feel at home,” she said. “Large synagogues can be very impersonal. Chabad is not like that at all. Everyone is made to feel welcome no matter what your level of observance is. And Kushi, Fraida and their children make everyone feel welcome in their home.”

“Kushi and Fraida are amazing. They have taught me and my husband so much, formally and informally,” Robyn added. “They have so much spirit and love of Judaism in everything that they do. We have seen and heard firsthand the impact that they have had on people. Every Jewish person has a little spark in them. Kushi and Fraida try to ignite that spark into a flame.”

Honor Robyn at the gala dinner