If you’ve been to Palm Springs VillageFest, you’ve seen the “Ask the Rabbi” booth. Rabbi Yonason Denebeim has been running that booth for about 25 years—and, not surprisingly, he has many stories to tell.
Like, for example, that time when he hosted Matisyahu during Coachella in 2006. Or when he worked with the Navajo tribe on the funeral arrangements of a local Jewish man who was an admirer of the Navajo. Or when he was a tour guide in Israel.
During a recent interview at Chabad of Palm Springs, Denebeim—you can call him Rabbi D if his last name gives you trouble—talked about his childhood growing up in Brooklyn, and how he decided to enter spiritual life in the Chabad-Lubavitch movement instead of opting for a more lucrative career.
“I had a choice of going into a professional craft like law or medicine, or I could get out in the trenches and actually help people on a one-to-one basis,” Denebeim said. “I decided against my father’s advice to choose this path as an in-the-trenches kind of helper to humanity. … I decided on helping people on a one-to-one basis.”
So being a rabbi isn’t lucrative? Denebeim laughed and replied, “No!”
“It’s not even close. But money has never been my primary focal point in life, and my father used to say, ‘Whether you’re rich or poor, it’s always nice to have a few dollars.’ I’ve been maintaining the standard of few dollars, which is OK. We’ve been blessed with 14 children, and 13 of them were born here in the Coachella Valley, and they never lacked food or a pair of shoes.”
Denebeim came to Palm Springs in the summer of 1980 with his wife and first-born child, sent by Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson.
“He was probably the greatest leader in world Jewry until his demise, and others would argue he still is the greatest leader,” Denebeim said. “The effect of what he’s accomplished in setting up Jewish centers throughout the world is unparalleled. We’re talking about 4,000 rabbis who he sent all over the world, with centers similar to mine or larger than mine based on the needs of the community. He sent me to Palm Springs for the purpose of providing authentic Jewish education to the local Jewish community. We have education programs, religious programs, counseling programs, aid programs and chaplaincy programs. We’ve made our footprint here in Palm Springs.”
The “Ask the Rabbi” booth came to fruition 25 years ago.
“It was not my idea. My wife and I got involved in establishing educational resources for children as well as adults,” he said. “The school needed to pay teachers, so we charged tuition, but not much. I had to fundraise for the difference. The parents wanted to do extracurricular activities to enhance the experiences the children were having and wanted to raise money. When the street fair began some 25 years ago, it started out as an arts and crafts fair where vendors made their own crafts and sold them. The parents in my school were crafting jewelry and selling it at the Palm Springs VillageFest. I came down to see how they were doing, and one of the young ladies said, ‘Oh, here’s the rabbi. This person has a question about this subject, and we needed a rabbi to answer it.’ They said, ‘We need you here every week.’”
A table was set up for Rabbi Denebeim to answer questions—and he’s been doing it ever since. He said people mostly seek advice on marriage, family, business or general questions on spiritual matters. He conceded that he doesn’t have all the answers.
“(I’m asked), ’Where’s the nearest ATM machine?’ to, ‘What’s the meaning of life?’ and everything in between. If I don’t know the answer, it’s very difficult for the person listening to me. I try to make it easier and tell them, ‘I don’t know; I’ll have to think about it,’ or, ‘I’ll inquire, and could you get back to me?’ The minute you meet someone in life who tells you they have the absolute answers to everything, it’s the time when you turn around and walk away.”
He said some people are more interested in pestering him.
“They’re not interested in anything I have to say and have an agenda of their own,” Denebeim said. “They’re looking for an ear so they can unload their rhetoric and are very seldom interested in my response. Those are probably the hardest. I believe and hope I’ve been working on developing my character over the years on becoming a more patient and understanding person for those people.”
He mentioned a young man named Robert who used to antagonize him at the VillageFest. However, their relationship developed and grew to the point that Denebeim later mentored and counseled him before Robert eventually moved to Alaska.
“He and his friends would take pot shots at me to see if I would get upset to where I’d yell and scream at them. Only problem is, I don’t want people to get me upset,” he said. “After a while, they would ask serious questions. They started coming to me to ask questions in dealing with real issues and in families we could call dysfunctional. This one gentleman kept coming back and coming back and grew up to be a young man who pursued more lofty purposes in life. … He comes back to Palm Springs to visit once a year, and he says, ‘I go back to Palm Springs to have a beer with my buddies and to see the rabbi.’”
Denebeim said there’s nothing he would change regarding his 25 years at VillageFest—he would do it all over again. He’s also enjoyed watching the valley change over the years.
“Coming to Palm Springs from an urban environment in the late ’70s and early ’80s like I did, things were very quiet. I became very spoiled with the slower pace and what appeared to be an easier environment to deal with people and situations in life, only to discover … the community is very transient. … There’s no industry here, or very little industry like tourism, which is also transient in nature. We discover many of the people who live here generally don’t last more than five years. When you meet someone who has lasted more than five years, you think, ‘This is hearty stock here!’”