Yoel Mendel’s Instagram page is equal parts fashion and religion. On his Instagram, @yoelmendel a.k.a. Rabbi Sneakers poses with a variety of sneakers, from the much-hyped to the low-key: There’s a pair of Nike x Off-White kicks, a pair of Air Jordan 6 Travis Scotts, and classic Converses. With each image, there is a correlating Torah lesson. One moment, the barely mustachioed 20-year-old is scribing a pair of Off-White Airs with a quill pen as if it were a Torah scroll, and in another picture, he is holding a pair of Nike Dunk High Spartan Greens with yellow laces that is the same shade as the plant lulav, which is used during the holiday of Sukkoth to bless the harvest. “I always wanted to link Judaism with the fashion world,” says Mendel over the phone. To do this, Mendel gives the example of giving the physically lowest thing on a person’s body, shoes, a higher meaning. “The shoes are the lowest on the body and I made it holy,” he says.
Both the Torah and sneakers have been important to Mendel even since childhood. He sends me a photo of himself as a toddler with long hair (Jewish boys do not get their hair cut until they are three years old, in ceremony called an upshernish) in a Lilliputian Adidas tracksuit and bite-size pair of Jordan 11s. “As a baby, I accomplished something giant,” he jokes. “Bringing Adidas and Nike together.” But it wasn’t until he was 11, and his brothers went to visit the headquarters of the Orthodox sect of Judaism Chabad-Lubavitch and returned with a pair of Jordan 6 Pistons, that he became obsessed with sneakers. Currently, Mendel is learning to be a rabbi for personal growth and knowledge, and not necessarily as a career, which is fairly common in his sect. It was when he started learning Torah and learned that everything is created to have holiness, including, yes, sneakers. “I know that everything is made for a service of G-d, so maybe I can find something in every pair of shoes,” he says. “I always like to do this when I see something. When I see something happening, I try to ask myself ‘What is the teaching I can learn from that?’”
In some instances in his sneaker-Torah teachings, Mendel has a surface-level message. One example is that traditionally, Jews wear sneakers on Yom Kippur, the day of repentance in the Jewish religion, because they cannot wear leather shoes. Mendel posed with a pair of black Adidas Ultra Boost and the book of laws, the Shulchan Aruch, which is opened for the page of what not to wear on Yom Kippur. The caption read: “No trace of leather, upper is in fabric…I can wear them for Yom Kippur!” But often the connection he draws between sneakers and Torah are layered and abstract. In a pair of Sean Wotherspoon and Adidas Superearth Superstar sneakers with threaded flower embroidered, which are made out of recycled polyester and leather, Mendel connects sustainability with the law of “Bal Tashchit” or “Do Not Destroy.” Perhaps Mendel’s most clever idea yet was to replace the signature orange zip-tie of Off-White Off-Court Low sneakers with a red Hechsher tag, an item that denotes whether a piece of food abides by the Jewish laws of kashrut and has been blessed by a rabbi.
While sneakers and Torah have become Mendel’s bread-and-butter, he has long been interested in other aspects of the fashion world. During his Yeshiva studies, a religious secondary school for Jewish men to learn Torah, he wore matching customized kippahs, a traditional head coverings that men wear, to his sneakers. His collection boasts an array of fun designs, like a peekaboo Comme des Garçons heart, a Adidas stripe logo (as well as a Nike swoosh one), and another that reads “Colette” in honor of the closed store. People were taking pictures of my kippah, even non-Jewish people,” he says. “I felt like there was something to do with that, so I just started to do ‘Rabbi Sneakers.’ When I saw Virgil’s Off-White [sneakers], I was like, ‘Oh, it perfectly matches the Torah parchment. It would be cool to make a photo of me scribing something on it like a parchment.’” Currently, Mendel has about 50 pairs of sneakers. His most rare pairs are Air Jordan 1s in Chicago and Bred colorways that a friend gave him.
In about a month, Mendel will complete his exams to officially become a rabbi. As of right now, he considers himself “a rabbi to himself and for Instagram.” Though Mendel has hopes to break into the fashion world, specifically in sneaker design, and will be pursuing graphic design. “Maybe there is a lot of money in the sneakers game, in resale, but I don’t like that so much,” he says. “My dream isn’t to open a sneaker store, but to be a designer.” But being a rabbi-sneaker scholar seems like a natural path for Mendel as the footwear has a special set of its own designated laws and teachings in the Torah. “If someone has a choice of buying a house or a pair of shoes, they have to buy the pair of shoes because the biggest shame is for someone to go barefoot. As a rabbi, I’d say that,” he says. “But as a regular person, when you see an outfit, the shoes show that a person knows how to dress.”