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Jewish Journal

Children of local Chabad emissaries enter the family business.

by Andrea Adelson

September 30, 2004 | 8:00 pm

A cell phone seems permanently affixed to his head. He converses in the local patois, chatter injected with modifiers such as "uncool" and "classic."

Even so, Shmuel Marcus is neither the surfer dude nor the status-hungry stereotype of most locally born 20-somethings. Willow-thin with a wispy beard and dangling fringes at his waist are telltale signs Shmuel Marcus is in the family business: soldiering on the frontlines of a largely invisible suburban war against Jewish assimilation.

Its prerequisites include Orthodox schooling, relative penury, entrepreneurial creativity and zealous devotion.

"Once you've tasted it, you're stuck," promised Shmuel Marcus, 29, a graphic artist who rejected offers of secular work. Instead, his chosen vocation is "a spiritual E.R. doctor." Like a trauma center physician, he, too, is obsessed with saving a life, spiritually rather than physically.

And he isn't alone. Returning to their childhood haunts to put down career roots are a half-dozen adult children of the county's original Chasidic outreach pioneers. They, like their parents, are the ideologically driven shluchim, or emissaries, of the Brooklyn-based Chabad-Lubavitch movement and its spiritual rebbe, the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

Young Orthodox couples are dispatched globally, generally for lifetime assignments, to coax disconnected and unaffiliated Jews to greater religious observance. Their theology is the antithesis of pluralism, rejecting as inauthentic all but Orthodoxy. But their nonjudgmental tools are low-cost schools and programs, and a joy for Judaism.

The county's totally acculturated second generation is even more ambitious in outreach than their parents and that of established mainstream Jewish institutions. Yet, small turf wars already show the potential for Jew vs. Jew acrimony as Chabad centers proliferate.

For time-stressed teenagers locally, they teach Hebrew classes that qualify for high school credit. They held High Holiday services -- without fees or membership obligations -- in public community centers, such as San Clemente, without a synagogue of any denomination. They expect to establish Jewish clubs at public high schools this fall.

By comparison, the county's first Chabad families "were parachuted in before there were any Hebrew schools or kosher food," said Shmuel Marcus, whose Brooklyn-born father moved to Los Alamitos in 1983 to teach and later established a shul.

Then, a holiday event would attract 140 worshipers between Chabad locations in Huntington Beach, Irvine and Yorba Linda. A generation later, drawing from 11 O.C. Chabad centers, a combined holiday event, such as a Lag B'Omer picnic last year, easily drew 1,400 people.

"The kids are 'smart bombs.' I didn't have to do all the legwork," said Shmuel Marcus, whose wife, Bluma, also works as an emissary. Based out of their Cypress apartment, they teach Hebrew to youngsters and teens, created a beginners minyan and organize Jewish entertainment.

Of Shmuel Marcus' nine siblings, a brother, Zalman, also returned to his roots. Zalman Marcus opened Mission Viejo's Chabad in 1995, a booming enterprise with two full-time rabbis and Hebrew school enrollment of 130.

"If no one reaches out to the unaffiliated, then the Jewish population will vanish," Shmuel Marcus said.

The clan patriarch, Yitzchak Marcus, 58, acknowledges his sons' efforts eclipse his own.

"He's very good at this," the father said, referring to Shmuel. "I'm not. Marketing is not one of my great skills. I do this as a hobby."

Despite Schneerson's death 10 years ago, his disciples' dedication appears undiminished and their influence undeniable locally and internationally. The movement is estimated at 200,000 believers worldwide, which includes 4,000 emissaries.

The second-wave phenomenon is occurring in other places such as Florida, said Lawrence H. Schiffman, a professor of Hebrew and Judaic studies at New York University. It is a byproduct of practicality and also a repetition of how Chasidism spread in Eastern Europe, from rebbe to student, Schiffman said.

Despite old-world appearances, black hats, untrimmed beards and skin-sheathing dress, today's Chasids embrace some modern concepts. Of the husband-wife teams that are sent to new communities, women are acknowledged as full partners, not salary-free second hands, Schiffman said. Although each center is self-reliant financially, Lubavitch headquarters is increasingly sophisticated in providing professional assistance with lesson plans, textbooks and demonstration projects to help emissaries succeed, he said.

Meantime, mainstream Jewish organizations that helped instill Jewish identity in America are having trouble luring sufficient young talent. Last year, the Union for Reform Judaism issued a report on a growing gap between the declining numbers of clergy and the increasing number of congregations, camps and schools needing professionals.

Rather than scrambling to fill jobs, thanks partly to a high birth rate, Chabad is scrambling to find posts to place people. Emissaries now are directed to less-promising locations, such as Idaho.

"I'm not so sure there's a shortage," Schiffman said. "Reform rabbis aren't willing to start with 30 people. Chabad's people are willing to go to communities not seen as viable."

"One of the reasons to take positions is to leave the pressure cooker in Brooklyn, to live in a middle-class neighborhood out of the turmoil in Crown Heights," added Schiffman, referring to an internal power struggle between those who believe the rebbe is the messiah.

Others suggest messianism has been supplanted with a uniquely American invention: franchising, wrote Michael Berenbaum, an adjunct professor of theology at the University of Judaism, in the Sept. 10 edition of The Jewish Journal of Los Angeles.

California alone has 79 centers. Target markets are divined in part through information collected by an annual telethon, the brainchild of Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin, the West Coast Chabad founder.

The telethon is one of many examples where Chabad runs with a different playbook, even envied by other Jewish organizations. But envy can turn to territorial hostility when emissaries try to tap the lifeblood of other synagogues.

"They look at themselves as without boundaries," said Rabbi Lawrence Goldmark, executive director of the Pacific Association of Reform Rabbis and spiritual leader of La Mirada's Temple Beth Ohr.

More than one congregant has complained to him about fending off pressure for contributions from Chabad rabbis, who he declined to name. "Why should Chabad go to my members when 80 percent of the Jews in Orange County are unaffiliated?" Goldmark asked.

The county's best-known religious entities are the huge Saddleback Church in Lake Forest and Costa Mesa-based Trinity Broadcasting Network, the world's largest Christian broadcaster with 6,000 outlets.

"It was very lonely," recalled Naomi Blesofsky, 22, who like her brother, Yehoshua, 25, last year returned to their childhood home in Yorba Linda to work in the shul started in the early 1980s by their parents, Rabbi David and Stella Eliezrie.

"You live isolated from the Orthodox Jewish community. Most of my peers don't live around here," said Blesofsky, whose husband of two years, Levy, is the shul's Hebrew school director. She considers herself lucky for only having to drive 35 miles to a Long Beach mikvah, for a monthly ritual bath. Her cousins fly each month to a neighboring state for immersion.

"We were the only shomer Shabbos family in the entire neighborhood," Blesofsky said, referring to those who strictly follow Sabbath restrictions. With a growing Chabad community, she said, "it's so much better now than when I was growing up."

Her father, a national Chabad media spokesman and president of the county's Orthodox rabbinical board, said Chabad's growth comes from greater acceptance by non-Orthodox Jews.

"People understand we're willing to accept them where they are," he said. In addition, Eliezrie said, "there is greater interest in observance, and people see we're successful in imparting Jewish values to children."

That goal still seems elusive to Rabbi Aron David Berkowitz, 56, who 20 years ago began Chabad of West Orange in Huntington Beach. His son, Yossi, joined him five years ago as an assistant rabbi and youth outreach director.

"Orange County is far from a religious community," said Berkowitz, who still manages to gather a morning minyan. "I am so disappointed there are so many kids in Huntington Beach where one day a week [of religious instruction] is too much," he said.

While strains on emotional bonds would not be unexpected in an environment when parents and children work side by side, these family enterprises show little friction.

"This is our lifestyle," said Rabbi Yehoshua Eliezrie, who recalls growing up in Yorba Linda as a bit of an adventure. "We were trying to change and shape Jewish life. It was a family affair."

His sister recalls working on direct mail projects at age 10.

"It's very powerful to be in a room where everyone is working for the same thing, when you see you're part of a global plan,"

added Rabbi Sender Engel, 26, describing an inspirational moment at an annual convention of 1,300 or so Chabad emissaries.

In September, he and his wife, Chami, started work at Huntington Beach's Hebrew Academy where his father has worked for 34 years. Moshe, 57, and Nechama Engel are newly named emissaries, charged with opening a center in Long Beach.

Founded in 1969, 400 students are enrolled in the county's oldest Jewish day school, site of a former public elementary. Donor gifts underwrote recent renovations, including a gymnasium, a swimming pool and a preschool. School officials annually raise $800,000 for scholarships and extra programs.

Besides transmitting Jewish knowledge, the school has served a seminal role in Chabad's expansion locally by providing an economic safety net for newly arrived Chabad couples, often welcomed with part-time jobs.

"Having younger people here is refreshing; they understand the younger generation," said Rabbi Yitzchok Newman, 57, who arrived in 1973 to teach, and has served as the school's director and dean since 1978.

Amina, his wife, is the school's controller, while two of their 16 children, Meyer and Miriam, also recently returned to work at the school.

So does Rabbi Peretz Greenwald, the school's development director, and his daughter, Tzippy, 21, a teacher, and son-in-law, Mendel Slavin, 27. They established the county's 12th Chabad outpost, in their San Clemente townhome.

"Working for a common cause, your eyes are on the goal," Newman said. "In business, money is a divider; when it's religious values, it's a connector." l

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