He came into my office clutching an old picture of a rabbi with a long, flowing beard. He was in his late 60s and clearly in a hurry.
"Could you use the picture? We are moving and I am getting rid of some old stuff" he said.
Sensing he had little contact with the Jewish community, I asked him if he lived around here.
"Yes," he replied, but added a qualifier, "I'm not that religious."
Ah, I told him, I'm not so religious either, just Jewish. It seems my beard, yarmulke and the fact that I had some faint resemblance to the guy in the picture didn't convince him that I wasn't that religious. It turned out he was moving a few miles away, from Yorba Linda to distant Orange. To me, it seemed that he was making the foray into a Jewish institution to drop off the last reminder he had of his Jewish heritage.
When I asked him for his address for our mailing list, he told me he doesn't really go to shul. He finally relented when I told him that I would send a Jewish calendar annually and it would not cost him anything.
For some, Orange County is a point of departure. Jews move here leaving old neighborhoods, shuls they were brought up in, family and friends. They find beautiful homes, good jobs and personal security. But they live in strange isolated worlds without any strong sense of community. Slowly they fade into Jewish oblivion. Their children never experience that rich Jewish communal experience, never discover the great treasure of Jewish learning and their heritage.
Thankfully, not all is so ominous in Orange County. Over recent years community has begun to spout; Jewish schools have evolved, synagogues are growing. A new Jewish Community Center is slated to be built. A mikvah is on the drawing boards. New initiatives in adult Jewish education, like the Jewish Learning Institute and the Community Scholars program, have brought important learning to Orange County. Our own Chabad network is blossoming with two new centers in the last two years in Newport and Costa Mesa, and another slated to be launched in Santa Ana -- Chabad of the Foothills. There is even word that shortly that all-important Jewish institution -- the kosher pizza shop -- might be coming to town.
There are many Jews in Orange County who are involved in an exciting process of creating a community. The question is how to do this. Institutions are key, they represent the collective will of a community. They provide important services and bind us together. But how do we take the next step? Some will say "let the institutions do the job." But I don't think that's the correct answer. It needs all of us, the Jews who are engaged and involved, the ones that care.
Federation President Lou Weiss wants to create a grass-roots effort to transform Jewish life. He wants each of us to take a stake in the future of our community.
Think for a moment if each Jewish family in Orange County who makes a Shabbat dinner would invite over a family who doesn't. Imagine if each parent of a day school child would call a friend and say, "Listen, my kid is doing great. Why don't you consider Jewish education for your children?"
If each Jew who supports Jewish causes enlisted a friend, it would double the amount of money available to community needs.
People expect rabbis and Jewish community professionals to do the job. "Ah, the rabbi wants to increase membership. That's why he is calling me." Lay people can accomplish much more. They can reach people on a more personal one-to-one basis.
"But I don't know much. How can I try to draw another Jew closer to the community and Judaism when my knowledge is limited ?" you might ask.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe taught a remarkable concept in Jewish empowerment. He said if a Jew knows just Alef, and his friend does not even know the first letter in the Hebrew alphabet, let him teach him the first letter that he knows. Even if your knowledge may not be extensive, your enthusiasm can be.
Orange County is in its early stages of development. Much has been achieved and much more is still needed to be done. Creating a community, arresting the process of assimilation, is a task. All of us must carry part of the responsibility.
David Eliezrie is rabbi of Chabad in Yorba Linda and president of the Rabbinical Council of Orange County. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.