December 20, 2001
Living the Chai Life
Agoura's Chai Center gives Jewish kids a place to connect.
They're celebrating the fourth night of Chanukah at the Chai Teen and Youth Center, and, to put it mildly, this joint is jumping.
Nearly two dozen teenagers fill the huge recreation room, with its gaming tables lined up two by two, like the animals on Noah's Ark. Some kids play air hockey, others play video games, but most just talk and snack on the sufganiot and heaps of other goodies their rabbi hosts have prepared for them.
It looks like a postgame party for Calabasas High, with boys and girls both sporting the latest hip-hugging jeans and baggy sweatshirts, only there's a mezuzah on every doorpost and a huge chanukiah in the background.
It's not what you'd expect from a Chabad gathering. Although most of the teens are not from observant homes, the Chai Teen Center represents the latest foray of the local Lubavitch into helping Jews connect with their tradition.
Rabbi Eli Broner is one of three rabbis volunteering their time at the center tonight. A boy approaches him and asks if he should call his friend, who so far is a no-show at the event. The rabbi tells him, "Of course. Tell him to get his tuchis over here." Then, realizing he is being observed, he gives a slightly embarrassed smile.
"It's a different lingo," Bronner told The Journal. "You have to improvise a little on how you talk with teenagers."
Broner shouldn't worry: his connection to and affection for all the young people who make their way to the Chai Center are two of its winning points. Broner, 25, and his wife, Talia, 21, moved here from the East Coast about four years ago, after he was asked to take the post of youth director for the Conejo Jewish Academy, Chabad's main center in Agoura.
He ran a junior congregation out of a storefront in the minimall, adjacent to the academy, where the landlord was kind enough to donate the unrented space. When a tenant rented the space, Chabad leased other office space in the same facility. Not long afterward (time is a little vague in the Lubavitch world), plans were made to turn the space into the youth center.
In addition to the recreation room, the facility -- made possible by a donation from David and Debra Levine -- includes two lounges, one at the front and one at the back, where students can sit and do homework or chat; restrooms; a sink for washing hands (with the obligatory two-handled pitcher); a miniature library (needs more books), and a classroom. The environment is comfortable, and the teens are free -- within certain limits -- to play music or games or just hang out.
"We knew there was that need for a warm, Chabad environment for teens," Broner said. "We made it a fun place to hang out, schmooze, watch a video ... a big, public rumpus room."
There are usually one or two rabbis on hand to supervise, answer questions and even help with homework, Broner said. Many of the teens are also involved in Chabad's Hebrew High, where Broner teaches after his day job, which is teaching Jewish history and values to first- and second-graders at the new Conejo Jewish Day School. Broner said he enjoys the opportunity to provide young people with an introduction to a traditional lifestyle in a fun and nonthreatening way.
"They see we are rabbis yet normal; that you can live a normal life and be Jewish as well," he said.
The teens' casual and friendly attitude certainly bears this out. They call Broner "Eli" and cajole another rabbi, Rabbi Mendy Pellin, into singing one of his self-styled rap songs for them.
"The rabbis make it fun, and it attracts people from the neighborhood [who are] easy to be around," said 14-year-old Joey Benchetrit, one of the few center members from an observant home.
Another such teenager, Jaclyn Greenberg, 16, a tall, athletic-looking blond, said her family started attending services at Chabad of Oak Park several years ago, gradually growing more observant. She said it can be challenging to be an observant teenager living in the Conejo Valley, especially when the nearest kosher eatery is in Tarzana, a half-hour away.
"There are plenty of teens out here, but there are no hangouts," she said. "There are a few temples out here [with youth groups] and of course BBYO [B'nai B'rith Youth Organization], but this is where we're involved and know people."
Greenberg said she enjoys not only the Chai Center's space, but what she's learned here. The center offers classes and lectures on topics such as "Why Be Jewish?" -- given at the facility's opening event by talk show host and author Dennis Prager -- and how to react to religious challenges and debates, taught by guest lecturer Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz. The rabbi is the founder and executive director of the Los Angeles branch of Jews for Judaism.
Rabbi Moshe Bryski, spiritual leader and founder of the Conejo Jewish Academy, said the center tries to plan classes and programs that will speak to the issues Jewish teens confront today. He added that teenagers in 2001 are far more spiritual than adults realize.
"They want to know who and what is it that determines the morality of their actions," he said. "Well, isn't that what we're asking of God? Adults have the same questions. We just need to look at them from a teen's perspective."
Bryski believes the teenage years present one of the greatest challenges facing the Jewish community.
"When you're a child, Hebrew school is imposed on them, and then they have a bar or bat mitzvah which sends the message, 'You're done, you've graduated.'
"So they come into their teenage years with that attitude, and then they go to college, and we wonder why we lose them [there]," he said. "There needs to be a way of fixing that gap -- to say to them we care about you; we care about your questions. The Chai Center is our answer."
The class most teens commented on was the three-part series on relationships, which gave a traditional Jewish perspective on God, friendship and romance. Broner said that while forming romantic alliances was not the aim of the center, it could be a byproduct.
"It's not what we're here for," he said. "Actually, we're here to show teens they can have a good time without having a 15-year-old girl on their lap. But if they're going to find a shidduch, let them find it here."
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