When Chabad decides to open a new center, itdoesn't bother with demographic studies, focus groups or testmarketing.
In the words of Rabbi Mordechai Einbender,associate director of Chabad of the Valley, "We just make a pot ofchulent and hope people come."
Usually, they come.
They've been coming in droves since Chabad openedits first center in the San Fernando Valley 25 years ago. Thenational Chassidic outreach organization, headquartered in Brooklyn,will celebrate its Valley presence at a March 29 banquet that willfeature Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel as a keynote speaker and honorRochelle and Gary Finder.
From its beginnings in a storefront office behinda pizza shop in Encino, Chabad of the Valley has expanded into amultimillion-dollar operation with nine Chabad houses and 75 rabbisand staff members. With everything from religious outposts inWestlake and Northridge to a shtiebl in already Orthodox NorthHollywood, Chabad of the Valley serves hundreds of Hebrew-schoolstudents, preschoolers and adults.
"We're talking about more than a success ofnumbers. Generations of kids who would have gone to public schoolsnow, because of Chabad houses, have felt the glow of attachment to aliving Judaism," says Einbender, known as Rabbi Mordy to the hundredsof people who pass through his Tarzana synagogue. "We are basicallyfostering Jewish identity where it would have been hidden behind awhite picket fence of the American dream," he says.
Einbender's handsome office is in the 2-year-oldGutnick Institute-Chabad of the Valley Headquarters, the flagship ofthe Valley enterprise. It is a thoroughly modern facility thatincludes a main sanctuary/social hall, preschool, Hebrew school andoffices. The state-of-the-art mikvah, or ritual bath, is equippedwith everything from matching towels and bath pillows to a wheelchairlift.
As at all Chabad centers, there are no membershipfees here -- although those who get involved no doubt end up donatingthe equivalent or more. And that policy leaves the door open tovirtually everyone, from those searching for spirituality, to drugaddicts looking for a way out, to the downtrodden who just need a fewbucks.
"Physicality is sometimes superior tospirituality," Einbender says. "Don't tell someone who doesn't haveshoes on his feet, or money in his pocket to buy a cup of coffee orsandwich, to believe in God. That is the antithesis ofJudaism."
Of course, that doesn't mean Chabad shies awayfrom spreading the Word. All Chabad rabbis are known as shluchim, oremissaries of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson.It is their mission to spread goodness and kindness in the world, "tolook at every Jew as a diamond and to be there to inspire continuinggrowth on one's own level of Yiddishkayt," says Rabbi Moshe Bryski,executive director of Chabad of the Conejo. And, of course,ultimately to hasten the coming of the Moshiach, the Messiah.
It is Chabad's messianic bent that often evokesscowls and snorts from even committed Jews, but it is also whatimbues shluchim with a kind of tunnel-vision zeal that allows them toignore that derision and move forward with splashy public displays ofJewish pride.
"We never underestimate the value of touching asingle Jew at a single moment," says Rabbi Menachem Bryski, Moshe'sbrother and programming director for Chabad of the Valley. "Otherpeople will see it as being too aggressive, too forward, but,ultimately, it gets results."
In the Conejo Valley, one of the fastest-growingJewish communities in Southern California, the results have beenpromising.
"Right now, the challenge is just keeping up withgrowth," Moshe Bryski says. "Whatever we put out here is gobbled up,and we just need to keep producing more and more programs, and weneed more and more space."
Chabad of the Conejo often co-sponsors programswith the local federation and other Jewish organizations.
In Ventura, Rabbi Yakov Latowicz has also made ita priority to work with other groups. He has helped fledglingcommunities in Camarillo, Ojai and Oxnard form Hebrew schools and newcongregations -- none of them Orthodox. He has also set up an artexhibit, and he frequently lectures to packed audiences.
"Many Jews who have come here have basically --perhaps not consciously, but in effect -- moved away from Jewisheducation, Jewish culture," says Latowicz, who's been with Chabad ofVentura for 10 years. "If we promote Jewish consciousness in general,people tend to get more involved."
But Eugene Radding, a member of the Reform templein Ventura and a supporter of Latowicz and Chabad, says that Venturais not quite the Jewish wasteland Chabad makes it out to be.
"We have 2,400 families on our [UJA-Federation ofVentura County] mailing list. This is a pretty substantial Jewishcommunity, and Chabad is just a very tiny part of it," says Radding,who is on the federation board.
He says Chabad's main impact is that it has addeda much-needed Orthodox presence. The divergence between Radding's andLatowicz's perceptions is a common one between Chabad leaders andthose outside the movement. While Chabad makes claims of transforminga community, others see it as adding but a small component. ButBryski says that part of that confusion stems from an ignorance aboutwhat Chabad does -- in fact, what Chabad is.
"It's hard to put a finger on what Chabad is andwhat Chabad is not," Bryski says. "We represent different things tomany people. To some, we're a community center; to some, we're aschool; to some, we're a social-service agency; to some, we're asynagogue. To some, we're Orthodox, and to some, it doesn't matter,"he says, standing in the midst of Chabad's Valley empire. "I don'tknow that we necessarily need to be defined. And that's fine."
For more information, call (818) 758-1818
L.A. 5758 Briefs
Protecting Jewish Values
Everyone hasthe same complaint about Sinai Temple Sisterhood's second annualsymposium: They can only attend two of the seven break-out groups.Now that's a problem organizers can smile about.
"Challenges, Threats and Pathways: ProtectingJewish Values," on March 24 at the Olympic Collection, is an all-dayevent meant to "give people some insights, some ideas, somethought-provoking concepts to think about as they live their lives inwhatever they do, at the workplace or at home," says Dorothy Salkin,vice president of Sinai and co-chair of this event.
Speakersinclude Robert Wexler, president of the University of Judaism; JewishJournal columnist Marlene Adler Marks; author Naomi Levy, above ; CarolLevy, executive director of American Jewish Congress, PacificSouthwest region; David Wolpe, left , rabbi of Sinai Temple; andan impressive array of psychologists and social workers.
Tuesday, March 24, 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., OlympicCollection, 11301 Olympic Blvd., West Los Angeles. Sessions andluncheon are $36 in advance, $50 at the door. Call (310) 474-1518,ext. 778, to reserve.
Really, Truly Pluralistic
"I'm not sure how to get across how amazing andrare it is that an Orthodox rabbi is coming to a Conservativesynagogue to speak to us and to teach us," says Ed Feinstein, rabbiat Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.
Rabbi Daniel Landes -- who shocked Los Angeleswith his pulpit exchange with Rabbi Harold Schulweis of VBS severalyears ago -- will spend next Shabbat at VBS to talk about Pardes, thepluralist school in Israel he now heads.
"Pardes is one of the only places in the worldthat is truly nondenominational, a place that has found a way to makecommon ground," Feinstein says. "And that common ground is learning.We may not daven the same way, we may believe differently, but we canlearn together."
Friday, March 27, through Saturday, March 28,at Valley Beth Shalom, 15739 Ventura Blvd., Encino. A specialinvitation is extended to friends and alumni of Pardes. Anyoneinterested in Shabbat hospitality can call the VBS office at (818)788-6000, ext. 108. -- J.G.F.