Leslee Newman, a collaborative divorce specialist, met Rabbi David Eliezrie, rabbi of Beth Meir HaCohen North Orange County Chabad Center, when she was representing the wife and he was representing the husband in a family law case. First there were referrals, then invitations to Shabbat dinners.
After Newman moved to Yorba Linda, she attended a Passover seder at the Chabad center and was “blown away.” She decided that she wanted to start studying. “The more I learned, the hungrier I became,” she said. “This has become the most amazing journey of my life, not only influencing me about studying and learning Judaism, but about my profession. Judaism gives me the passion to work from a higher place, keep kindness and respect in the process, do what’s right and avoid burnout.”
For Mike Donenfeld, a retired chief administrative officer for an insurance company, being part of Chabad of North Orange County represents a chance to go back to his roots. Donenfeld, who serves as the gabbai, a person who ensures that the services run smoothly, wanted more traditional services than he was getting at his Reform congregation. He attended classes and “learned how much more there is to appreciate in Judaism.”
Donenfeld also likes the ambiance at Chabad “where people make you feel welcome.” When he had pneumonia, someone from the rabbi’s family came to see him every day. While some congregants enjoy making the Chabad experience a lifestyle, Donenfeld believes that “people there take you for what you are.”
Rabbi Eliezrie and his wife, Stella, who are being honored by their congregation as they celebrate 30 years in Orange County, are on the leading edge of a trend in which traditional Jews engage in outreach to non-observant Jews. As explained by Jewish demographics expert Jack Wertheimer, professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary, this outreach might actually be responsible for bringing Jews together through services, classes and activities for people of all ages and creating more understanding and acceptance among them.
Beginning in the 1950s the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the leader of the Chabad movement, began sending emissaries to communities throughout the United States and abroad to teach “love of Torah, love of God and love of fellow Jew,” Rabbi Eliezrie, who serves as Chabad’s national liaison to Jewish Federations of North America, said. The rebbe wanted Chabad to be engaged with the rest of the Jewish community to build bridges of understanding. In some countries Chabad is the only Jewish organization, and Rabbi Eliezrie described it as the largest Jewish organization in the world.
Chabad’s southern California presence began in Los Angeles, then Long Beach, then Orange County with the opening of Hebrew Academy. The first actual Chabad congregation in the county was in Irvine.
After eight years of campus work, the Eliezries came to Anaheim where a small group of Israelis working on a government defense project had started a small minyan and turned to Chabad for help. The congregation moved from a garage to a house to a storefront, but Rabbi Eliezrie recognized the demographic shift in the population and moved north. The first High Holy Day services were held in Yorba Linda 25 years ago. The first building on the current property was built 18 years ago and the second one five years ago. The campus has the first mikvah in Orange County.
Rabbi Eliezrie believes that more Jews in Orange County are connecting with more traditional observance and learning. He cited a lack of transmission of values from one generation to the next in the 20th century, “because some people couldn’t balance opportunity with observance.” Chabad, he said, has found a way to “explain Judaism with a sensitivity to modernity, to make the level of connection grow.” Jews from all backgrounds are finding a sense of community and learning that “Torah gives Jews a way to navigate the world.”
Moreover, according to Rabbi Eliezrie, Chabad “never loses sight of the individual.” He cited the example of a teenager who used to walk from Cypress to Anaheim for a minyan. He wrote a letter to the rebbe, because he didn’t have the tuition money to attend Hebrew Academy. He got admitted and is now a religious Jew living in Israel. There are many such stories, but there’s another important reason why Chabad is successful, according to Rabbi Eliezrie.
“People respect that we have strong values, that we don’t move the goal posts,” he said. “We’re not going to change Judaism, but we will make every Jew feel welcome. People like the intellectual honesty, that we teach Judaism as it is, remaining true to tradition. We can have relationships with Reform and Conservative Judaism if we can agree to disagree.”
Rabbi Eliezrie thinks Orange County is a trend setter for U.S. communities in which Jewish Federations and other congregations have strong relationships with Chabad and understand the value it brings to the communities. Many people who serve the overall Orange County Jewish community are affiliated with Chabad, and members of other congregations take classes there.
Internationally, Chabad is even stronger, according to Rabbi Eliezrie. “We play an important role in Israel too,” he said. “We’re not a political organization, but we have an impact on the lives of Israelis. We go to the army, we work and we’re able to be a bridge between the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) and the rest of society.”
When the rebbe died in 1994, there were 400 Chabad emissaries. Today there are more than 1,600.
Locally, Chabad has grown with 15 centers, including 10 new ones. While some are in homes or storefronts, there are buildings in Irvine, Huntington Beach, Yorba Linda, Mission Viejo and San Clemente and an expansion to Hebrew Academy. All are supported by local communities.
“Local Jews are voting for us with their feet and their checkbooks,” Rabbi Eliezrie said. His congregants were quick to praise him and his family for their dedication, which the rabbi said is “not a job but a way of life.”
“It’s a very ingratiating family that makes itself available for the community,” Donenfeld said. “Rabbi Eliezrie is a wonderful teacher, a world of information, a source of information for anything Jewish. People come out of the woodwork for events.”
Newman added, “Rabbi Eliezrie is my mentor who led me on this journey. None of it could have happened without his persistence. Now everything looks positive when I pray, because my life has balance.”
For younger Jews, Chabad runs early-childhood programs, Hebrew schools, day schools, day camps, and teen programs; Chabad also operates on 178 college and university campuses across the country and sponsors activities geared specifically to young singles and newly married couples in their twenties and thirties. In Dallas, for example, an emissary has converted a former bookstore into a meeting place for Jewish singles; he finds potential participants by frequenting bars preferred by this demographic.
For adults, Chabad also offers a panoply of activities: daily and Sabbath services, High Holiday prayer venues, educational lectures, and social programs. Some Chabad emissaries run hiking and skiing programs where they can connect with Jews in recreational settings. To this mix Chabad adds initiatives directed at sub-populations of Jews, including immigrants from the former Soviet Union and their offspring, and families with special-needs children.
Of particular note is the Jewish Learning Institute (JLI), by far the largest internationally coordinated adult-education program on Jewish topics, offering the same set of courses at hundreds of Chabad locations around the world, all on the same schedule. This means that Jews who are traveling can follow the same course from session to session, even if they find themselves in a different city each week. In the fall of 2012, nearly 14,000 American Jews were enrolled in JLI courses, and overall close to 26,000 participated in Chabad’s teen- and adult-education programs.
The Chabad network is striving to create a seamless transition, so that young people who attended its camps or schools will gravitate to a Chabad campus center when they arrive at college and later, as adults, will join Chabad synagogue centers. No other Jewish movement offers this kind of cradle-to-grave set of services. The participants in these programs, needless to say, range in their Jewish commitments, but with the exception of a small minority, all are drawn from the ranks of the non-Orthodox.
– Jack Wertheimer, “The Outreach Revolution,” Commentary, May 2013
About the 30th Anniversary
Gala Dinner Celebration
Honoring Rabbi David and
Rebbitzen Stella Eliezrie
Sunday, June 9, at 5 p.m.
Congregation Beth Meir Cohen Chabad
19045 Yorba Linda Blvd. Yorba Linda
Featuring Michael Medved, celebrated author, radio show talk host, political commentator and film critic. Black tie optional
RSVP: (714) 693-0770 or ocjewish.com/GALA