The first-graders at the Hebrew Academy-Lubavitch have finished making paper flags for Simchat Torah, the Oct. 8 festival of rejoicing. Suddenly, Rabbi Moishe Engel, a large, gentle man in a full beard and wire-rimmed glasses, strides into the patio and grabs one of the flags. The boys and girls watch wide-eyed, ready for anything.
“This is the wrong way to dance at Simchat Torah,” he announces, taking mincing marching steps in his big black shoes and singing timidly “La. La. La.”
“This is the right way!” he then proclaims. He turns up the volume and speed on his la la la’ s, waves the small flag high above his head and starts to skip among the children. The boys and girls laugh. They wave their flags and sing and dance and need to be quieted down by their teacher.
“Enthusiasm,” says Rabbi Engel, retreating into the Westminster school. “You want to know why Chabad is so successful? Enthusiasm!”
Engel is one of 13 rabbis in Orange County who belong to a particularly enthusiastic branch of Orthodox Judaism called Lubavitch Chabad. Chabad is a missionary branch of Chassidism--an 18th-Century movement of Eastern European Jewish mystics that has over the past eight years rooted and bloomed in the unlikely suburbs of Orange County.
Another Chabad rabbi, Rabbi David Eliezrie of the Chabad Community Center in Anaheim, knows the question before it is asked: “What is a bunch of Chassidim doing in Yuppieville?” He answers: “There’s a renaissance of Jewish traditionalism--even here in California. Many Jews are looking for traditional expression of Jewish roots. What’s happening here is happening in Australia, France and Israel to a large degree. We’re just part of a trend.”
Chabad is an international organization now headquartered in Brooklyn and led by a rabinical dynasty. Its followers stress intellectual philosophy, love of fellow Jews, the joyful worship of God--including inspired singing and dancing--and the strict observance of 613 commandments in Orthodox Jewish life.
Chabad brought its rabbis in their long, black coats, tzitzits (fringes representing the commandments), full beards and brimmed hats to Orange County eight years ago. Their mission is to find the disenfranchised or so called “assimilated” Jews and bring them back to their roots through education and inspiration, said Rabbi Gershon Schusterman, vice president of the Hebrew Academy. Many non-religious Jews are either ignorant of their collective heritage or apathetic, he said. To preserve the future of the Jewish community, they must identify with Jewish life and be aware of their past and traditions, he believes.
Chabad’s work is based on the idea that a Jew remains a Jew forever, he said. “You can’t opt out. . . . It’s not a genetic thing. It’s like a spiritual gene. There’s a Jewish soul. You can’t take it out.”
In Orange County, a sense of Jewish community and organizational infrastructure have not accompanied the growth of the Jewish population, now estimated at 80,000 to 100,000, said Rabbi Eliezrie. Since only 25% of the Jewish population is affiliated with a synagogue or temple, he said, “We’re starting from scratch.” (Of Orange County’s 19 Jewish congregations, only one--a small group in Laguna Hills Leisure World--is Orthodox.) In the last eight years Chabad, with its own, intense brand of orthodoxy, has opened four Chabad center-synagogues in Irvine, Anaheim, Laguna Beach and Westminster. And Chabad leaders say they are expanding.
Only a few Orange County residents have actually become Chassidic Jews, devoted to the Chabad sect, its centuries-old rituals and strict roles for the sexes. Those who have do not watch television or go to movies or concerts. They may seek personal guidance (including marriage introductions) from the Brooklyn-based rebbe (Chabad leader). Men and women sit in separate sections during services. Men do not shake hands with women. Wives cover their hair (with scarves or wigs) from everyone but their husbands, and go to mikveh , a ritual purification bathing pool. Married couples observe menstrual taboos.
The Chabad, in addition, observe dietary laws, do not drive on the Sabbath and stop to light Sabbath candles at the appointed time, wherever they may be.
Many Jews are unwilling to try to fit an 18th-Century religious code into a 20th-Century life style. But the Chabad rabbis do not seek converts. They say they support any step towards identification with Jewish life, from marrying within the faith to more frequent study and observance. Even without adopting the specific Chabad life style, many secular Jews, said Rabbi Eliezrie, “are finding a lot of their religious experience, as much as they’re going to have, within Chabad.”
Though the Jewish Federation of Orange County disagrees, Rabbi Eliezrie says Chabad has become the largest Jewish organization in Orange County based on dollars spent and people reached. This year Chabad’s Orange County budget is $2.5 million--collected from tuition and donations, said Rabbi Eliezrie.
As far as people reached, “We’re not gung ho into the membership business,” said the rabbi to explain the lack of a numerical yardstick.
Each year, however, enrollment has doubled at the Chabad-run Hebrew Academy which teaches an accelerated secular academic program in addition to Hebrew and Judaic studies, said Rabbi Schusterman. There are now 450 students--from nursery to high school age--enrolled in the academy, the only Jewish day school between Los Angeles and San Diego. Fifteen yellow buses bring them from as far away as Dana Point, Palos Verdes and Encino.
An additional 500 children attend preschools in Irvine and Anaheim and camps run by the Chabad rabbis, said Rabbi Eliezrie.
One reason for Chabad’s apparent popularity is that, unlike temples and synagogues, Chabad centers do not charge initial fees for membership or sell tickets for services, surmised Jerry Lasensky, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Orange County.
And as missionaries, Chabad’s Orange County rabbis work less with specific congregations and more with the community at large. Chabad rabbis are on call 24 hours a day, said Rabbi Eliezrie. They take their blessings and rituals to hospitals and homes. They provide shopping centers with menorahs and holiday choirs. They organize lectures and seminars for students, adults and physicians. “We don’t sleep too much,” he added.
They are also “wonderful public relations people,” said Lasensky who cautioned that the appearance of Chabad’s success may be greater than the reality.
Indeed, to boost enrollment, the academy hired an ad agency which produced clever ads with serious messages. One shows a photo of high school students with full beards drawn on the faces. It reads: “All our graduates won’t become rabbis.” Another, timed to coincide with Rosh Hashana, the recent Jewish New Year, reads: “This Rosh Hashana will your child think a Shofar is someone who drives a limousine?” (A shofar is a ram’s horn used to herald the New Year.)
Though steeped in medievalisms, Chabad rabbis are personable and accessible, obviously at home with casual vernacular speech. They have also become known for using modern methods to bring Jews back into the fold. In New York, for instance, Chabad rabbis created a “mitzvah mobile” to offer Jewish rites to any pedestrian who answered “yes” when asked if he was Jewish.
In Los Angeles, Chabad’s efforts have ranged from a residential treatment center for drug addicts and a fund-raising telethon, to a Dial-a-Jewish story service and seminars on how to fight Christian missionary groups and cults aimed at Jews.
In Orange County, the Chabad has set up:
- A local Jews for Judaism chapter;
- An interest-free Loan Society for Jews who have difficulty borrowing;
- The Chai Times, a newspaper describing Jewish holidays and rituals, recipes and feature stories on drug abuse, disciplining children and issues for women.
- An “Evening with the Rabbi,” a personal question-and-answer session.
“What we’re all about is bringing the message of Judaism to Jews in any way, shape or form,” said Rabbi Engel.
Like the “mitzvah-mobiles,” Orange County Chabad brought out a “succah-mobile” to celebrate the festival of Succot earlier this month.
Tradition calls for a week of daily visits in temporary booths (called succahs) covered with palm fronds. The festival commemorates God’s protection of Jews in the desert and reminds Jews not to take their security for granted, the rabbis said.
Since very few Jews actually build such booths, the Chabad rabbis built one on a flatbed truck and drove it to schools, senior citizen centers and convalescent homes. Inside they gave blessings, told stories and served refreshments. They also provided “succah hopping” tours to the succahs constructed in the county.
Chabad also wants to reach Jew ish physicians. Rabbi Eliezrie said he is setting up an Institute of Jewish Medical Ethics to teach doctors about the Jewish outlook on medical issues such as euthanasia, abortion, artificial insemination and transplants. Doctors who attended classes last year, he said, were “quite amazed to find out that Jewish tradition deals with these issues on a serious intellectual basis, even though they did not agree with all the views.”
For example, said Eliezrie, Jewish law does not support euthanasia nor telling a dying person the truth about his prognosis. “It takes away the will to live.” Voluntary kidney donations are allowed but heart transplants are not. Under Jewish law, fetuses are considered “questionable” life, said Eliezrie, and abortion, though frowned on, may be considered if the mother’s life is endangered. “We view the person who is living as the most important thing of all.”
However, respect for the dead is also important. An Irvine couple who last week were unable to stop an autopsy of their son who drowned in a bathtub accident belonged to the Irvine Chabad Center, said Rabbi Eliezrie.
According to Lasensky, Chabad has made its greatest impact with the school. “Most Jewish education seems to stop at time of bar mitzvah or confirmation,” he said. High school is the most important time intellectually for students to absorb the knowledge, he said.
School Not Chassidic
Accredited by the Western Assn. of Schools and Colleges, the Hebrew Academy is not a Chassidic school. In fact, 40% of the students come from Jewish families unaffiliated with any synagogue. Some teachers and staff are not even Jewish. “We get the best educators, not the best Jews,” said Rabbi Schusterman.
At the high school level, boys and girls are separated in high school classes and girls are required to wear dresses.
Mostly, however, Chassidism is communicated “between the lines,” through example, said the rabbis. Politeness and respect, for instance, pervade the school’s atmosphere like the spices coming from the kitchen where holiday breads are in the oven.
A new teacher and a rabbi, both busy and in a hurry, disagreed recently over when a scheduled event was to take place.
Teacher: I’m sorry, Rabbi. I shouldn’t correct you.
Rabbi: I should have been more specific.
Hebrew teachers, however, are Chassidic. “It gives flavor and fervor to the educational process,” said Rabbi Yitzchok Newman, school principal. Following Chassidic tradition, the rabbis relate ancient tales of legendary rabbis to teach by example values of respect and friendliness, he said. Prayers are sung loudly and enthusiastically. For the younger children, the rabbis may teach elements of Hebrew to the tune of “Old MacDonald Had a Farm,” said Rabbi Newman.
(At the end of first grade, the children start the reading the Bible in the original Hebrew, he added.)
Tuition fees at the school run from $2,250 to $3,800 for transportation and extra activities, said Rabbi Schusterman, although there are scholarships and a sliding scale for those who cannot afford the full fee.
“It’s worth it,” said Claudia Brilliant who has two children at the academy.
Brilliant said she and her husband, both from Conservative Jewish backgrounds, investigated several schools and chose the academy for its secular and religious curriculum. Most of all, she said, “You can see they really care about the children.” As far as training in their religion heritage, she said her children will now have “something instead of nothing.”
Sense of Nostalgia
The Chabad, according to the Jewish Federation’s Lasensky, have “contributed a sense of Yiddishkeit , a sense of Jewish feeling, a nostalgia which many people would relate more to their parents or grandparents. It’s a reminder of the stronger Jewish presence that existed in the earlier part of the century in Eastern Europe,” said Lasensky.
As far as the extent of Orthodox religiosity, Orange County is not Brooklyn, admits Rabbi Schusterman. It is, he says, a place for “yuppies and executives, two earner families who can afford the life style.” But many people, he said are finding “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”
He hesitated and apologized in advance if his next thought would sound trite. “I find people here,” he said, “are yearning for purpose.”