Jewish Life Booms In Conejo Valley


Jewish Life Booms In Conejo Valley

by Rebecca Rosenthal - CONEJO VALLEY, CA

July 23, 2006

Growing up in Agoura, CA, Lisa Yakir remembers when Jewish food used to fill a sliver of a grocery aisle--matza crackers, soup cubes and borsht, mostly--at Albertsons.

Back in the eighties, Lisa's neighbor, Joyce Samuels piled her children in the car for a 45-minute drive--each way, if traffic cooperated--to a Jewish day school in North Hollywood.

Today, Jewish life is more convenient and substantially more vibrant in the Conejo Valley thanks to Chabad. Unlike many Chabad centers, Conejo grew up in reverse. It boomed by emphasizing adult education when Conejo Jewish Academy was founded twelve years ago. Three thousand Jews registered for one of 35 courses, lectures, study group, youth programs, events and tours during Chabad of Conejo's spring 2006 semester alone. Stroll in on an average Wednesday night and the Canwood Road center's sanctuary is packed with 80 Jews attending the main course series, and three other classrooms hum with Torah teaching. Filled to capacity, Chabad of Conejo plans to build an additional center, behind the existing one, more than doubling space to 10,500 sq. feet.

From a one-desk office in Westlake in 1979, Chabad of Conejo Valley has grown up, centers multiplying almost as quickly as the pristine Spanish tile and stucco, mini-chateaux tract homes that have attracted 40,000 Jews to the area. Jewish Federation estimates forecast the influx of another 60,000 within the next decade. Under the overarching auspices of Rabbi Joshua B. Gordon, executive director of Chabad of the Valley, Conejo Chabad team of representatives, are both in charge of their own Chabad centers and teach at the Academy, following the pedagogic example set by Rabbi Moshe Brsyki. 'Although he is indisputably fully orthodox, Rabbi Bryski welcomes and embraces everybody,' said Martin Teitelbaum of Westlake Village, a real estate developer playing a key role in the new building. 'He has a gift for imparting Chabad philosophy, and is an extremely gifted teacher.'

A slick course catalogue captures the spotlight each time it is mailed out, according to Rabbi Bryski. So effective, its format has been copied by Chabad centers around the world--with Rabbi Bryski's blessing. 'We carefully design programs so there will be something for everyone,' said Rabbi Bryski. Courses include the Jewish Learning Institutes' widely acclaimed topics, but do not end there. Last semester, Chabad of Oak Park's Rabbi Yisroel Levine analyzed reincarnation in a six-week course, and Rabbi Shlomo Bistrisky delivered what the catalogue promised would be a 'non-dogmatic' Skeptics Guide to Judaism. Defining Judaism's approach to death was Chabad of Westlake Village's Rabbi Sapochkinsky's topic, and Chabad of Calabasas's Rabbi Eli Friedman delivered 12 Soundbytes of Spirituality. Agoura's Rabbi Eli Broner and Rabbi Chaim Bryski of Chabad of Thousand Oaks teach, as well. Chabad representatives Matty Bryski and Brocha Sapochkinsky tackle Jewish history, gender issues, parenting and spirituality for the women's world division.

Bronx-born, WWII veteran, Irwin M. Weissberg strolled into Chabad in 1999, stayed for the Rabbi's Lunch and Learn, and 'has been hooked ever since.' Weissberg records most classes, duplicating and shipping copies to students from New Jersey to South Africa. His collection of tapes fills 30-volumes, each with 16 cassettes, plus many more in CD and MP3 format.

Gil Weinreich began to feel awkward driving on Shabbat because of all he had learned at the academy about sanctifying Shabbat. He mentioned his quandary at a 'Coffee with the Rabbi' session. Rabbi Bryski replied, 'Gil, you get a group together, we'll organize it.' Word went out to Rabbi Gordon, and Chabad of the Valley's nineteenth branch--in West Hills--was born.

Academy-educated parents unable to shuttle their children through Southern California's epic traffic jams to a Jewish day school, clamored for an elementary school of their own. Conejo Jewish Day School, led by Rabbi Robbie Tombowski, opened in 2001.

Exit off the eight-lane 101 Freeway, past the grass-covered hills, bleached blond by the sun, a spin through a cul de sac shopping center, next door to Chabad of Conejo's headquarters, reveals the bread and butter impact of the academy. Cheek to cheek with Alan's BBQ and Fireside Shop and Anita Haircut Beauty Salon is kosher Pizza Nosh, Beit Judaica store, and Kosher Connection market and deli. A kosher SuperSal grocery and Falafel Grill opened in Agoura. 'Keeping kosher is a realistic option in Conejo,' said Rabbi Bryski.

Conejo Jewish Academy has also fed the enduring strength of the Hebrew high teen learning program, Chai Teen Club, Bat Mitzvah International Club, Bar Mitzvah Discovery Program, Kids Corps, Camp Gan Israel, Talia Broner's Mommy and Me, and even Gan Yeladim child care. Confident that the professional atmosphere at the academy pervades all aspects of Chabad, they send their children, their neighbors, their friends. A mikvah, the first in Conejo Valley, recently opened at Chabad of Oak Park. Maury Friedman, a former high tech entrepreneur, soon-to-be philosophy of religion student at Oxford University, and the founding force behind Conejo Jewish Academy said Chabad of Conejo's success lies in its openness. 'In Conejo, there are no walls between Jews,' he said. 'All Jewish groups are interacting with each other.'

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