Chabad of the Conejo celebrates new Torah

Despite early predictions of rain, the weather cooperated in full. The Jan. 13 festivities and ceremony at the Chabad of the Conejo (COTC) took place on a brisk, chilly day with a cloudless and pristine sky over Agoura Hills — the kind of day that the late Rabbi Mordechai Bryski, in his home of Brooklyn, N.Y., would have envied.

Commemorating the first anniversary — or yahrzeit — of Bryski’s death on Jan. 8, 2012, officials from COTC, family, friends and community members celebrated the arrival of a specially commissioned sefer Torah to its new home at the Chabad and its Center for Jewish Life. 

Financed through a COTC campaign enabling people to purchase letters, words, passages or sections, the Torah was written in and dedicated to Bryski’s memory. The scrolls were created in Jerusalem, completed at the rabbi’s home in Brooklyn and flown to California. The project was painstaking — if even a single letter among the 304,805 letters is missing or misprinted, a Torah becomes unusable.

The new COTC Torah, however, is letter-perfect and will be put to use right away. The late rabbi’s son and executive director/spiritual leader of the COTC, Rabbi Moshe Bryski, said that in bringing the Torah to Agoura Hills, the community keeps the spirit of his father alive.

“My father lived Torah, he studied Torah, he sacrificed for Torah,” he said. “When he passed away, it was obvious to me what I needed to do in his memory was to bring a Torah to this shul. He lived in Brooklyn, but he would often come to visit this community, and he loved this shul very much. So the idea this shul would always have part of him here through the Torah written in his memory is something that was dear and precious to me.”

On Jan. 13, at an event that was entirely celebratory, the Torah emerged from a car parked at Reyes Adobe Park and was paraded via a procession of more than 100 people. It traveled about a quarter of a mile down Rainbow Crest Drive, along Reyes Adobe Road and ultimately to the Chabad Center for Jewish Life on Canwood Street. 

The procession, which featured mayors Denis Weber of Agoura Hills and Claudia Bill-de la Peña of Thousand Oaks as well as a Sheriff’s Department escort, temporarily marooned customers at a nearby gas station and car wash who stared and snapped pictures with their cell phones.

Weber, a friend of Moshe Bryski for more than 20 years, said he couldn’t pass up the opportunity to celebrate the milestone with his “brother.”

“It’s a beautiful day,” Weber said. “I thought it was going to be raining, but as Rabbi Bryski said, ‘My mayor delivers the good weather again.’ ”

A pickup truck with speakers piped out music along the route, and the dancing began — lines and circles of exuberant men of all ages twirled and capered the entire time. The creation of a new Torah is considered a joyous occasion and, throughout the day, guests were repeatedly urged to “dance with the Torah.”

For this there was no shortage of opportunity, and the scrolls had no dearth of partners. With the park procession, the arrival at COTC, the outdoor post-ceremony festivities and the Torah being moved inside the Chabad synagogue, there were four opportunities to dance.

“Today, the effervescence and joy is palpable,” said Mordechai Bryski’s son-in-law, Rabbi Mordechai Einbinder of Chabad of the Valley, Tarzana, kicking off the ceremonies. “Today is not a day of speeches. Today is a day of happiness.”

It was Einbinder who brought the Torah from New York, planting it on a seat of a JetBlue flight and nearly clashing with the flight attendant over its placement on a seat.

“She said, ‘What is this? I’m going to start moving it around.’ And I said, ‘That’s a sacred text,’ and I gave her a dirty look,” Einbinder said. “Then she gave me a dirty look, and then we made friends, and I’m sure she’s here today.”

The local ceremony featured memories of the life of Mordechai “Mottel” Bryski, who was born in Chmielnik, Poland, but was forced to leave his homeland following German occupation in 1939. He studied at yeshivas in Bialystok, Poland, and Vilnius, Lithuania, before making his way, along with other endangered refugees, to Kobe, Japan, and later to Shanghai, China. He ultimately secured safe passage to San Francisco and eventually settled in New York, where he worked in real estate, helping to make home ownership possible for Jews in the community of Crown Heights.

Although Mordechai Bryski lost his entire family in the Holocaust, he took delight in seeing the flourishing of Jewish life within the family he created in the United States, in New York and in the growing Chabads in California. A frequent visitor to the West Coast, Mordechai Bryski — then age 87 — was on hand to affix the mezuzah at the dedication of the COTC’s Center for Jewish Life in September 2011.

At that dedication, Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin, director of Chabad of the West Coast, embraced the elder Bryski, telling him that the opening and subsequent flourishing of the Chabad center, with all its programs for Jews of all ages, was the best possible revenge against the Nazi atrocities.

Speaking at the Torah dedication Sunday, Cunin repeated his message.

“For those who don’t believe, there ain’t no answers. For those who do believe, there are no questions,” Cunin said. “This Torah for my wonderful friend is the answer. More Jewish children, that’s the answer. More studying of Torah, that’s the answer. More putting on tefillin, that’s the answer.”

Weber, who also met the late Mordechai Bryski on several occasions, remembered him as a “little man with the biggest smile.”

“He was so excited for his son to dedicate something so special as the Center for Jewish Life,” Weber recalled. “It was meaningful for me to watch the interaction between a son and a father. That was what was most special for me.”