Conejo in spiritual bloom
One year after they opened Chabad of Agoura Hills in 1986, Chabad officials decided to hold a Chanukah festival at an Agoura Hills mall. They put up a menorah and, soon thereafter, received an anonymous phone call demanding its removal.
“They said, ‘Agoura is not a Jewish community, and if you don’t take it down we’re going to come and burn a cross on your front lawn,’ ” recalled Rabbi Moshe D. Bryski, executive director of Chabad of the Conejo (COC), the umbrella organization that oversees Chabad of Agoura Hills and six other area Chabads.
“I remember sitting with my colleague, Rabbi [Yitzchak] Sapochinsky, and he said, ‘We should respond in a proper Chabad-like manner,’ ” Bryski said. “That would be to announce that we were opening up a second Chanukah festival in honor of this anti-Semite. And we did, in Ventura, and 300 people came.”
Chabad of Ventura was founded a few months later, followed the next year by Chabad of Simi Valley. Bryski hardly needs to explain the point of his tale: Where Chabad of the Conejo is concerned, even opposition is a spur to growth.
With the completion this month of the Center for Jewish Life (CJL) at Chabad’s Agoura Hills headquarters, the organization’s multitude of existing programs will consolidate under a single roof. And the growth won’t stop there.
In the coming months, COC expects to break ground on phase two, the construction of a new sanctuary and lecture hall on the site of its previous administrative headquarters, with a projected opening in 2013.
The CJL fundraising campaign began in 2006, before the recession, and between extensive private donations and assistance from the City of Agoura Hills, Chabad was able to meet its goal of opening the $2 million facility by September 2011. There were, however, challenges, including a bank slated to fund the construction being taken over by the FDIC (Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.).
COC’s Chabads stretch from Calabasas to Moorpark, and until the creation of the CJL, programming was hosted at a variety of locations across the Conejo Valley. For large events, like a performance by Chasidic reggae star Matisyahu or a lecture by Mosab Hassan Yousef — author and son of Hamas founder Sheikh Hassan Yousef — the COC utilizes venues such as the Hyatt Westlake Plaza hotel or the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza.
Those big-crowd events notwithstanding, the new campus will house it all: the adult learning Conejo Jewish Academy, the Chai Teen and Youth Center (CTYC) and Hebrew school, community outreach programs, a new library and a senior center. The amenities and space in the new facility are much needed. Bryski estimates that some 3,000 people participate in their activities each year.
Sapochinsky, director of Conejo Hebrew High and the CTYC, said the reconfiguration of the teen and youth center is the realization of a dream for him.
“The biggest stumbling block for Chabad has always been room,” Sapochinsky said. “With this new building, there is so much more potential for us.”
Twenty eight years ago, Bryski — then a rabbinical student in Boston — came to California to run a summer camp in a fairly non-Jewish outpost in the largely undeveloped Conejo Valley. The following summer, he returned to “keep things going” while the board of directors searched for a replacement for the Chabad’s founder, who had recently resigned. That two-month stay turned into three decades.
In the beginning, Bryski had to balance his rigorous yeshiva studies and his duties at the Chabad in Westlake Village. He succeeded in doing so under the guidance of Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, to whom the CJL’s campaign is dedicated.
“He believed you go out there and influence, and if you do that and accept people with love and respect, you see changes,” Bryski said.
Bryski has been a major force of change during his three-decade tenure. Under his leadership, Chabad of the Conejo and its surrounding Jewish community are flourishing. Programs such as the Friendship Circle, which pairs teen volunteers with special-needs children, and the Sunshine Club, which organizes adult volunteers to visit senior citizens, are reaching every corner of the community.
Even the opening of numerous kosher restaurants in the area is a milestone, a sign that the Conejo Valley has become a self-sufficient Jewish community.
Contemplating this extraordinary growth reminds Bryski of another anecdote from his early years in the Valley.
While visiting his parents in New York, Bryski stopped at a store he used to frequent. He was telling the storekeeper about his activities out West when a stranger interjected.
“Are there 10 Jews in the Conejo Valley who keep the Sabbath?” the man asked. “Not that I know of,” Bryski replied. “Are there 10 families who send their children to Jewish day school?” he asked. “No,” Bryski replied. “Ten women who visit the mikveh?” To each question, Bryski replied, “No.”
“I remember him pointing his finger and saying, ‘Then you have no right to live in such an unholy place,’ ” Bryski recalled. “If I could find this man again and bring him here, I would show him not 10 families but hundreds of families in a place that he called unholy. I’ll take my Conejo Valley over his religious community any day.”