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.

Rabbi Moshe D. Bryski with Chasidic reggae star Matisyahu at his Chabad-sponsored concert at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza in February 2011.

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.”

Advice from the Yentas

These are not your grandmother’s yentas.

The Wedding Yentas, a Conejo-based Web site offering planning advice to the modern Jewish bride, is the brainchild of Alison Friedman and Nicky Kahn.

“While planning my wedding, I had the hardest time finding resources,” said Kahn, who married husband Eric in August 2006 and co-owns Eight20 Photography with him. “As a wedding photographer, I talk to a lot of brides. Through the years, [the Jewish brides] all said it was hard to find the Jewish resources they need.”

The Jewish wedding planning sites that Kahn did find were either outdated or hard to navigate.

“There were so many blogs and Web sites for other brides, and I felt left out,” said Kahn, 28, of Westlake Village.

Friedman, 27, met Kahn during her own wedding-planning process. She hired the Kahns as photographers for her May 2008 wedding, and the couples stayed in touch.

In December 2009, Kahn approached Friedman, who worked in marketing before becoming a first-grade teacher, to create such a resource.

“Nicky said, ‘We need to do something for Jewish brides. With your experience as a writer and recent bride, and my experience in business, we should join forces,’ ” recalled Friedman, who lives with her husband, Bryan, in Thousand Oaks.

Research revealed wedding planning Web sites that served Orthodox Jewry, but “none for brides who want a ‘Jewish lite’ or ‘diet Jewish’ wedding,” Friedman said.

Five months later, The Wedding Yentas launched, thanks to Bryan Friedman’s coding and Eric Kahn’s design skills.

The Wedding Yentas provides information for all denominations of Judaism, from Reform to Conservative to Orthodox.

“We talk about all the different traditions and make it fun and enjoyable so that even a bride who isn’t having a bedeken or isn’t going to do the circling [around the groom] still knows what the traditions are and what they mean,” Kahn says. “I’ve learned things I didn’t even know.”

The resources allow users to shape their own experience through tradition.

“The modern Jewish bride will wear a strapless dress but still wants her husband to step on the glass and have a chuppah,” Friedman says. “You can pay homage to your heritage but still keep your own personality.”

The yentas also relate tips they learned during their own wedding planning.

For instance, traditionally, the bride and groom sip wine from the Kiddush cup during the ceremony. Friedman was advised of “a grape idea”: Use kosher white wine in order to avoid her dress becoming “a [red] wine tie-dyed shmata,” as she writes on the site.

The wine advice is one of many pearls of wisdom the yentas pass on to their readers.

Jessica Alpert, 25, has found inspiration on The Wedding Yentas site.

“It’s a wonderful resource to see other people’s weddings, their vendors and traditions, to possibly tie into my own wedding,” said the Sherman Oaks native, who will wed fiance Eric Nicastro in August. “It’s nice to have testimonials and recommendations.”

Alpert has taken particular inspiration from the Real Weddings archive, an ever-growing list of wedding tales from across the country and around the world. Real Weddings includes a vignette about each couple, some wedding photos and a list of service providers used.

“Every bride loves reliving her wedding day,” Friedman says. “Any chance that a bride gets to see her wedding up on a site for the whole world to see is exciting.”

Readers can submit their own stories for Friedman to retell as well.

“Naturally [the link] gets shared and [the featured brides] become their own yentas, if you will,” Friedman says.

The Wedding Yentas is also interfaith-friendly. Real Weddings has highlighted Jewish interfaith weddings, and the site’s directory of vendors lists interfaith service providers. Inspiration Boards, a mash-up of ideas linked thematically by elements such as color or season, is a popular example of content that transcends religion. Although the yentas are not a wedding planning service, they do offer “Ask the Yentas” sessions. Brides have asked them about incorporating traditions their non-Jewish wedding coordinators are unaware of, or even just to solicit a second opinion.

“You feel like they’re your Jewish best friends,” Alpert says. “They have a great sense of what works.”

The Wedding Yentas’ readership spans from Los Angeles to Lexington, Ky., and is expanding internationally, from Liverpool to Lausanne to Los Cabos.

“It’s amazing how quickly [The Wedding Yentas] grew,” says Kahn, who was born in South Africa and raised in Oak Park. “I’m just so happy to be able to provide this service and see that people have found it so helpful.”

Family-run Falafel Grill serves authentic Israeli fare

The Agoura Meadows Shopping Center, an overgrown strip mall located in a particularly pastoral nook of the Conejo Valley, contains a surprisingly diverse array of international restaurants: Hong Kong Express, Italia Deli & Bakery and Sushi Ozekii flank an enormous Vons. Just around the corner are Alamo Mexican Grill and its unlikely neighbor, Falafel Grill, a Glatt kosher Israeli restaurant. Falafel Grill is the only establishment that provides outdoor seating; a midweek lunch finds a number of lone middle-aged men enjoying a shwarma plate and taking in the sun before heading back to the office to get down to business.

The interior is clean and spare, with mirrored walls and glass-covered, wood-grain-paneled tables. You order at the counter and wait for your name to be called; sometimes, if it’s not too busy, a server will duck out from behind the counter to deliver your dish. The menu is familiar Israeli fare: shwarma and kebabs available as pita sandwiches or on combo plates, joined by a variety of salads and vegetable dips. The counter is crammed full of a colorful array of imported Israeli treats and tzedakah boxes for various causes, the nearby fridge stocked with Prigat juice and a nonalcoholic malt beer as well as more common American beverages. Don’t be fooled by the sleek-looking AVTR can: Turns out it’s no Israeli innovation, just a Coke Zero dressed up to sell James Cameron’s “Avatar.”

Upon closer inspection, Falafel Grill distinguishes itself from its pita stand peers as a more seriously religious institution: If the gigantic signs on the door didn’t make it clear, there is also a sink for ritual hand-washing tucked into a corner next to the condiments. A high shelf stocks siddurim, particularly appropriate to the season, and the posters on the walls are all images of Jerusalem, the Western Wall and black-clad Chasidic rebbes.

Husband-and-wife co-owners Amos and Vivian Parnes are affiliated with the local Chabad, which also provides their kosher certification. This is a matter of no small importance, as Falafel Grill is not just kosher but Glatt kosher. Glatt, which translates to “smooth,” is a frequently misunderstood term; people tend to regard as superkosher or a guarantee that meat is “high quality” in some general sense. In fact, it refers to a specific scriptural mandate that the lungs of an animal be free of blemishes or growths of any kind. While this has the effect of keeping ill animals out of the food system, its original intention was rather different: The prohibition against eating animals that are internally diseased stems from a law prohibiting the consumption of animals that have been savaged by another creature.

For all of its religious conviction, Falafel Grill is at heart a low-key place, busiest at lunch with locals looking to talk business over a hearty meal and some imported treats. A television plays Fox News at medium-low volume and no one listens; as the afternoon wears on, a couple of parties linger over spreadsheets and portfolios or Hebrew newspapers. The Parneses still work the counter; on a recent afternoon, Vivian handled the lunch rush with a pleasant if brusque efficiency before ducking out for a cigarette and a long talk with a customer taking advantage of the early spring sun. 

Although Los Angeles has more kosher restaurants than most American cities, they are not nearly as numerous as their nonkosher counterparts, especially in communities as far-flung as Agoura. So there is a particularly familial feel at Falafel Grill, an almost insular focus on the traditions and culture of a specific subset of the Jewish community. It is comfortably foreign, the menu translating whatever might seem obscure.

The current special is a ground-chicken patty served in a pita sandwich, an excellent — and delicious — amalgamation of the American and Israeli. No matter what the dish, the food is consistently simple and tasty, the bright flavors of Israeli salad against tender, salty meat, with a little bit of creamy tahini, smoky baba ghanoush and a spicy tomato dip as sides. Manamit’s thin chocolate-covered wafers make an excellent dessert.

You might begin to imagine at this point that you have found your way to Israel, or at least someplace other than suburban Los Angeles. Driving away into the Ventura Freeway’s afternoon traffic is a rude awakening — luckily, Falafel Grill remains open and unchanging, always ready to welcome us back for more.