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."