If Chabad houses play different roles in different places, Rabbi Dov Drizin, the executive director of Valley Chabad Center for Jewish Life, has a ready explanation for that phenomenon.
Describing his own “entrepreneurial spirit” when Valley Chabad was founded — the center now is celebrating its 18th anniversary — Rabbi Drizin said he has found that “Chabad adopts the character of the mix of people involved in the community. In Pascack Valley, we offer ways for individuals to enhance the meaning and purpose in their lives.”
Another way to describe Chabad’s role, he said, is to use the acronym CEO — here signifying community, education, and outreach.
Over the last 18 years, Valley Chabad has accomplished a great deal, he said.
“At the beginning, we started very fresh, excited. We got strange looks from some, but soon there were warm connections and feelings. We opened a little Hebrew school and had services at our shul. We got our feet wet and got the word out.” Today, the center is a busy, vibrant institution.
From the start, Valley Chabad focused on youth programming, “trying to bring in speakers with exciting topics.” Today, the group’s Teen Leadership Initiative draws about 200 teenagers just from the Pascack Valley. Of those, Rabbi Drizin said, some 70 percent are connected to other Jewish institutions and synagogues as well.
Teens can enter the program in a number of ways, from the Friendship Circle, which addresses the challenges facing special needs families by pairing the teens with special needs children, to Linking Hearts, which connects the teens to seniors.
CTeen “allows the teens to make a difference while having fun,” Rabbi Drizin said, while Eternal Flame teaches them about the Holocaust, preparing the older teens for life on campus where they may confront anti-Semitism or the BDS movement. Also of note, he continued, is the JLI (Jewish Learning Initiative) component for teens, offering courses in history, film interpretation, and Israel studies.
Surveying what the center offers to local teenagers, Rabbi Drizin — who works with eight full-time staff members and a number of volunteers — called it “an amazing program.” He reserved special praise for Rabbi Yosef Orenstein, director of the Teen Leadership Initiative, and his wife Estie Orenstein, who heads the Friendship Circle, for what he called their “nonstop” efforts.
Maddy Gold, a 17-year-old student at Pascack Valley High School, is emblematic of the teen program. She and Mitchell Bloom, will receive the “Our Future” award at the upcoming Valley Chabad “Celebrate 18. Celebrate Life” gala. Both teens live in Woodcliff Lake. The event is scheduled for June 5. (See box.)
Maddy, whom Rabbi Drizin describes as “a wonderful young lady,” has spent the last four years immersed in the center’s teen program (though she also is a member of her school’s honor society and an avid lacrosse player). She has participated in JLI, Eternal Flame, and CTeen, and she said that she would love to take part in the Friendship Circle, but she attends the Bergen County High School of Jewish Studies on Sundays.
She came to Chabad through her family — her 14-year-old brother, Billy, their mother, Shelly, and their father, Stu.
“My brother was looking for a new Hebrew school and my parents thought Chabad would work,” Maddy said. “My mother met with Rabbi Dov [Drizin] and fell in love with the center. Then my father went for Simchat Torah and fell in love with it. Then I went on Rosh Hashanah and fell in love with it.” So madly in love, in fact, that today she is a leader of the center’s CTeen chapter, which draws about 60 teens, 20 to 30 per event. “They come from all over, from Montvale, River Vale, Ridgewood, and Wayne,” Maddy said.
“I’ve been very involved since I was a freshman. I’ve used what I learned at Chabad to enhance my Jewish knowledge and spread it to my friends and family. I’ve also taken on different mitzvahs. My mom and I light Shabbat candles every week, and it’s enhanced my love of being Jewish. I’m going to college next year. What I’ve learned was a huge factor in my choice.
“I met one of my closest friends through CTeen. She lives in Ridgewood and I know she’ll be a friend for many years. Also, this is the first time I’ve gotten to lead. Yosef and Estie gave me an opportunity to totally lead my peers by planning everything for an event from supplies to set-up. I feel truly responsible for what I’m doing.”
Maddy said she grew up in a household that is “all about Israel,” but “I didn’t know where that love came from. I didn’t really understand.” Now, she said, through JLI she’s “learned about the actual country. It’s taught me so much. When I go to campus, I will be able to rely on my knowledge as well as my love” of Israel.
Maddy, who attends a NFTY camp, said that while there is less learning at the Reform camp than at Chabad, she looks forward to sharing what she has learned with campers and friends. She is especially keen to impart what she learned through the Eternal Flame program, which focuses on the Holocaust, bringing in survivors to speak with the teens.
Maddy clearly is excited about being honored. When she was summoned to Rabbi Dov’s house — where the rabbi and his wife, Hindy, the center’s associate director, informed her of the award — “I sat there in shock. I’m so lucky — absolutely so excited.”
Bernice and Bernie Gola of the Township of Washington, who will receive the Chai Life Award, also will be honored at the celebration. Calling Valley Chabad’s 18th anniversary a year of “l’chaim,” Rabbi Drizin said, “These are people who represent that. To me, this couple are poster children,” he added, citing their “amazing joie de vivre. They came off the boat with nothing, but they love to laugh, dance, and sing. They’re well on in years, but they’re inspirational. I’ve brought them to talk at local public schools. They love life.”
Esther and Warren Feldman of Woodcliff Lake will receive the Shem Tov / Good Name Award at the gala, and Elana and Lawrence Bibi of Woodcliff Lake will be given the Young Leadership Award. Rabbi Drizin said that this is only the third big dinner sponsored by Valley Chabad. The others were on its tenth and thirteenth anniversaries.
Rabbi Drizin said that another strong element of Valley Chabad is its women’s programming. “We have a host of educational and volunteer programs,” he said, noting that “we have found ways to engage people in Jewish life. We have weekly lunch and learns, a Rosh Hodesh Society, where a mix of generations come to learn, and a volunteer program with underprivileged children. We also have a local challah bake, which draws 300 women from all walks of life.”
Finally, Valley Chabad has a synagogue with “a beautiful and warm active core group,” he said. “It’s beautiful. I love to watch people making new friends.”
Speaking of friendships, Rabbi Drizin said he had a “great relationship” with Rabbi Andre Ungar, the now-retired longtime religious leader of Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley. “He helped create the sense of community that we have here,” Rabbi Drizin said. “He set the tone, welcoming the opportunity when we moved in. I told him, if you look at a Conservative temple on Rosh Hashanah, the first 30 people who come in are likely to be Conservative. But we are totally mixed. This is really egalitarian.” That, he said, always amused his friend. (Of course, Chabad’s services really are not egalitarian. Men and women are separated by a mechitzah, women are not counted in a minyan, and they are not allowed on the bimah.)
Rabbi Drizin figures that Valley Chabad has worked with more than 3,000 people, “depending on how you look at it. For example, we go to a different town every night of Chanukah for menorah lighting, and we may have a few hundred there that we may never see again.” One event sponsored by his group, an evening with Anne Frank’s stepsister, drew more than 800 people.
If he had to measure success, he said, “I would look at where our kids are after they graduate. Six of our teens are leaders in Hillel or Chabad, from Tulane to Binghamton to George Washington. That is truly amazing. They left here fortified and moved into leadership positions.”
While the center’s 18th anniversary technically falls in May, “we have been celebrating the whole year,” he said. “There’s a Jewish concept of toasting l’chaim twice — for both the material and the spiritual life. It’s about harmony, a hybrid of both. It’s about not being completely selfish, or selfless. I talked about this on Yom Kippur, about creating a community where people’s lives are enhanced, not just by doing large acts of kindness but by being there for your family.” He wants, in other words, not only to enhance members’ physical lives but their spiritual lives as well, shifting them toward more purpose and meaning.
“They’re small shifts, but incredible shifts,” he said. “It’s a year of l’chaim — twice.”
Who: Valley Chabad
What: Will hold “Celebrate 18. Celebrate Life.” marking its 18th year in the Pascack Valley and Saddle River communities.
When: On June 5, beginning at 6:30 p.m.
Where: Rockleigh Country Club, 26 Paris Ave., Rockleigh
Cover: $250. Go to www.celebration18.com, or call (201) 476- 0157 to reserve a seat and place a journal ad.