By Molly Resnick
I should have known it was going to be extraordinary — nothing short of miraculous — when a total stranger made out a $100 check to my son`s five-week old Chabad House right in the aisle of the Jet Blue flight headed for Oakland on erev (eve) Rosh Hashana. He was simply inspired by the idea of helping out a newly formed Jewish center in northern California that a typical Jewish mother like me was only too happy to boast about.
My 22-year-old son Elliot, my 17-year-old daughter Gillie and I were on our way to pay our first visit to my children Rabbi Raleigh and Fruma Resnick, the new shluchim (emissaries) of the Tri-Valley in northern California, for their first Gala event — Rosh Hashana.
What we encountered was literally a creation ex nihilo, something from nothing. Here is this newly rented, five bedroom suburban corner house on Via De Los Cerros, with a weeping willow on one side and some fine Japanese neighbors on the other, transformed — not only into a warm, welcoming home, but into a vibrant Jewish Center. The back porch is literally begging for a sukkah, Ikea shanks are filled with holy books and an Aron Kodesh (holy ark) all stand ready to welcome any Jew, "regardless of background and affiliation, whether Reform, Conservative or Orthodox", as was written in the Pleasanton Weekly article titled: "Rabbi here to urge Jews to come home."
The tall ceilinged living room was magically transformed into a shul when the green trees were discretely dragged from the wings and lined up to form a mechitza (screen). For the leining (Torah reading), a tiny Sefer Torah (scroll), given on loan for six month with an option for another six month extension, was unfurled on a makeshift bimah (stand), made up of a folding table covered by a glistening white brocade tablecloth.
All the while, Raleigh, the rabbi, is explaining every significant detail in the prayer book while Elliot, his brother, is premiering as chazan (cantor), (missing two days worth of courses in Cardozo Law School.) Gillie is ready with toys and story books for her junior congregation, should it materialize (it was advertised on the pages of the two or three local papers.) And everyone else in the family, including three of Fruma`s beautiful red-headed sisters, one brother-in-law, and one adorable two-year-old niece, are busy making themselves useful, either by helping the newly-formed congregation find the right page in their prayer books or just smiling to make everyone feel at home.
All the Machzorim (High Holiday prayer books) are new and have been donated by a kind soul in Brooklyn, so that they can hopefully be rededicated by some local newcomer, inspired to honor a beloved mother or father on this holy day.
Throughout the four, two-day services, not only did the minyanim materialize, but over 70 people came to sample a taste of honey and apple, with some becoming the permanent nucleus of Chabad of the Tri-Valley, which is 45 minutes north of San Francisco.
So here is this young shluchim couple, my children, literally in their "outreach career diapers", leaving behind the comfort of their home, family and friends in New York, not to mention all the physical amenities of a kosher community. In the span of a few weeks, they are able to create a new entity — a new family — made up of people drawn together in a desire to reconnect to their maker and celebrate their Jewish heritage.
And then, at the conclusion of every service, out comes this sumptuous kiddush spread with three varieties of fish, ten colorful salads (made from recipes collected over the last few months for this purpose), freshly-baked honey cakes and chocolate cookies, all created by Chef Fruma with some last minute help from the family. Only the rugalach are imported fresh from Gruenbaum`s in Washington Heights, packed carefully in my carry-on bag, banking on the knowledge that the way to a Jew`s heart (i.e. neshama) is through his or her eyes, taste buds and stomach. And suddenly, there`s a human happening as people are socializing and mixing, wishing each other "Shana Tova." and celebrating the plain joy of being Jewish.
The first-day Rosh Hashana services take place in two side-by-side lounges in the Courtyard by Marriot Hotel ("To make it look more professional," they confided) in Pleasanton, California. This little town is one of the three that will make up the "fiefdom" of Chabad of the Tri-Valley, together with the cities of Livermore and Dublin. (Total population 160,000, with an estimated 10,000 Jews.)
Not a moment is wasted in the life of shlichus. In those crucial minutes when we are all holding our breath to see if the place would actually give birth to a minyan, people start trickling in: a couple from South Africa, a pony-tailed attorney, a Russian lady and her two children, a former mustached country club chef and, of course, a few Silicon Valley engineers.
What a perfect time to initiate some of the men into the mitzvah of Tefillin — before mincha. And they come forward — some reluctantly, some adventurously and some incredulously. "This must be a New York thing", I hear a man whisper to his wife. I didn`t want to ask if he meant the actual act of donning Tefillin (his having never laid eyes on these black boxes before) or the lateness of the hour in the performance of the mitzva. But judging by the look of the couple, I would venture to assume it was the former.
It was truly a miracle. A miracle that is being duplicated by young idealistic couples all over the world`s 3000 Chabad houses. "In Thailand alone, close to 4,500 people participated in this year`s various Rosh Hashana services. As a matter of fact, Chabad organized 4,574 services in 371 cities worldwide this year," recounted Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, who initiates most of Chabad`s new ventures.
"How long are you going for?" is one of the most commonly asked questions. "Until Moshiach comes!" is the only answer you will hear from these committed couples who carry out their mission without any of the commonly-expected job perks: pre-negotiated salary, job security, health insurance or pension plan. And all to fulfill an idealistic life mission they would replace with no other. "Over 150 couples a year — or three [per] week — set out to diverse places around the globe with one purpose only: to reconnect a Jew to his G-d- given heritage" added Rabbi Kotlarsky. "And there are hundreds more talented, qualified candidates waiting to be called on wherever they are needed."
I could not help but reminisce with gratitude about my own encounter 27 years ago with Chanale, a daughter of one such couple, the Blumenfelds in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. It was an encounter that totally transformed my thinking and my life and enabled me to marry my dear husband, Dr. Larry Resnick, a``h, the Rebbe`s physician. Together we merited to become a part of this miracle — through our children.
May G-d bless all the Rebbe`s shluchim with abundant success in their holy work and may they go from strength to strength in all their endeavors. Their work is as close to Imitatio Dei (imitating G-d) as it gets, creating something out of nothing in their service G-d. And the auspiciousness of the timing, Rosh Hashana, the anniversary of the creation of man (and of course woman), only made it more poignant and miraculous.
To sample a taste without having to board a plane, please visit: www.JewishTrivalley.com.