Monday, May 19, 2008

History, hard work realized in new Jewish center

Staff Writer

ORMOND BEACH -- To this day, Rabbi Morris Esformes seems awed by twists of fate that connect him to the Jewish community of Ormond Beach.

The Chicago philanthropist bought Woodland Towers retirement village in DeLand two decades ago partly to help a friend out of a business bind.

On a visit to DeLand about 15 years later, he learned of an orthodox Jewish community in Ormond Beach through what seemed a happenstance meeting with a woman who was part of it.

The rest is history -- and hard work.

Both were on display Sunday, when Esformes joined more than 200 people for the dedication of the Esformes Chabad Lubavitch Jewish Center of Greater Daytona Beach.

Esformes gave more than $4 million to help make the 25,000-square-foot synagogue, community center and school on Granada Boulevard a reality, he said.

"It's probably destiny," Esformes said in an interview before an often emotional ceremony in the ornate synagogue, where speakers stood beneath tablets bearing the 10 Commandments in Hebrew. "It's probably God's infinite wisdom and his hand that brought us all together.

"All my life I have attempted to enhance Jewish education -- in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Israel. This was surely was something I never had dreamed about, and it happened by a fluke."

While the center couldn't have happened without him, Esformes -- whose next project is a Jewish school in Alaska -- praises Rabbi Pinchas Ezagui and his wife, Chani, for their years of work nurturing the community it serves.

The couple came -- or, rather, were sent -- to Ormond Beach 15 years ago to open a center as part of the Chabad Lubavitch movement. Chabad is a Jewish acronym that stands for wisdom.

They first held services and Hebrew school classes in their living room before the community was eventually able to build a synagogue on the same land where the gleaming new center now stands.

Ezagui said the couple came to Ormond Beach when his rebbe -- a head rabbi over other rabbis -- sent him from New York.

The purpose: to establish a center of Judaism for people from all walks of life, he said.

"You don't have to be a member to be part of the club, so to say," Ezagui said. "It's an open house policy to all Jews, whenever, however they want to come through and be part of their own heritage, their own roots, their own essence."

At Sunday's celebration, the diversity of the community was reflected in attire that ranged from blue jeans and T-shirts to austere black hats and suits with white shirts meant to show humility.

"I will tell you the honest truth, from the moment I came to this town, I dreamt about this day," Ezagui said.

The school, set up for about 120 pupils from prekindergarden through middle school, follows the Sunshine State educational standards followed by public schools, while also focusing on such things as study of the Torah and the Hebrew language.

"The general education studies are as important as the religious studies here," said Marcia Shook, a language arts and social studies teacher at the school.

It's a blessing, as far as Yehuda Morali is concerned.

He immigrated from Israel in 1986 and helped build the community, and his youngest son, Netanel, is in fifth grade at the school this year.

"If you plant good seed now, you're going to see the flower in the future," Morali said.

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