After four years in the Bay Area, I finally know what lies at the end of the Dublin/Pleasanton line. As with most of the Earth’s extremities today, it’s Chabad.
On Sept. 20, Chabad of the Tri-Valley held a special Shabbat celebration, dubbed “Unity Shabbat.” Partly, it was a response to a fire at its building in Pleasanton six weeks earlier, on the eve of Tisha B’Av, the mournful commemoration of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.
The symbolism was not lost on Chabad of the Tri-Valley co-director Rabbi Raleigh Resnick. “We experienced a Tisha B’Av here like I’ve never experienced before,” he told J. at the time.
But for this event, he and his wife, co-director Fruma Resnick, seized the symbolism on their own terms. Unity Shabbat was a joyful plea for unity among the Jewish people as we head into the High Holidays.
(“Unity,” of course, took on some dark irony as Israel staggered through a post-election hangover that exposed the electorate’s paralyzing disunity. The irony was not lost on Rabbi Resnick, who told his congregation that evening that he was praying for God to bring some unity to Israel.)
The evening kicked off with a concert by six community members — acoustic, electric and bass guitars, trumpet, drums. To my surprise, it was a lot of fun.
The music was an unexpected mix of works by the likes of Reform folk music doyenne Debbie Friedman, contemporary Orthodox composer-singer Eitan Katz and classics such as the French Sephardic Adon Olam (which, despite its exotic-sounding origin, most American synagogue-goers have certainly heard).
A personal favorite, Katz’s “Elul Niggun,” was a seasonally appropriate highlight.
The setting was a large, multipurpose room that doubles as the sanctuary, resembling a synagogue social hall. A carpeted bimah raised a couple steps off the floor, with a wooden ark and bookshelves of Jewish texts, served as the bandstand.
The building is not the typical Chabad house. In addition to this room, there is a large kitchen, a preschool and a bright, welcoming entryway featuring — what else? — a large portrait of a beatific Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the last Chabad rebbe and the engine behind the movement’s focus on outreach.
The fire damage consumed the rear exterior wall, but most of the interior was undamaged. The cause was likely electrical, Resnick told me.
Even before the fire, the Resnicks knew the building needed work. “That was part of the original capital plan to begin with,” Resnick said. “So we have expedited our plans.”
Work will begin shortly after the High Holidays. He expects the project to cost around $750,000, with $100,000 already pledged by a single donor.
But every small donation counts, he said. Shortly after the fire, a donation of $90 came from a Jew in Singapore. “It was not a massive gift,” Resnick said. “But it’s special to be part of the Jewish people. What connection does that person in Singapore have with our community, other than we’re Jewish?”
During the concert, Resnick moved about the room, clapping along here, happily greeting someone there — and then bolting in from the far corner of the room to adjust the audio when piercing feedback briefly brings the music to a halt. He’s tall and broad-shouldered with a big smile and charism to spare.
At one point, he stopped near me to request: “When you write the article, make sure you mention that the playing ended before Shabbat. I wouldn’t want anyone to think …” Me: “No, no, God forbid.”
Indeed, as the sun got low and Shabbat approached, Resnick ran to the front of the room to say that there would be one final song.
“This is the get-up-and-dance portion,” said community member Michael Regal, the bandleader. “The hora of all horas.”
And it was. It started with an oft-heard Oseh Shalom, but with more energy than is customary, forcing me to re-evaluate a melody I tired of years ago.
Another tune in the closing medley was Israeli classic “B’shanah Haba’ah.” Some ecstatic energy took hold of the rabbi. He began dancing with abandon, limbs flailing, frequently checking to make sure his kippah was secure.
Then it’s “Hava Nagila,” and we’re off to the races. Rabbi Josh Zebberman, Chabad of Tri-Valley’s younger second rabbi, and a couple of other men joined Resnick’s dancing. A dozen women danced in a line around the room.
And suddenly it was over. There was a mad dash to get the sound equipment and instruments off the stage before Shabbat. Noticing the time, Resnick was in a rush. “Any able-bodied person!” he pleaded.
In a matter of minutes, the energy and setup of the room changed. Women went to the back to light candles together and a mechitza appeared. Zebberman led a service, blowing through most of it, but stopping to sing and dance at Lecha Dodi and Mizmor L’David.
Resnick called out pages, waging an intermittent battle against noisy chaos in the back. He shushed loudly, with brief successes. Good — what’s a Shabbat service without a little chaos?
By the time tables rolled out for dinner, there were more than 100 people and the room was alive. There was baked chicken, matzah ball soup, assorted sides — and small, um, pigs-in-a-blanket (all beef, I assume).
There was wine on each table, of course. But then there was Resnick, springing around, a happy host never without bottles of liquor in each hand. Each time he came around, new bottles: this time Glenfiddich and Johnny Walker; the next time, arak and some bourbon I didn’t recognize. And what was I to do, if not graciously accept and say l’chaim?
I spoke with people who also are members of other synagogues. And there were some there for whom Chabad is their only Jewish community. One woman, a recent college grad who came to the area for a job, grew up Orthodox. She’s no longer religious, “but the synagogue I don’t go to is Orthodox,” she told me. “And I can’t say no to Fruma’s cooking.”
When Resnick came to the East Bay in 2005, there were two other Chabads in the area. Now there are 15. “Many who came at the same time we did are starting to take on second rabbis and put up more permanent buildings.”
To what does Resnick attribute this success? “Look, I’m no sociologist, but I think the old synagogue model is not as appealing to a new generation,” he said.
Resnick wants to create personal connections. “If we want to bring in more people, to have relationships with all the people, we have to have another rabbi. How many can I meet with regularly? It’s limited. I think we see that the corporate Jewish model, at least in this area, is not as appealing. It doesn’t catch.”
That’s what I hear when I meet community leaders who are creating the real connections that people crave. They’re leaders of synagogues, upstart organizations that present new modes of connection, living-room minyans and more. There’s your unity.
Shanah tovah, dear reader. In 5780, may you find rewarding connection with community or God or whatever you’re looking for.