How a city known for NASCAR, Harley Davidson rallies, and spring break shenanigans came to need a 25,000 square foot Chabad-Lubavitch center is quite a story.
This winter, Chabad of Greater Daytona will celebrate the completion of its sprawling Esformes Jewish Community Center, an airy Mediterranean style complex that will house a ten classrooms, two commercial kitchens – separate for dairy and meat, a women’s mikvah, a men’s mikvah, a sanctuary and daily chapel.
However, it is the ballroom on premises that will be the heart of the center. In this city that knows how to party, a Jewish community has been built via a distinctly Chasidic form of partying: the farbrengen.
“We are into farbrengens. They are the glue that makes our community a cohesive unit,” said Chabad of Daytona’s co-director Rabbi Pinchas Ezagui.
For fifteen years, Rabbi Ezagui and his wife Chani, co-director of Chabad, have not gone home for lunch after Shabbat morning services. They and their congregants stay in the synagogue for a community meal. Then, with morning-prayer obligations and appetites sated, as many as 150 stay on, voices joining to sing Chasidic songs, tell stories, and share Shabbat together.
"Every week at the farbrengen, we refill our tanks with premium – the stories, we laugh, we cry, we have strength for the week," said Eva Maman.
It would take something dramatic for Stacy Beyer, an occupational therapist, and her family to miss a farbrengen.
“Everyone is so invested in everyone else’s success, it is a very genuine experience,” she said. The community supported her when her children left public school to attend a Jewish school, run by Chani Ezagui, full time.
Like many others, the Beyers moved into a new home in order to observe Shabbat within walking distance of the synagogue. “It is important for the kids to come and see that this is what we do. This is how we enjoy” the day of rest.
In Daytona, the farbrengen functions as a school of living Judaism, showing newcomers why living as a committed Jew is a fulfilling choice, no pressure, no lectures needed. Beyer has observed newcomers who first attend wearing faded jeans and t-shirts, and then begin to dress in honor of Shabbat. Not because they were told to, but “because they grow with us.”
When Chicago-based philanthropist Rabbi Morris Esformes turned up at Chabad of Daytona for a Shabbat, his experiences at the fabrengen were among those that led him to foster the $5 million project. To inaugurate the school’s new home, the first 50 students who register for places in the kindergarten through sixth grade classes will receive a whopping 80% tuition reduction.
Built on a strip traveled by thousands of vacationers, Chabad’s new building is expected to attract more Jewish tourists. “You can’t go to the beach without passing the center,” said Rabbi Ezagui. Daytona’s Jewish community, about 1800 families in all, thrives on the tourist trade.
Eva Maman and her husband own souvenir shops on the beach strip. The Maman family’s story offers a snapshot of Chabad’s capacity to bring families in the middle of nowhere back to strong identification with Judaism. Their son Leor is one of the 30 children in Chabad’s school. Like the rest of his classmates, Leor attends the weekly farbrengens.
Sometimes I am in the roon listening to stories, but also there is a playground, and kids play."
The Mamans sponsored the construction of both mikvahs, and his big sister Esther married a Chabadnik from Montreal.
Beyer said she’s grateful her family has followed a similar trajectory. Her daughter Chana recently married Chabad yeshiva grad Aryeh Leib Rosenblatt.
“I don’t know where my family would be today if we didn’t have the Ezaguis,” Beyer said. “I am so grateful.”