On your average Shabbos, a minyan at Chabad of South Orlando is usually made up of several dozen men and women, about half of whom are only visiting, and conversation after prayers is exchanged in a lively variety of foreign languages. Stocked with prayerbooks translated into just about every conceivable language, the shul’s doors are open to Jewish visitors from across the spectrum and across the world.
This is Chabad on location, only several miles from Disney’s 49 square mile enormous entertainment complex, home to Disneyworld, Epcot Center, Universal Studios and various other attractions. Disneyworld and the surrounding theme parks draw several million visitors each year among them, and employ thousands in the Orlando area. Between the two, says Rabbi Konikov, who moved out here with his wife Chanie and their children two years ago, South Orlando is home to a sizeable Jewish population.
This time of year is peak tourist season in Orlando, and hundreds of Jewish tourists are among the throngs filling the city’s hotels and parks. “People come to Chabad with literally any sort of material or religious need, because it’s just reassuring to know you have that Jewish presence here,” says Rabbi Konikov, who has dealt with illnesses, mikvah visits, kaddish minyanim, and kosher food supply issues in his years here. “Many Jews call us up before they even get here.” To accommodate their needs, Chabad has kosher food supplies arranged, special rates at hotels near Chabad procured in advance, and the Konikovs are available at any time to deal with other requests.
For the local community, Chabad holds regular services, classes and programs for the several hundred Jewish families who live here full-time. Most of them are employed with Disney or its affiliates, making for some rather unusual congregants at Chabad in the last few years. One of these was Mickey Mouse, known as Jennie off-hours and, for a time, an active member of Chabad of South Orlando. Having discovered another kind of magic in Orlando, her Mickey Mouse days are behind her, as Jennie, now called Rachel, studies at a Yeshiva in Israel.