Creative to the hilt, it’s fitting that Chabad Jewish Center of Mission Viejo, CA, is housed in a former bank building. Transforming ennui into excitement has been Chabad’s trademark for the past ten years. Where else does the Chabad rabbi sing with a (Jewish) rock and roll band? But most striking is the reaction elicited by mention of Chabad of Mission Viejo’s 150-student strong Hebrew school.
Angela Khalil drives a half hour to bring her sons, Nathan and Ethan, to Chabad Jewish Center’s Hebrew school. “I love it. They are the best. I come all the way from Tustin because I fell in love with the program. My kids look forward to going to Hebrew school, and we have tried so many different temples,” said Khalil.
On January 22, CJC of Mission Viejo, lead by Rabbi Zalman and Bassie Marcus with the assistance of Rabbi Zalman Aaron and Rochel Kantor, will be celebrating its tenth anniversary with a “Decade of Music and Mitzvot Concert” featuring Eighth Day and Gerry Schubert at Merage Jewish Community Center of Orange County. At the concert, Rabbi Yitzchak and Ita Marcus, Paul and Gwen Fisher, and Howard and Sharon Haas will be honored.
Children have been at the center of Rabbi Zalman and Bassie Marcus’s work since they began the CJC. As children of Chabad representatives, they arrived in Mission Viejo having lived through their own “Chabad Rep 101” and knew that “you could do a million programs and not do them right. Or you could have one anchor program and put everything you have into it,” said Bassie Marcus.
Before starting a synagogue, even before reaching the benchmark of attracting a consistent group of ten to their weekly Shabbat services, the Marcuses opened their Hebrew school with a focus on excellence. “We want all people to feel our school is an option for them,” said Rabbi Marcus. “Our program is broad, comfortable, professional–and cool and hip–so people feel this is a place for me.”
CJC’s Hebrew school erases any preconceived notions of Hebrew school and its reputation as a boring, ad hoc bar mitvah factory. Learning is departmental. There are separate teachers for Hebrew language, bible studies and holidays. Khalil said her children “love to rotate through the classes.” Rigorous standards at the school convinced local public high schools to allow their students to fulfill their language credits through CJC’s Hebrew High program.
Chabad’s programs now include a Mommy and Me group run by Rochel Kantor and a university-style adult education program, through the Jewish Learning Institute, taught by Rabbi Kantor. Every six weeks or so, CJC hosts a family workshop. At a recent workshop a stable of farmyard animals mooed and baa-ed in an exhibit that explained Matriarch Rebecca’s kindness to animals. Eileen Banes tries to bring her children to every event. “They love it because it is a hands on experience,” she said.
Howard Haas, principal of the highly acclaimed Tarbut V’Torah in nearby Irvine, CA, said, “Chabad of Mission Viejo represents to me a large hug. It welcomes all people. It is community.” Haas attends Rabbi Marcus’s Shabbat morning Kabbalah classes. Rabbi Marcus is “a wise man,” said Haas, “an old soul in a young body. He has a lot of wisdom.”
To the delight of other members of the community, Rabbi Marcus and Rabbi Kantor are more than intellectual powerhouses. “They are young rabbis and when they talk, they say ‘how cool’ this is going to be,” said Banes. “They play basketball with the Hebrew school kids.” Coolness is also apparent when Rabbi Marcus is onstage with his brothers during Eighth Day concerts. Seeing a rabbi sing bluesy, alt-rock harmonies is “great,” said community member Monique Cymerint. “We’ve seen them live at least three times, and they are just fantastic. It is great to see a rabbi who is such doing something different from routine, who is such a regular guy.”
After a decade of achievement in Mission Viejo, Rabbi Marcus said, “We feel we are just getting started.”