The very last thing Ron Aaron expected to find on the Microsoft Campus in Redmond, Washington was a lunch-hour Talmud class. Aaron, a program tester for Microsoft, describes the sprawling, fifty-building home of Microsoft World Headquarters as “a big melting pot” of some 40,000 employees. Coming from a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds, they are united, he says, by a strong scientific sentiment that generally precludes religion completely.
Aaron, who describes himself as having grown up “completely unaffiliated” was doing research into his family’s history when he heard of the Talmud class by a Chabad rabbi on the campus. “I realized you can’t reject something you don’t know,” he says. “Judaism is such an integral part of my history, but it wasn’t part of my life. So the class caught my interest.”
That was seven years ago, and today, Aron still attends the Talmud class every week. He has also since transformed his life, making Judaism an essential feature of his home and his routines. Once Aron got past the curiosity, he says, the study of Judaism became “less an intellectual exercise than a way of life, and I realized that we had to do something, not just learn.” So Ron and his wife moved their family from Kirkland to Bellevue, “ten miles and a world view away,” he quips, to be within the hub of the young, thriving Jewish community surrounding the East Side Chabad Torah Center.
Bellevue, which exploded with the growth of Microsoft and the high-tech companies that came on its heels in the late 80’s and early 90’s, wasn’t always a vibrant Jewish community. When Rabbi Sholom-Ber Levitin recruited Mordechai and Rochie Farkash to bring Chabad to Bellevue and the surrounding suburbs on Seattle’s East side in 1994, most Jewish activity in the city was on the west side, where Rabbi Levitin and his wife Chanie were serving as Chabad representatives since October of 1972. The Jewish community on the east side was “a lot less established, a lot less structured, and generally far less affiliated than their west-side counterparts,” Rabbi Levitin recalls. “And there were all the Jews working at Microsoft and the dot-com companies around there who needed to be reached also.”
“Bellevue is unique in that it has all the elements of classic suburbia, in addition to a being a thriving business center,” says Chana Erlenwein, who moved here with her husband and children three and a half years ago. “The combination has attracted a lot of young professionals, many of whom work for Boeing, which is nearby, or the high tech firms like Microsoft that have large complexes around here.”
Approximately 20,000 Jews live in the east-side suburbs, and most people expect that number to grow. “Since I’m here there has been so much activity both in and around the East Side Torah Center,” Erlenwein says. “A very warm, family oriented community that has really attracted a lot of people, has emerged.”
Mike Waldman, a retired businessman-turned-horse trainer from Woodinville, several miles from Bellevue, came back from a trip to Israel in October of 2000 searching for a place to learn to pray. His experiences at an Orthodox Yom Kippur service in Israel made him realize that he was missing “that depth and devotion in prayer that I witnessed in Israel. I wanted to have that experience here.”
Only several days later, he attended a Brit Milah where he met a few of Seattle’s Chabad rabbis and learned about the East Side Torah Center’s classes in Bellevue. He’s been a regular participant ever since.
“The knowledge and skills I’ve gained from my studies at the Torah Center have given me the ability to integrate classical Jewish philosophy with my own studies and really enriched my experience,” he says. He attributes the success of the classes to Rabbi Farkash’s talents as a teacher. “He speaks to people on their level,” he says. “In an utterly diverse community, where you have people from so many different backgrounds, it’s necessary to have a rabbi who reaches people where they’re at and makes them feel comfortable. Rabbi Farkash and his wife have managed to do that here.”
Last June, Chabad purchased a 3100 square foot office building one block from Microsoft Headquarters, where they had been renting space since 1994. “It’s very exciting to put down roots here,” says Rabbi Farkash. The building houses all of Chabad’s services, classes and educational programs, and, with the Microsoft campus literally a half-block away, “the location couldn’t be more ideal for the work we do,” he says.