The rebbe’s army: Chabad keeps growing in the Bay Area

When Chabad Rabbi Chaim Zaklos and his wife, Aidel, moved to Vacaville in 2009, they didn’t know if their mission to reach out to Jews in the area would succeed.

Despite their concerns, one of the first things they did was buy burial plots at a nearby Jewish cemetery. They had not come to test the waters. The couple was all in. For life.

As shluchim (emissaries) of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, their mission was to follow the directive of their rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson: Reach out to all Jews and reconnect them to their roots. Even in Vacaville, and nearby burgs like Fairfield, Suisin City and Cordelia.

“It was hard to find any demographics,” Zaklos recalls. “We were kind of nervous. We had to rely on our gut feeling that there must be Jewish people everywhere.”

Today, Chabad of Solano County offers Torah study groups, camps, Shabbat dinners and holiday celebrations. High Holy Day services and Passover seders pack the banquet hall at the nearby Hampton Inn.

Chabad of Solano County is one of 48 Chabad centers in the Bay Area, from Castro Valley to Novato to “Chabad by the Sea” in Santa Cruz. In Northern California, Chabad centers are more abundant than minor league ballparks, dotting the landscape in outposts such as Chico, Folsom, Roseville, Pacific Grove and South Lake Tahoe.

Chaim and Aidel Zaklos are two among more than 8,000 shluchim working in 70 countries around the world — that works out to 4,000 couples, as Chabad shluchim work in husband-wife teams. 

Twenty years after the death of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, the man who built Chabad into the empire it is today, the movement shows little signs of slowing down. It continues to open new centers, expand old ones and send new emissary couples out into the world wherever there are Jews to reach.

Chabad centers are not built on the typical synagogue model. Most charge no dues. None in the Bay Area do. The doors are always open. Chabad rabbis and rebbetzins see themselves as community clergy, available to all, seemingly 24/7.

California Chabad convention circa 1980

California Chabad convention circa 1980


Some Chabad centers serve a local Jewish community. Some serve college students, such as centers in Berkeley, Santa Cruz, Davis and at Stanford. Some emissaries don’t run their own centers but work in Chabad schools or run Chabad programs such as  Friendship Circle, which pairs high school volunteers and children with special needs.

All of them seek to strengthen the individual Jew’s ties to Judaism, one mitzvah at a time.

Marc Dollinger, a professor of Jewish studies at San Francisco State University, has observed the growth of Chabad and has been struck by the movement’s success, which is not unrelated to its appetite for outreach.

“There are two approaches for the Orthodox,” he says. “One is an insulated approach to Jewish life, keeping yourself and your kids separate from the non-Orthodox community. Chabad turned that on its head. [Shluchim] seek to situate outside the Orthodox community and bring more Jews to observance. They’re all in on outreach, on being nonjudgmental and being as inclusive as possible.”

According to the Chabad website, Schneerson conceived of the Chabad house as “a home away from home” for students, travelers and community members. In 1965 he sent Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin to Los Angeles to build the first in the nation — the Chabad house at UCLA.

Cunin brought to Los Angeles tested Lubavitch outreach techniques he learned in New York, such as stopping Jews on the street, guiding men to lay tefillin and giving Shabbat candles to the women. But he adapted his methods to the sensibilities of L.A. Jews.  He launched a fleet of mitzvah-mobiles, cars topped with menorahs driven by inspired young shluchim who would stop Jews on the street to hand out Jewish goodies.

As his own operation grew, Cunin, now the director of Chabad’s West Coast headquarters, looked to expand north to the Bay Area. In 1973, he purchased an old frat house on Piedmont Avenue in Berkeley. Under the tutelage of Rabbi Chaim Drizin, a Chabad-affiliated education specialist, the frat became Chabad House No. 2.

In short order, the directorship of the house was given to Yosef Langer, born Gary Langer, an Oakland native, college dropout, former merchant seaman and spiritual seeker par excellence. He had done some cooking in the Manhattan Chabad’s kosher kitchen, and he attended Chabad yeshiva for several years in New York, where he met his future wife, Hinda.

Rabbi Yosef Langer sounding the shofar at a Grateful Dead concert at the Shoreline Amphitheater, 1991

Rabbi Yosef Langer sounding the shofar at a Grateful Dead concert at the Shoreline Amphitheater, 1991


The Langers came to back to Berkeley in 1975, and though there was no playbook on fulfilling the rebbe’s mandate to reach out to every Jew, they found their way.

Going in, they realized they had an advantage. Neither was FFB (Chabad slang for “frum from birth,” frum meaning Torah observant). Both had adopted traditional Judaism later in life — so they felt they had an understanding of where young, secular Jews were coming from.

“All roads led to Telegraph Avenue,” remembers Langer of those early days. “On any given Shabbos, you had the frat rats, the hippies, the Israelis, professors, community people, Hassidim. It was one, big, happy mix.”

“Now we look back at ourselves as pioneers,” Hinda adds. “What does a pioneer do? You lay the groundwork. The doors were never locked, and you could come live in the Chabad house, the only overnight place for Jewish people north of L.A.”

It was a welcoming place. The house had space for 300 people in the dining room, and 17 bedrooms. Any Jew was welcome to stay. All the Langers asked in return was that men participate in the daily minyan.

In 1977, the Langers helped build a Berkeley mikvah. In 1985 the couple moved across the bay to open Chabad of San Francisco. Langer is arguably the Bay Area’s most public rabbi. Every December he lights a giant Hanukkah menorah on Union Square, a tradition he started in 1975.

And perhaps even more notably, Langer is the only Chabadnik to have made it to exalted bobblehead status.

For the Jewish Heritage Night at AT&T Park in 2007, the San Francisco Giants gave away Langer bobblehead dolls, complete with black hat and shofar. They fetch a nice price on eBay. And he still sounds the shofar at the ballpark every year on Jewish Heritage Night.

Zohn Artman of Bill Graham Presents and writer Herb Gold at the first Union Square menorah lighting in 1975

Zohn Artman of Bill Graham Presents and writer Herb Gold at the first Union Square menorah lighting in 1975  photo/andy altman-ohr


In 1985, Chabad of Berkeley became the domain of Chicago native Rabbi Yehuda Ferris and his New Jersey–born wife, Miriam, who had come from New York to work under the Langers in 1981.

To Ferris, who grew up with little exposure to traditional Judaism and who was drawn to Chabad while in college, Berkeley in those early days was like “the wild, wild West.”

“The mission was to touch every Jew that moved,” Ferris recalls. “It was a little daunting, but exciting. People were very open to spirituality. People were thrilled to reconnect with their Jewish roots.”

Sometimes, Ferris had to wing it. More than once he showed up at someone’s home, blowtorch in hand, to make a kitchen kosher.

“We destroyed people’s ovens,” he says. “They didn’t teach us about that in yeshiva. But I learned quickly about the melting point of aluminum pots.”

As the only Chabad rabbi in the East Bay, Ferris would drive all over — to lead a minyan in Mill Valley, another in San Rafael, a Hebrew class in Walnut Creek, a havurah in Danville. And he served as a chaplain at the Santa Rita Jail in Pleasanton.

For her part, Miriam, who also grew up with little religious tradition, followed the old adage, “The way to the Jewish neshama [soul] is through the stomach.” A talented chef, she prepared Shabbat meals 50 Friday nights a year and handed out bagels (donated by Noah Alper, who was just getting Noah’s Bagels off the ground; it was kosher in those days).

The Chabad financial model, which requires emissaries to raise funds on their own with little aid from Brooklyn headquarters, began to take shape in those early years. At first, Chabad headquarters would give a shaliach couple a year’s salary to get them going. Today, only Chabad centers on college campuses get that kind of help — most everyone else has to raise even the startup funding on their own.

Rabbi Yehuda Ferris mans the Chabad booth at U.C. Berkeley, 1982

Rabbi Yehuda Ferris mans the Chabad booth at U.C. Berkeley, 1982  photo/andy altman-ohr


The Langers remember Drizin writing to the rebbe in the late 1970s with a proposal to start a side business to generate income.

The rebbe wrote back.

“He said God forbid anyone should see Chabad as a capitalist organization,” Langer recalls. “If we sit back and let everyone else raise the money for us, we won’t have the opportunity to knock on a potential supporter’s door. It’s important for us to cultivate the mitzvah of tzedakah. It’s a holy relationship.”

In Palo Alto, Rabbi Yosef Levin and his wife, Dena, quickly looked for ways to draw in Jews. They launched a youth summer camp, with the rabbi-turned–bus driver driving the kids to Disneyland. On any given Thursday, the couple would set up a table at Stanford’s White Plaza to meet and greet.

“There are hundreds of families around the world who today are committed Jews,” he says, “whose first Jewish experience was at our Shabbat table. I have officiated at the traditional weddings of [Jews] who had never seen the inside of a synagogue before I met them.”

Over time, Levin opened other Chabad centers, one in Sunnyvale and another to serve Stanford University.

Rabbi Dov Greenberg and his wife, Rachel, opened Chabad’s Stanford Student Center in 2002. Within a few years, they had prospered enough to buy and renovate their own space near campus.

Greenberg estimates that about 13 percent of the Stanford student body is Jewish, many of them coming from a background of minimal Jewish education.

Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin (left) confers with Rabbi Yosef Langer in 1980

Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin (left) confers with Rabbi Yosef Langer in 1980  photo/andy altman-ohr


“I would ask a simple question: What faith are you?” he recalls. “If the student says, ‘I’m Episcopalian,’ he’s an Episcopalian. If the student says ‘I’m Mormon,’ she’s Mormon. If the student says, ‘I’m just a human being,’ I know he’s a Jew.”

When the dumbfounded student asks the rabbi how he knew, he replies, “Because only a meshuggeneh Jew says ‘I’m just a human being.’”

He attributes that to what he calls an internal debate; the student worries he might run the risk of appearing different. “This conflict of identity, this internal debate, is at the heart of the Jewish condition in our modern world,” Greenberg says.

For 40 years, Chabad in the Bay Area has been helping Jews wrestle with those questions. Chabadniks have been here long enough that now the children of the pioneers are assuming leadership positions, married with children of their own. And some of them want to stay in the Bay Area.

Where can future Bay Area shluchim go? The region may have reached a saturation point. In San Francisco, there are Chabad houses in Noe Valley, Cole Valley, the Sunset District, Pacific Heights, North Beach and two in the Richmond District.

In the East Bay there are centers in Berkeley, Walnut Creek, Oakland, Brentwood, Castro Valley, Fremont and Pleasanton.

In other regions, the list of cities is just as extensive, with chapters in places such as Mill Valley, Napa, Cupertino, Daly City and Redwood City.

When new Chabad couples arrive in an area, they don’t necessarily always open a new center; often, they become educational directors at an existing one or take the reins of a different program.

Rabbi Chaim Zaklos at his 2014 Passover seder in Vacaville photo/andy altman-ohr

Rabbi Chaim Zaklos at his 2014 Passover seder in Vacaville photo/andy altman-ohr


Levin’s daughter, Nechama, and her husband, Rabbi Ezzy Schusterman, wanted to stay in the Bay Area after their marriage. They decided to open a local branch of Friendship Circle, a Chabad program that was first developed in Detroit and now has 65 branches around the world.

The Schustermans’ branch opened in Palo Alto a decade ago. There is now a branch in the East Bay, co-led by the Ferris’ daughter, Devorah, and her husband, Rabbi Yosef Romano, and one in San Francisco, under  the aegi of Chabad of North Beach, headed by Rabbi Peretz Mochkin and his wife, Miryum, the Langers’ daughter.

Miryum Mochkin, 31, attended an Orthodox school in Los Angeles, lived in Israel for a while and later settled in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. There she met her future husband, and when Langer offered them North Beach, the couple moved to San Francisco.

Her husband grew up in Crown Heights, spending many hours at 770 Eastern Parkway, the building that serves as Chabad world headquarters. When he came of age, he did outreach at Chabad outposts in Kazakhstan, Mexico and Russia. After marrying, Mochkin, 32, was eager set up shop in North Beach and “start from scratch.”

The couple run a Friendship Circle branch, hold Torah study and Shabbat services, and focus on young adult activities.

In accordance with Schneerson’s instructions to avoid stepping on the toes of other rabbis or Jewish organizations, the Mochkins make it their business to work with Jewish institutions in their neighborhood. Congregation Emanu-El has hosted their Friendship Circle for the past four years, while Miryum has served on committees with the Jewish Community Relations Council and the Women’s Philanthropy division of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation. Her husband has taught at the Contemporary Jewish Museum.

Does Mochkin ever get odd looks, decked out as he is in a black coat and fedora? “In North Beach,” he says, “I fit right in.”

Not everyone is happy to see a new Chabad center in town. Some of the harshest criticism has come from rabbis or leaders of Jewish organizations who are either opposed to Lubavitch Hassidism on religious grounds, or fear the new center will compete with existing organizations for the same donors and/or students.

Rabbi Yosef Levin on Purim in the early 1980s

Rabbi Yosef Levin on Purim in the early 1980s


Rabbi Stephen Pearce, rabbi emeritus of Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco, watched Chabad grow exponentially during his 20-year tenure through 2013. He says his synagogue enjoyed good relations with nearby Chabad houses. For years, Emanu-El Rabbi Jonathan Jaffe and Chabad of Noe Valley Rabbi Gedalia Potash co-taught an adult education class.

Pearce thinks some of the carping can be attributed to professional jealousy.

“[Chabadniks] have been wildly successful because they’re willing to be on the front lines,” Pearce says of the movement. “For years I maintained the Reform movement should send shluchim to remote corners of the world. Some years we don’t have positions for [newly ordained rabbis]. Let’s give them funds to start a community some place. That [idea] has fallen on deaf ears.”

And if the movement ends up side-by-side with organizations that may be competing for the same dollars and daveners,  Rabbi Adam Naftalin-Kelman of Berkeley Hillel is one who doesn’t worry about it.

His Hillel serves the same campus as the Rohr Chabad Jewish Student Center at U.C. Berkeley, headed by Rabbi Gil Leeds.

“There is so much work that needs to be done,” Naftalin-Kelman says. “Having Chabad adds to the diversity and, at the end of the day, there are plenty of students to go around. There are so many Jewish students who are yet to have a Jewish experience.”

The Lubavitcher Rebbe died on June 12, 1994. The Hebrew date is the third of Tammuz, which falls this year on July 1. But for Chabadniks, he never really left. The impact the rebbe had on the movement and beyond continues to be felt. He was the seventh and last rebbe of Chabad-Lubavitch. He has not been, and probably never will be, replaced.

After the death of the sixth rebbe (his father-in-law) in 1950, Schneerson assumed leadership of the movement and set about building the global outreach empire his predecessor had envisioned. Largely because of his success in putting Chabad on the world stage, he became one of the most influential, most emulated and most highly regarded Jewish religious figures of his time.

Even so, some have faulted him for tolerating, even encouraging, his followers to view him as the long-awaited Messiah, or Moshiach in Hebrew.

Rabbi Yehuda Ferris holds a goblet of wine at the June 2009 Berkeley wedding of his daughter Rivkie (veiled, on left) to Rabbi Dovid Feld; also shown is the groom’s father, Rabbi Chanan Feld. photo/yaakov rosenthal photography

Rabbi Yehuda Ferris holds a goblet of wine at the June 2009 Berkeley wedding of his daughter Rivkie (veiled, on left) to Rabbi Dovid Feld; also shown is the groom’s father, Rabbi Chanan Feld. photo/yaakov rosenthal photography


It’s a thorny issue that plagues the movement to this day, even among those who were too young to have known the rebbe personally. Many prefer to downplay the entire controversy.

“It never comes up,” says Rabbi Menachem Landa, 28, who launched Chabad of Novato with his wife, Adina, two years ago. “I don’t care who Moshiach is. It’s not a matter of who it is; it’s that we want him.”

Like the Zakloses in Vacaville, the Landas came to Novato unsure if they would find a receptive audience even though there was no other Jewish congregation in town. The first thing they did was put an ad in a Novato newspaper announcing their center; 90 people showed up at the second-floor strip mall location for the center’s first Shabbat.

“We wanted to make a difference in the Jewish community at large,” Landa said. “We’re the only Jewish presence here, and cater to every age group and style.”

The Landas have launched a Jewish kids club, now with 25 members, and a teen group with a dozen. Adina Landa started a women’s circle and the rabbi started a men’s cycling club. Meetings open with Torah study and end with biking the mountain trails of Marin.

“We’re not called temples,” Landa adds. “We’re called Chabad houses, because we’re trying to bring people home.”

Zaklos shares the sentiment. He remembers with special fondness his first public menorah lighting in Vacaville five years ago. The town had never seen anything like it, he says. The mayor stood at the rabbi’s side, and more than 200 people turned out.

One woman approached the rabbi afterward. She told him that she was a “closet Jew.”

“She told me she never wanted to identify herself as Jewish,” Zaklos remembers. “Then she pulled out from under her shirt a chai necklace. She said ‘I never wore it in public, but from now on I will.’ ”

Rabbi Yosef Levin teaching bar mitzvah students in the mid-1980s

Rabbi Yosef Levin teaching bar mitzvah students in the mid-1980s


Meanwhile, back in Berkeley 50 miles away, the Ferris family is getting ready for Shabbat. Miriam is reviewing recipes from a kosher Mexican cookbook while she simultaneously cleans lettuce for a salad.

Her husband, dressed in black finery, welcomes guests who straggle in with the setting sun. The Ferris home becomes a wayfarer’s station on Friday nights: a New York economist passing through, Berkeley hippies, Hassidim and others. Apparently little has changed since the Langers’ early days.

One of the guests, Avrumy Weinfeld, a 27-year-old editor and translator, stands by the rabbi’s side for Kabbalat Shabbat prayers. He’s been davening at Chabad since he moved to Oakland from Brooklyn six years ago.

He considers Ferris a holy man.

“One feels close to God around him,” Weinfeld says. “He seems concerned for me both spiritually and physically, and genuinely regards all Jews as family. I’m very grateful for that approach. Many people preach it; he seems to really live it. Everything I said is also true about the rebbetzin.”

Shabbat dinner is a lively affair, as it is at most other Chabad houses. The rabbi keeps things rolling with a mix of serious conversation and jokes. He is an incorrigible quipster.

As the hour grows late, people slip away. Some, the Ferrises know, will be driving home, in violation of Shabbat, but typical of Chabadniks, the couple refrains from judgment.

What matters is that on this night, and on more than 2,000 Shabbats since Chabad came to Northern California, the movement’s emissaries work tirelessly to bring Jews closer to their heritage.

And there are still more young Chabad couples waiting for their chance.

“There are exponentially more shluchim yearning to go to some far-flung corner,” says Miriam Ferris. “I know a couple that took their wedding money and used it to buy their Chabad house. That’s idealism. That’s wanting to make the world a better place.”