Back to TRADITION
Stockton rabbi brings Chabad movement to community

By Dianne Runion
Record Staff Writer
Published Saturday, November 30, 2002

Ask Rabbi Avremel Brod a question about Jewish religious observance and he'll probably answer with a parable. During a recent
meeting of Jews held in his Brookside home, he told of a Jewish man cast adrift on a desert island. When his rescuers found him 25 years later, they saw two synagogues.

"Why do you, the only man on this island, have two synagogues?"

The man pointed to one and said, "This is the one I DON'T go to."

Humor and irony were not lost on the 24 people present—a mixture of Jews who worship in Reform, Conservative and Orthodox synagogues. Yet neither Rabbi Brod nor Temple Israel's Rabbi Jason Gwasdoff anticipates any conflict here. Rabbi Gwasdoff acknowledged that for many years "Temple Israel has been the only game in town."

Gwasdoff added, "We welcome Rabbi Brod to the community because I think he will serve some Jews in the community who are looking for what Chabad has to offer. Some Jews prefer a more traditional style of worship, and they're not going to find it at Temple Israel. Here's an opportunity for them."

The Chabad movement

Stocktonian Gerald Rothman belongs to three Jewish congregations: Temple Israel, which is Reform; the Conservative synagogue, Mosaic Law, in Sacramento; and Chabad in Stockton. The California State University, Sacramento, professor said Chabad, an acronym from the Hebrew words for knowledge, wisdom and understanding, is a movement that grew from part of Hassidic Judaism.

The late Rabbi Menachem Schneerson is revered as Chabad's great leader. Chabad's mission is not to convert Gentiles, Reform or Conservative Jews, but rather to reach out to unaffiliated Jews in a community. A Chabad house takes what Rothman called an "ultra religious group of Jews to set up a house in far-flung areas ... It makes available an opportunity to know Jewish traditions."

Raised in a Chabad background in West Hollywood, Rabbi Brod married his Canadian-born wife, Nechami, who shares his religion. She is seminary-trained as a teacher. The young couple have a 2-month-old daughter, Mushka. They came to Stockton in mid-October partly for a job that failed to materialize. Department of Corrections offered Rabbi Brod a chaplaincy at Deuel Vocational Institute. After the Brods moved to Stockton, the state budget crisis left his job among the cuts.

Philosophical about the loss of income, Rabbi Brod said his primary purpose was to "come to Stockton for a Chabad. The chaplaincy would have helped." An active, articulate partner in this venture, Nechami added, "We came to Stockton to spread Judaism. People are very receptive."

Money remains a problem. Rabbi Brod certifies kosher products in factories and receives some donations. He also said, "To be honest, I'm relying on miracles."

Inspiration and perspiration

With as yet no synagogue, the orthodox couple will meet with other interested Jews in homes. The Torah—the first five books of the Bible — commands them to have a group, defined since Moses' time as 10 men, before they can begin a worship service. Their first service two weeks ago welcomed 30 people, 15 of them men.

Chabad's appeal

Both Nechami and Rabbi Brod believe there is a rise in orthodoxy.

"People are returning to their roots," Rabbi Bord said."

Rabbi Gwasdoff sees the situation a little differently.

"I don't think there's a rise in orthodoxy ... More Jews are interested in searching. There's more interest in the world at large about religion in general and people exploring their roots."

Rules and tradition

Orthodox practices are not always easy in the modern world. Like other Orthodox Jews, the Brods follow rules, customs and traditions. Some rules include keeping kosher: not mixing meat and milk, eating only animals that have split hooves and chew their cud.

The Brods keep the Sabbath from sundown on Friday until sundown on Saturday by not laboring nor operating anything electrical including lights, some of which are left on before sundown Friday.

Customs, said Rabbi Brod, include his wearing a long black coat and hat with a brim.

"Traditions are eating gefilte fish and matzo balls."

One rule which might seem odd in the modern world includes the Rabbi's proscription from touching any woman who is not an immediate family member. Its intent is to keep all physical contact between husband and wife, for family is central and sacred to Chabad.

As such, the Brods plan classes in kosher cooking and holiday programs. They have begun Talmud classes and hope to start youth programs in the community. They also hope to bring kosher meat to the city.

The Brod's primary mission is a sacred one.

"There's a spark of Judaism in every Jew," rabbi Brod said. "The spark sometimes turns into a fire. We're here to offer a match."

Already some local Jews appear ready and willing to fan the flame.

* Information: contact Rabbi Brod at 952-2081 or e-mail him at chabadstockton@aol.com.

* To reach Dianne Runion, e-mail features@recordnet.com.