Sharon Probolsky smiles as she watches the chaos of children dancing around classroom tables and gathering their projects after a day at the Chabad Jewish Center of Laguna Niguel's Hebrew School.
The atmosphere of this unassuming room in the midst of an office park is permeated by a warmth that makes those who enter feel welcome. There are no stained-glass windows, no vaulted ceilings with skylights. Instead, the room is furnished simply with a few small tables, a pulpit and a folding screen that divides the room into sections. Yet the sound of children's laughter and the happy faces of the parents make the room home-like.
A Feeling of Family
Rabbi Mendy Paltiel, the center's leader, and his wife, Kreinie, moved here from the East Coast to open the chabad in January 2006. Kreinie, director of the Hebrew School, loves the atmosphere.
"We really feel as if the people who come here are our family," she says. "There is a certain connection we have with people who come through our doors, and it's reciprocated by them. So the children in our Hebrew school, and the people that we meet in different services, they all become our family. It creates this wonderful environment that we love."
Although Kreinie misses her own extended family, she says, "my life is very full and rich, and I don't feel sad, because I am loving what I am doing and the people that I have met here, so it all balances out. I am grateful for that."
A Perfect Location
Rabbi Paltiel says Laguna Niguel was an obvious choice for the chabad center.
"There is a growing Jewish community in Laguna Niguel, contrary to what people believe, but sometimes they hide their identity or they're not really interested," he explains. "You don't have to be observant to be welcome here. The message that we bring really resonates, even with people like this. We aren't here to build an organization; we are here to build the Jewish people."
This effort to support and build the community is shared by those who participate in the center. Paltiel says, "The greatest joy is when I see friendships that are made here. We have a small and modest center, but we are very active, and many in our community have met and become close friends. I've seen members of our community reach out to others that they've met just a month or two earlier. They're there for them as family, because many of them don't have their own families locally."
An Open-Door Policy
"Chabad," which is an acronym for wisdom, understanding and knowledge, is one of the world's best-known Hasidic movements. Part of a global organization of more than 4,000 centers based in Brooklyn, the movement has more than 200,000 full-time followers. Up to a million members of the Jewish community attend services at a chabad center at least once a year.
Inclusiveness is emphasized. "Our purpose is to share the values and the richness of Judaism with every single member of the Jewish community, regardless of background or financial standing," Paltiel says. "The values and the beauty of the Jewish tradition belong to every Jewish person as their inheritance, which is why we don't have an official membership. It's a novel approach, and we have an open-door policy. Everyone is welcome equally."
To promote those traditions, the chabad provides outreach through educational activities, synagogues, schools, community centers and camps.
"We offer an array of events, classes and services to promote this cause so that everybody can find an area that is meaningful to them," he says. "I can't think of one instance where a person tried [the center] and didn't enjoy it, because we don't impose anything on anybody."
A Joyous Place
Deb Jardine, who moved to Laguna Niguel from South Africa 13 years ago, brings her daughter to the children's Hebrew School regularly. "It's an absolute joy," she says, "and these people are just amazing. The warmth.... The people embrace you. The children love to be here; they are loved and are taught correctly about the traditions. We can't always do this every day at home."
A Broad Mission
Although the center does offer many services as part of its outreach, Rabbi Paltiel says its most important function is "simply to be there for the people. Southern California is a nice place to live, but, individually, people may be going through very dark moments in their lives, and sometimes, even in Orange County, neighbors kind of keep to themselves. But they find a home here."
Of course, that broad mission means the center's leadership is never off-duty.
"We get calls all hours of the day and night," he says. "The people know that they can call us and the chabad will be there for them whether it is to plan a funeral, or marriage advice, or to council a troubled child."
Indeed, the Paltiels are dedicated to their mission, one that is reflected in the smiling faces of the parents as they come in to pick up their children. As Sharon Probolsky prepares to leave the center with her child's projects and a fresh loaf of unbaked challah—a traditional bread—in hand, she attempts to describe the effect of the chabad's mission on her own life. She is so overcome with emotion that she is unable to form the words. Yet her smile eloquently expresses her satisfaction.
In December, the Chabad Jewish Center of Laguna Niguel will have its annual Hanukkah celebration which is co-sponsored by the city of Laguna Niguel. This year's event will feature live music, entertainment for the children, a raffle and a barbeque. All in the community are invited to attend.