“Judaism has always emphasized a holistic approach to life – portraying our mental, emotional, physical and spiritual health as being very much interrelated,” said Rabbi Moshe Bryski, Executive Director of Chabad of the Conejo, in his seminal remarks from the podium of the Four Seasons Hotel in Westlake Village, California on June 10, 2013.
The occasion was Chabad of the Conejo’s Gala Dinner – “A Celebration of the Human Spirit: Mind, Heart, Body and Soul” – attended by some five hundred friends and supporters. “Just as in the physical sense, a body in motion tends to stay in motion, the same is also true in the spiritual sense – a soul in motion stays in motion,” Rabbi Bryski went on to say. “This is why the Lubavitcher Rebbe would never allow us to be satisfied with the status-quo – there must be no sitting sedentary when it comes to the advancement of Yiddishkeit.”
The opening of Chabad of the Conejo’s Center for Jewish Life in the fall of 2011 is seen as a watershed moment in that it established a new benchmark for the organization’s growth and success. “It’s great that we’ve reached a new milestone,” said Bryski, “but that means having to maintain a new level of ‘muscle mass’ and making sure to keep that spiritual cardio level up!” In addition to attracting many new families to its existing schools, classes and events, the new premises has facilitated the launching of new many programs for young and old.
Rabbi Yisroel Levine, Director of Development of Chabad of the Conejo, expanded on the theme by sharing a powerful “Human Spirit” story, wherein his regular visits to the federal penitentiary in Lompoc, California, enabled a distraught inmate to embrace his roots and finally realize the meaning behind counsel the Lubavitcher Rebbe had given his grandmother thirty years earlier.
In other highlights of the evening – which corresponded to the eve of the 3rd of Tammuz, the Yahrtzeit-Hilulo of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, zy”o – Rabbi Yitzchak Sapochkinsky, Associate Director of Chabad of the Conejo, led the banquet audience on a guided tour of the Rebbe’s unique and distinctive style of leadership that revolutionized the Jewish world. He also paid tribute to the memory of two venerated Chassidim lost to the Chabad-Lubavitch community in recent months: Rabbi Yitzchak “Itche” Springer obm, a revered mentor for thousands of young yeshiva students and father of Chabad of Oak Park’s Rebbetzin Leah Levine, and Rabbi Laibel Bistritzky obm, a passionate community activist, co-founder of the renowned “Hatzalah” volunteer first-response program and father of Chabad of the Conejo’s beloved Director of Outreach, Rabbi Shlomo Bistritzky.
Following Rabbi Sapochkinsky’s remarks, Rabbi Bistritzky took to the stage and movingly invoked the principle of “V’hachai yitain el libo – the living shall take to heart,” vowing that the passing of those two giants would not be marked by sadness alone, but moreover, by a resolve to perpetuate their legacies by doing more to help others and build stronger and more vibrant Jewish communities.
A video documentary honoring the life and times of the late Ralph and Sonia Fenster and Sidney and Rea Kammerstein, parents of Chabad friends Stephen and Sheila Fenster, was shown prior to Steve and Sheila’s acceptance of a posthumous tribute on their parents’ behalf. Among the highlights of the film was Steve and Sheila’s dedication of the new Friendship Circle wing within the Center for Jewish Life to the memory of their beloved parents, who served as exemplars of kindness and philanthropy for their children.
The Conejo Jewish Academy’s first ever “Phi Beta Kippa Award” was presented to Mr. Don Block, a man in his eighties, who, despite a childhood marred by painful experiences relating to his Jewish identity, began to attend Torah classes at Chabad when he was in his sixties and when on to become one of the Academy’s most enthusiastic and accomplished of students. Toward the end of his poignant and amusing remarks, Don Block said, “Thanks to Chabad and the Conejo Jewish Academy, I am able to stand before you at this relatively-advanced and tranquil stage of my life and say: ‘I am very proud of my Jewish identity. I am proud of our history and our heritage. I am proud of what the Jewish People have introduced to the world through the ages… I humbly accept this prestigious award in the hopes that many more will come to discover the joys of Judaism as I have – with the awareness that it really is – ‘never too late!'”
The Honorees of the Gala were Dr. Zol and Tracy Kryger, a young couple who moved into the Agoura Hills community three years ago and immediately began to have a positive impact on those around them. In accepting the award, the young leaders expressed how happy they were to be doing so insofar as it was providing them the opportunity to say thank you to an organization and a community that had given so much to them and their family. Dr. Zol Kryger went on to cite three decisive encounters he’d had with Chabad over the years – the first dating back to his days as a twenty-year-old soldier in the Israeli Army – that have served to totally change his outlook and direction in life.
The evening’s musical entertainment was provided by Choni Goldman, winner of the 2012 International Jewish star competition and the newest sensation in the world of Jewish music. A comedic performance by Wayne Cotter kept the audience in non-stop fits of laughter for his entire 15-minute set.
Through story and song, laughter and tears, the evening provided for a unifying and uplifting rededication to Chabad of the Conejo’s focused and multifaceted mission of educating the young, helping the needy and inspiring the masses – a fitting celebration of the entirety of the “Human Spirit” indeed.