New Chabad and its young rabbi settle into San Jose

A 22-year-old in-line skater whose favorite singer is Mordechai Ben David has become a new spiritual leader in the South Bay.

Described by his uncle as calm, cool and collected, Rabbi Aaron Mier Cunin is, nevertheless, young for taking on the directorship of the new Chabad of San Jose.

But that doesn't bother Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin, the L.A.-based California director of Chabad who appointed him, having no qualms about his nephew's youthful innocence.

"At his young age Rabbi Aaron Mier Cunin has grown up, living and breathing experiences in dealing with people and their life problems," said the elder Cunin.

"He has worked and established bridgeheads with numerous groups. He is very well-organized, energetic, enthusiastic and patient."

Chabad, the international organization of Lubavitch Chassidim, is renting space at the Addison-Penzak Jewish Community Center of Silicon Valley in Los Gatos. Weekly Shabbat services started last month.

Extending an invitation to all South Bay Jews, the younger Cunin said, "I want to reach out to everyone. We don't look at labels, and we don't judge anyone. The whole community is welcome."

Larry Schuster of Saratoga attended the first service, and said, "I found the people to be open, friendly, receptive to helping others."

Under Cunin's leadership there are plans for an ongoing adult education program. He recently presented a lecture on Maimonides and Aristotle regarding faith and rationality.

Also in the planning stage is a lecture on Kabbalah. Cunin explained, "I want to bring Kabbalah down to a level that everyone can understand, including all the generations."

The rabbi, whose staff includes two rabbinical students, has instituted a monthly "Lunch and Learn" program. Employees of companies in Silicon Valley meet with him to study Torah while eating a kosher meal.

"I call it food for soul and body," said Cunin, a Los Gatos resident. "The soul is what's yearning to study Torah, just like our bodies need water." Two local businesses have signed on for this program. One is Pacific Coast Vision, which plans weekly "Lunch and Learn" programs open to the public at noon, Mondays. For location, call Cunin at (408) 358-5530.

The rabbi, who's been with the new Chabad since October, added, "I myself have a great learning experience from my elders in the community. If I have a serious problem, I consult with my senior rabbis in the area."

Support programs he has instituted include helping anyone in the community with mezuzah hanging, and helping people with putting on tefillin. Of the latter, he said inspiration for the practice in recent history came from the late Lubavich head Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson. During the 1967 war, the rebbe told the soldiers in Israel to lay tefillin and said, "Your enemies will have fear of you."

Wanting to start a holiday-awareness program, Cunin initiated an outdoor menorah candle-lighting ceremony. San Jose's Fairmont was chosen as the site for the community Chanukah celebration last December.

Future programs include prison visitations to felons of all faiths, using the seven Noahide laws. (While Jews are commanded to observe hundreds of laws, non-Jews are expected to follow seven ethical commandments that are presumed to date from the time of Noah. Judaism regards any non-Jew who keeps these laws as a righteous person who is guaranteed a place in the world to come.)

"God gave the laws to all mankind," Cunin said. "I see a future in these seven laws, as we're here to help everyone."

He said the biggest challenge of his job "is how spaced-out the San Jose area is. It is very hard to get a large part of the community together at one time."

But he is willing to help with whatever is needed, especially reaching out to unaffiliated Jews in the community. A typical day for the young rabbi includes visiting the sick and elderly and keeping numerous appointments.

But when he has a few spare moments, he likes to put on a pair of in-line skates and head for the great outdoors. "I like to Rollerblade," he said. "There is a park near where I live with a trail."

He'll also pick up a book on politics or listen to Chassidic music. "I especially like Mordechai Ben David."

A native of Brooklyn, N.Y., Cunin grew up in the Crown Heights Chassidic community. He referred to his attendance at regular Shabbat services led by Schneerson as his inspiration for seeking the rabbinate.

He studied in Israel for two years at Kiryat Gat Yeshiva, and received his rabbinical ordination at Yeshiva Or Elachnon Chabad in Los Angeles.

Previously he was director of Chabad youth programs in Los Angeles, where he led large projects including a matzah-bake and the production of olive oil.

"I want to make a difference," Cunin said. "Chabad wants to make the world a better place, step by step, one mitzvah at a time."