New Chabad of Oakland off to ambitious start

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The Bay Area’s newest Chabad has opened its doors.

Chabad of Oakland — the 14th such center to open in Northern California in the past 10 years — has started like many before: operating out of a rabbi’s home, in this case Rabbi Dovid and Shulamis Labkowski’s split-level at 889 Sunnyhills Road.

The young husband and wife moved to Oakland from Brooklyn in October. Forty people came to their first Shabbat meal in November. They’ve also begun a women’s circle, which meets in their large living room furnished with several tables and plenty of chairs.

“Chabad opens up any place where unaffiliated Jews live,” said the rabbi. “There are about 40,000 Jews here [in the East Bay] who are not affiliated. We may see more than one Chabad house in this area.”

The Chabad is located about a mile from Oakland’s modern Orthodox synagogue, Congregation Beth Jacob. The location was chosen not to compete with the synagogue, but for its proximity to Oakland’s kosher grocery store and restaurants.

“We’re not looking to take away members” from the synagogue, Labkowski said.

He and his wife want to offer programs that aren’t happening elsewhere. For instance, instead of holding traditional Friday or Saturday services, the Labkowksis are focusing on educational Shabbats.

“We have services for starters — for people who don’t know how to hold a prayerbook and who want to learn more about the meaning of davening, but who may be uncomfortable going to another synagogue,” Labkowski said.

They also soon will begin classes about the meaning of Jewish holidays, how and why Jews read from a siddur and the philosophy of Chabad.

Eventually, they want to start teen and after-school programs and a Hebrew school.

“The truth is, we haven’t been here that long to know what holes need to be filled,” Shulamis Labkowski said. “We’re here to serve people, we’re doing what they want and like, so we welcome everybody’s ideas.”

Rob Salzburg was excited to learn a Chabad would open two blocks from his home. A “shul hopper,” he has tried numerous synagogues since moving to Oakland three years ago. He used to live in San Francisco, during which time he often went to Chabad of Noe Valley.

He and his wife missed it when they moved, he said. “What appeals to us about Chabad is it’s warm, haimish and spiritually focused,” he said. “I also like the fact that their home is pretty much always open. I always feel comfortable stopping by.”

The Labkowskis are Lubavitch emissaries, following the wishes of its deceased leader, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, known to Lubavitchers as the Rebbe.

Rabbi Labkowski is a graduate of the Central Lubavitch Yeshiva in Brooklyn and received his rabbinical ordination from the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. Shulamis Labkowski, also a Brooklyn native, graduated from the Machon Shoshanat Seminary in Jerusalem.

Chabad of Oakland’s Chanukah celebration begins with a menorah lighting 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 19 at Piedmont Park, followed by a Chanukah party at the Piedmont Community Center. A second, child-oriented Chanukah celebration will be held 2 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 20, at 2500 Embarcadero, Suite A in Oakland. The events are open to the public. For more information, contact the Labkowskis at (510) 444-6770.

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.