An unstoppable force, Chabad grows by 3 in East Bay
Rabbi Yanky and Shternie Bell and their son, of El Cerrito.

With unstoppable energy, Chabad grows by 3 in East Bay

It was a dark and, well, not stormy, but typically gloomy winter evening in El Cerrito. Sam Salkin had just finished dinner.

“My wife, Alix, said to me, ‘I think there’s someone at the front door,’” said Salkin, El Cerrito resident and executive director of Sinai Memorial Chapel, the nonprofit Jewish funeral home.

That certainly was unusual in the hilly neighborhood where they lived, so Salkin went to look.

“Standing on the landing [was] a Yid who stepped out of 19th-century Poland,” Salkin said, adding, on second thought, “18th-century Poland!”

The stranger was Rabbi Yanky Bell, a new Chabad rabbi who set up an outpost in El Cerrito at the end of 2016 and was making the rounds on foot, introducing himself to local Jews. The Bells are one of three new sets of Lubavitch shluchim (emissaries) — married couples doing Chabad outreach — who have roosted in the East Bay in the last year, finding homes in the cities of El Cerrito, Richmond and Alameda.

That brings the total of East Bay Chabad centers to 13, with nearly half of them (six) having opened in the last 3½ years. On top of the grandaddy Berkeley location and an 11-year-old center in Oakland, there are outposts in Fremont, Castro Valley, Pleasanton, Danville, Lafayette, Walnut Creek and Brentwood, plus a UC Berkeley Chabad student center. That’s pretty solid coverage for the East Bay’s Jewish population, which stands at slightly more than 100,000 according to a 2011 study commissioned by the region’s Jewish Federation.

“They [the Bells] contacted me and they said, ‘Is there a reason to come out?’ and I said, ‘Of course. There are unaffiliated Jews all over the Bay Area,’” said Rabbi Yehuda Ferris, the director of the large and thriving Chabad of the East Bay in Berkeley, which opened in 1973 as the Bay Area’s first Chabad house. Ferris himself has been there 36 years.

“When I came, there was only Berkeley and Palo Alto” outside of San Francisco, he said. Now there are more than 50 Chabad centers in the greater Bay Area, from Petaluma to San Francisco (where there are seven) to “Chabad by the Sea” in Santa Cruz.

That first talk with Ferris paved the way, Bell said. As someone recently selected to be a Chabad emissary, he could have chosen to go anywhere without a Chabad center (pretty much), but inspired by what he called Ferris’ “passion,” he and his wife set up shop in November in El Cerrito, which has a population of slightly more than 25,000 people.

“We saw that El Cerrito doesn’t have its own synagogue or organized community,” said Bell’s wife, Shternie.

But are there enough Jews there to make their attempts at expanding and enhancing Jewish life fruitful? The Bells think so.

Their first event was a Hanukkah party. They weren’t sure how many people would show up, so they made doughnuts and latkes for 100, just in case. If there were any left, they would eat the leftovers themselves.

“They all got eaten,” Shternie Bell said dryly. Yanky Bell estimated the crowd at 150.

The Bells said that since then, they’ve had guests over for Shabbat, held a Purim celebration and a Passover seder. And they had their first baby, a son, six months ago. (They’ve still got a ways to go to catch up to other Chabad families. Rabbi Mendel Wolvovsky and his wife, Altie, for example, who opened Sonoma County Chabad 15 years ago, have eight children — two shy of Yehuda and Miriam Ferris’ total — and even relative newcomers, such as Rabbi Shmuli Raitman and his wife, Mushky, who opened Chabad of Danville and San Ramon 3½ years ago, have four.)

The Bells acknowledged that between holidays, the traffic has been a little slow, but they aren’t discouraged because they feel like they’re reaching their community — a community that wasn’t even aware it existed, based on what they’ve heard from local Jews.

“A lot of them thought they were one of only a few,” Shternie Bell said.

That’s the same thing Rabbi Yitzchok Wagner is hearing in Richmond. Wagner and his wife, Rochel, moved to the East Bay city, only a few miles away from the Bells, in the early days of 2017, after visiting in the summer of 2016 to get a feel for things.

“We liked what we saw,” he said. “We liked the vibe in general going around the Richmond area.”

Even as newcomers to the city, the Wagners, who have one child, already recognize that Richmond doesn’t get as much attention as now-trendy Oakland or established university town Berkeley.

“It’s kind of one of those places that nobody knows what’s going on inside,” he said.

But the Wagners intend to turn that around. With a population of around 110,000, Richmond is big enough to have its own small Reform synagogue, Temple Beth Hillel, which was founded in 1946. In spite of that, it’s not known for a sizable Jewish community. But Wagner says they’re out there.

“There definitely are quite a few Jewish families, and even singles, in Richmond,” he said.

Like the Bells, the Wagners have concentrated on meeting people, both by cold calls on the phone and by knocking on doors. And even being out and about in Chabad garb is enough to get some word-of-mouth attention rolling. Wagner said he was approached by a stranger in Trader Joe’s in Pinole, who, once Wagner introduced himself, welcomed the new Chabad rabbi to the neighborhood.

“They were actually really excited that something like that can happen in Richmond,” he said.

Rabbi Meir Shmotkin agrees that walking down the street as a Chabad-Lubavitch family is its own kind of outreach. Shmotkin is the newest Chabad rabbi on the block, having moved to Alameda a month ago. Like Wagner, he’s already been stopped in his tracks while grocery shopping — by a woman who had a question about Judaism.

“Anywhere we go, walking down the street, people are looking at us,” said his wife, Mushki.

Rabbi Meir and Mushkie Shmotkin and their children set up shop in Alameda just last month.
Rabbi Meir and Mushkie Shmotkin and their children set up shop in Alameda just last month.

As the newest arrivals, the Shmotkins, who have two children, are just getting started. Although they don’t have much furniture yet, their rented apartment does have a dining room table that they’ve already used for hosting Shabbat.

Both Meir, 28, and Mushki Smotkin, 24, come from shluchim families, so settling in a new place and carrying on the Chabad work of outreach is something that they’re thrilled to be doing.

“I grew up helping other people, that’s what my home was like,” Meir Shmotkin said.

Young and full of energy — Yitzchok Wagner is 25 and Rochel is 24, while Yanky Bell is 26 and Shternie 24 — all three couples are prepared for it to be difficult.

According to Ferris, new Chabad families don’t get any seed money from the Chabad-Lubavitch organization. Chabad centers have to fund their own activities through donations, and, in fact, all three of the new Chabad websites have a “donate” button. And all three new Chabad families currently are renters, with dreams of landing a Chabad house still at least a few years away.

“They have to figure it out themselves,” Ferris said.

But Ferris said new shluchim do receive a different kind of support, one that’s more emotional. Networking with other couples, both face-to-face and online, is a way for Chabad emissaries to trade tips, ask questions or simply bolster one another’s spirits.

“It really helps boost your confidence that things will work out,” Bell said.

And as newcomers to the Bay Area, Bell said that his online relationships with other friends who have worked as shluchim are very important as a new-in-the-field emissary.

“I don’t know how they did it 30 years ago,” he said.

Bell and his wife are also using social media in their new town, with Chabad of El Cerrito on Facebook and neighborhood “bulletin board” website Nextdoor.

All three couples emphasized that they are eager to put in the hours to make connections in their areas — to be what Ferris called “a servant to any Jew that moves.”

“It’s a privilege to serve,” Meir Shmotkin said.

Wagner said the same, putting it in a quintessential Bay Area manner.

“I guess it kind of feels like any real startup,” he said cheerfully.

With young Chabad couples now filling in the geographical gaps, their brand of outreach will soon be available almost anywhere that there are Jews in the Bay Area.

“Pretty soon it’s going to be every exit on the freeway,” Ferris said.

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.