Saturday, May 11, 2013
About 28 years ago, Rabbi Chaim Block left New York City to spread Jewish awareness across South Texas and establish an Orthodox congregation.
He started inside his two-room condo, along with his wife and then-infant daughter.
“Usually, a congregation is looking for a rabbi. I was a rabbi looking for a congregation,” he said. “There was no playbook. No infrastructure. No previous organization.”
On Sunday, Block and the local Chabad Lubavitch community will celebrate the grand opening of a new, 12,500-square-foot synagogue and community center. Called the Chabad Center for Jewish Life & Learning, it is the new, official name for the local community, which has about 85 families.
The new structure, six years in the making, cost $2.5 million and underscores the advances made since Block's arrival. And it coincides with the unveiling of a new logo — a tree of life — to replace a menorah.
The community's former sanctuary had only 1,000 square feet and was a former four-car garage. The new facility's dedication Sunday will be attended by local and national dignitaries, from Chabad's chaiman Rabbi Yehudah Krinsky to San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro.
Block, 52, gradually grew the congregation to have an active presence in the local Jewish and non-Jewish community.
Today, he has nine children and heads up a staff of about 15, including two other rabbis and their wives.
Chabad started a “matzo bakery” to show how the Passover bread is made. In pre-digital days, it operated a “dial a Jewish story” program, in which a narrator recorded a Jewish story.
Later, it started a day camp and preschool, and in 1987, it purchased its current campus, a 4-acre property on Blanco Road near West Bitters Road in North San Antonio. There, Block lived in a house on a hill, which was razed for parking. “I see our mandate and success not so much in how many permanent members we have, but in how much we've accomplished in the community at large,” said Block. “Even if it's a class or program or preschool, or if they don't consider themselves dues-paying members, so to speak.”
In San Antonio, Chabad organizes “Chanukah on the River” with boat rides, entertainment at the Arneson River Theater and ceremonial lighting of a candelabrum by local officials.
Chabad's global headquarters are in Brooklyn. It reports having 4,000 full-time families in more than 3,300 institutions worldwide.
A Hasidic movement of Orthodox Judaism, it stands out for its vibrant emphasis on outreach programs and civic engagement. With a new facility in San Antonio, Block foresees enhancing its reach and visibility.
Special touches went into the new building's design. The outside fence has 12 brick posts with custom stones for each of the 12 tribes of Israel and their biblical symbol.
The entrance is larger and includes a mechanical gate for observant members who arrive by foot to Sabbath services instead of driving.
In the center is a kosher kitchen, offices, classrooms and a social hall. The mikvah, a ritual pool, has male and female entrances.
Inside the sanctuary is an ornate, hand-crafted ark, the featured housing for the Torah scrolls, Moses' five books hand-scribed on parchment and the focal point of Sabbath services. On the outside of the ark is a “tree of life” carved into the wood. Above it is a scene of the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
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