In its largest gala to date, on June 11, friends of Chabad of the Conejo filled the large banquet-hall of the Four Seasons Westlake Hotel from wall to wall to partake in a program replete with inspiring highlights, including a segment devoted to the 50th Anniversary of the Six-Day War, a posthumous celebration of the life of the late Cantor Leopold Szneer, obm, a tribute to Agoura Hills Mayor Denis Weber, and a concert by pop-opera trio sensation, Kol Esperanza.
The emotions of the evening ran the gamut from somber memory and reflection, to unbridled joy and pride, to euphoric expressions of love and gratitude. In these days following celebration, calls and emails have been pouring into the Chabad office from guests of the other night, proclaiming the gala as among “the most moving, memorable and meaningful evenings” they had ever been a part of.
Rabbis Yisroel Levine and Shlomo Bistritzky addressed the theme of the evening – “Ignite” – referring to the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s description of the function of Chabad as being that of igniting the wicks that are the souls of the Jewish People with the light of Torah.
Rabbi Yitzchak Sapochkinsky related the moving life-story of Leopold Szneer, who survived the horrors of Kristallnacht, the concentration camps, and hiding in forests and attics while lifting the spirits of those around him with his mellifluous voice. In retirement, Cantor Szneer and his wife, Isabelle, took up permanent residence in Westlake Village. Isabelle Szneer’s words in accepting the award on her late husband’s behalf did not leave a dry eye in the house. It would not be the last time the tissues would be broken out that night.
The tribute to 50th Anniversary of the Six-Day began with Chabad of the Conejo’s Executive Director, Rabbi Moshe Bryski, telling the powerful story of Chaim Shapiro, who lost seven of his eight children in the Holocaust, only to lose his eighth and final son, Baruch Shapiro, z”l, in the defense of Israel in 1949. At his son’s funeral in Jerusalem, Chaim Shapiro, and all the mourners on hand, broke into song and dance in celebration of Baruch Shapiro having surrendered his life so that the Jewish People could have a home in Israel, and that his burial was in Jerusalem and not in the ashes of Buchenwald.
This led into Rabbi Bryski’s recounting of the incredible events before, during and after the Six-Day War of 1967, and the revealed miracles they brought to bear – just as the Lubavitcher Rebbe had promised they would if Jews the world over would rededicate themselves anew to Torah and tradition, and if Jewish men would put on Tefillin to help safeguard Israel.
Rabbi Bryski called upon the veterans of the Six Day War in the room to rise and be recognized, including Sergeant-Major Michael Li-Paz, a fighter-pilot who flew missions on all fronts in 1967. This was followed by recognition of all former members of the Israeli Defense Forces, as well as those of the U.S. Armed Forces.
The entire story was then dramatically depicted on screen in an inspiring and informative video. As the audience cheered the words “Am Yisroel Chai!” appearing on screen at the video’s conclusion, Kol Esperanza took to the stage to perform a musical tribute to the 50th anniversary, including songs celebrating Jerusalem, the IDF and the Jewish People’s inherent bond with Israel. They would return to the stage later in the program for a full concert of eclectic music, accompanied by director and producer Tomer Addadi.
In describing the special relationship Chabad has with the Mayor of Agoura Hills, Rabbi Bryski spoke of a friendship going back 24 years to when Denis Weber began his political career as a member of the Agoura Hills City Council. Since then the unlikely pair have become very close, getting together on a regular basis to explore ways in which to improve the quality of people’s lives and make the world a better place.
Bryski spoke affectionately of the Mayor’s kindness and warmth, and his known propensity for shedding tears when moved by the emotions of the moment (a fact humorously driven home by the presence of small tissue boxes imprinted with the Mayor’s picture on all the tables.) A video about the Mayor’s illustrious career and profound sense of fairness, ethics and values was screened.
In his acceptance speech, Mayor Weber described how, every day, when driving to work, he passes the Chabad of the Conejo Campus. “I look over to my right and think about the people hard at work inside those buildings,” he said. “I think about what they do to educate young and old, inspire people from all walks of life, extend a loving-hand to children with special needs, and a helping-hand to those who are facing tall challenges. With those thoughts on my mind and in my heart, I say a prayer for Rabbi Bryski, his colleagues and their families, and for Israel.”
A few sentences later, the inevitable happened. Speaking of how the honor really belonged to his mom and dad who gave him “the values that never go out of style,” the Mayor choked up. As he struggled to regain his composure, the people in the audience reached for the tissue boxes.
Other Shluchim of Chabad of the Conejo include Rabbi Eli Laber, Rabbi Leibel Kahanov, Rabbi Mendel Friedman, Rabbi Chaim Bryski and Rabbi Schneur Schneerson.