Some 500 friends and supporters of Chabad of the Conejo came together on Thursday, May 26, 2016, at the Four Seasons Hotel in Westlake Village, California, to celebrate the organization’s annual Gala Banquet. Centered on the theme “Touching Lives… Building Legacies,” the event was highlighted by, among other things, Dennis Prager’s acceptance of the “Voice of Courage Award.”
The program opened with a soaring medley of current Jewish hits by rising musical sensation, Shuky Sadon, who was later joined by five-year old Mendel Kahanov, son of Rabbi Laibel and Chana Stery Kahanov and grandson of Rabbi Moshe and Matty Bryski, for a show-stealing rendition of the “Ve’zakeini Le’gadeil,” beseeching the Almighty for the privilege of raising children and grandchildren who will illuminate the world with their love and fear of G-d and good deeds.
Rabbi Shlomo Bistritzky addressed the propitiousness of the day – coinciding as it did with the festival of Lag B’Omer – leading to his dedication of the evening to The Lubavitcher Rebbe. This was followed by a tribute by Rabbi Yitzchak Sapochkinsky to Rabbi Joshua Gordon, ob”m, the founding Shliach and Executive Director of Chabad of the Valley, who passed away earlier this year.
In addressing the theme of evening, Rabbi Moshe Bryski pointed out that legacies are not shaped by what one might become at some point in the future, but by what one is doing right now to make a difference. “Our lives are not measured in years,” said Rabbi Bryski, “but in the lives of people we touch around us.”
With that, Rabbi Bryski vividly portrayed – through story, song and video – the myriad ways in which Chabad of the Conejo is profoundly impacting thousands of lives throughout the greater Conejo Valley region. He spoke of Chabad’s educational programs, such as its schools, youth programs, teen clubs and Conejo Jewish Academy for adults. He spoke of Chabad’s social service programs, such as its Food Bank, Sunshine Club for seniors, Friendship Circle for children with special needs, and chaplaincy programs for hospital patients and prison inmates. And he spoke of Chabad’s community outreach programs, such as synagogue services, holiday programs and mitzvah campaigns as provided at eight centers throughout the region.
From there, Rabbi Bryski announced the launch of a new “Living Legacy Project,” whereby members of the community will be encouraged to consider Chabad of the Conejo in their estate planning. “As a matter of practicality, we buy life insurance, draw up wills and establish trusts, so as to ensure that our loved ones will be provided for and receive their rightful inheritance after 120 years. We see to it that our physical and material legacies are established in accordance with our wishes… That said, what about our spiritual legacies?
“Much of who we are today can be attributed to the wisdom, foresight and sacrifice of those who came before us. As such, I think it behooves us to bequeath similar blessings to those who will come after us,” Bryski went on to say…. “When you look at how much Chabad of the Conejo has been able to accomplish with minimal resources over these past 37 years, let it stir your imagination as to what we could yet accomplish if only provided with greater wherewithal!”
Other highlights of the evening included the presentation of the “Chesed Award” to Shideh and Farid Hekmatjah, who were described by Matty Bryski as the sort of people who project kindness “in their body language, in the warmth of their smile, in the sparkle in their eyes, and in the sincerity of their greetings.” The Hekmatjahs were further described as folks who will never say no to any request made of them for the benefit of the Chabad cause or individuals in crisis.
Sandy and Ron Stackler, who received the evening’s “Lamplighter Award,” were hailed by Rabbi Yisroel Levine for their insatiable quest for increased knowledge and spiritual growth, as exemplified by their daily attendance at classes offered by Chabad’s Conejo Jewish Academy. Rabbi Moshe Bryski followed with a brief biographical sketch of the Stacklers, ranging from Ron’s confrontations with anti-Semitism in his youth, to his eclectic career pursuits, to his passion for motorcycle-riding and intense pride in his Jewish identity.
Sandy Stackler’s background – dating back to her Chabad roots as a child growing up in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and on through her career as a bridal-gown designer, life coach and advocate for seniors’ causes – was likewise celebrated for its color and character. “Take Ron’s hilarious sense of humor, sharp insights, outspoken and straightforward demeanor, and add to that Sandy’s sweetness, elegance and depth, and you’ve got a couple that really knows how to light up a room,” said Rabbi Bryski. “They are absolutely adored by this community…. As ‘Lamplighters,’ Ron and Sandy are delighted to ignite it!”
The emotion of the evening reached a crescendo when Rabbi Bryski spoke fondly and nostalgically of his 30 year old friendship with Dennis Prager, dating back to when Chabad of the Conejo hosted its first lecture with the celebrated thinker, speaker and writer back in 1986. “That event sold out almost as quickly as we let the word out that Dennis was coming to speak for us,” said Bryski. “It was a feat Dennis has since repeated for us more times than I can count.”
Recalling how Dennis Prager was instrumental to the founding of the Conejo Jewish Day School, how he and Prager have enjoyed many Shabbat dinners together, and have always been there for one another, Rabbi Bryski went on to say that both his personal and professional life have been enriched by having Dennis Prager in them as “a friend, sounding board, confidante and honorary brother.”
Beyond that, Bryski praised Dennis Prager’s vast impact on hearts and minds around the world via all forms of media. Citing Prager’s global reach through his nationally-syndicated radio show, podcasts, weekly syndicated columns, bestselling books, speaking engagements, TV appearances, and his latest project, the internet-based “Prager University,” Rabbi Bryski spoke of how the Jewish community should be proud and thankful that “there are voices of reason, intelligence, clarity, eloquence, persuasion and courage – like that of Dennis Prager’s – speaking out strongly and unapologetically for universal morals and values, for Jewish principles and ideals, and for the rightness of Israel’s cause.”
In his response, Dennis Prager echoed Rabbi Bryski’s sentiments regarding their longstanding friendship, adding that while he typically turns down all offers to be honored, in this case, given his gratitude for Rabbi Moshe and Matty Bryski’s friendship over the years, he felt he had no choice but to accept.
In his usual wise, incisive, engaging and humorous style, Prager went on to explain how everything he now does in his career as a broadcaster, writer and commentator are informed by his Jewish roots and the Yeshiva education he received as a young man growing up in Brooklyn.
“Why would G-d choose us at Sinai and give us the Torah only for us to keep it a secret from the world?… The non-Jewish world has no problem with Jews who talk openly and proudly about what our tradition has to say. In fact, they expect it and respect it. It’s when Jews – who they know to be the Chosen People – try to hide from their Judaism that they are offended. We have so much to teach, so much to share, so much light to shine upon a world that needs it – perhaps now more than ever before. Most Jewish groups – right and left – don’t wish to own that. Chabad is a rare exception.”
Emphasizing that Judaism is more about behavior than emotions, Dennis called upon the audience to translate more of their feelings into actions. Indeed, their first action in response was to give the recipient of Chabad’s “Voice of Courage Award” a second rousing standing ovation.
Other Shluchim of Chabad of the Conejo include Rabbi Eli Laber, Rabbi Leibel Kahanov, Rabbi Mendel Friedman, Rabbi Chaim Bryski and Rabbi Schneur Schneerson.