Once Rabbi Levi Meijers found that Tracy didn’t have a formal Jewish congregation he couldn’t wait to take the next step on his journey of faith.
Meijers and his wife, Faigy, have spent the past week connecting with Jewish families around town, delivering Chaunkah boxes complete with Menorahs, candles and other mementos of the holiday.
In the age of COVID-19 and social distancing, the time was right to honor the message of Chanukah as a step toward creating Chabad of Tracy, first as a virtual congregation, with a physical location to follow, most likely in the spring.
The eight-day Chanukah celebration started on Thursday and continues through next Friday. Meijers said the celebration typically includes large gatherings and the lighting of a public Menorah.
“Because of COVID we’re unable to have a public Menorah lighting, but God willing, next year we’re going to have a beautiful, big Menorah standing tall.”
Instead he’s making sure that families will have Menorahs in their homes, and plans to bring everyone together in a virtual celebration via Zoom on Monday evening, which can be found through Chabad of Tracy’s Facebook page, www.facebook.com/ChabadofTracy.
“The message of the Menorah and the message that we’re giving with Chanukah is that message of taking the lamp and putting it out in the darkness,” he said.
The holiday commemorates the time nearly 2,200 years ago during the Maccabean rebellion, when the Jewish people reclaimed their temple in Jerusalem from invaders. To light the temple’s lamp and rededicate the temple they had only one day’s supply of oil, yet it lasted for eight days.
“The message of Chanukah is, in the dark just a little bit of light pushes away the darkness,” Meijers said.
His goal is to make Chabad of Tracy more than a place of worship, but a local community and cultural center. It will be one of about 5,000 Chabads worldwide based on an orthodox version of Judaism.
Meijers is in the process of moving to Northern California after growing up in Brooklyn. Chabad is a tradition that has its origin in the orthodox, Hasidic tradition, which Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov established in Eastern Europe in the late 17th Century. It was a time and place when anti-Semitism was common and Jewish people needed to find inspiration from within their faith.
“Baal Shem Tov came around and he really switched gears and turned the direction,” Meijers said. “He showed that the simple man that sits in his shop and he sews, or shapes metal with his dirty black hands, this simple Jew is equally important to the man, a big scholar sitting in a big yeshiva (religious educational institution) in a big city. They’re both equal. They both have an equal part of creation.”
“Every single human being, every person in the world has a hand in something much greater. He revealed that there’s Godliness in every single person, in every single thing in this world. The goal that we have is to reveal that Godliness.”
Meijer counts Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, a prominent Jewish leader in Europe and New York, as a key inspiration for him and his wife.
“I learned his teachings. He was a man where, his whole life, 1902 to 1994, was dedicated to inspiring every single person in the world,” Meijers said.
“We’re in this world for a reason, and to make a change, to help someone else. This message he carried, he really revealed this in every story in the Bible, in the Torah, how everything is not just a story from once-upon-a-time. It’s actually a lesson we can learn in our daily life: How to make the world a better place. Bring Godliness, goodness, into the world.”
Meijers said that when he and Faigy were married they made the decision to devote their lives to that philosophy.
“We were looking to not just build our own home together, build a home of positivity and goodness, but to take our life and dedicate it to bringing that to others.”
It was while Faigy was working at a Chabad in Pleasanton that they discovered Northern California as their potential new home, and learned that Tracy is a growing community. About three months ago they came to town and started having conversations with people around the community, in front of stores, and with rabbis from Chabads in neighboring communities, who connected them with people in Tracy.
“We had six contacts and said, let’s see what’s going on here,” he said. “We were starting conversations, trying to get a vibe of what this place was like, and from the second we entered the city of Tracy we fell in love with it.”
With each conversation they found people who had some Jewish friends and wished they could connect with a larger Jewish community. Eventually he would find enough people to where the idea of creating a new Chabad became feasible.
“Right now we have 47 Jewish families — we’re talking about a month of research since we decided to make the move — we have 100 Jewish names.”
It’s enough that Meijers could make the 2020 Chanukah celebration the first formal event for Chabad of Tracy. On Monday he expects to find out just how big a Tracy Chabad community could be. That’s when he plans to host an online Zoom virtual Chanukah event at 7 p.m. Monday.
In preparation he has made the rounds to the families that he has been in contact with.
“We’re going to spend the whole week driving over to people’s homes and just dropping off packages for Chanukah,” he said. “We know we’re going to end up reaching out to more than that. Every day more people hear about us.”
Meijers said that while his own practice is rooted in orthodox traditions he hopes to connect with as many Jewish families as he can reach, accepting everyone within the faith as they are.
“We are orthodox, but we practice Judaism on a traditional level. We don’t push it on others. We just let them experience traditional Judaism. That’s why Chabad has been growing so fast, because people love the idea that they can have all of the traditions. We don’t change anything and we’re not asking anybody to be traditional Jews. Just come and enjoy the joys of Judaism.”
• Contact Bob Brownne at email@example.com, or call 209-830-4227.