Residents of West Orange and neighboring communities know that the Lubavitch Center of Essex County is the place to go to meet their Judaic needs. Whether shopping for kippot, siddurim, sefarim, Israeli jewelry or gifts, or kosher kitchen supplies, the Lubavitch Center has it all. What people may not know is what other Judaic needs the store and its proprietors, Rabbi Boruch and Devorah Klar, can fulfill.
The store is more than merely a store; it is a haven for Jewish learning and growth, and Rabbi Klar wouldn’t have it any other way.
“When we opened the store it was with the intention that it would allow us to meet, share our love of Judaism with, and help as many people as possible,” commented Rabbi Klar.
Klar’s path to West Orange and the Lubavitch Center was not the traditional “Chasidishe” path. He grew up in a somewhat traditional Jewish home, where his family went to synagogue on the High Holidays and he attended afternoon Hebrew school twice weekly. While Friday night dinner was always special, it was not “Shabbat.”
At the age of 16 his family moved to a suburb of Montreal, where a local rabbi arranged for a scholarship for him to study at Bar Ilan University for a year. Klar returned no more inspired religiously than when he had left. He did not set foot in a synagogue again for seven years.
When he graduated from college, he planned to change the world and was saddened to learn that he could not truly make a difference because of his youth. His desire to help others led to his exploration of counter-cultures and, ultimately, his relocation to California to take on the plight of the farmworkers. For two years he worked in the South Bay of Los Angeles educating, advocating and building on behalf of these disadvantaged individuals.
During this time he was exploring spirituality and was intrigued by a passing mention of Kabbalah. This was before the pop icon Madonna made Kabbalah a household word and, in those days, “regular” people did not take on Kabbalah study. Klar read the only two English-language books he could find on the subject and was hooked. Then he had an enlightening experience which forever changed the course of his life.
“I was in the French part of Montreal where no one spoke English. I was in a bookstore and a woman approached me and—in English—recommended a book about macrobiotics written by someone who was a follower of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. It was so odd that I read the book and loved it. Then, by chance, the author was speaking locally several days later—at the Chabad House of all places. I didn’t even know what Chabad was. He was amazing. He didn’t really speak about Judaism, yet he invited the attendees to spend Shabbat with him. I couldn’t go…but I was intrigued,” Klar explained.
He was now closer to finding what he had been seeking all along, and when he heard of a school in Morristown, NJ, which taught Jews who were just beginning on their religious and spiritual path, he knew that was where he was meant to be. Within two weeks he had moved to Morristown to study at the Rabbinical College of America, even though he still did not know whether he truly believed in God. He just knew it was a spiritual journey he was meant to take.
In 1980, Klar became only the second Chabad shaliach in the state of New Jersey, and one of the first shluchim of the Rebbe who was not born into a religious household. Finally, he was truly making a difference. He was actually changing the world, both physically and spiritually, and he believed those changes would last forever.
Klar began his tenure in New Jersey by organizing the Jewish Renaissance Fair, which combined Torah and fun into an experience that was so special that Klar repeated it year after year for the next 33 years. The first Fair attracted 1,000 guests. By the end, over 10,000 people were visiting the Fair. Anyone who had the privilege of attending will remember the various locations, the craft sales, the rides, costumed characters, food, fun and, of course, Uncle Moishy.
In 1983, Klar and his wife opened Café Devorah, a Saturday night “club” which often attracted 100-plus people for an evening of food and entertainment. The Klars believe they were able to reach thousands of people over the years at this venue.
They were also among the first to host a “Purim ball,” which would attract 2,000 people annually. The concept has taken off and now “everyone has a Purim ball, different organizations and all denominations,” said Klar.
One of the things of which he is most proud is the Mitzvah Mobile Library, a mobile Jewish library which was driven to Jewish schools in the area regardless of denomination.
Once in West Orange, the Klars began a Beginners’ Service in the basement of the store which quickly outgrew the space and necessitated a move to another building. That synagogue, now under the spiritual leadership of Rabbi Mendy Kasowitz, continues to expand and, of course, exudes the warmth and joy that is characteristic of Chabad.
The Lubavitch Center hosts a Wednesday morning adult education class, which has been going on for almost 20 years. Many of the same people have been attending semi-regularly during that entire time, with only a handful being observant. This class epitomizes the “changing the world one soul at a time” that Rabbi Klar had long been seeking.
He continues to make an impact by reaching young people through Birthright trips to Israel, which the Klars run twice yearly. “It is a beautiful experience,” Klar commented.
Rabbi Boruch and Devorah are now about to embark on a new venture, about which they are tremendously excited. They are about to close on a Shabbat House in the center of West Orange. It is not intended to be a shul but, rather, a place to congregate on Shabbat. It will be a central location for people to eat, learn and celebrate Shabbat together. The house will have a dining room the full length of the house, and the Klars plan to fill the room with guests each Friday night and Shabbat day.
“We want to show people that Judaism must be fun as well as meaningful. Shabbat can be so inspiring. One may not be ready for a synagogue experience, but we think everyone understands the idea of stopping the craziness of life for one day to appreciate what is most important in life—family, friends and sharing the joy,” Klar said.
The hope is to have the House ready within six months. Klar is planning children’s programs and classes in an effort to make “every day be a part of Shabbat.” He is also hoping to start a Kiddush Club, different from all others because it will be “a Kiddush Club for people who don’t go to shul. We will have cholent, l’chaims, and learning. How they get there is not my business, but when they are with us they are going to have one great Shabbat experience,” Klar continued.
This is the time of year when the Lubavitch Center is the busiest. It is truly an experience to behold. Thousands of people come through, shopping for sukkot, esrogim and lulavim for Sukkot, machzorim for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Yom Tov gifts for family and friends, and so much more. The store has sukkahs set up in the backyard to assist shoppers by providing visual samples of its wares.
“Coming here is like going to Brooklyn before Sukkos. It’s a crazy time, a great time,” observed Klar. “It’s all about joy, love, happiness and unity,” he continued.
After Elul and Tishrei, Klar will gear up for Chanukah, when he builds and distributes hundreds of large public-display menorahs all around the world. He sells to individuals, of course, but also to office buildings, businesses, malls, hospitals and more.
“Everywhere there is a tree, there could be a menorah,” he said.
Going forward, Klar is excited about the store’s new website, which connects his store with all the other Chabad locations and projects in the area. It is a shopping website, but also provides links to different sites including Friendship Circle, the Chabad in Montclair and others.
Rabbi and Devorah Klar have found their fulfillment. They touch people’s lives. They help people want to experience Judaism. Klar’s winding, bumpy path led him here and he knows this is where he was meant to be.
For more information, please visit www.chabadofessex.com. For information on the menorah sales program, visit www.menorah.net.
By Jill Kirsch