Although Myrtle Beach, South Carolina is not that far from Toronto, this particular air routing was trying as well as tiring. However, the thought of getting out of the dull, cold winter and go to the southern warmth, renowned southern graciousness and an interesting conference, assuaged most negative feelings.
Heading to the newly opened Marina Hotel where I would be staying, was an unexpected sign reading, Chabad of Myrtle Beach. My first thought was this must be a mirage or I was hallucinating. As it turned out, neither.
A phone call put me in touch with Rabbi Doron Aizenman and we set up an appointment for the next day. If only life was always this easy, I thought.
The white with blue trimmed shingled clap board building sitting back from a busy thoroughfare, looked very southern and certainly well maintained. The entrance of the original “A” frame section was 30 years old when it was purchased 20 years ago. Two side buildings were added since then. One was built 15 years ago the later one only 7 years ago and was financed by the Chabad, a self supporting organization. Every few years, they’ve been able to extend the once modest building for the growing facilities now needed in that area.
Inside, I was met by one of the busy staff members who showed me upstairs to the office of the rabbi. However, before getting there, I heard loud, joyous voices of youngsters. They were on lunch break, eating at tables in the synagogue along one side of the bimah; the prayer hall has multi duties. It doubles as a library, dining/cafeteria area, a conference and small gatherings space and for small school performances.
On Shabbat, the seating is re arranged to suit the circumstances.
There is also a small kitchen leading off from that space where cholant is prepared for Shabbat and where each week about 70 people eat and discuss Torah. “It’s very beautiful,” offers the 46 year old rabbi.
“Take my picture,” a few of the boys shouted when they saw my camera slung around my neck. I did. They were adorable and who could resist. However, downstairs the quarters were silent and serene as young toddlers were taking their nap in the darkened playrooms.
The Lubavitch rabbi’s office is so close the noise flooding in from the school kids, it was necessary to partially close the door.
It’s been twenty years since the Israel born rabbi and his Sabra wife, Leah, arrived in Myrtle Beach. (They arrived in the US, 30 years ago.) He studied in New York. Both Leah, now Chabad principal, and the rabbi met in New York, both felt that their calling was exactly what they’re now practicing. And given that they spoke both Hebrew and English, made the transition easy for them to take on the teaching and administration of Chabad. The parents of 10 American born children, Aizenman is proud to tell that when they reached Bar Mitzvah age, they go to school in larger cities where there are yeshivas or they attend high school. One son has already returned to Israel, and he expects a few others will, in time follow. As is dictated by Lubavitch law, Leah is covered down to the ankles, sleeves cover her entire arms and although not a burqa, other than her face, there was no visible skin shown.
Aizenman started to provide what he could which was initially an afternoon school for about 35 children every day of the week. Day school started with only 9 students. Now the school curriculum goes to 8th grade with 135 students
“We established the Jewish centre,” says the bearded bespectacled man. “There was a small community with children but no where for formal Jewish education. The only synagogue was Conservative. And that’s about it,” he says leaning back on his chair under a picture of the late Chief Rabbi Schmerson. Today there is also a reformed synagogue.
There are only approximately 570 Jews living in greater Myrtle Beach. “But many,” he says, “don’t have affiliation and others just come to retire in this area.” But he is pleased that the Sephardic community is so strong and observant.
I couldn’t resist asking why Jewish people came to this southern city. “That’s easy. Like other Jews, they came because there were business opportunities or their relatives started something.”
Chabad education, the rabbi makes clear, is Hasidic but they learn to “specialize in delivering the message in a way that is going to be acceptable even for non observant children which most of our children are. Our way of teaching is not offensive. We do encourage the children to keep kosher. It’s not hard in our community. Shabbat is more difficult. The shops and businesses have to open.”
There’s a local kosher grocery. Food comes from elsewhere. “Products come from nearby Atlanta and from New York City while our meat products, which are frozen, are flown in from New York.
In the summer, when school is out, the ‘shul’ has prayers three times a day. I was surprised to hear that there were able to maintain the mandatory minyans but Rabbi Aizenman, nodded and smiled somewhat smugly, at his success.
A lot of vacationers constantly ask for accommodations and kosher meals are necessary for the observant traveler and they come to Chabad for assistance. There are, interestingly, two kosher restaurants in Myrtle Beach under Chabad supervision. – one aptly called Jerusalem, the other Café “M” which is the dairy restaurant.
“I feel I’ve achieved. I see the children everyday and see the impact we’ve brought to their life and it’s very satisfying. From the day I arrived here, I never encountered anti Semitism. The county government, the city, they’ve been very nice. There may be ignorance but not anti Semitism. We’re happy.”