A drive to Los Altos Hills or Palo Alto used to be required to attend Jewish religious services before Chabad Portola Valley & Woodside (PVW), a new Jewish community center, opened in Portola Valley this spring.
Mayer Brook, a rabbi and co-director of the nonprofit, moved from New York to Portola Valley in April with wife and co-director Dassi Brook and their two young sons. He said he'd always dreamed of bringing a Jewish center to a place that doesn't have one.
"It's very special to bring this to the area for the first time ever in the hills," said Mayer, who is currently running the center out of his home in Ladera. He said he plans to rent larger facilities down the line.
He heard about Woodside and Portola Valley from his brother, who spent a summer in the Bay Area a few years ago. Mayer spent a year looking for a place to establish a center and visited Portola Valley earlier this year to meet some Jewish families.
"There's not many Jewish activities in this area; you have to go past the highway to other cities," he said. "There's quite a few churches, but there are no other Jewish organizations that are in the hills."
Mayer said he's been in touch with 50 to 60 families from Los Altos Hills, Woodside, Portola Valley and Atherton.
"We tried to stick to areas that don't have a Jewish presence," he said. "People are really happy to have a warm Jewish home."
Chabad is a Jewish organization started nearly 250 years ago, which has about 5,000 branches worldwide and is known for its outreach to unaffiliated Jewish groups and its humanitarian aid.
Portola Valley resident Len Lehmann said the Brookses reached out to him when they were considering settling in Portola Valley.
"Chabad is a great addition to civic life in Portola Valley and Woodside," he said in an email. "They are engaging and giving, focused on serving their community, and add to our many currently available resources for spiritual growth and practice. During these times, when many are seeking meaning, that can only be a good thing."
Jeffrey Carmel, a Portola Valley resident who casually attended Chabad in Palo Alto for many years, said that now that there is a Chabad house right in his neighborhood, his family has been able to take advantage of the organization.
"Rabbi Brook and his amazing wife Dassi are young, enthusiastic, hospitable, warm and welcoming, and they bring a wealth of knowledge to our Jewish community and neighbors," Carmel said in an email. "What marks Chabad as a unique movement in Judaism is its non-judgmental approach to welcoming Jews of all religious levels and to enhance their cultural, religious, and educational experiences."
Chabad synagogues don't have membership dues. Instead, they seek donations from those who go to their adult-education classes, attend their services and holiday celebrations, and attend Shabbat dinners. There are about 7.5 million Americans who identify as Jewish and about 16% of those participate in activities and services through Chabad, according to a 2020 Pew Research Center survey.
Politics are one topic that's not on the table at Chabad PVW.
"People are tired of hearing politics preached during services," Mayer said. "We don't get into any politics. We stick to our mission and our goal and community as a whole."
So far locals have been kind and welcoming to the group, Mayer said.
"We're getting messages from people who are really excited we're here," he said. "I'm very confident about the future of Jewish life in Portola Valley and Woodside."
Before launching Chabad PVW, Brook organized Jewish outreach programs and holiday events across five continents. He received his rabbinical ordination from Sydney Beth Din in Australia.
Rosh Hashanah, which marks the beginning of the Jewish new year, is Monday, Sept. 6, through Wednesday, Sept. 8. Chabad PVW will host a "Shofar in the Park" event for the holiday on the Ladera Rec Center playground on Tuesday, Sept. 7, at 4:30 p.m.