Shiel Gayler went to services 25 years ago at what was then the newest synagogue in the young rural outpost of Poway, Calif. He became hooked on the congregation, and wanted to go back to the Chabad-Lubavitch center every Sabbath.

Since then, Gayler has seen it all. He moved with the synagogue as it moved from a storefront and garage-based gatherings to trailers and eventually its own building, where he helped move the congregation’s Torah scrolls.

The Rancho Bernard resident says that what started with barely a dozen people has grown into a full-fledged community with a nucleus tens of families strong.

“We just grew,” marvels Gayler. “We were a great group and people came from nowhere; they enjoyed the service.”

Similarly, it’s the love of Jewish tradition and its teachings that keep Gayler coming back week after week for Sabbath services and classes. That men and women sit separately – in keeping with Jewish laws regarding modesty – may have taken a little getting used to, but Gayler says the organization’s focus on traditional Jewish life fuels the camaraderie and spirit that has woven an entire community together.

Poway, Calif.
Poway, Calif.

Today, Chabad of Poway – which last fall, kicked off its 25th year of operation in this Southern California town – houses a 150-family synagogue, a Hebrew school with about 80 students, a preschool that serves roughly 100 children, a Jewish ritual bath, library, gift shop and programs for children with special needs under the banner of the Friendship Circle. It sports a banquet hall and kosher kitchen to feed all of its guests.

“It’s a full-blown community center in the desert,” says its director, Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein.

In honor of the quarter-century mark, community members took part in a spiritual “fundraising” drive, pledging to do a quintessential Jewish act – such as donning the prayer boxes known as tefillin or giving charity each day – 25 times and to reach out to 25 more people. The year began with a gala dinner celebrating the milestone, and the festivities are continuing into the summer, when Goldstein will celebrate his 50th birthday.

“It truly became an oasis, a home away from home,” says the rabbi, who runs the center with his wife, Devorie Goldstein. “I always tell people there’s an invisible sign that says ‘lost and found’ on the front of the building, and that’s what it has become.”

Reflecting on the center’s high and lows, the community’s joyous moments and difficult times, the rabbi notes that Chabad of Poway’s first preschoolers are graduating medical school and law school now. And they still keep in touch.

Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein
Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein

“A generation of these families have found direction here,” says Devorie Goldstein. “And it’s just the beginning. We’re just getting warmed up.”

Meira Renzoni remembers how the Chabad of Poway community enveloped her family with warmth and support after her son’s sudden death nearly two decades ago. Riding in a police car Saturday morning on the way to the hospital, she stopped by the Goldsteins’ house to ask the rabbi to pray for the baby, who had passed away from SIDS.

“Rabbi Goldstein never went to synagogue that day,” says Renzoni, who first met the Goldsteins through the preschool. “Instead, he walked, or should I say, ran to the hospital.”

He stayed with the family at the hospital, and then walked miles to their house the following day. After the traditional seven-day mourning period, Renzoni and her husband decided to officially affiliate with the synagogue and started attending Torah classes on a weekly basis. Little by little, it changed their lives.

With the Goldsteins’ blessing, the family eventually moved to Monsey, N.Y., to become part of a larger Jewish community with a larger Sabbath-observant contingent. Renzoni continues to be amazed by the way Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries give of themselves, in many cases living isolated from more-established Jewish communities in order to build and strengthen new ones in spiritual deserts.

“They’re doing so much good there by bringing Judaism to these communities that wouldn’t otherwise know any of this,” she explains.

Ted Kersh came to Chabad of Poway when he moved to S. Diego more than two decades ago, and he and the rabbi became fast friends. He appreciates how Goldstein has been by his side, a good friend in all times, such as in 1996 when the rabbi showed up unannounced in Manchester, England, after Kersh’s mother’s passing.

“He called me the Monday morning and wanted to check on me. The synagogue was going to send something and he wanted to confirm where I’d be,” he recalls. “Within two hours, a London taxi cab pulled in the driveway and it was Rabbi Goldstein.”

And four years ago, before Kersh’s heart surgery at the Mayo Clinic, the rabbi turned up the night before. He walked alongside him as he was wheeled into the operating room.

“I think they’re doing a great job,” Kersh says of the Goldsteins. “I don’t think anyone could have done anything better. I think [the area] has improved as far as Judaism is concerned.”