“In the beginning you have to be creative,” says Rabbi Yossi Markus. 2001, he and his wife Esty moved to S. Mateo, California on the S. Francisco Peninsula and founded Chabad on the North Peninsula.
Back then, the Marcuses advertised their first Hanukkah menorah lighting ceremony with signs in local supermarkets and celebrated the Festival of Lights at Hillsdale Shopping Center with a modest crowd of twenty people. But the Marcuses were undeterred by the small crowd. Twenty-one years later, on October 2, 2022, they celebrated the grand opening of the $20 million Lent Chabad Center with hundreds of community members.
“We started slowly,” says Rabbi Marcus. Program by program, they began to create much-needed Jewish infrastructure. Without a permanent synagogue, Rabbi Marcus conducted Shabbat and holiday services in rented office space and hotel conference rooms. “I used to jokingly say, ‘Welcome back to the Marriott community,'” he says.
In 2005, Rebbetzin Marcus used her years of experience working with Chabad preschools in Port Washington, New York and Redondo Beach, California to open her own preschool. She was determined to create a truly exceptional program. “We wanted to learn from the best preschools out there,” says Rebbetzin Marcus.
Chabad secured mentorship from Stanford University’s exemplary Bing Nursery School and with the support of philanthropists Mr. Bobby and mrs Francis Lent, the Chai preschool was born. Chai’s founding “secret recipe” was a fusion of the famous Reggio Method with traditional Jewish influences and a clear emphasis on attracting the most talented teachers. “There were eight children in the first year,” says Rebbetzin Marcus, “but Chai soon had a waiting list.”
As the preschool took hold, it moved from the Marcus family living room to rented classrooms, and Chabad’s other activities also began to flourish. In addition to ever-larger Shabbat meals and services, there was the Hebrew school, the bar and bat mitzvah club, and the successful Gan Izzy summer camp. All this without buildings.
“By 2010,” says Rabbi Marcus, “it was clear we had a sizable congregation that needed a permanent home.” Even so, the congregation continued to grow, and as a 2014 Rabbi jale and Rivky Splitter joined the Chabad North Peninsula team to add even more programming to the mix, there was still no building. San Francisco’s sizzling real estate market kept the dream of a community center out of reach.
Finally, in 2016, Chabad identified a suitable property. Bobby and Francis Lent provided the lead donation that enabled Chabad North Peninsula to purchase three homes on Monte Diablo Ave just blocks from downtown. The location in a residential area where many lived in their community was perfect. But from demolition to planning permission to fundraising and construction, it would take six years to complete the Lent Chabad Center.
Meanwhile, the community watched as the building was assembled. First, the underground car park took shape. Then they watched as the iron beams of the two floors of the Chabad Center came together. “Because we built from the ground up, the whole community feels like they’re part of the process,” says Rabbi Marcus. “When our community finally walked into the completed building, we thought, ‘Wow, we built this together.'”
The second floor houses the synagogue and community center while the first floor houses the chai preschool dedicated in honor Eva Chernow Lokey, an attractive home and state-of-the-art outdoor playground. The architecture of the new building was designed to reflect the Chabad movement’s unique fusion of tradition and modernity. Brass elements exude a touch of antiquity in the synagogue, while a light wood interior creates a bright and homely atmosphere. “You feel like you’re being hugged,” says Rabbi Marcus.
For the S. Mateo community, Chabad’s new home represents a new chapter in Jewish continuity. Longtime supporters Jack and Candee Klein dedicated the synagogue sanctuary in honor of Jack’s parents, Asher Lemel and Sedonia Klein, who fled Nazi Germany in the 1930s. “I’ve always wanted to thank my parents for having the foresight to save our family,” Jack said. “The dedication of a synagogue in her memory is symbolic for us.”
At the grand opening on October 2, community member and supporter Mrs. Adrian Weil referred to her grandparents and the traditional Jewish values of humility and selflessness that they passed on to her. “Chabad’s work, and this center in particular, ensures that my grandparents’ values are there for the next generation,” she said, “I’m proud to be a part of that.” Koum Family Foundation also contributed to the building fund thanks to Chabad’s work to ensure a strong and proud Jewish future.
For longtime Chabad supporter Mrs. Barbie and Mr. Warren Lazarov, the new building heralded a new beginning for the community. “Rebbetzin Esty and I became close friends soon after her arrival,” Barbi said. “Since then, the drive, belief in their mission, and desire to serve the community have created the Marcuses’ strong, welcoming community and made this magnificent building a reality.”
Rabbi Marcus says the new building marks a new phase for the Chai Preschool, synagogue and Jewish community life of S. Mateo. “Chabad has built more than just a Jewish community,” says Bobby Lent. “Every Shabbat, I look around and I see people from very different backgrounds and interests coming together to connect with other Jews and their own Judaism, and I think, ‘This is what family is like.'”