Heritage Florida Jewish News - Central Florida's Independent Jewish Voice

Thousands of Jews experience the magic at Chabad of Orlando


Thousands of visitors each year get to experience the warmth of the Orlando Jewish community at Chabad of South Orlando.

Boys and girls in bright uniforms are beating their instruments to the chords of a classic Jewish song in music class, as Israeli tourists making Shabbat reservations join their singing from behind a glass door. Their harmonious rendition of "Hinei Mah Tov" coincides with the ending melodies of the morning prayers being chanted by tourists from Monsey and Lakewood, as they exit the synagogue and make their way to the nearby theme parks.

Welcome to Chabad of South Orlando, home to a thriving Jewish Day School, award-winning preschool and a bustling synagogue, all housed in a beautifully renovated glass building just a short drive from Walt Disney World, Universal Studios, Sea World, and the dozens of tourist attractions that make Orlando a hotspot for tourists and families.

But the magic happens inside, where thousands of visitors each year get to experience the warmth of the Orlando Jewish community that has been nurtured under the guidance of Chabad shluchim, Rabbi Yosef and Chani Konikov since 1999. Tourists eagerly peer into a women's Torah class taking place in the conference room, while their children can't get enough of the expansive play area that services the students of Chai Preschool and Orlando Jewish Day School.

"We came to buy park tickets, but we just want to stay and listen to the classes," said Chava Goldin from Brooklyn. "To enter a building with such an amazing Jewish atmosphere in the middle of Orlando is simply heartwarming!"

Aside from running their regular community programming for adults and children, the Chabad staff opens their doors to tourists from around the world during the annual Yeshiva Break. "We have tourists all year round," said Rabbi Yosef Konikov, "but Yeshiva Break is the climax."

During the last two weeks of January, when many U.S. Yeshivas have their winter break, Konikov and his wife help service the tourists by offering Shabbat meals, discounted park tickets, daily minyanim, and much more.

"We have a full-time office administrator spending a few hours a day fielding phone calls from Jews looking to visit Orlando," said Dini Druk, director of programming at Chabad. "She is answering questions about Kosher food, Mikvah hours, which hotels are walking distance to shul... and how to park at Disney. She is like a personal concierge to the Jewish tourists; they feel comfortable asking because they feel like we're family."

The term "family" is used by many of the visitors to describe their experiences at Chabad. The building serves as a Jewish oasis for families on vacation: It's where they come for Shacharis, for a midday coffee, and to meet other Jews who are in town. Sometimes they just come to take a break from their travels and grab a drink in Chabad's comfortable lobby. "It feels like home," says Idan, a father of four who brought his family from Israel.

When asked about the expense of hosting so many tourists in addition to providing the local community's needs, Rabbi Konikov replies:

"Our first mission is to be here for every Jewish person, no matter what they may need. For some, it's park tickets and a Kosher meal; for others it's advice about a lost passport, a warm shul experience, or connecting them with a Jewish community back home.

"How do we afford it? Thank G-d we are very thankful for the tourists who make sure to leave donations. That, along with the small profit we make from selling meals and tickets... brings us close to the finish line. The rest of it-we're still trying to figure it out. We are currently in the midst of our building campaign, and in the early stages of building a brand new mikvah. We are accepting pledges and dedications for the mikvah from many of our tourists; G-d willing with their help and with the support of our local community, we will merit to complete the mikvah this year."

To learn more about Chabad of South Orlando or to join the Mikvah campaign, visit http://www.JewishOrlando.com.


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