Stand on any corner in Hancock Park or Beverlywood, says Avi Leibovic, and within 10 blocks you can find Orthodox teenagers engaged in weekly poker games, drug use, underage drinking and reckless sex.
Not much has changed since Leibovic was a teenager in L.A.'s Orthodox community 15 years ago.
Now 32, a lawyer, rabbi and father of six, Leibovic has made it his life's mission to find these youth and to pull them back toward a life where they can envision a future with regular employment, a strong sense of self and a sincere love of Yiddishkeit.
Five years ago, Leibovic was approached by the prodigal son of a prominent Orthodox family for help and inspiration. Soon, their one-on-one Torah study grew into a larger group, made up mostly of recent alumni of Neve Zion, the yeshiva outside Jerusalem where Leibovic had formative experiences as a teen and young adult.
That group grew into Aish Tamid, a nonprofit that now has a staff of part-time counselors, therapists, social workers and rabbis that in the last five years has served 400 young men and teens.
At a recent free workshop in Excel that Aish Tamid offered in a mid-Wilshire office building, Leibovic is working the room, making sure everyone is set up and liberally slapping on warm handshakes, high fives and "Howah YOUs."
He looks tired but energized, with rings of red around eyes that are the same color as his trim auburn beard. His large black velvet kippah sits low across his forehead.
Leibovic, a doting perfectionist, teaches Torah, runs a Friday night service and holds court at a "tisch" at his home, where dozens show up every Shabbos for songs and inspirational story-telling. His "guys" are anything from hard-core addicts to kids who just didn't fit the yeshiva mold, and he helps them finish school, find jobs, go clean, reconcile with family or get back into Judaism.
Last year Leibovic took a sabbatical from his job in his family's law firm to build Aish Tamid's infrastructure, but he is now back at work full time. He sets aside every night from 5:30-8 p.m. for his wife and their 6-year-old triplets and three younger children.
And from 8 p.m. on, and often well into the morning, he's there for his guys.
He can do it because he gets them. He knows their insecurities and their haunts. He speaks their language -- from his dude-laced lingo with a Brooklyn accent to his knowledge of the latest music.
"If not for Avi, I would be wandering the streets of Brooklyn," says Yitzy, a 17-year-old who now has a job and is working toward getting his high school diploma.
Leibovic has never taken a salary from Aish Tamid, and he admits the work is taking a toll on him and his family.
But he's sticking with it.
"If you give the kids time and if you give them love, if you give them the opportunity to express themselves in a way that is not cookie-cutter, you see tremendous success," he says. "Guys who have been written off by their schools, their family and their community, we find that we are able to rekindle their aish tamid [eternal flame]."
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Posted on Jan. 5, 2006 at 7:00 pm
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