The Chai Center presents itself as an open and non-judgmental address for Jews looking to learn more about Judaism, to have an authentic Jewish experience, or simply to meet other Jews.
Rabbi Shlomo 'Schwartzie' Schwartz in photo from his Web site
"All our activities are for Conservative, Reform, nonaffiliates, & any Jew that moves! They require no prior background for your total enjoyment," the center's tagline reads.
Founded and run by the unpredictable and colorful Rabbi Shlomo Schwartz, best known as just Schwartzie, the Chai Center makes Judaism accessible and hip for the estimated 10,000 to 15,000 Jews who attend its events every year.
At 62, Schwartzie is enormously popular and beloved. A defiantly independent and off-beat character, he can schmooze it up with Hollywood types or go green with millennial do-gooders. His long white beard gives him a look that is both rabbinic and grandfatherly; his untethered vernacular and quirky style make it clear he fits no mold.
His hallmark event is Dinner for 60 Strangers, which he and his wife, Olivia, host every Friday night in their home.
And it was that Shabbat event that attracted Jamie Katz (not her real name), a 42-year-old paralegal and entrepreneur.
Katz was on an emotional mission to deepen her Jewish identity. When her mother was dying a year ago, she had a last request for her daughter: Go explore your Jewish heritage. Join a temple, find a Jewish man.
Jamie's mother, who was Japanese, had converted to Judaism some 45 years before, when she married Jamie's father. Katz and her two brothers had studied at Temple Emanuel religious school in Beverly Hills, and while she says she never felt like she completely fit in as a Japanese Jew, she never considered herself anything but Jewish.
A few weeks ago a friend told her about the Chai Center, so she went online and registered for the Shabbat dinner at the Schwartzes' home. The food was great, the atmosphere was warm and inviting, and Katz felt as if she belonged.
The following Sunday, however, she received an e-mail from Schwartzie that felt like a verbal punch in the gut:
"Altho yr surname is [Katz] & U spk Yiddish, thts still does not make yr mother's NON Orthodox 'conversion' kosher [valid]," he wrote to her. "Tht means tht if U ever met a Jewish man who's family Rabbi was Orthodox or, who wanted 2 get married in Israel, U could NOT! ... I appreciate tht U were 'brought up' as a Jew (even tho yr father 'married' out of the faith ), but U may not come 2 any more Chai Center events.... We consider INTERMARRAIGE a grt tragedy for the Jewish ppl, even if the non Jewish person in the equation thinks & feels Jewish.... In the eyes of Al-mighty G*d, it's important 4 U NOT 2 date Jewish men. The result of which could, G-d forbid, end in grt tragedy, 4 both of U."
Shocked and pained, Katz wrote back to Schwartzie, reiterating her commitment to Judaism. In the escalating exchange, Schwartzie castigated Katz's late father for choosing to marry a non-Jew, and about Katz's recently deceased mother, he wrote: "She might have been agrt mother, but as a 'Jewish' mother she was a miserable failure! In truth she really was not a FAILURE as a Jew; since, in the eyes of G-d (where it COUNTS) she wasn't!"
Katz was crushed.
"I thought I would find a safe haven in the Jewish community, and I've been shunned by my own people," said Katz, sobbing into the phone just hours after she received Schwartzie's second missive. "I feel embarrassed and ashamed, like I don't belong and I'm not worthy."
Katz is not the only recipient of such letters from Schwartzie. The Journal has learned that this maverick wizard of outreach has directed angry e-mails to other women he perceives as threats to his mission toward ensuring that Jews marry Jews and thus guarantee the continuation of a 4,000-year chain of tradition.
In addition to Katz, two other women independently sent to the Jewish Journal samples of Schwartzie's letters -- rambling e-mails in large print, heavy with text-message shorthand punctuated with varied text colors, point sizes and fonts. One recipient, who is not Jewish, attended his Rosh Hashanah services last fall with a Jewish friend and followed up by sending the rabbi a question about her Jewish ex-boyfriend. Another woman, who is Jewish, brought a non-Jewish man to Schwartzie's seder in 2005. Filled with foul language and content that can easily be construed as bigoted, sexist and threatening, the e-mails seem to contradict the rabbi's aura of openness and non-judgmental warmth.
In a face-to-face interview, Schwartzie stood his ground when first confronted with the letters. He said that while he regretted language that may have been perceived as a personal attack, he stood by his goal of sounding an intentionally vicious warning to ward off non-Jews who might infiltrate his events in the hopes of ensnaring a Jewish partner and eventually intermarrying.
"It's destroying Jewish people," he said, explaining his visceral abhorrence of intermarriage. "This is not just a sin and you shouldn't do it, like don't eat lobster."
Fixing his blue eyes in a fierce stare, he tried to convey the vehemence of what he wants to get across to the women he calls "shiksas": "You are a f---ing Nazi. You are killing a Jew and I hate you for that and I'll piss on your grave. You are not going to kill my Jews."
In follow-up e-mails, the rabbi offered qualified apologies for his letters.
"My reaction shdnt have been on a personal but more correctly, on an IMpersonal level. It matters not the kind of person tht the Non Jew is. So anythig directed @ the Person of the non Jew is wrong. For tht I declare tht I was mistaken & will personally apologize 2 those tht took it personally," he wrote in an e-mail. As of press time, none of the women had heard from Schwartzie.
Schwartzie's son, Mendel Schwartz, serves as development director for the Chai Center and is being groomed to take over. He was straightforward in his response to the content of the e-mails.
"I want to make it very clear, that no one is defending Schwartzie's remarks. It's not OK to go off the handle at anybody, whether they are Jewish or non-Jewish. It's just not a way to talk to anyone else," Mendel said.
He explained that his father's outburst comes from his deep and personal commitment, as the son of Holocaust survivors, to do what he can to save Jews. He compared Schwartzie's hostility toward non-Jews attending his singles events to how a mother might respond if a 40-year-old started hitting on her 16-year-old daughter.
Mendel says he hopes that the emails, though inexcusable, will not tarnish the good his father has done and continues to do in this city.
Schwartzie and his wife run the center from their Mar Vista home, and the center hosts free High Holiday services at the Writers Guild Theater that attract more than 3,000 people. At a Passover seder, Schwartzie regales hundreds of guests with his Chasidic tales and a choir made up of his 12 children.
Long before such tactics were popular, the Orthodox rabbi started bringing Judaism to wherever Jews were -- from comedy clubs on the Sunset Strip to a Jewish astrology table on the Venice Beach Boardwalk to Shabbat dinner at the Cannes Film Festival. His Purim and Not-A-Christmas parties aim to give Jewish singles a place to meet -- he has introduced and married more than 700 couples over the last 40 years.
"I am personally very proud that as a rabbi working for 38 years in this community, doing public service, that the only thing we have going against Schwartzie is not any illegal activity -- there's no sexual misconduct, he didn't kick anybody, he didn't embezzle any money. I think after such a life if the only thing we have going against Schwartzie is a verbal attack by e-mail, then I am proud to be part of that organization," Mendel said.
Schwartzie's supporters and friends, as described by him and as listed in literature on his Web site, include talent agents, actors, producers, CEOs and high-powered attorneys. Many local rabbis and Jewish institutions of all denominations coordinate with the rabbi in outreach efforts.
When asked for reactions to the content of the e-mails, some supporters refused to look at what they called "personal letters," while others called them mistakes in a relatively smudge-free career.
"I cannot condone the writing of these outrageous, out-of-control letters, under any circumstances. But Shlomo Schwartz cannot be defined by these letters alone," said Gary Wexler, Los Angeles-based leader in Jewish marketing. Gary and his wife Dana were the first couple Schwartzie married, in 1974, and they have kept up a close relationship with the rabbi.
"I believe for people like me and other people who know him, nothing is going to disturb or change the long history we've had and the things he has done for us, and how he has been there in our lives. What he has done for people is so deep -- and not for his own ego," Wexler said.
In addition to his big events, Schwartzie deals with an estimated 50 people a day, from hospital visits to marriage counseling to quick phone calls and e-mails to check in.
Some of the rabbi's supporters see great harm in these e-mails.
"The Schwartzie that I knew bears no resemblance to the racist, bigoted, bullying, childish putz who responded so immaturely to that woman," actor Richard Dreyfuss said in a phone interview, after viewing the e-mails. "If you are going to be a mentor and teacher, and you want to tell someone something that might go down unpleasantly, there are a thousand ways to do it without damaging a person's humanity, as that letter did."
Dreyfuss said he would have nothing further to do with the rabbi, whom he studied with in the 1980s.
In trying to explain his father's mindset, Mendel started with the Holocaust, and the devastation -- physical and cultural -- Schwartzie saw the Nazis strike against the Jews, and his family in particular.
Schwartzie's father was a celebrated cantor in Vienna, who in 1941 arrived with his wife, Schwartzie's mother, in Atlantic City, N.J., where the future rabbi was born. As a young boy, Schwartzie was acutely aware that he had no relatives -- not a single grandparent, uncle, aunt or cousin had survived the Holocaust. In 1942, his mother threw her sheitl (a wig Orthodox women wear) into the fireplace, and his parents quit the strict observance of Europe. His father became a cantor at a Conservative synagogue, but home ritual was diluted.
Schwartzie turned to Chabad Chasidism when he was 19, and served as a Chabad rabbi on the UCLA campus for 16 years. While his differences with Chabad led to a split in the late 1980s, he has always stuck to his mission of fighting intermarriage in order to preserve Judaism.
"I want you to understand, just for a moment, I have never had another job," Schwartzie said in the interview. "I've been working for 37 years, and I only had one job ... my job is to save Jewish people from annihilation. Not the Jewish people -- but Jewish persons, and I can do that and I have done that."
To achieve that, he swung his door wide open. But in a city as searching as Los Angeles, that door also lets in Jews he doesn't consider Jewish -- such as Katz -- and some curious non-Jews.
And if those non-Jews are single -- and especially if they are good-looking women, it seems -- things can get ugly.
Jackie Campbell (not her real name), who is not Jewish, was invited by her Jewish neighbor to attend Schwartzie's Rosh Hashanah services last fall at the Writers Guild Theater.
A graduate of Berkeley who has published research on breast cancer and Eastern medicine and now produces children's health and exercise videos, Campbell wrote to Schwartzie to follow up on a comment he had made about Jewish astrology. In her e-mail, she told Schwartzie that her father's father was Jewish, and she also asked the rabbi for "words of wisdom" about her Jewish ex-boyfriend, whom she had recently broken up with when she realized he wouldn't marry a non-Jew.
Schwartzie wrote back:
"A paternal grandpapy does not make U a Jew. Get used 2 it & get used 2 the program; its called the Reality of truth, even if it disturbs yr comfort zone. It is really low space morally & ethically of you 2 cast aspersions on Jews & their religion bcz they tell the truth. U R not a Jew even if tht means tht U lose yr boy toy," read part of his long tirade to her.
Campbell said the e-mails deeply disturbed her and embarrassed her Jewish friends, who assured her he did not represent Judaism. She wrote that to Schwartzie in answer to his e-mail.
"How dare U B so nervy as 2 criticize me when U r the brazen hussy slut chasing after Jewish men (even when they R Orthodox & you KNOW tht it is against their G-d & religion). Shame on U 4 yr disgusting unpaid whoring ways 2 try & take Jewish men away from Jewish women. Hitler murdered Jews & U R also trying 2 exterminate Jews."
Some question whether the rabbi's motives are bigoted, and, because they appear to be directed mostly at women, sexist.
Schwartzie, his son Mendel and Gary Wexler, insist the rabbi is not a bigot, pointing to Schwartzie's many close friends who are not Jewish, many of whom are married to Jewish friends and are welcome at his Shabbat table. (He believes there is little he can do once a Jew has intermarried, so he might as well give the Jewish partner some spiritual uplift.) His enmity, they say, is reserved solely for non-Jewish singles who are trying to steal Jewish men out of the pool that should be reserved for Jewish women.
But some of Schwartzie's words are aimed more broadly than the narrow target of potential intermarriers.
He freely refers to non-Jews as "shiksas" and "goys," which many find derogatory. To this reporter he referred to Jamie Katz as a "good-looking Jewpanese," and argued that non-Jewish women are more likely than Jewish women to be loose with men, which he sees as an unfair and immoral weapon in the battle for a Jewish husband.
In a 2005 e-mail berating Marlene Fineberg for bringing a non-Jewish friend to his seder, he wrote:
"What were U thinking when U brought a GOY 2 our Seder??? How did U dare 2 do such a reprehensible thing? It must B tht U R quite mentally unbalanced & not taking yr meds. And then U had the Chutzpa 2 try 2 pick up another Jew from our group while U were sitting there W/ a GOY (who was even of a dfrnt RACE ... )?" he wrote, then added. "U came dressed like a cheap SLUT W/a low cut dress, tht was in very poor taste etc."
In a later e-mail in their exchange, Fineberg, who recently authored a book of poetry, expressed shock that he would talk to her in such a way. He continued:
"There is no reason 2 wear so much make up tht U look like a painted horse from a circus, or a crack whore. Even the Mexican staff felt it was disgusting 4 a woman 2 attend a religious activity looking like a hooker."
Campbell, in particular, sees a vendetta against women in these e-mails: "You cannot treat women like this anymore. It's kind of laughable in 2007," she said. "How is it that I get punished for being in a relationship? How is it that the man doesn't get any of the responsibility in this situation, that I am the whore and the slut?"
Mendel, however, said he considers his father a feminist, because he is the only one standing up for Jewish women.
"All the Jewish girls in town come crying to myself and to Schwartzie -- literally crying -- saying that none of the Jewish guys will go out with them. Schwartzie is the only one, time and again, going to bat for the Jewish girls in town," Mendel said.
And it is the life and death comments that Schwartzie made in his e-mails that he seems to most regret. To both Campbell and Katz, Schwartzie implied that if they were to marry Jews they would be risking physical ailments.
"The Jewish G-d writes in the Jewish Bible tht if a Non Jew 'Marries' a Jew then they R liable 2 elicit terrible punishments from G-d in Heaven - like CANCER. Look b4 U LEAP leap into the abyss !" he wrote to Campbell.
In his interview with The Journal, Schwartzie explained he was referring to the Kabbalistic idea that the physical and spiritual are connected, and that harm to the soul will lead to physical problems.
In an e-mail a few days later, Schwartzie reconsidered that point.
"I therefore do apologize tht in a moment of righteous indignaton @ the existence of yet another Jewish man's life being threatened and being personally attacked (something I was not prepared 4 since it almost Never happens), I got angry (the Talmud says tht if U get angry, U're gunu make a mistake; & i confess tht I did) & lost it & mentioned a terrible word tht I try never 2 pronounce -- 'Cancer.' For tht i am truly sorry."
Schwartzie and his supporters argue that his apologies -- and his nearly four decades of selfless and highly successful service to the Jewish community -- should outweigh his serious mistakes.
"I've read these letters, but I know him and I know he isn't sexist, and I know he isn't racist," Wexler said. "I've seen him work with people, and I know that he is a sweet and wonderful man. What ticked this off is his fervent belief in his life's work."
As for Katz, she hopes to get past the emotional upheaval created by the exchange. She said this week that while she is still distraught, she has met with another Orthodox rabbi and is considering an Orthodox conversion.
"It's not that I feel forced. It's that I want to further my knowledge and my background," she said.
The Orthodox rabbi she met with was warm and welcoming, urging her to study and embrace her religion. He spent a lot of time with her, and expressed sadness and dismay at the reception she had received from his colleague.
"That meant the world to me," Katz said. "This Orthodox rabbi really helped to heal me. He helped me undo some of that anguish."