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December 21, 2006

Chasids in the Hood (or Not)

http://www.jewishjournal.com/david_suissa/article/chasids_in_the_hood_or_not_20061222

It's one of the quirks of the Pico-Robertson neighborhood. There's a movement that owns a huge block on Pico Boulevard right in the middle of the hood, runs a preschool, elementary, middle and high school for girls on that same block, has official or unofficial connections with six shuls in the area, has one of the higher-profile brand names in the Jewish world and yet, strangely, you walk around the hood and you don't really feel their presence.

I'm talking about Chabad-Lubavitch.

They have two shuls on Robertson Boulevard, both south of Pico. The one closest to Pico -- commonly called the Yemini shul, after its founder and leader Rabbi Amitai Yemini -- has been in the area the longest. The other shul, farther south, is a small minyan called Chabad of Beverlywood.

On Pico, you'll find one minyan officially connected to Chabad -- a tiny weekly minyan in their Bais Rebbe building -- and three independents: a Persian Chabad near Cresta Drive; a shul near Beverwil Drive recently opened by Rabbi Eyal Rav-Noy, who used to run a branch of Chabad's Jewish Learning Institute, and finally, near Robertson is Bais Bezalel, the biggest Lubavitch synagogue on Pico, also known as the Rabbi Lisbon shul.

So with all this presence, how come Chabad is so, er, quiet around here?

In a way, it's an easy answer: Chabad doesn't make a lot of noise in areas where people put on tefillin.

They thrive in nonobservant communities, where their unconditional love for every Jew, and their flair for promoting mitzvahs, make them highly visible. For more than 50 years, Chabad has taken this outreach model throughout the world and has lit up thousands of communities with a tireless, single-minded focus on "giving you" a mitzvah.

The problem is that here in the hood, most of the mitzvahs are already taken. The soul of the hood is clearly Modern Orthodox, with the majority of Jews already observant and affiliated with one or more congregations, which cater mostly to their members. So it shouldn't surprise anyone if there isn't a market in the hood for Chabad-style outreach.

Of course, I had to meet a rabbi who thinks all this is baloney.

He's a chabadnik who lives in the hood and who believes that there is, in fact, a market for outreach in this part of town. He doesn't just believe it, he lives it.

In truth, he does outreach all over Los Angeles -- with an emphasis on the Westside -- but he has a special place in his heart for the hood, maybe because he lives and hangs out here. He's like a gold prospector. He loves, for example, those buildings on Bedford and Wooster avenues, where he has discovered plenty of single, unaffiliated Jews who are now on his mailing list and come to his outreach events.

He recognizes that the hood is more of a post-outreach neighborhood, where Jews come to pursue their Judaism after their Jewish spark has been lit, usually elsewhere. But that doesn't faze him. He thinks there's a fair amount of unaffiliated Jews in the hood, but they are hidden (I think some of them are hiding). Either way, he says that even if there's a tiny amount, he wants to reach them all.

His name is Rabbi Mendel Schwartz, and for the past few years he has been running the outreach organization called Chai, started 20 years ago by his father and former Chabad emissary Shlomo Schwartz (I've rarely met a Jew in L.A. who hasn't heard of "Schwartzie"; I go to a lot of events, and he or a look-alike is at all of them). Chai, like the other independents, does not fall under the official Chabad umbrella, and it is neither a shul nor a location.

Rather, it's a nimble guerrilla outreach operation that uses cool events to bring Jews to Judaism. A Purim party at a comedy club; a haimish Shabbat "dinner for 30 strangers" at Schwartzie and Olivia's (his wife and partner); High Holiday services at the Writer's Guild; a Chanukah lighting party in a minimansion. Because they move between venues, they supplement the work of other shuls. Their outreach feeds the shuls for inreach.

But while Chai may be eclectic and independent, their inspiration is classic Lubavitch: using mitzvahs to light Jewish sparks.

This, for me, is the Chabad genius: a knack on the deed, not the talk. They don't get turned on by grand debates that lead to more grand debates. While the Jewish world agonizes over "profoundly important" issues, Chabad agonizes over getting to Kinko's on time to get their flyers out for their Chanukah event.

And at Chanukah time, all Chabads make noise. Here in the hood, the Yemini shul had their big outdoor bash at the Wells Fargo parking lot on Saturday night, with the hot band, 8th Day (major sound system). Across the hood, many Lubavitchers have placed large portable menorahs on their cars (they were part of a Chabad citywide parade Monday night) and a giant menorah billboard is on the wall of their Bais Rebbe building, to go along with the actual menorah in front of the building.

There's no doubt: Hood or no hood, outreach or inreach, Chabad salivates for Chanukah.

It's the holiday that embodies, through one simple icon, what the Lubavitch movement yearns for all year long: a chance to make observant Judaism shine. With thousands of public menorah lightings around the world, they proudly shine a light on the Jewish faith, on the freedom to practice that faith, and on the value of doing another mitzvah.

They are the Nikes of the Jewish world: They believe that if you just do it, the mystical power of the mitzvah will win you over, and your heart and mind will inevitably follow. And if you live in Los Angeles, where might that lead you?

I'm guessing right back here in the hood, to look for a house.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is the founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.

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