January 31, 2008
If the great Maimonides ever came back to life and found himself in Los Angeles, chances are he'd look for a house on a small street called Detroit, between Oakwood Avenue and Beverly Boulevard, one block west of La Brea Avenue. There are no holier streets in Los Angeles.
This little discovery happened thanks to my 10-year-old daughter, Mia, who informed me recently that she had volunteered me to be a driver for her upcoming class outing. Little did I know what kind of class outing it would be: a minitour of a very Jewish neighborhood -- not my neighborhood of Pico-Robertson, but the neighborhood of Hancock Park.
Our tour guide was Mia's fifth-grade Chumash teacher at Maimonides Academy, Rabbi Moshe Abady. The tour is actually called a "Kollel Tour," because the feature attraction is a visit to the two kollels, or Talmudic study halls, of the neighborhood.
You will never understand the Orthodox world until you understand the idea of the kollel, which originated in Eastern Europe in the 19th century as a way to keep yeshiva students in a Torah-learning environment after they get married, and also nurture Torah scholars, teachers ("rebbes") and experts in halacha, or Jewish law, who would make rulings for their communities.
In America, the kollel movement was started after World War II by Rabbi Aharon Kotler, the founder of Beth Medrash Gohova, a large yeshiva in Lakewood, N. J. Since then, kollels have opened across the country in all major cities, becoming a key catalyst for the growth of the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox movements in America.
On the West Coast, the oldest and best-known kollel is called the Kollel Los Angeles, started by Rabbi Chaim Fasman 30 years ago and located on Beverly Boulevard, across from the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, the only cafe where I've seen Cholov Yisroel milk, which is imported from Israel and is favored by many ultra-Orthodox.
The first kollel we visited with Rabbi Abady was a smaller Chasidic kollel on La Brea Avenue called Yechiel Yehuda, where we met with full-time student Chaim Unger, who gave the schoolchildren a minioverview and answered their questions. I don't remember his exact words, but I have a clear memory of his message and body language: There is no better way to be a Jew and to serve God than to study His Torah.
How do you make money, one child wanted to know. Unger said that the kollel helps a little, his wife works a little and they basically just get by. I couldn't resist asking how he could physically sit down and learn all day and most nights. Didn't he ever feel like moving or running or swimming, just to get the blood pumping? He gave me this strange look, mumbled something about his wife having a Stairmaster and then explained how the study of Jewish law can be so draining that it is like a workout.
Rabbi Abady then walked us over to the Kollel Los Angeles, where the kids had lunch and heard from two more full-time kollel members. The message was the same: Learning Torah is heaven. I've rarely met such happy people. There is nothing they'd rather do than spend all day analyzing the intricacies of a talmudic tractate.
When I met up with Rabbi Abady a couple of weeks after the tour on a rainy Sunday night at the Coffee Bean across from the kollel, he acknowledged that one of the criticisms of kollels in general is that it doesn't seem fair that married men with children should study full time and not work. But, he says, students are screened carefully; the money they get from the kollel is too little to attract slackers; women consider it an honor to be married to a Torah scholar and, most importantly for the community, kollels can transform the Jewish life of cities and neighborhoods.
Here in Los Angeles, the kollels of Hancock Park have been feeding the community for years with leaders and Torah scholars -- such as Rabbi Gershon Bess, who is part of the leadership of the Rabbinical Council of California, heads the highly successful Kehilas Yaacov synagogue and is a world-renowned halachic expert, and Rabbi Yaacov Krause, who runs the prominent ultra-Orthodox Toras Emes day school and is the head rabbi at Young Israel of Hancock Park.
What I gathered, after listening to Rabbi Abady, was that in the Torah-observant world, having a world-class kollel is like a city having a world-class symphony orchestra. The orchestra attracts the best musicians; the kollel attracts the best students. Even if you are not a classical music aficionado, there's a civic pride in knowing that your city has something majestic and superior.
For the Jews of Hancock Park and for many others, a world-class kollel is something majestic and superior.
And that includes the Jews on that little block of Detroit Street, where Rabbi Abady started his class outing as if he was a tour guide with a "Map to the Stars." With a look of reverence on his face, he walked us down the block and showed us how virtually every house belonged to a Torah scholar and prominent member of the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox communities.
Over coffee Sunday night, he jokingly called that block the "holiest street west of the Mississippi," while reminding me that many of these scholars have been involved with the local kollels, primarily the Kollel Los Angeles. Hancock Park would never be what it is today without the kollels, he said.
In that case, my friends of Pico-Robertson, fasten your seatbelts. The rabbi confirmed that a world-class kollel is quietly starting in our neighborhood, under the tutelage of two Torah giants of Hancock Park: Rabbi Baruch Gradon and Rabbi Daniel Danishefsky. It is currently being housed in Beth Jacob Congregation, and from what I hear, it's already attracting major talent from Lakewood.
The great Maimonides, if he returns, will now have another neighborhood to look at.
David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.