When Simone Gold walked into Shalom Time at Borders Books in Westwood, the first thing she noticed was that she was not dressed quite as conservatively as many others in the audience, who wore long skirts and sleeves.
But her 2-year-old son was enjoying the Jewish songs, dances and shtick, and the endeavor seemed so sincere, she stayed, and even hung around to schmooze afterward.
Gold, an emergency-room physician who is marginally affiliated to Judaism, has since attended several classes and Shabbat dinners sponsored by the Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel (LINK), a year-old organization based at the Westwood Kehilla that puts on Shalom Time and adult classes, many of them for beginners.
"There are around 222,000 Jews in West L.A., and they are not all going to Young Israel and Beth Jacob and B'nai David. So we have to go where they are -- to the libraries, to Borders, to the malls," said Rabbi Asher Brander, founder of LINK and rabbi of the Westwood Kehilla, a small Orthodox shul. "Kiruv [outreach] is a hand-to-hand combat business, and the only way it works is with relationships."
Gold has found the people at LINK to be nonjudgmental and sincere, and the classes full of solid information. That combination has kept her coming back, even though she says she doesn't think she will ever become Orthodox.
"It's made me think more about spirituality, incorporating actual religious rituals into daily life," Gold said. "I think more seriously and more consistently about doing tzedakah, or being courteous and doing more mitzvahs in my daily life."
LINK has had to distinguish itself in a crowded outreach field in Los Angeles; Chabad, the Jewish Learning Exchange and Aish HaTorah, to name just a few, have similar mandates.
To carve his niche, Brander has imported from Israel and across the United States, a handful of energized young rabbis who spend all morning studying Torah and all afternoon (and for many of them into the late nights) reaching out to different segments of the Los Angeles Jewish community.
He has also expanded LINK's realm to two other areas beyond traditional outreach: shoring up the adult educational offerings in the Orthodox community and providing a venue for study and socializing for Orthodox college-age students.
LINK runs on a budget of $450,000 a year, most of which Brander and his executive director, Rabbi Brad Yellen, raise in small donations. The Shalom Outreach Program recently received a $10,000 grant from the Jewish Community Foundation to bring Shalom Time and Jewish fairs to malls and libraries.
"The goal is to give Jews today educational material they have never been meaningfully exposed to, to allow them to make meaningful choices about the Jewish direction of their lives," said Rabbi Eli Stern, education director for LINK.
That applies not only to those who come with little background, but also to those already in the Orthodox community. LINK hopes to increase the textual skills and the frequency of learning within the Orthodox community by offering classes at different synagogues or in homes around the city -- including a 5:45 a.m. Talmud class.
Simi Yellen's Positive Parenting classes for women, which mix Jewish philosophy with practical techniques, attract about 60 women a week.
LINK has also targeted Orthodox college students, a severely underserved population, according to Rabbi Avraham Willig, who studies with about 150 students through Torah Learning for Collegiates, a program LINK cosponsors with Yeshiva of Los Angeles.
"It's not just the learning, it's the creation of chevra [social circle], it's having someone to go to who can understand you when you are making important decisions in life," said Brander, who has been teaching at YULA High School for 15 years.
Rabbi Meyer May, executive director of Yeshiva of Los Angeles, commends Brander and his wife Batyah for their vision.
"He has that rare combination of qualities that demonstrates sincerity, fine humor, stunning commitment to what he is doing and indefatigable drive to get it done," May said.
LINK will hold services with explanations, stories and interactive classes for the High Holidays. $50 (per service), $100 (all three). R.S.V.P. by Sept. 22 to (310) 441-5289, ext. 22. For more information, go to www.linkla.org, or call (310) 470-5465.