It's Thursday night at Toras Hashem, an outreach yeshiva in North Hollywood and some 40 people are here to hear Rabbi Zvi Block's weekly Torah portion sermon. Tonight the class includes college-age women wearing long skirts; a number of septuagenarians; a middle-aged man, who is becoming Orthodox, and his wife, who is converting to Judaism; and a young mother whose little girl spends the class drawing pictures on a notepad.
The men and women are seated in separate rows, and everyone is following along in an English-translated Chumash. The class is about Parshat Yitro, the portion of the Torah in which the Ten Commandments are given to the Jewish people, which is a springboard for Block to talk not about laws, but about relationships, using the events at Mt. Sinai as a metaphor for marriage. Block, a New Yorker, delivers his talk with great enthusiasm: he sits down, he gets up, he walks around the room, he digs with his thumb to emphasize his points, he modulates his voice, he peppers his argument with telling anecdotes; he moves the story so briskly through the text that by the end of the 75 minutes, the entire parsha has been explicated.
Block's scholarship and liveliness have garnered him a following in the Valley, where he has lived since 1977 when he came to start a Los Angeles branch of Aish HaTorah, then only a Jerusalem outreach yeshiva. In 1995 Block started his own outreach yeshiva, Toras Hashem, formerly known as the Aish HaTorah Institute, which is intended to foster individualist, religious expression in its students. "We never cloned anyone in a particular fashion," Block said. "We produced kids who were Chasidic-leaning, and we produced kids who were Zionistic-leaning."
The original Toras Hashem building burned down in an arson attack in 1991, although the reason for the fire is still unknown. Not one to give up, Block collected $1 million in funds to rebuild his building,Â and, in 1995, the new Toras Hashem on Chandler Boulevard in North Hollywood, with room for more than 200 students, was completed. In addition to his fundraising and outreach efforts, Block also worked as the founding rabbi of the Orthodox Beth Din of the Valley and as the principal of West Valley Hebrew Academy.
With more than 200 people attending classes and services every week, Toras Hashem has made a name for itself in the Valley. However, it has yet to draw people in from the other side of Mulholland Drive, which is something that Block attributes to city Jews' myopia, although it might be due to the plethora of options available there.
"I think people in the city don't realize to what extent the Valley community has grown," Block told The Journal. "People consider the Valley as a third choice [to live in], after Pico Robertson and Hancock Park, and they are making a big mistake. People in the city don't realize that the Valley has between 800 and 1,000 shomer Shabbos families. In our area alone there are a dozen shuls."
These days, Block is trying a different sort of outreach. He wants to reach out to affiliated Jews in the city so that they know more about the thriving community in the Valley, and he is doing so by organizing a citywide concert with Shalsheles, the highest-selling Orthodox singing quartet in the country by Jewish music standards. Block hopes to sell out some 1,700 seats, which would raise $100,000 to benefit Israeli victims of terror.
"We have an overriding thrust that Israel is our homeland. We believe very strongly in a powerfully assertive Israel, and so this concert fits right in," Block said. "It is really an effort to galvanize the city of Los Angeles on our behalf, and on behalf of Israel."
The Shalsheles Concert will take place at 7:30 p.m., Feb. 16 at the Scottish Rite Theatre, 4357 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. Tickets are available at 613 the Mitzvah Store, House of David and Brencos. For more information on the concert, call (818) 581-7505. For information on Toras Hashem, call (818) 980-6934.