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. Block, a New Yorker, delivers his talk on the weekly portion 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 quite a following in the Valley. While the city boasts a number of institutions that seek to familiarize the unaffiliated with Orthodox Judaism (i.e., Aish HaTorah, Jewish Learning Exchange and the Jewish Awareness Movement), the Valley has Toras HaShem, which is its only non- Chabad Orthodox outreach organization (the Valley Kollel offers some outreach classes, but it is primarily a locus for those already learned.) Although there are some city people who make the trek across Coldwater Canyon to attend their classes, Toras HaShem is virtually unknown in the city, which is something that Block hopes to change.
So 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, and it would also raise awareness among city Jews of the classes and services offered by his institution, and perhaps lure a few of them away from the plethora of options in the city, to try out life -- or maybe just some classes -- in the Valley.
"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."
Block has lived in the Valley since 1977, when he came to start a Los Angeles branch of Aish HaTorah, then only a Jerusalem outreach yeshiva. In 1991, the building burnt down in an arson attack (the reason for the fire is still unknown), and Aish began concentrating its efforts in the city. Not one to give up, Block, who was also working as the founding rabbi of the Orthodox Beth Din of the Valley and as the principal of West Valley Hebrew Academy, collected $1 million in funds to build a building for his own outreach Yeshiva, and, in 1995, he opened Toras HaShem on Chandler Boulevard in North Hollywood, in a new building that could accommodate more than 200 students.
Toras HaShem caters to people who have no prior knowledge of Judaism, and it intends to foster individualist, religious expression in its students. "We produced kids who were Chasidic-leaning, and we produced kids who were Zionistic-leaning," Block said.
The yeshiva encourages its students to go to Israel, Block said. "We believe very strongly in a powerfully assertive Israel, and so this concert fits right in," he 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 the 613 Mitzvah Store, House of David and Brenco Judaica. For more information on the concert, call (818) 581-7505. For information on Toras HaShem, call (818) 980-6934. Â