The trek to Chabad of Downtown Los Angeles was not exactly my normal pre-Shabbat routine. Living in Pico-Robertson, the most noticeable sound I hear on the streets and sidewalks as Friday night approaches isn’t typically car engines — it’s silence.
And yet here I was, trying to survive a thoroughly unenjoyable drive down the 10 Freeway in the middle of rush hour, followed by a frustrating exchange with the attendant at a Spring Street parking lot. Walking the next 300 yards to Rabbi Moshe and Rivky Greenwald’s Chabad house — apartment, actually — I realized that the streets of downtown are not the most serene place to welcome the day of rest.
Bars, jewelry shops, restaurants and convenience stores surrounded me on all sides. The sound of car engines and horns, and the smell of car exhaust and open trashcans filled the air.
But as I walked into the lobby of the Haas Building on West Seventh Street, downtown suddenly disappeared. The lobby and stairwells were silent, and as I walked past Chabad’s studio synagogue on the second floor, and up to the Greenwalds’ third-floor double loft, I heard a familiar Shabbat sound: quiet.
Still, it was clear from the moment I walked into Greenwald’s apartment that this was no typical Chabad Shabbat. Missing were the sounds of children laughing or babies crying that often characterize Friday night dinners in a Chabad family’s home. Ditto for the smell of freshly baked challah that, seemingly, only a rebbetzin knows how to bake. (The absence of Greenwald’s wife, who was in Brooklyn with their three children, explained both.)
Instead, when I walked in, Greenwald and his friend Howard Dolin were standing by the counter, chatting about current events. Pre-Shabbat snacks sat next to them — Melba toast on the left, herring on the right and a bottle of vodka in the middle.
Greenwald is a tall, somewhat imposing man, who wore the standard Orthodox Shabbat uniform of black slacks with a neatly pressed white button-down shirt. The Long Beach native saw me and said in a semi-Brooklyn accent, “Welcome to bachelors’ Shabbat.”
It could have been the prep to any frat party — a few guys standing around, talking about sports, friends, life, whatever, and waiting for the guests to arrive. The difference was that this was Chabad of Downtown, and we were still preparing for the holy, uplifting and relaxing experience that Shabbat is designed to provide. The table was set and the food was prepared. All we were missing were the other bachelors.
When the Greenwalds opened Chabad of Downtown in 2007, they chose the Haas Building as their oasis in a sea of urban noise. On the second floor sits a studio apartment that the couple convincingly turned into what is a beautiful, and very small, synagogue.
The flooring is a smooth dark-colored laminate wood. The ark is huge — so huge that one wonders how difficult it must have been to lug the 9-foot-tall, 5-foot-wide, three-Torah storage unit into the room. There are no pews or fixed benches. All the chairs are portable, with the men’s section on the far side (by the window looking out toward an oversized sign for Carl’s Jr.), and the women’s section a few feet from the entrance. Greenwald said that, if necessary, he could fit about 100 people into the room.
Upstairs, on one side of the Greenwalds’ double loft are a kitchen, living area and dining area. On the other side are two bedrooms and a play corner for the children that can’t be more than 20 square feet. With tiled floors, brick and cement walls, stainless steel appliances and a downtown bustling three stories below, Greenwald’s apartment is a picture of contemporary living.
The Greenwalds’ Chabad is the only synagogue that provides Shabbat and holiday services for the 3,000 Jews — many of whom are Hispanic — that Greenwald estimates live downtown. During the week, Greenwald ventures through the city, visiting some of the tens of thousands of Jews who work downtown every day. Greenwald helps people wrap tefillin, delivers mezuzahs to Jewish businesses and gives Torah classes in the Chabad house and people’s offices.
But when the Sabbath bride arrives, he can always be found right here — at home. Whether he’s cracking jokes from “South Park” or discussing two of his great loves — cigars and the Los Angeles Kings — his guests, as I experienced on Shabbat, seem to be able to relate to him as not just a rabbi and mentor, but also as a friend.
Dinner conversation was not your typical Shabbat fare. One guest during my visit, Dolin, is a former Hells Angels member in the San Fernando Valley who talked about his career in construction and his journey toward becoming an observant Jew.
Another, Buck Mossey, is an LAPD detective in Hollywood who was able to enjoy a rare Friday night off. The stories he shared that night — from his recent arrest of a murder suspect to his interactions with the late rogue ex-cop Christopher Dorner, whom authorities say killed four people — were, for lack of a better word, meshugge.
On my right and sitting across from me were two Mexican Jews in their 20s, and a young, bearded hipster-looking, non-Jewish guy, who, by the looks of his winter hat and suspenders, could have just walked in from an Arctic fishing expedition.
Sitting in as rebbetzins for the evening were two good friends and regulars at Chabad, Ram Bilgrai and Shuky Lapid. The two Israeli men, fantastic and humorously quarrelsome, served us herb-seasoned gefilte fish, chicken soup, Israeli salad, Moroccan chicken and spicy meatballs.
Even as we ate, the bright lights, moving cars and homeless people on the sidewalk outside the window were constant reminders of the city surrounding Greenwald’s peaceful island.
Of course, this was, as Greenwald reminded me a few times, not a typical Shabbat downtown. Not only were his wife and children away, but summer crowds tend to run small. While a previous community Shabbat attracted nearly 100 people and had to be held in the basement of the apartment complex, there were only about 10 guests for this dinner.
The conversation on this Friday night didn’t often turn to Judaism or Torah as talk powered on late into the night — until 2 a.m. This downtown bachelors’ Shabbat may not have been traditional, but that didn’t make it feel any less uplifting.