February 14, 2008
Chai Center rabbi explains ‘off the handle’ e-mails
"All our activities are for Conservative, Reform, nonaffiliates, & any Jew that moves! They require no prior background for your total enjoyment," the center's tagline reads.
Founded and run by the unpredictable and colorful Rabbi Shlomo Schwartz, best known as just Schwartzie, the Chai Center makes Judaism accessible and hip for the estimated 10,000 to 15,000 Jews who attend its events every year.
At 62, Schwartzie is enormously popular and beloved. A defiantly independent and off-beat character, he can schmooze it up with Hollywood types or go green with millennial do-gooders. His long white beard gives him a look that is both rabbinic and grandfatherly; his untethered vernacular and quirky style make it clear he fits no mold.
His hallmark event is Dinner for 60 Strangers, which he and his wife, Olivia, host every Friday night in their home.
And it was that Shabbat event that attracted Jamie Katz (not her real name), a 42-year-old paralegal and entrepreneur.
Katz was on an emotional mission to deepen her Jewish identity. When her mother was dying a year ago, she had a last request for her daughter: Go explore your Jewish heritage. Join a temple, find a Jewish man.
Jamie's mother, who was Japanese, had converted to Judaism some 45 years before, when she married Jamie's father. Katz and her two brothers had studied at Temple Emanuel religious school in Beverly Hills, and while she says she never felt like she completely fit in as a Japanese Jew, she never considered herself anything but Jewish.
A few weeks ago a friend told her about the Chai Center, so she went online and registered for the Shabbat dinner at the Schwartzes' home. The food was great, the atmosphere was warm and inviting, and Katz felt as if she belonged.
The following Sunday, however, she received an e-mail from Schwartzie that felt like a verbal punch in the gut:
"Altho yr surname is [Katz] & U spk Yiddish, thts still does not make yr mother's NON Orthodox 'conversion' kosher [valid]," he wrote to her. "Tht means tht if U ever met a Jewish man who's family Rabbi was Orthodox or, who wanted 2 get married in Israel, U could NOT! ... I appreciate tht U were 'brought up' as a Jew (even tho yr father 'married' out of the faith ), but U may not come 2 any more Chai Center events.... We consider INTERMARRAIGE a grt tragedy for the Jewish ppl, even if the non Jewish person in the equation thinks & feels Jewish.... In the eyes of Al-mighty G*d, it's important 4 U NOT 2 date Jewish men. The result of which could, G-d forbid, end in grt tragedy, 4 both of U."
Shocked and pained, Katz wrote back to Schwartzie, reiterating her commitment to Judaism. In the escalating exchange, Schwartzie castigated Katz's late father for choosing to marry a non-Jew, and about Katz's recently deceased mother, he wrote: "She might have been agrt mother, but as a 'Jewish' mother she was a miserable failure! In truth she really was not a FAILURE as a Jew; since, in the eyes of G-d (where it COUNTS) she wasn't!"
Katz was crushed.
"I thought I would find a safe haven in the Jewish community, and I've been shunned by my own people," said Katz, sobbing into the phone just hours after she received Schwartzie's second missive. "I feel embarrassed and ashamed, like I don't belong and I'm not worthy."
Katz is not the only recipient of such letters from Schwartzie. The Journal has learned that this maverick wizard of outreach has directed angry e-mails to other women he perceives as threats to his mission toward ensuring that Jews marry Jews and thus guarantee the continuation of a 4,000-year chain of tradition.
In addition to Katz, two other women independently sent to the Jewish Journal samples of Schwartzie's letters -- rambling e-mails in large print, heavy with text-message shorthand punctuated with varied text colors, point sizes and fonts. One recipient, who is not Jewish, attended his Rosh Hashanah services last fall with a Jewish friend and followed up by sending the rabbi a question about her Jewish ex-boyfriend. Another woman, who is Jewish, brought a non-Jewish man to Schwartzie's seder in 2005. Filled with foul language and content that can easily be construed as bigoted, sexist and threatening, the e-mails seem to contradict the rabbi's aura of openness and non-judgmental warmth.
In a face-to-face interview, Schwartzie stood his ground when first confronted with the letters. He said that while he regretted language that may have been perceived as a personal attack, he stood by his goal of sounding an intentionally vicious warning to ward off non-Jews who might infiltrate his events in the hopes of ensnaring a Jewish partner and eventually intermarrying.
"It's destroying Jewish people," he said, explaining his visceral abhorrence of intermarriage. "This is not just a sin and you shouldn't do it, like don't eat lobster."
Fixing his blue eyes in a fierce stare, he tried to convey the vehemence of what he wants to get across to the women he calls "shiksas": "You are a f---ing Nazi. You are killing a Jew and I hate you for that and I'll piss on your grave. You are not going to kill my Jews."
In follow-up e-mails, the rabbi offered qualified apologies for his letters.
"My reaction shdnt have been on a personal but more correctly, on an IMpersonal level. It matters not the kind of person tht the Non Jew is. So anythig directed @ the Person of the non Jew is wrong. For tht I declare tht I was mistaken & will personally apologize 2 those tht took it personally," he wrote in an e-mail. As of press time, none of the women had heard from Schwartzie.
Schwartzie's son, Mendel Schwartz, serves as development director for the Chai Center and is being groomed to take over. He was straightforward in his response to the content of the e-mails.