February 14, 2008
Chai Center rabbi explains ‘off the handle’ e-mails
(Page 2 - Previous Page)"I want to make it very clear, that no one is defending Schwartzie's remarks. It's not OK to go off the handle at anybody, whether they are Jewish or non-Jewish. It's just not a way to talk to anyone else," Mendel said.
He explained that his father's outburst comes from his deep and personal commitment, as the son of Holocaust survivors, to do what he can to save Jews. He compared Schwartzie's hostility toward non-Jews attending his singles events to how a mother might respond if a 40-year-old started hitting on her 16-year-old daughter.
Mendel says he hopes that the emails, though inexcusable, will not tarnish the good his father has done and continues to do in this city.
Schwartzie and his wife run the center from their Mar Vista home, and the center hosts free High Holiday services at the Writers Guild Theater that attract more than 3,000 people. At a Passover seder, Schwartzie regales hundreds of guests with his Chasidic tales and a choir made up of his 12 children.
Long before such tactics were popular, the Orthodox rabbi started bringing Judaism to wherever Jews were -- from comedy clubs on the Sunset Strip to a Jewish astrology table on the Venice Beach Boardwalk to Shabbat dinner at the Cannes Film Festival. His Purim and Not-A-Christmas parties aim to give Jewish singles a place to meet -- he has introduced and married more than 700 couples over the last 40 years.
"I am personally very proud that as a rabbi working for 38 years in this community, doing public service, that the only thing we have going against Schwartzie is not any illegal activity -- there's no sexual misconduct, he didn't kick anybody, he didn't embezzle any money. I think after such a life if the only thing we have going against Schwartzie is a verbal attack by e-mail, then I am proud to be part of that organization," Mendel said.
Schwartzie's supporters and friends, as described by him and as listed in literature on his Web site, include talent agents, actors, producers, CEOs and high-powered attorneys. Many local rabbis and Jewish institutions of all denominations coordinate with the rabbi in outreach efforts.
When asked for reactions to the content of the e-mails, some supporters refused to look at what they called "personal letters," while others called them mistakes in a relatively smudge-free career.
"I cannot condone the writing of these outrageous, out-of-control letters, under any circumstances. But Shlomo Schwartz cannot be defined by these letters alone," said Gary Wexler, Los Angeles-based leader in Jewish marketing. Gary and his wife Dana were the first couple Schwartzie married, in 1974, and they have kept up a close relationship with the rabbi.
"I believe for people like me and other people who know him, nothing is going to disturb or change the long history we've had and the things he has done for us, and how he has been there in our lives. What he has done for people is so deep -- and not for his own ego," Wexler said.
In addition to his big events, Schwartzie deals with an estimated 50 people a day, from hospital visits to marriage counseling to quick phone calls and e-mails to check in.
Some of the rabbi's supporters see great harm in these e-mails.
"The Schwartzie that I knew bears no resemblance to the racist, bigoted, bullying, childish putz who responded so immaturely to that woman," actor Richard Dreyfuss said in a phone interview, after viewing the e-mails. "If you are going to be a mentor and teacher, and you want to tell someone something that might go down unpleasantly, there are a thousand ways to do it without damaging a person's humanity, as that letter did."
Dreyfuss said he would have nothing further to do with the rabbi, whom he studied with in the 1980s.
In trying to explain his father's mindset, Mendel started with the Holocaust, and the devastation -- physical and cultural -- Schwartzie saw the Nazis strike against the Jews, and his family in particular.
Schwartzie's father was a celebrated cantor in Vienna, who in 1941 arrived with his wife, Schwartzie's mother, in Atlantic City, N.J., where the future rabbi was born. As a young boy, Schwartzie was acutely aware that he had no relatives -- not a single grandparent, uncle, aunt or cousin had survived the Holocaust. In 1942, his mother threw her sheitl (a wig Orthodox women wear) into the fireplace, and his parents quit the strict observance of Europe. His father became a cantor at a Conservative synagogue, but home ritual was diluted.
Schwartzie turned to Chabad Chasidism when he was 19, and served as a Chabad rabbi on the UCLA campus for 16 years. While his differences with Chabad led to a split in the late 1980s, he has always stuck to his mission of fighting intermarriage in order to preserve Judaism.
"I want you to understand, just for a moment, I have never had another job," Schwartzie said in the interview. "I've been working for 37 years, and I only had one job ... my job is to save Jewish people from annihilation. Not the Jewish people -- but Jewish persons, and I can do that and I have done that."
To achieve that, he swung his door wide open. But in a city as searching as Los Angeles, that door also lets in Jews he doesn't consider Jewish -- such as Katz -- and some curious non-Jews.
And if those non-Jews are single -- and especially if they are good-looking women, it seems -- things can get ugly.
Jackie Campbell (not her real name), who is not Jewish, was invited by her Jewish neighbor to attend Schwartzie's Rosh Hashanah services last fall at the Writers Guild Theater.