May 18, 2006
Wandering Jew - Spiritual Headliners
Dozens of young giggling girls dressed in their finest skirts and blouses crowded the front of the Universal Hilton ballroom, which was hot and stuffy and filled to standing-room only capacity with women in anticipation of the big event.
When the music started all the girls and women jumped to their feet and started clapping, beatific, expectant smiles on their faces.
It could have been a rock concert -- perhaps the debut of famous boy band -- but it was not that kind of music and these were not that kind of girls. For most of the 3,000 men and women -- seated in separate rooms, with a video screen for the women -- the happening was one of the most important ever in Los Angeles and in the lives of these ultra-Orthodox Jews.
These members of Los Angeles' ultra-Orthodox community had come together for an asefa, a spiritual gathering, to see and hear two of Israel's greatest rabbis speak words of Torah and offer spiritual reinforcement to this far-flung Diaspora community.
These were gedolei hador, luminaries, leaders of the generation and the heads of the two separate -- and often divided -- factions of the ultra-Orthodox communities. Rabbi Yakov Aryeh Alter, known the Gerrer Rebbe, represents the Chasidic faction, and Rabbi Aharon Leib Steinman leads the Litvak, or Lithuanian (non-Chasidic) faction.
To the outsider, the sea of black hats might look monolithic, but these were worlds among worlds gathered in the room. The Chasidim, with their long curly peyos (sidelocks), furry streimel hats and shiny black kaputa coats, came from a long tradition that began in the 17th century, one that emphasizes spiritual joy in addition to academic Torah study.
More austere in trim beards and black suits were the Lithuanians, or Mitnagdim, literally meaning opponents to Chasidism. But today the word usually refers to black-hat non-Chasidic Jews who have a more analytic approach to learning, as practiced in their yeshivas.
It was like the Jets and the Sharks coming together. In the men's section, a three-level podium contained a veritable who's who of the Los Angeles rabbinical world: Rabbi Avrohom Union of the Rabbinical Council of California, Rabbi Meyer May of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, Rabbi Sholom Ginsberg of Toras Emes, Rabbi Eleazar Muskin of Young Israel of Century City, Rabbi David Toledano of Adat Yeshurun Sephardic Congregation, Rabbi Avrohom Czapnik (an actual Gerrer Chasid). There, too, standing out in a black hat and startlingly royal blue tie, was Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
To start things off, a number of rabbis spoke leading up to the two luminaries. They explained the significance of the evening.
"How could we be zocheh [meriting] for two gedolei hador to come here?" Rabbi Baruch Yehuda Gradon, from the Los Angeles Kollel, asked in that English-Hebrew-Yiddish mixture so prevalent in the ultra-Orthodox community.
"It's hard to believe we're on the West Coast of the United States," he said.
Rabbi Ginsberg took pride in the growth of the community in this nonheavenly city.
"We in Los Angeles, we are not Eretz Yisroel [Israel], we are not New York, we are not even Lakewood," he said, referring to the New Jersey community where the men learn full-time in Kollel yeshivas.
But, he said, this city has its own network of Kollels, yeshivas and outreach institutions.
In recent years Los Angeles, the nation's second-largest Jewish community, has become a stop for visiting Jewish dignitaries -- especially politicians, hoping to tap into the fundraising network here. The visit of these two luminaries -- together for the first time -- also put Los Angeles on the map as an up-and-coming spiritual center. And perhaps, this appearance also was a testing ground for such an unusual pairing, an event that might get out of hand in a community as big as New York or New Jersey or Israel.
The occasion was also an effort to show unity between the two factions.
"There is no division between a Chasid and a Mitnaged, between Ashkenaz and Sephard, and between a businessman and yeshiva man," Rabbi Ginsberg said.
There were some divisions, of course, with the men and women in separate rooms. According to the Israeli press, the two rabbis chartered a special El Al flight with no women stewardesses and no women in first class -- and without movies. But this is de rigueur for a community accustomed to segregation (especially the Chasidic community).
The main purpose of the evening was to offer a lifeline of spiritual support to the Los Angeles community -- a soulful community in a city of soul-seekers and religious innovators.
Rabbi Steinman, 93, clutched the podium, his face pale as paper, flanked on each side by rabbis for support. He spoke for 20 minutes in Yiddish. The Gerer rebbe, Yakov Alter, a more robust man with white hair and peyos and heavy lidded eyes, delivered a short, one-minute speech from his chair.
Both men's words were translated by Rabbi Usher Weiss in a crisp, booming European-accented English.
"If all we would do here tonight is look and listen, then this effort would be in vain and this trip would not have achieved its goal," he said to the rapt audience, some of whom were taping the remarks on their PalmPilots and other electronic devices.
Weiss was mostly translating the words of Rabbi Steinman, but he seemed to intersperse his own comments, as well: "A person must feel every day that our worship of yesterday is not enough. Every day is a new responsibility. The angels are great but they have no tests. For us it's all about [personal] growth."
"What matters is not how big you are but how much you grow," said Weiss in his translation/commentary.
It was no accident that this gathering fell on the holiday of Lag B'Omer, a celebration in the middle of a mourning period, the 49 days of counting the omer. Jewish groups around the city made traditional bonfires to mark the holiday, which, by some accounts, marks the end of an ancient plague that killed thousands of Rabbi Akiva's students.
At the Universal Hilton, Weiss spoke of Rabbi Akiva, whose most famous teaching was love thy neighbor as thyself.
"Mutual respect, this is the lesson we have to learn on this day," he said.
He blessed the rabbis and the audience, his voice ringing out loud and clear: "I am confident that each of the participants will remember this day to the last of his days."