A look at the majestic brown beard framing the face of Shlomo Schwartz marks him as the Lubavitcher rabbi he is. Below the neck, though, he is clad not in sober black coat and trousers but in his standard uniform of hot red suspenders, plaid shirt and jeans.
The apparent contradictions don’t end there. On the High Holy Days, he will again conduct his “Hasidic Reform Service,” an amalgam some might classify as an oxymoron.
Even in a city that reveres innovation more than tradition and informality over convention, Schwartz – known to one and all as Schwartzee – easily outdistances the competition as Los Angeles’ most unorthodox Orthodox rabbi.
On Rosh Hashanah, and again on Yom Kippur, the services will attract 1,000 participants, who will fill every available chair at the elegant Bonaventure Hotel.
Connoisseurs of the unusual will come to be turned on by a Kol Nidrei service filled, as Schwartzee puts it, with “melody, meaning and humor.” First-timers are attracted by an advertisement in the entertainment section of the Los Angeles Times, with the enticing legend of “NO TICKETS! NO APPEALS!”
Invited to the services, the ad continues, are “Conservative, Reform, non- affiliates and any Jew that moves!” On the evening of Rosh Hashanah, services will be followed by a happy hour social for couples and singles, and an informal question-and-answer session, dubbed “Stump the Rabbi.”
The whole package is sponsored by Schwartzee and his wife Olivia’s CHAI Center, which, the rabbi says, stands for Center for Happiness and Awesome Insights.
The 46-year-old Schwartzee easily acknowledges that “I’m outrageous and funny (and) I’ll do anything that’s not contrary to Jewish law,” but he considers his showmanship essential in reaching the 75 percent of the 650,000 Jews in Los Angeles who are not affiliated with any synagogue.
“I’m starting at ground zero, especially with people in their 20s to 40s, who haven’t been to a service in 10, 20 or 30 years, and some who haven’t been inside a synagogue all their lives,” says Schwartzee. “I want to let them find a way to come back (to Judaism) on their own terms.”
To that end, the services are entirely in English, leavened with the rabbi’s patented brand of anecdotes, parables and wit. His theology is also… well… flexible. He doesn’t expect his congregants to observe all 613 mitzvot (biblical commandments), but urges them to raise their “mitzvah quotient” one step at a time.
“It counts if they light Shabbos candles, even if they go to a movie afterwards, or attend Yom Kippur services even if they then eat a cheeseburger,” he says. Schwartzee describes this approach as a “partial mitzvah plan,” analogous to buying a car on partial payments.
“I work yidl by yidl and tell them whatever you are, move up at least one notch,” he adds.
Schwartzee has not dispensed with one feature of his traditional upbringing, and that is his insistence on separate seating for men and women, despite grumbling by some congregants.
Whatever the formula, it seems to be working, as attested to by a drawer-full of testimonials and a steady rise in attendance. At the first Rosh Hashanah service four years ago, 90 people showed up, last year the figure was 1,000, and Schwartzee expects at least as many this year.
The services at the hotel cost Schwartzee $13,000, or “$13 per Jew.” He covers 15 percent of this through voluntary donations, 30 percent through an annual fundraising banquet and the rest through the largess of a wealthy woman who met her late husband through Schwartzee.
It’s a struggle, says the rabbi, but “God watches over fools.”
Schwartzee was born in Atlantic City, N.J., where his father, a refugee from Vienna, was the cantor at a Conservative synagogue. He studied at Yeshiva University in New York, but halfway through he was attracted by the “fellowship and spirituality” of the Chabad hasidim and completed his rabbinical studies with them.
He honed his skills in reaching uninvolved and uninterested Jews as Chabad rabbi for the predominantly secular Jewish students at the University of California, Los Angeles. He left the formal Chabad organization after 17 years because, he says, “I wanted to be more innovative,” and struck out on his own in 1988. He still considers himself a Chabadnik and, he says, so do his former colleagues, “who secretly applaud my work.”
Less enthusiastic are some other local rabbis who, Schwartzee says, have sent him hate mail after one of his “Don’t Pay to Pray” ads ran in newspapers. “They felt that the words implied a criticism of established synagogues,” he says.
Schwartzee approaches all facets of life with gusto, including procreation. He and his 45-year old wife have 11 children, six boys and five girls, with a 12th child on the way.
The High Holy Days services are only one part of the CHAI Center’s year-around activities. Figuring that most Jews are at loose ends on Christmas Day, Schwartzee hosts an annual “Not A Christmas Party” for singles every Dec. 25.
On another holiday, the 4th of July, he has a nautical wine and cheese Sunset Cruise for the 25- to 45-year-old set, and every summer Schwartzee leads an “Inward Bound” camp-out and spiritual retreat for men in the wilds between northern Minnesota and Canada.
Three out of every four Friday evenings, the Schwartzes host a “Dinner for 30 Strangers,” with the guests evenly divided between the genders. “I do the standup and my wife Olivia, who is a deeply spiritual person, tells hasidic stories,” he says.
For many participants, the home hospitality is their first-ever Shabbat dinner and usually the strangers don’t stay that way very long. “Last year, I performed four marriages among people who met at the dinners,” says Rabbi Shlomo Schwartz, with obvious satisfaction.