LOS ANGELES, Sept. 13 (JTA) – This time of year, Rabbi Shlomo Schwartz, wearing a “Grateful Yid” T-shirt and baseball cap, offers an alternative to the legions of Los Angeles Jews who wonder whether they want to pay anywhere from $100 to $400 for admission to High Holidays services. “Schwartzie,” as everyone calls him, passes out leaflets, which announce in bold lettering, “No Tickets, No Appeals” for services, open to “Conservative, Reform, non-affiliates & any Jew that moves.” This year, he expects a total of 3,000, mainly single, Jews – most of whom may not have stepped inside a synagogue since their Bar or Bat Mitzvah. For their free tickets, worshipers also get a Rosh Hashanah eve “Schmooz and Cruise Singles Party,” a study session, for women only, by the rabbi’s wife, Olivia, and songs by the Schwartz Family Tabernacle Choir, consisting of the couple’s seven sons. Especially popular is a “Stump the Rabbi” session, which in Schwartz’s patented orthographic style, “is intensely animated bcz 100’s of ppl R bursting w/?s they’ve been wanting to ask since age 12 or 13.” During one such session, a young man asked whether there was a special prayer before sexual intercourse, to which Schwartz answered instantly, “Yes, you pray she doesn’t have a headache.” Though the tone may often be lighthearted, the services conform to Orthodox ritual. A mechitzah, or partition, divides men from women, and only men are called up for Torah readings. Schwartz, the product of a Chabad yeshiva who remains a devoted follower of the Lubavitcher rebbe’s teachings, ventures where no rabbi has gone before. A one-time bongo-thumping Greenwich Village beatnik, he frequents rock concerts – flowing beard, yarmulka, Mickey Mouse suspenders, leather thongs and all – and will on occasion lace a wedding ceremony with lyrics from the Grateful Dead’s repertoire. One of his oddest venues is the Venice Beach boardwalk here, where every other Sunday he sets up a folding table and affixes a prominent “Jewish Astrology!” placard. Surrounded by books and calendars, he practices his own form of star-gazing. Schwartz doesn’t claim to be a psychic and he doesn’t predict the future. “I try to tell people who they are, their essence, and through that identify their potential and how they can realize it. “I started this astrology as a shtick, a hook, but I’ve been blown away by how often I hit the mark,” he says. Schwartz’s unorthodox approach and style is based on the simple premise that if Jews, especially the younger generation, won’t go to synagogues or join Jewish organizations, then he has to go where they normally gather or provide a setting in which they feel comfortable. Where do young Jews meet? One place is the popular Comedy Store on the Sunset Strip, and every Purim Schwartz is there, doing his stand-up routine and reading from the megillah to a sellout crowd of 450 people. Are there any married women who enjoy being rejuvenated at a spa? Olivia Schwartz organizes a “spiritual spa retreat” for them, near Palm Springs, Calif. Do young Jewish men and women need a nice place to meet, imbibing some Judaism while enjoying themselves? Schwartz will set up a moonlight cruise or rock concert. The 52-year old Schwartz was born in Atlantic City, N.J., the son of a cantor who had fled Vienna in 1939. The father disliked all Chasidic movements with a passion, and when his only son decided to become a Lubavitcher disciple, the father turned his back on Shlomo, predicting “you’ll be a bum.” After rabbinical studies, including two years at Kfar Chabad in Israel in the late 1960s, Schwartz found his natural calling at the University of California at Los Angeles Chabad House, the first of its kind on any American campus. He quickly became a highly visible campus figure, setting up his stand next to the followers of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon and Jews for Jesus. Soon he was dragging startled students into his mobile Sukkah on wheels to wave the lulav, engaging a seven-piece rock band for a Purim party and buttonholing anyone he suspected of being a Jew. He left his campus post after 13 years, when his unconventional methods got to be a bit much for his superiors. “I am still a Lubavitcher in my heart,” he reflects, “ but by no longer being an official Chabad representative, I figured I could do even more outrageous things.” Left with no job, but with a wife and 10 children – the number has now swelled to 12 – Shlomo and Olivia Schwartz founded the CHAI Center nine years ago. The name stands for “Life” in Hebrew, but doubles as an acronym for “Center for Happiness & Awesome Insights.” Sometimes criticized for his unconventional methods, Shlomo Schwartz observes, “I’ve been called a Reform Chasid and God’s court jester, but whatever the label, I do believe that to bring Jews back into the fold one must serve God with joy.”
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Tom Tugend is JTA's Los Angeles correspondent. A veteran journalist, he also writes for the Jerusalem Post, the Los Angeles Jewish Journal and the London Jewish Chronicle.