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Rabbi Uses Unorthodox Ways to Lure Jews to Faith

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Most Sundays, you can find Rabbi Shlomo Schwartz among the Tarot card readers, fortunetellers and incense sellers on the Venice Beach boardwalk with a booth of his own: “Jewish Astrology.”

If you miss the sign, he’s unmistakable: a jovial 51-year-old man with a long beard who answers to the nickname “Schwartzie” and who sports a tie-dyed T-shirt and a baseball cap bearing the words “Grateful Yid.”

During his two hours on the boardwalk, curious strollers--a Jewish couple from Brooklyn, a trio of young Israelis with whom Schwartz chats in Hebrew--stop by for free readings.

Jewish astrology, he says, is based on Jewish mysticism, or Kabbalah, that uses numerology, Torah passages and people’s Hebrew names to determine their nature and destiny.

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The booth is one of the rabbi’s techniques to acquaint unaffiliated and disenfranchised Jews with their heritage and connect Jewish singles. His main focus is the Chai Center (Chai is Hebrew for “life”), a nonprofit organization he runs with his wife, Olivia, and their 12 children from their Mar Vista home.

The center organizes huge Passover Seders, Shabbat dinners, singles mixers, study sessions and free High Holy Day services (his ads read, “Don’t pay to pray”). In addition, it does outreach at abused children’s shelters, prisons and hospitals, plus preside over brisses, weddings and funerals, or in Schwartziespeak: “Hatch ‘em, match ‘em, and dispatch ‘em.” He operates on a $180,000 annual budget from a fund-raising banquet, private donations, private Jewish astrology readings and sales of baseball caps with Chai in Hebrew letters and tie-dyed yarmulkes (skull caps worn by Jewish men).

“I always say, ‘Business is booming,’ ” Schwartz says. “Of course, it has nothing to do with money.”

With Jews assimilating through intermarriage and turning away from their faith at a reported rate of 2 million over 15 years, Schwartz measures success in terms of the number of unaffiliated Jews he reaches. He touches about 15,000 Jews a year: Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur services draw upward of 3,000 people; Passover Seders, about 700; singles parties, about 600. Then there are the Friday night Shabbat dinners for 40 he has regularly at his home.

“Schwartzie reaches people no one else can reach, because he’s so open and tolerant and accepting and embracing,” says Rabbi Nachum Braverman, education director of the Los Angeles branch of Aish Hatorah, a synagogue and international Jewish outreach network. “I never met anyone who didn’t like Schwartzie.”

The rabbi’s impact is not just recognized in the local observant Jewish communities, but also in the entertainment industry. He said his students have included actors Richard Dreyfuss and Elliott Gould, radio personality/author Dennis Prager, talent manager Joan Hyler and record producer Richard Perry. (He was probably the only rabbi backstage at the recent Rolling Stones concert.) It’s not uncommon for him to make “office calls” in Century City to lead lunchtime Torah classes for lawyers and Hollywood executives.

“He is one of the most loving, kind and deeply spiritual people I’ve ever met--totally selfless. He and his wife give their lives to helping others,” says longtime student Trudy Green, a talent manager who has worked with Janet Jackson and the Rolling Stones.

“He takes traditional Judaism into the contemporary world, which is why people in the entertainment industry relate so well to him,” Green says. “He connects with people through humor and love for life. He’s larger than life. If he wasn’t a rabbi, he’d be a celebrity himself.”

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Schwartz’s life has been a series of journeys down roads less traveled. Growing up a conservative Jew, the son of a cantor, in Atlantic City, N.J., he was drawn to his religion’s more mystical aspects. At 19, he became Orthodox and abandoned New York’s Yeshiva University for the Rabbinical College of America in Morristown, N.J.

“I was part of the Beat generation, hanging out in Greenwich Village, listening to Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg, drinking cheap wine and espresso, playing the bongos and listening to poetry,” he says. “I figured I could always hang out in the Village. Studying with a rabbi seemed more difficult, so I decided to try that first. I wanted to leave in the beginning a few times, but I ultimately saw a future there.”

Still, Schwartz’s radical streak remained. At 23, married and with a child, he decided his calling was outreach, and the place in most need was Los Angeles.

“Here, Jews don’t even have a clue,” he says. “Out of 600,000 Jews, 70% are nonaffiliated. For outreach, you can’t lose. I also felt that Jewish establishments didn’t have an approach to non-affiliates. And because they’ve had no experience with religion, they’re often the people who are most open.”

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Schwartz spent 13 years honing his user-friendly approach to Judaism as the director of campus activities at UCLA’s Chabbad House. He wore T-shirts that read, “I survived Hebrew school,” ran services in English, and organized mixers such as the “Coming Out Party for Closet Jewry” and annual Purim Party at the Comedy Store.

“Humor is the medium that dispels the misconception that Judaism is uptight and serious, retrospective and Holocaust-oriented,” he says.

Unfortunately, Chabbad didn’t go for his methods. “They didn’t like the singles thing at a nightclub. I said, ‘Hello! They’re going to do it with or without you, so let them at least meet a Jewish person.’ The people coming were non-affiliates. It’s important to just get them in the door.”

Since Schwartz struck out on his own nine years ago, detractors have acknowledged his contribution. Chabbad regularly hires him to speak and lead retreats around the world. And the former beatniks and hippies that Schwartz left so long ago have been wandering over to his philosophical turf in search of their own elusive happiness.

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“Baby boomers have tried a lot of different radical movements and lifestyles, which apparently did not satisfy them,” he says. “So they’re more open now to finding peace.”

Meanwhile, Schwartz’s tactics on the Venice boardwalk clearly pique interest, as more people look, slow down and walk over.

“They won’t come over to a rabbi trying to sell them Judaism, but they will come over to a Jewish Astrology table,” he says. “I get a crowd, because I’m appealing to everyone’s No. 1 interest: themselves. Once they see that their Jewish soul has a reality all its own, the door is open for them to say, ‘Maybe, I should think differently. Maybe I should express it.’ ”


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