American Times: Los Angeles - Rabbi of Venice Beach puts his faith in the stars

MOST SUNDAYS, you can find Rabbi Shlomo Schwartz among the tarot- card readers, fortune-tellers and incense-sellers on the Venice Beach boardwalk in Los Angeles with a booth of his own: "Jewish Astrology".

If you miss the sign, he is unmistakable. A jovial 52-year-old with a long beard who answers to the nickname Schwartzie, he sports a 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 is based on Jewish mysticism, or kabbala, that uses numerology, Torah passages and people's Hebrew names to determine their nature and destiny. The booth is one of the rabbi's techniques to acquaint unaffiliated Jews with their heritage, and also to connect Jewish singles with each other.

His main focus is the Chai Center (chai is Hebrew for "life"), a non- profit organisation he runs with his wife, Olivia, and their 12 children from his Mar Vista home. The Chai Center organises huge Passover Seders, Shabbat dinners, single mixers, study sessions and free High Holy Day services. His ads read, "Don't pay to pray." The centre does outreach at shelters for abused children, at prisons and hospitals, and presides over weddings and funerals, or, in Schwartzie-speak: "Hatch 'em, match 'em, and dispatch 'em."

He operates on a $225,000 (pounds 140,000) annual budget from a fund-raising banquet, private donations, private Jewish astrology readings, and sales of baseball caps, with "Chai" in Hebrew lettering, and tie-dyed yarmulkes.

"I always say, 'Business is booming'," Schwartz says. "Of course, it has nothing to do with money.

"Without God or religion, you begin to get a self-centredness at every level. President or pauper, it's 'What can I get for me?', without regard to ethical values or semblance of decency.

"A person like Monica Lewinsky is a victim of omission of the Jewish family value structure," he says, turning to President Bill Clinton's alleged affair with the former White House trainee.

With Jews turning away from Judaism at a reported rate of 2 million over 15 years - many marrying outside the faith - Schwartz measures his success in terms of the number of unaffiliated Jews he can reach. He says he touches some 15,000 Jews a year: The Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur services draw more than 3,000 people; Passover Seders draw about 700 and singles parties about 600.

"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 Jewish outreach network. "I never met anyone who didn't like Schwartzie."

The rabbi's impact is recognised in the entertainment industry, and he was a consultant on the recent film The Wedding Singer. It is not uncommon for him to make "office calls" to lead lunchtime Torah classes for lawyers and Hollywood executives.

"He is one of the most loving and deeply spiritual people I've met . He and his wife give their lives to helping others," says Trudy Green, a talent manager who has worked with Janet Jackson and the Rolling Stones. "He's larger than life. If he wasn't a rabbi, he'd be a celebrity himself."

He grew up a conservative Jew, the son of a cantor, in Atlantic City. He was drawn to his religion's more mystical aspects, and, at 19, entered the Rabbinical College of America in Morristown, New Jersey.

"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 recalls.

"I figured I could always hang out in the Village. Studying with a rabbi seemed more difficult, so I decided to try that first." But his radical streak remained. At 23, married and with a child, he decided his calling was outreach, and that the place in most need was Los Angeles.

"Here, Jews don't even have a clue," he says. "Out of 600,000 Jews, 70 per cent are non-affiliated. For outreach, you can't lose. Because they've had no experience with religion, they're often the people who are most open."

Schwartz spent 13 years honing his user-friendly approach to Judaism as the director of campus activities at Chabbad House, the University of California Jewish organisation in Los Angeles. He wore T-shirts that read "I survived Hebrew school", ran services in English, and organised parties such as the "Coming Out Party for Closet Jewry".

"Humour is the medium that dispels the misconception that Judaism is uptight and serious, retrospective and Holocaust-oriented," he says.

Chabbad House didn't agree. "They didn't like the singles thing at a nightclub." So, 10 years ago, Schwartz struck out on his own.

Since then, his more conventional Jewish detractors have had to acknowledge his contribution. Chabbad hires him to speak, and the former beatniks and hippies he left so long ago have been wandering over to his philosophical turf in search of their own elusive happiness.

Meanwhile, Schwartz's tactics on the Venice Beach boardwalk clearly draw interest, as passers-by 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 number one interest: themselves."

News
Susan Sarandon described David Bowie as
peopleSusan Sarandon reveals more on her David Bowie romance
Sport
Arsenal supporters gather for a recent ‘fan party’ in New Jersey
football
Sport
sportDidier Drogba returns to Chelsea on one-year deal
Arts and Entertainment
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Life and Style
Balmain's autumn/winter 2014 campaign, shot by Mario Sorrenti and featuring Binx Walton, Cara Delevingne, Jourdan Dunn, Ysaunny Brito, Issa Lish and Kayla Scott
fashionHow Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film
filmFifty Shades of Grey trailer provokes moral outrage in US
News
BBC broadcaster and presenter Evan Davis, who will be taking over from Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight
peopleForget Paxman - what will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Life and Style
fashionCustomer complained about the visibly protruding ribs
Voices
The new dawn heralded by George Osborne has yet to rise
voicesJames Moore: As the Tories rub their hands together, the average voter will be asking why they're not getting a piece of the action
Sport
Dejan Lovren celebrates scoring for Southampton although the goal was later credited to Adam Lallana
sport
News
newsComedy club forced to apologise as maggots eating a dead pigeon fall out of air-conditioning
Arts and Entertainment
Jo Brand says she's mellowed a lot
tvJo Brand says shows encourage people to laugh at the vulnerable
Life and Style
People may feel that they're procrastinating by watching TV in the evening
life
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

£600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

Commercial Litigation Associate

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - COMMERCIAL LITIGATION - GLOBAL...

Systems Manager - Dynamics AX

£65000 - £75000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: The client is a...

Service Delivery Manager (Software Development, Testing)

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A well-established software house ba...

Day In a Page

Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

Finding the names for America’s shame

The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

Inside a church for Born Again Christians

As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

Incredible survival story of David Tovey

Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little