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."

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
Teeth should be brushed twice a day to prevent tooth decay
education
News
Bryan Cranston as Walter White, in the acclaimed series 'Breaking Bad'
news
Sport
footballChelsea 6 Maribor 0: Blues warm up for Premier League showdown with stroll in Champions League - but Mourinho is short of strikers
News
Those who were encouraged to walk in a happy manner remembered less negative words
science
Arts and Entertainment
Princess Olga in 'You Can't Get the Staff'
tvReview: The anachronistic aristocrats, it seemed, were just happy to have some attention
News
Renee Zellweger as Bridget Jones
i100
Life and Style
tech

Board creates magnetic field to achieve lift

News
There have been various incidents of social media users inadvertently flouting the law
news

Life and Style
Stack ‘em high?: quantity doesn’t always trump quality, as Friends of the Earth can testify
techThe proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
News
Bourgogne wine maker Laboure-Roi vice president Thibault Garin (L) offers the company's 2013 Beaujolais Nouveau wine to the guest in the wine spa at the Hakone Yunessun spa resort facilities in Hakone town, Kanagawa prefecture, some 100-kilometre west of Tokyo
i100
Sport
CSKA Moscow celebrate after equalising with a late penalty
footballCSKA Moscow 2 Manchester City 2: Premier League champions let two goal lead slip in Russia
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

IT Project Manager

Competitive: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Chelmsford a...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

IT Manager

£40000 - £45000 per annum + pension, healthcare,25 days: Ashdown Group: An est...

Day In a Page

Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

'You need me, I don’t need you'

Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

How to Get Away with Murder

Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
A cup of tea is every worker's right

Hard to swallow

Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
Which animals are nearly extinct?

Which animals are nearly extinct?

Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
12 best children's shoes

Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London