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

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The Independent Online
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."