Jacob’s Ladders

Every neighborhood has its gathering places.

In my neighborhood, you'll find one if you head west on Pico Boulevard from Robertson Boulevard, past the ethnic aromas of the “center” hood and into the kosher Ice Blended Mochas of the “west” hood, where, right next to an Office Depot, The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf rules.

That's where you're likely to meet a young man named Jacob Katz. Jacob is a happy-go-lucky, kippah-wearing, 23-year-old Jew who mixes ice-blended coffee drinks and takes care of customers at the Coffee Bean. Talk about a neighborhood hangout. When Hillary Clinton wrote the book “It Takes a Village,” she could have started here.

Pop in to the sunny patio on any afternoon and you're likely to see Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky at a corner table giving a private Torah class; a Conservadox aspiring pop star who used to study in a Jerusalem seminary promoting her upcoming live show; a few perfectly coiffed frum supermoms taking a break from the carpooling; a couple of born-again Chasids from the Happy Minyan talking about a Jethro Tull concert; and a retired couple from Palm Springs making their weekly visit to their old neighborhood (“We bought a house on that street for $37,000. You know what it's worth now? I don't know why we got rid of it. Is that your daughter? How old is she? Hey, we have a granddaughter the same age.”).

Late afternoon, the patio gets invaded by YULA high-school students coming to unwind after a long day of Talmud, algebra and Shakespeare. The more eager students lay out their homework next to their lattes. The funny thing is, everyone seems to know Jacob.

You see, Jacob has a unique style and a unique voice. He has Down syndrome, so you have to listen carefully to get everything he says. In fact, to understand Jacob really well, you have to listen as well as he does.

Because Jacob Katz is a human sponge.

Ever since he was a child, he's had a talent for listening, and for absorbing everything around him. But as he got older, this talent morphed into something more universal: “I want this” and “I want that.” As his mother Frieda recalls, Jacob developed this unlimited capacity to want things.

It didn't matter what, Jacob wanted it: I want a computer, I want to learn how to drive, I want to listen to the Beatles, I want to go to college, I want to go to the movies. You name it — if it was cool, Jacob wanted it.

So one day, he looks up at one of the coolest places in Los Angeles, just a few blocks from his house, and he says, “I want to work at Coffee Bean.” And guess what? He gets the job.

Don't think it was a cake walk. He had to fill out a lengthy application, and after meeting with the store manager, he impressed him enough to get an interview with the district manager, a religious Christian woman named Jan. Obviously something clicked. She hired Jacob, and he started training that same week.

That was six months ago. Today, Jacob laughs all the way to the bank every two weeks to deposit his paycheck.

He laughs in other places, too. He laughs when he takes the bus twice a week to Santa Monica College, where he's learning all kinds of things, including how to type 30 words a minute without looking. From what I hear, Jacob's pretty well known around campus.

This week, Jacob is doing research on the Internet for a little dvar Torah he'll be giving at the Etta Israel Shabbaton at Beth Jacob Congregation. Etta Israel is the popular local organization that caters to kids with Down syndrome and other special needs, and it's where Jacob studied Judaism every Sunday for seven years.

Many years ago, Jacob's mother stood up at an Etta Israel dinner and said something that people still talk about. What she said was remarkably simple.

She said that all the things that Jacob did over the years — special classes, speech therapies, life skills training, etc. — were really important, but that one thing in his life was even more important: friendships.

Since he was very young, Jacob has been blessed with friends. Friends of his sister and three brothers are his friends, too. He has friends at Etta Israel, friends where he prays every morning (Young Israel of Century City), friends at the gym where he works out, friends all over the hood.

One reason he has so many friends is that he keeps in touch, and he doesn't ask for much. I love getting his calls: “Heyyy David, it's Jacob” is how he always starts, in his deep baritone voice. A little schmoozing, a few laughs, a few “I love yous,” and we're done. I think he gets a kick that the person at the other end of the line knows who he is.

At the neighborhood Coffee Bean, where he works four hours a day, four days a week, they definitely know who he is. Yet despite being so loved and having so many friends, guess what? Jacob wants more.

The other day, while sipping a pomegranate ice tea, and after singing his favorite Beatles tune (“Ticket to Ride”), he confided that there is one friend he still doesn't have — his lifetime soulmate. Like millions of single Jews, Jacob wants a great Jewish shidduch.

When you look at his track record with the things that he wants, and how single women in this town go crazy for Ice Blended Mochas, I wouldn't count him out.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.