Rebbe on the go

It’s one thing to feel holiness when you enter a synagogue on Shabbat or a holy day. You go in expecting holiness. You expect that the rabbi’s sermon will inspire you; that you will have a spiritual experience and connect with God.

But what if it’s not Shabbat or a holy day? What if you’re right in the middle of a hectic workday, negotiating better prices for buttons or zippers and stressing out because a major shipment to your No. 1 customer is already two days late?

And what if right in the middle of this crazy workday, you take a time out and walk around the block to attend a prayer service or a Torah class?

Well, that should give you a little idea of how Chabad of California has transformed Jewish life in downtown Los Angeles over the past five years.

I got a taste of it the other day when I took the San Pedro Street exit off the 10 Freeway and found myself on a desolate stretch of Los Angeles that felt like a movie set for “Repo Man.”

Instead of the signage and logos that I’m used to seeing on the Westside — slick neon signs for dry cleaners, toy stores, furniture stores or restaurants, and giant-sized Coke billboards urging you to “open happiness”— all I saw here were old, worn-out signs for textile companies painted on old, worn-out buildings with tall chain-link security fences that look like they’re never open.

It was behind one of those chain-link fences on Griffith Avenue that I saw a man walk briskly toward me, like someone ready to make a quick deal. The man in question wore a black hat and had a black beard — his name is Rabbi Moshe Levin, one of the mainstays of Chabad’s effort to bring Jewish love and Torah to downtown.

Levin opened the gate, gave me a big hug (“Shalom, Rav Dovid!”), hustled me past workers who were moving pallets on forklift trucks, and then led me toward a small door next to a large, open warehouse entrance.

Behind us, the sound of moving trucks was competing with the sound of a worker yelling orders in Spanish. As Levin opened the little door, I heard a third sound: words of Hebrew spoken loudly by a Persian man learning the parasha of the week. I was now inside a synagogue. That’s right, a synagogue, designed with a Sephardic flair by local designer Sacha Chalom Louza.

How did this happen? A few years ago, Levin convinced the Jewish owner of the business that Jews who worked in the neighborhood needed a holy place where they could come learn, pray, commune with other Jews, and inhale some peace and holiness in the middle of their crazy day.

Thus, the “forklift shul” was born.

If you know anything about Chabad, none of this should surprise you. Over the years, I’ve seen with my own eyes how followers of the Lubavitcher Rebbe have pulled off similar miracles in places like Costa Rica, Puerto Rico, Casablanca and Hawaii, and even exotic locales like Beverly Hills and Pacific Palisades.

The “forklift shul,” also known as Chabad of Downtown East Los Angeles, is one of several weekday shuls that have sprouted throughout the area over the past few years, in addition to some makeshift minyans in office buildings. The trail was blazed by the hundreds of Chabad yeshiva students who have been trekking downtown every Friday afternoon for more than 20 years to hand out Shabbat candles and ask Jewish men if they want to lay tefillin.

The headquarters, and heart and soul, of downtown Chabad is on Broadway and Seventh Street, where Rabbi Moshe Greenwald lives with his wife and children, surrounded by bars, fast-food restaurants, and countless gold and jewelry shops that all seem to sell the same items.

Greenwald lives in a double loft where one side is devoted to hosting large Shabbat gatherings for the Jews who live in the neighborhood (many of them of Hispanic descent), while the other side has two bedrooms to accommodate his family. The play area for the kids is in a corner that measures no more than 4 feet on either side.

Greenwald’s own playground is on the streets. He knows all the Jewish merchants by first name, and he’s even friendly with a Muslim Palestinian merchant whom he introduced me to as we walked through the neighborhood.

This area will not remind you of Santa Monica or Brentwood. This is hard-core urban living, where masses of humanity collide and congregate to get through another day.

Greenwald came here five years ago with the dream of catering to the Jews who live and work in the area. He opened a full-time synagogue and learning center in the building where he now lives, formally called the Jewish Community Center Chabad of Downtown Los Angeles. Of all the shuls in the area, this is the one that offers services for Shabbat and holy days.

How did he pull it off? He persuaded the Jewish owner of the building that the Jews of the neighborhood needed a place where they could commune with other Jews and find a little holiness. Sound familiar?

Patti Berman, who has lived in the area for 12 years and is president of the Downtown Los Angeles Neighborhood Council, told me that “before Rabbi Greenwald and his wife, Rivky, came to downtown, there was no Jewish life here. Now we are a community with a place to go to services, special events and gatherings.”

The rabbi estimates there now may be as many as 40,000 Jews who work downtown and as many as 3,000 Jews who live there full time.

Ask Rabbi Levin or Rabbi Greenwald what keeps them going, and they’ll give you the same answer you’ll hear from any Chabadnik: Their Rebbe. Wherever there are Jews, the Rebbe told them, you must go and bring them love, holiness and Torah.

Nothing seems to get in the way of this mission, not even the occassional noisy truck.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at