Avi Leibovic: Guardian Angel of the Streets


 

Stand on any corner in Hancock Park or Beverlywood, says Avi Leibovic, and within 10 blocks you can find Orthodox teenagers engaged in weekly poker games, drug use, underage drinking and reckless sex.

Not much has changed since Leibovic was a teenager in L.A.’s Orthodox community 15 years ago.

Now 32, a lawyer, rabbi and father of six, Leibovic has made it his life’s mission to find these youth and to pull them back toward a life where they can envision a future with regular employment, a strong sense of self and a sincere love of Yiddishkeit.

Five years ago, Leibovic was approached by the prodigal son of a prominent Orthodox family for help and inspiration. Soon, their one-on-one Torah study grew into a larger group, made up mostly of recent alumni of Neve Zion, the yeshiva outside Jerusalem where Leibovic had formative experiences as a teen and young adult.

That group grew into Aish Tamid, a nonprofit that now has a staff of part-time counselors, therapists, social workers and rabbis that in the last five years has served 400 young men and teens.

At a recent free workshop in Excel that Aish Tamid offered in a mid-Wilshire office building, Leibovic is working the room, making sure everyone is set up and liberally slapping on warm handshakes, high fives and “Howah YOUs.”

He looks tired but energized, with rings of red around eyes that are the same color as his trim auburn beard. His large black velvet kippah sits low across his forehead.

Leibovic, a doting perfectionist, teaches Torah, runs a Friday night service and holds court at a “tisch” at his home, where dozens show up every Shabbos for songs and inspirational story-telling. His “guys” are anything from hard-core addicts to kids who just didn’t fit the yeshiva mold, and he helps them finish school, find jobs, go clean, reconcile with family or get back into Judaism.

Last year Leibovic took a sabbatical from his job in his family’s law firm to build Aish Tamid’s infrastructure, but he is now back at work full time. He sets aside every night from 5:30-8 p.m. for his wife and their 6-year-old triplets and three younger children.

And from 8 p.m. on, and often well into the morning, he’s there for his guys.

He can do it because he gets them. He knows their insecurities and their haunts. He speaks their language — from his dude-laced lingo with a Brooklyn accent to his knowledge of the latest music.

“If not for Avi, I would be wandering the streets of Brooklyn,” says Yitzy, a 17-year-old who now has a job and is working toward getting his high school diploma.

Leibovic has never taken a salary from Aish Tamid, and he admits the work is taking a toll on him and his family.

But he’s sticking with it.

“If you give the kids time and if you give them love, if you give them the opportunity to express themselves in a way that is not cookie-cutter, you see tremendous success,” he says. “Guys who have been written off by their schools, their family and their community, we find that we are able to rekindle their aish tamid [eternal flame].”

For information call (323) 634-0505 or email to info@aishtamid.org.

 

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Men in Black


The 74th Annual Academy Awards program will be remembered, at least by me, for women’s gowns with faux see-through gauze fronts and men’s suit jackets down to the knees.

Sunday night. For my town, Malibu, Oscar night is a kind of Yom Kippur. Roads are deserted; the local restaurants close early. The sky sparkles with possibility, in which any kind of magic or healing might occur.

It was 9 p.m. I was at home with my parents, having already cried over Sidney Poitier’s tribute and drooled over Denzel Washington. Now I was deep into analysis of Gwyneth Paltrow’s sheer frontage when the doorbell rang.

There in my darkened doorway were two men in black mid-length coats with long, curly beards and black hats; a younger and an older man, with eyes burning so clear and bright that they seemed to be reading from an inner script. There was about their smiling countenances such a sense of purpose, that the word "messenger" sprang to mind. They knew and I knew. They had come for me.

If you read enough Torah, it can come easily to life: a blending of the "then" and the "now," the foretold and the foregone. The slightest stimulus revives the age of prophecy to our own time. Seeing these two men in black, I pictured myself alongside the biblical Abraham as he sat in his tent, healing from his circumcision, awaiting word from the three angels.

Abraham wanted an answer. So do I. Angels always come in human form. Here they were. For a second, I expected these two messengers would present me with a ticket to my destiny. If so, I was relieved to be wearing my wig, ready to go.

"Malkah!" I was shaken from my reverie by the friendly voice of Rabbi Chaim Cunin of our local Malibu Chabad, addressing me by my Hebrew first name. He waves to me on my daily walks as he drives his SUV and talks on his cell phone.

"My father was in the neighborhood and wants to give you a prayer." Sure enough, the older man was Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin, director of West Coast Chabad Lubavitch.

"It’s the Rebbe’s birthday!" the elder Cunin booms out. "You need a blessing."

I certainly do.

Now let us talk about the power of suggestion: How much do you want something, and to what length will you go to get it?

As a person with lung cancer, I know there is only so much that medicine can do. After that, prayer must step in.

The other day, I began a new form of drug, an experimental clinical trial. The drug is so new it only has a number, not a name. It has the potential to work a miracle. That miracle is my prayer.

I am not the only one who is praying. Each time I see my oncologist, he looks at me for answers. His eyes get focused and he studies me for responses. The expert and the novice, neither of us know.

Prayer is possibility; it is the statement: "I don’t know all." Prayer asks, take me beyond my current knowledge to do good work.

Even the traditional kinds of prayer seek the extraordinary, the new.

I invited the rabbis into the living room where my parents were busy looking for Russell Crowe.

The Cunins presented us with a box of shmura matzah.

The elder Cunin asked my full Hebrew name.

"Malkah bas Henya," I said.

Then, while the TV screen showed Halle Berry’s sheer gown embroidered with silk flowers, the Chabad rabbi chanted at great decibel, for God and all of Malibu to hear, the traditional prayer for a full and speedy recovery.

I am getting answers to questions I have not asked.

The Truth Hurts


Before God created the human being, according to alegend of the Midrash, He consulted the angels of heaven. The angelof peace argued, “Let him not be created; he will bring contentioninto the world.” But the angel of compassion countered, “Let him becreated; he will bring lovingkindness into the world.” The angel oftruth argued, “Let him not be created; he will be deceitful and fillthe world with lies.” And the angel of justice countered, “Let him becreated; he will attach himself to righteousness.” What did God do?He threw truth into the Earth and proceeded to create the humanbeing.

The Rabbis knew that there is a fundamentalincompatibility between human beings and truth. We don’t want truth.We can’t tolerate truth. Especially truth about ourselves — ourfailures, our limitations, our finitude. Once a year, at Yom Kippur,Jewish tradition forces us to face the truth.

Yom Kippur is an unusual holiday. We are such apassionately life-affirming culture. We cherish and sanctify life.Any ritual law of the tradition may be suspended to save or protect ahuman life. We say “L’Chaim!” (“To Life!”) over every glass ofwine.

But on Yom Kippur, we confront death. We rehearsedeath. We deny the body — fasting (which, for Jews, is a form ofdeath), abstaining from sexual intimacy, and removing our jewelry andfinery, our fashionable clothes, our polished, comfortable shoes, todon the simplest of garb. Tradition dictates the wearing of a kittel– a death shroud. In medieval monasteries, monks slept each night intheir coffins, to remind themselves that the wage of sin is death.That’s morbid. But to don a shroud once a year, to seriously confrontdeath, is cleansing. For, in the face of death, all therationalizations, all the excuses, all the defenses fall away, and weare forced to see who and what we really are.

The philosopher Franz Rosensweig taught that onYom Kippur, the Jew is given the unique opportunity to see his or herlife through the eyes of eternity. From the vantage of eternity, whatin our lives matters? What is real? What is important? What isvaluable? And what, from eternity’s perspective, are all the needlessobsessions and worries that waste our souls and sap ourstrength?

Despite all our evasions, the truth is that wedon’t have an endless string of tomorrows. Life is finite. And life’sfinitude forces us to have priorities and makes our choicesimportant. Pretend for a moment that you had only 25 hours to live.To whom would you run to say, “Thank you” or “I’m sorry” or “I loveyou”? What relationships would you attempt to resolve, to repair?What would you be proud of in your life? What would you regret? Whatwould you most miss? Now, why are you waiting? I have been a rabbilong enough to know that the saddest, most bitter tears at thegraveside are those for the life not lived, for the love not shared,for the tenderness not expressed, for the words unspoken.

“Teach us to number our days,” prays the Psalmist,”to get us a heart of wisdom.” Ordinarily a morbid thought. But oncea year, confronting the truth liberates us from the bondage ofillusions and excuses so that we can begin the new year with renewedstrength, with renewed vision, with renewed hope. Gemar Tov. May yoube sealed in God’s Book of Life for a year of sweetness and peace.

Ed Feinstein is rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom inEncino.