Where Religion Meets Bohemia

“What on earth is that?” asks Jordan, a 27-year-old actor in Los Feliz.

He is staring at a dancing rabbi on a flatbed truck that is inching its way down Vermont Avenue, one of the main boulevards in Los Feliz.

Vermont has a certain bohemian air about it. Like Jordan, many of the people on the street — and there are a good number of them lounging around in the outdoor cafes — are artists of some kind, and quite a few look like they are transplants from Haight Ashbury. Most are wearing as little clothing as possible in the 90 degree heat, so the vision of a man in full rabbinical regalia (black hat, frock coat, long pants and beard), dancing to loud Jewish music blaring from loudspeakers on a truck, is curious, to say the least. Especially since the rabbi is being followed by a parade of about 200 people, who are singing along to the music and clapping their hands. A few of the them are holding a velvet chuppah, and one is bobbing along with a Sefer Torah in his hand.

The parade is to honor a new Sefer Torah that was donated to Chabad of Greater Los Feliz, and this scene — of the Russian shtetl coming to one of the hippest neighborhoods in Los Angeles — is an incongruous one, but to the Jewish community in Los Feliz, it is not uncommon. “Every Shabbos, we make it look like central La Brea and Fairfax,” says Rabbi Leibel Korf, 30, (the dancing rabbi) who came to Los Feliz four years ago to open up a Chabad house under the auspices of Rabbi Shlomo Cunin. “People sitting in the cafes who see us are amazed that this is Los Feliz.”

Chabad of Greater Los Feliz, located on 1727 N. Vermont Ave, ‘107, caters to what Korf calls a “unique” community. Like the rest of the population of Los Feliz, the Jews who are attracted to the neighborhood tend to be involved in artistic endeavors. “A lot of them are in the movie business,” Korf says of the 40 members who attend weekly, and the hundreds who come for holiday events and parties.

Los Feliz gained its artistic cachet years ago, when cheap rents attracted swarms of starving creative types who could not afford to live anywhere else. They gave the neighborhood its cool quotient. Now, as the neighborhood is becoming known as an up-and-coming, trendy place to live, the rents are rising, pushing out the types of people who gave the neighborhood its flair in the first place.

“Los Feliz has changed a lot since I moved here five years ago,” says Seth Menachem, 27, an actor who is a member of Chabad of Greater Los Feliz. “It’s now heavily gentrified, and the rents have skyrocketed. But still, it is not your typical doctor-and-lawyer community. People are more laid-back here, and you can feel the difference.”

Menachem, who was raised Reform, was attracted to Chabad of Greater Los Feliz because of its spirituality. However, he finds that Chabad house is as good a place for networking as it is for praying. “I’m working with two people who I met through Chabad on a TV show,” he says.

For Brooklyn-born Korf and his wife, Dvonye, Los Feliz was the realization of a lifetime goal. “My entire life I would sit at the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s farbrengens [talks] and he would tell us that we had to share Yiddishkayt with others,” he says. “I dreamed that I would come to a neighborhood that was completely different to being in a frum [religious] environment, and I would be able to share with the people there the great treasure that we have — the Torah.”

The new Sefer Torah, donated on June 23, was donated by Lisa Brahms, who passed away last July. After being diagnosed with breast cancer, Brahms had started searching for spirituality and started studying with Korf.

“The weaker she was getting the more she was adopting spirituality, and she felt that her dying was a mission,” Korf says. “She totally transcended to a deeper appreciation of life, and so she wanted to share this with other people, which is why she commissioned a scribe to start writing the Sefer Torah.”

Chabad of Los Feliz will host “Jews in the Lotus,” Today’s Quest for
Spirituality And the Lure of the East, on Wednedsay, July 24, at 7:30
p.m. Featuring Rabbi Kravitz, founder of Jews for Judaism.