Natural-Born Builder

What does a builder do when he’s told he can no longer build? I asked that question of Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, co-founder and chief rabbi of the settlement of Efrat,
who was in town last week as a guest of Beth Jacob Congregation. Riskin’s settlement is currently under the 10-month construction freeze announced a few months ago by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

In Efrat, a number of planned developments have been frozen, including 400 residential units for young couples, most of who were born and raised in Efrat and have their parents nearby; a facility for senior citizens; a shopping center; and a school for kids at risk.

This kind of development has been par for the course since Passover 1983, when Rabbi Riskin made aliyah with his family. Before then, he had built a modern Orthodox community on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Lincoln Square Synagogue, that to this day has near-legendary status. With the encouragement of his mentor, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, Riskin took a small Conservative shul and, from 1963 to 1983, turned it into a powerhouse of Orthodox outreach with a national reputation.

But at the pinnacle of his accomplishment, he left with his family to “live his dream” in Israel and build something new.

It’s hard to overstate the mystical pull that building on biblical land has on some religious Jews. I remember being on a balcony in Efrat a few years ago, admiring the view, when the owner reminded me that “that’s where King David fought his wars.” As he said that, I couldn’t help thinking that my house at the time had a nice view of the Beverly Center.

Since that Passover in 1983, Efrat has become “the city of eight hilltops,” home to about 8,500 residents from America, South Africa, England and France, among others. Most of the residents are Modern Orthodox — the ones I’ve met and spoken to over the years remind me a lot of my neighbors in Pico-Robertson.

And just like their leader, they are very worried about the construction freeze.

“If it continues, it will mean big trouble,” Riskin said, referring to the possibility that the freeze might be extended past its expiration date of September.

When Riskin says “big trouble,” he has several things in mind. The first is the obvious problem of not being able to service the basic needs of Efrat residents — what is known as “natural growth.” The second is that several of his benefactors have made donations for projects that have been frozen, and he would like to deliver on his promises.

Most significant, however, is the idea of precedent. In all the peace proposals discussed over the years, it was always assumed that the main settlement bloc, which includes towns like Efrat, would remain part of Israel. So now, for people like Riskin, who have devoted their lives to building communities, the notion of an extended construction freeze in these areas is highly unsettling.

But Riskin is a force of nature, and he won’t be denied. If he can’t build with bulldozers, he’ll build in other ways.

He has plenty of experience building without bulldozers. In fact, his real mission is to build future Jewish leaders. His organization, Ohr Torah Stone, has trained hundreds of rabbis and educators over the years who have gone back to the Diaspora to spread a philosophy that blends modernity with tradition, with a special emphasis on social justice and Jewish unity.

Riskin has been at the forefront of fighting for women’s rights in the Orthodox world. After winning a major case in Israel’s High Court to allow women to serve as advocates in the religious courts, he established the first program to train women for such advocacy, which has helped the cause of agunot (women whose husbands refuse to grant them a divorce) in religious courts.

His latest brainchild, Yachad, requires no bulldozers — it uses other people’s buildings. Yachad sends out “cultural facilitators” to local community centers all over Israel to give secular Israelis a taste of their Jewish heritage. On Yom Kippur, for example, Jews who’d never walk into a synagogue can now go into a recreation center and experience a shortened version of the Kol Nidre and Neilah services.

Despite all this activity, when I hosted Riskin at my house last Friday, I could tell that the construction freeze was weighing heavily on him.

His eyes did light up, however, when he told me about his involvement with a construction project that is perfectly OK under the freeze: an eye clinic for an Arab village next to Efrat. For decades, the mayor of that village and Riskin have been close friends. Apparently, the high rate of intermarriage among Arab cousins in the village has caused eye problems, so Riskin decided to help build the eye clinic.

There is irony in a Jewish builder who is not allowed to build for Jews, but who builds for his Arab neighbors. But there was no irony — or bitterness — in Riskin’s voice as he spoke of his Arab neighbors.

“They’re like my second congregation,” he said. “The freeze is hurting their income. They want peace as much as we do.

“Their leaders, unfortunately, are another story.”

David Suissa is the founder of OLAM magazine and You can read his daily blog at and e-mail him at {encode=”” title=””}.

‘Monster’ Maven Tames Wild Homes

Set decorator Jarri Schwartz roars up to an interview in a black Ford Expedition emblazoned with Discovery Channel’s “Monster House” logo and magenta flames shooting over the hood. At 2 p.m., she’s already blazed her own trail across Los Angeles, where she drives 100 miles per day searching for items such as sarcophagi and surfboards to adorn the show’s latest theme homes.

On this hot Wednesday, the Jewish Schwartz is shopping for Airplane House in Simi Valley, where builders have already dropped an alarmingly large piece of a 727 in an aviation enthusiast’s yard.

“I want it to look like a cargo plane crashed and people are living in it,” the vivacious 33-year-old says. “Of course, the police called because they thought a plane was down in the city, and they fined us for parking our crane in the street.”

It was just another day in Schwartz’s life on “Monster House,” perhaps the most extreme in a fashionable new TV trend. More than 20 home-improvement shows now wallpaper the airwaves, including hits such as The Learning Channel’s “Trading Spaces” and ABC’s “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.” A decade ago, PBS’s “This Old House” was among a few such programs on the small screen. But Americans love dramatic stories about people re-inventing themselves, and when the emotionally driven “Trading Spaces” premiered in 2000, copycats proliferated like tchotchkes in a curio cabinet.

“Monster House,” which dubs itself “a home show on steroids,” also capitalizes on viewers’ hunger for prickly reality TV shows. On each episode, Schwartz and five builders — all strangers to each other — have five days to transform a house into a family’s dream theme — with absolutely no peeking by homeowners. Tempers flare as the team crashes spaceships through ceilings, turns fireplaces into fire-breathing Tiki gods and bursts the Three Stooges through living room walls.

If “Monster House” is the quirkiest of the genre, Schwartz fits right in. Wearing four-inch heels, the five-foot decorator doesn’t hesitate to check out a builder’s behind on camera, or to eat a canine biscuit on the Dog House episode.

“I will flirt with a builder if I choose to,” she says with a brilliant smile. “I will tell somebody to shut up or that something they built is ugly, but without a trace of malice.”

When a Tennessee builder revealed he had never hugged a Jew, Schwartz tartly pointed to her cheek and said, “I’ll bet you’ve never kissed one, either.”

Perhaps the only time she was speechless was when a plump contractor, wearing Curly tattoos and a thong, did Stooge schtick in front of the homeowner’s Orthodox rabbi.

“I was sooo mortified,” she says. “I wanted to cover the rabbi’s eyes.”

But Schwartz generally thrives on the show’s oddball, macho milieu.

“The guys like it when she’s on set because she’s the opposite of all that amped-up testosterone,” senior producer Brian Knappmiller told The Journal. “Her style and substance bring the builds to life and she’s fun and over the top.”

Schwartz’s family background is also eccentric. She was raised by her father, a salesman, who moved his two girls into a modest Beverly Hills apartment so they could attend the superior school district. While he knew little about Judaism, he instilled cultural connections in Jarri by packing her off to Jewish day camp, albeit with a salami and mayonnaise sandwich in tow. Schwartz attended High Holiday services with her friends, where she was turned off by what she perceived as “dry, boring, modernistic” synagogue decor. (Her favorite shul is Wilshire Boulevard Temple, an opulent, 1920s structure in which “you can feel the breadth of Jewish history,” she says.)

Back home, she clashed with her hippied-out sister about their shared bedroom, which Sis wanted to plaster with “pictures of dirty people,” Schwartz says. Jarri struck back by working odd jobs to finance bedroom makeovers, including sleek laminate furniture in the 1980s.

“My dad was like, ‘You can’t keep moving stuff around,'” she recalls.

Schwartz loved to shop and decorate, yet she spent a decade running a Beverly Hills gift store until the financial havoc following Sept. 11 destroyed her business.

“When I was in that lost, bad space, I reconnected to Judaism,” she says.

She attended Shabbat dinners at the home of her ba’alei teshuva friend, Melanie; learned about the religion from Melanie’s Yavneh-educated children; wore a Star of David and lit the brass menorah Melanie’s late mother had given her, in lieu of a yarzeit candle. She discovered that her Hebrew middle name, Samara, means “guided by God,” and felt so when a set decorator asked her to assist on “Monster House” in 2003.

Schwartz’s first impression on set, however, was “Who in the hell would want this done to their home?” But before long, she fell in love with the job and was hired as the series’ full-time decorator, which requires interviewing homeowners and researching styles and periods.

“The crew builds the walls and I fill them in, so you actually feel like you’re in a voodoo jungle or Sherwood Forest,” she says of her role. “I also make things so that the homeowners can actually live in the space. They’ll have a sofa to sit on, though it might be shaped like a crocodile.”

For Mad Scientist House, the sofa was a 1920s black vinyl gurney Schwartz scored while climbing over decaying equipment in a Glendale medical supply. In a “cranium room” — where a purple ceiling was textured to look like a cerebellum — she fused real brain scans into drapes, illuminated by a light bar.

When an Encino tract home was transformed into a Prohibition-era speakeasy, Schwartz covered the peephole to the hidden bar with an Italian still-life painting. For the Stooges House, she selected vintage tools and 1930s-style damask wallpaper in which Moe appears to have entangled himself while working. (She also placed the Jewish family’s brass menorah in a Stooge memorabilia cabinet.)

A favorite project was decorating the Ultimate Clubhouse for a 9-year-old Louisiana boy with leukemia, one of the show’s few serious builds.

“I wanted to give Patrick a place to get away from his daily life and chemotherapy treatments,” Schwartz says. “On our last day, which was also my birthday, Patrick asked me to go to chemotherapy with him, and I held his hand and felt humbled.”

But for the most part, “Monster House” goes for the downright bizarre.

“We’re not doing something that’s necessarily good for people,” she says, of why the show isn’t as popular as “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.” “I think homeowners do it for the attention, to be on TV and because they really feel passionate about a particular theme.”

So would Schwartz let “Monster House” redo her Spanish-style duplex, which is decorated in what she calls a “rustic-romantic” style?

“No way,” she says, without hesitation. “I love doing the show because I get to play with someone else’s house, and then walk away,” she adds, before rushing off to shop until she drops.

But no one has expressed dissatisfaction with any of the 45 homes Schwartz has decorated.

“At the end of the week, somebody is actually happy,” she says of her work.

“Monster House” airs Fridays at 8 p.m. on the Discovery Channel. New episodes begin Aug. 12.