LINK to daylong learning

On any given night, upward of 75 Jewish men and women cram into a building at 1453 S. Robertson Blvd. to study Torah, discuss religious texts and educate themselves on what it means to live a Jewish life.

From sunup to sundown, they come and they learn and they pray — just a day in the life at LINK, the Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel.

Rabbi Asher Brander, who was the rabbi at Westwood Kehilla and teacher at Yeshiva University of Los Angeles high school for 20 years, started LINK in 2002. It’s a kollel, a place where rabbinic scholars study among themselves and teach people in the community. 

For nine years, it was located at Kehilla before moving to Pico-Robertson in 2011. Seven days a week, classes are taught on everything from Talmud to Psalms. High Holy Days rituals are covered, as is halachah, Jewish law. 

“At LINK, there is a very vibrant, dynamic environment, and that creates a tremendous connection with the Torah, HaShem and Judaism,” Brander said. “And that’s what it’s all about.”
Along with the traditional classes on Jewish texts and law that are held from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. nearly every day, LINK offers prayer services, space for independent study, and courses on everyday situations and issues. The 10 rabbis and instructors teach, in English, about character development, marriage, parenting, dating, finding a soul mate and why bad things happen to good people.
Among the five or six classes taught per day — and more than 30 per week — some are solely for men or women, but others are open to both. The schedule is revised four times a year — during the High Holy Days, the fall, winter and spring — and four guest speakers visit each year. In February, LINK is hosting a Shabbaton with Rabbi Mordechai Becher, a senior lecturer from Gateways, an organization that helps Jews connect to their religion.

Rabbi Eli Stern, LINK outreach director and an instructor, said the kollel is for everyone from every background and affiliation.

“We are teaching Torah. We are not preaching how someone should practice. It’s not about preaching to people. It’s about learning with people,” he said.
Since moving to Pico-Robertson, attendance at classes has grown significantly, doubling from 75 to 150 people coming every week, according to Brander.

The move from Westwood meant adapting to the needs of a new neighborhood, too. Now it is in the thick of one of Los Angeles’ most vibrant Jewish communities and among a variety of Orthodox shuls. As a result, LINK has been transformed from an introductory setting to one that welcomes all levels of learning. 

“There is a wide variety of classes,” Brander said. “It changed because any institution needs to be sensitive to the needs of community. Pico-Robertson has its own set of needs, and it’s a different type of clientele [than Westwood]. Obviously Jews are Jews, but Pico-Robertson has a lot going on, and we cater to what the niches are.”
LINK is a nonprofit, and during the first year it was open on Robertson, it didn’t charge dues to members of its synagogue division. Even now, people can come in any time free of charge for services as well as for learning. 

Jews can walk into LINK not only to learn, but to connect with people in their community as well. The Torah Learning for Collegiates program (TLC), led by Shoshana Rivka Bloom, is for women only and meets every Tuesday night. It features local and out-of-town speakers each week who talk about relationships, Jewish study, history, law and hashgacha (kosher supervision). Among the two dozen or so women who show up every week, the majority are single and in their 20s.
“LINK fills a void … in the Pico-Robertson area,” Bloom said. “The rabbis are very talented in reaching out to people who have very little or close to no background in Judaism. Rabbi Brander is warm and loving and cares about every Jew. Everyone feels welcome. It’s really a wonderful thing.”
Mitch Karp, who lives in the neighborhood, has been going to LINK for the past year. He takes classes on tehillim (psalms) and the Rambam and studies there on his own. Before it came along, he hadn’t found his spiritual home. 

“At the other shuls, something was definitely missing,” he said. “It had maybe the learning, but I didn’t feel connected to people. LINK has the learning, the prayer and the connection with the rabbis.”
Karp said that in the community, there is no one-stop shop for all-day learning and prayer.

“I can stay there 24/7 if I wanted to do that. There isn’t any other place on Pico where you can go early and stay as long as you want. It’s more like a yeshiva, but it’s also very open as well.”

Another student, Elliot Cavalier, has been taking classes at LINK since 2002. He said that it’s a valuable space because “it brings Torah to the masses and makes it accessible to the masses. There are a lot of classes geared toward people who don’t have a background [in Jewish studies].”

At LINK, Brander and his colleagues are there primarily to provide the many students and members with the education they never received at a Jewish day school. In addition, there is a program called The Beis, which has a double meaning. It’s pronounced “base” in English and means “house” in Hebrew. It’s for men who attended Jewish day schools but have drifted and not yet found their way back to Torah study.
Stern said that LINK doesn’t care about the level of observance of potential students, or if they’re a beginner or an expert. 

“The main thing is that you’re interested in learning,” he said. “We have a very eclectic group of people who are learning in this neighborhood. They are coming here on a regular basis and learning the skills to empower themselves to one day pick up a text and study on their own. It should be the goal of every Jew.”
What makes LINK special, according to Brander, is that any and every kind of Jew can enter the building and begin his or her learning. 

“We have under the same roof many different people from different walks of life. We have Jews that are not observant to Jews that are very religious. We have people wearing white shirts and black pants, and some people wear jeans and T-shirts. There are Persians, French people, Ashkenazim, men and women. There is a tremendous sense of diversity. People feel very welcome. The Torah does the talking.”

Rebbe Road

If the great Maimonides ever came back to life and found himself in Los Angeles, chances are he’d look for a house on a small street called Detroit, between Oakwood Avenue and Beverly Boulevard, one block west of La Brea Avenue. There are no holier streets in Los Angeles.

This little discovery happened thanks to my 10-year-old daughter, Mia, who informed me recently that she had volunteered me to be a driver for her upcoming class outing. Little did I know what kind of class outing it would be: a minitour of a very Jewish neighborhood — not my neighborhood of Pico-Robertson, but the neighborhood of Hancock Park.

Our tour guide was Mia’s fifth-grade Chumash teacher at Maimonides Academy, Rabbi Moshe Abady. The tour is actually called a “Kollel Tour,” because the feature attraction is a visit to the two kollels, or Talmudic study halls, of the neighborhood.

You will never understand the Orthodox world until you understand the idea of the kollel, which originated in Eastern Europe in the 19th century as a way to keep yeshiva students in a Torah-learning environment after they get married, and also nurture Torah scholars, teachers (“rebbes”) and experts in halacha, or Jewish law, who would make rulings for their communities.

In America, the kollel movement was started after World War II by Rabbi Aharon Kotler, the founder of Beth Medrash Gohova, a large yeshiva in Lakewood, N. J. Since then, kollels have opened across the country in all major cities, becoming a key catalyst for the growth of the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox movements in America.

On the West Coast, the oldest and best-known kollel is called the Kollel Los Angeles, started by Rabbi Chaim Fasman 30 years ago and located on Beverly Boulevard, across from the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, the only cafe where I’ve seen Cholov Yisroel milk, which is imported from Israel and is favored by many ultra-Orthodox.

The first kollel we visited with Rabbi Abady was a smaller Chasidic kollel on La Brea Avenue called Yechiel Yehuda, where we met with full-time student Chaim Unger, who gave the schoolchildren a minioverview and answered their questions. I don’t remember his exact words, but I have a clear memory of his message and body language: There is no better way to be a Jew and to serve God than to study His Torah.

How do you make money, one child wanted to know. Unger said that the kollel helps a little, his wife works a little and they basically just get by. I couldn’t resist asking how he could physically sit down and learn all day and most nights. Didn’t he ever feel like moving or running or swimming, just to get the blood pumping? He gave me this strange look, mumbled something about his wife having a Stairmaster and then explained how the study of Jewish law can be so draining that it is like a workout.

Rabbi Abady then walked us over to the Kollel Los Angeles, where the kids had lunch and heard from two more full-time kollel members. The message was the same: Learning Torah is heaven. I’ve rarely met such happy people. There is nothing they’d rather do than spend all day analyzing the intricacies of a talmudic tractate.

When I met up with Rabbi Abady a couple of weeks after the tour on a rainy Sunday night at the Coffee Bean across from the kollel, he acknowledged that one of the criticisms of kollels in general is that it doesn’t seem fair that married men with children should study full time and not work. But, he says, students are screened carefully; the money they get from the kollel is too little to attract slackers; women consider it an honor to be married to a Torah scholar and, most importantly for the community, kollels can transform the Jewish life of cities and neighborhoods.

Here in Los Angeles, the kollels of Hancock Park have been feeding the community for years with leaders and Torah scholars — such as Rabbi Gershon Bess, who is part of the leadership of the Rabbinical Council of California, heads the highly successful Kehilas Yaacov synagogue and is a world-renowned halachic expert, and Rabbi Yaacov Krause, who runs the prominent ultra-Orthodox Toras Emes day school and is the head rabbi at Young Israel of Hancock Park.

What I gathered, after listening to Rabbi Abady, was that in the Torah-observant world, having a world-class kollel is like a city having a world-class symphony orchestra. The orchestra attracts the best musicians; the kollel attracts the best students. Even if you are not a classical music aficionado, there’s a civic pride in knowing that your city has something majestic and superior.

For the Jews of Hancock Park and for many others, a world-class kollel is something majestic and superior.

And that includes the Jews on that little block of Detroit Street, where Rabbi Abady started his class outing as if he was a tour guide with a “Map to the Stars.” With a look of reverence on his face, he walked us down the block and showed us how virtually every house belonged to a Torah scholar and prominent member of the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox communities.

Over coffee Sunday night, he jokingly called that block the “holiest street west of the Mississippi,” while reminding me that many of these scholars have been involved with the local kollels, primarily the Kollel Los Angeles. Hancock Park would never be what it is today without the kollels, he said.

In that case, my friends of Pico-Robertson, fasten your seatbelts. The rabbi confirmed that a world-class kollel is quietly starting in our neighborhood, under the tutelage of two Torah giants of Hancock Park: Rabbi Baruch Gradon and Rabbi Daniel Danishefsky. It is currently being housed in Beth Jacob Congregation, and from what I hear, it’s already attracting major talent from Lakewood.

The great Maimonides, if he returns, will now have another neighborhood to look at.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and He can be reached at

The Circuit

Kollel’s New Home

More than 500 people gathered for the dedication of Kollel Los Angeles’ new home at 7216 Beverly Blvd., in the heart of the Beverly-Fairfax-Hancock Park communities. Rabbi Matisyahu Solomon addressed the crowd at the Chanukat Habayis dedication. Kollel, headed by its dean, Rabbi Chaim Fasman, has been an L.A. institution for 25 years.

Weizmann Double-Header

The American Committee for the Weizmann Institute of Science hosted a reception featuring Dr. Misha Tsodyks,a member of the institute’s neurobiology department withAllan and Nicole Mutchnik; and Robin and Andy Katzenstein.

Nicole and Allan Mutchnik hosted a Chanukah party reception at their home for professor Ron Naaman of the chemical physics department at Weizmann Institute of Science, and his wife, Dr. Rachel Mamlok-Naaman, associate staff scientist at the institute’s department of science education.

Remembering Sept. 11

Yad B’Yad held its annual luncheon and fashion show benefit at the Olympic Collection. More than 250 women attended the event. The organization raised $25,000 for the victims of Sept. 11.

Israel Philharmonic’s 2001 Space Odyssey

A Dec. 12 benefit by the American Friends of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra was held at the Pacific Palisades estate of Dennis Tito, who recently made headlines as the world’s first space tourist when he visited the International Space Station via a Russian Soyuz capsule. Violinist Pinchas Zukerman performed at a private recital with pianist Marc Neikrug. The event raised $500,000 for the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.

Power Panel

Gov. Gray Davis announced the appointment of Scott Svonkin, chief of staff for Assemblyman Paul Koretz, as a member of the state Respiratory Care Board Svonkin, Davis and Paul Koretz.

Now We Can All Breath Easier

Women’s Alliance for Israel drew 600 people to its membership forum at Sephardic Temple Tiffereth Israel. “Political Power, A Jewish Imperative?” was the topic at a panel moderated by Susan Estrich, a USC law professor, and featuring Rabbi Steven Leder of Wilshire Boulevard Temple; Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Temple Valley Beth Shalom; Rabbi Steven Weil of Beth Jacob Congregation.

Long Shelf Life

The Jewish Community Library of Los Angeles (JCLLA) has received a grant of $50,000 from the Weingart Foundation. The grant will go toward collection development. With its backlog of 30,000 Jewish items, the JCLLA is among the largest Jewish libraries in the nation, under the supervision of its director Abigail Yasgur and library committee chair Dr. Aaron Willis. JCLLA operates under the auspices of the Bureau of Jewish Education.

New Year’s With the Prez

Rabbi Menachem Gottesman, dean of Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy, is the 2001 recipient of the Jerusalem Prize for Religious, Communal and Educational Leadership. The award was presented to Gottesman at the Jerusalem residence of Moshe Katsav, Israeli president, on Jan. 1.

Greenberg’s Close Encounter With Spielberg

Philanthropist Eric Greenberg received the Shoah Foundation’s annual Ambassador for Humanity Award from Shoah founder and chairman Steven Spielberg at director’s L.A. headquarters. Greenberg has donated several million dollars to various causes and organizations.

Peace Now Powwow

Americans for Peace Now held its third annual Yizthak Rabin Peace Award Dinner at the Century Plaza Hotel honoring the work of attorney Luis Lainer and former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell.

The evening, which raised $300,000, helped to bolster the hopes of those who remain committed to the Israeli peace process.

“The making of peace is a slow and deeply agonizing process,” Mitchell said. “There is no cause more noble and just than peace. There is no such thing as a conflict that can’t be ended.”

Mitchell, a former Senate majority leader, chaired peace negotiations in Northern Ireland and led the Sharm el-Sheikh Fact-Finding Committee, which recommend ways of encouraging Israelis and Palestinians to return to the negotiating table.

Lainer’s pursuit of peace and justice led the attorney to co-found Bet Tzedek Legal Services, a beneficiary agency of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. He serves as a board member for both The Federation and Americans for Peace Now. — Adam Wills, Associate Editor