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

Obama cites Lubavitcher rebbe in proclamation

President Obama underlined the accomplishments of the late Lubavitcher rebbe in his proclamation of Education and Sharing Day.

In Tuesday’s proclamation, Obama highlighted the teachings of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson and said that Schneerson embodied a “humanitarian spirit.”

“As a tireless advocate for youth around the world, he inspired millions to lift the cause of education, to practice kindness and generosity, and to aspire toward their highest ideals,” Obama said in the proclamation. “His enduring legacy lives on in those he touched, and today, we resolve to carry forward his dedication to service and scholarship.”

In addition, Obama reiterated the importance of pursuing knowledge and cultivating character that has enriched American progress.

“In a global economy where more than half of new jobs will demand higher education or advanced training, we must do everything we can to equip our children with the tools for success,” the president said. “Our nation’s prosperity grows with theirs, and by ensuring every child has access to a world-class education, we reach for a brighter future for all Americans.”

Jon Huntsman visits the Lubavitcher rebbe’s gravesite

Republican presidential hopeful Jon Huntsman visited the New York gravesite of the Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

Huntsman, the former governor of Utah, visited the Queens gravesite of the late leader of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement last week. He was accompanied by his wife, Mary Kaye, and a number of movement luminaries, including Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, the chairman of Chabad’s educational and social services network, and Rabbi Levi Shemtov, the director of its Washington office.

Huntsman was friendly with Chabad’s outreach effort in Utah when he governed the state from 2005 to 2009.

Most recently the U.S. envoy to China, Huntsman is among the lowest polling in a field of about 10 candidates for the GOP nod, but has carved a niche for himself as a relative moderate on foreign policy and social issues.

Tens of thousands visit rebbe’s grave

More than 50,000 people visited the grave of the seventh Lubavitcher rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, on the 17th anniversary of his death.

Along with the visitors Tuesday at Montefiore Cemetery in Queens, N.Y., an estimated 1 million more people sent requests to be left at the grave via fax and e-mail.

The yartzheit came just days after the 70th anniversary of the rebbe’s arrival in the United States from Nazi-occupied France.

Schneerson, the seventh Lubavitcher rebbe, died in 1994 and has been without a successor.

Visitors to his grave included Jews and non-Jews, Chasidim and secular Jews, and people from around the world, including some who made the trip specifically to pay their respects.

Throughout the year, a few hundred thousand people visit the gravesite seeking blessing, guidance and spiritual inspiration. The gravesite receives more than 400,000 prayer requests each year via fax and hundreds of thousands more via e-mail, according to Chabad.

Florida Chabad offers $1,000 for return of rebbe’s dollar

A Chabad center in Florida is offering $1,000 for the safe return of a dollar bill signed by the movement’s late rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

Rabbi Shlomo Ezagui of the Chabad House-Lubavitch of Palm Beach Gardens told reporters that the dollar bill was stolen during a break-in at the synagogue on the night of June 14.

A surveillance camera showed an intruder entering through a window and stealing charity boxes as well as cash from the center’s cash register. Hundreds of dollars were taken, Ezagui said, but only the dollar bill inscribed by the rebbe in 1987 matters to him.

Local police are investigating the incident.

In the late 1980s, Schneerson would give dollar bills to visitors who lined up for hours outside his Brooklyn headquarters to meet him. The bills are prized particularly by the rebbe’s followers since his death in 1994.

The Palm Beach Gardens Chabad center declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy in February.

The Rebbe’s army soldiers on


Rabbi Gavriel and Rivkah Holtzberg, the Chabad emissaries brutally murdered last week in Mumbai, ran the Jewish center they established in that Indian city on their own. But the young Israeli American couple were part of a worldwide network of Chabad-Lubavitch shluchim — more than 7,000 men and women who devote their lives to doing Jewish outreach in more than 73 countries.

The outreach effort has become the hallmark of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, set in motion 55 years ago by their late rebbe, Menachem Mendel Complete coverage of Mumbai Chabad attackSchneerson. In the 15 years since his death, “going on shlichus,” or becoming Chabad emissaries, has been a point of pride with young Lubavitchers — the best and the brightest, they say, become the rebbe’s emissaries.

Chabad has become so ubiquitous that Jewish travelers around the world, no matter how far they stray, have come to expect a Shabbat meal, a holiday celebration and a warm welcome from one of these Chasidic couples, no questions asked. All that’s required is a knock on the door.

An online tribute to the Holtzbergs posted recently at is filled with postings from American, British and Israeli travelers who passed through the Mumbai Chabad center the couple established in 2003.

People recall 29-year-old Gabi’s broad smile and 28-year-old Rivkah’s efforts to make every guest feel at home. Some write of playing with the couple’s 2-year-old son, Moshe, and wondering who will raise him now. One traveler called the Holtzbergs “a beacon of Judaism” in a world that often made him feel alone and alien.

Over the past decade, both during and after my research for “The Rebbe’s Army,” my 2003 book about Lubavitch shluchim, I have heard similar stories from countless American Jews. They talk of spending Shabbat with Chabad in Venice, Hong Kong, Anchorage, Bangkok. They marvel at the fortitude and commitment of these young couples who leave comfortable lives in New York, London or Jerusalem to take up residence in Russia, Brazil, Zambia and, yes, India — countries where they live to serve their fellow Jews, where they raise their children in a language and culture not their own.

Often I meet these Jews at fundraisers for other Jewish organizations. As we munch on hors d’oeuvres and sip wine in fancy banquet halls from Los Angeles to Miami, those who relate these stories don’t seem to realize that the Chabad centers they have come to expect around the world don’t pop up by themselves, and certainly they don’t continue to function without the tireless work and endless fundraising by the emissaries who run them.

At the Passover seder I spent in Bangkok in April 2001, the Chabad center on Khao San Road had been completed just hours before the dinner began; the rafters were still unpainted. Nearly 300 tickets at $15 a pop had been presold to Israeli backpackers who filled the nearby guesthouses.

Some 700 young travelers tromped happily up the stairs to the seder, more than half brushing past the Lubavitch yeshiva students who were quietly collecting tickets and smiling at every arrival, whether they had paid or not.

A free dinner! Of course, it’s Chabad. It’s always free. It’s always there.

During my visit with the Chabad emissaries in Salt Lake City, I listened as Sharonne Zippel spoke of the sadness she felt as she and her husband prepared to send their 11-year-old son off to Montreal for yeshiva, in accordance with Lubavitch custom. When the couple, as young marrieds, decided to spend their lives as shluchim, Sharonne told me, they hadn’t realized it meant dragging their future children into the same lifelong commitment.

Did Rivkah and Gavriel Holtzberg think about that when they decided to move to India? As her three children were born — one died young, a second was in Israel with Rivkah’s parents last week — did Rivkah look into their tiny, perfect faces and wonder whether they might have been happier growing up in Brooklyn or Israel? When the gunmen burst into the Mumbai Jewish center on Nov. 26, did Rivkah or Gabi waver in their resolve to see it through to the end?

The weekend before the attack, 3,000 Chabad emissaries gathered in New York for their annual convention. They danced, they networked, they took their famous roll call during the closing-night banquet, standing up country by country to celebrate the movement’s continued growth.

The number of Chabad institutions has doubled in the past decade from 745 to 1,326. According to a 2001 survey by the American Jewish Committee, one-tenth of the synagogues in the United States are Chabad congregations. The movement’s Web site receives 75,000 unique visitors every day.

The growth is qualitative, too. More sophisticated adult educational programs have been created and emissaries have become involved in a wider range of activities, from prisoner rehabilitation to new media development.

New emissary couples are taking up postings around the world in ever more remote locations. Chabad centers were established last year in South Korea, Serbia and northern Cyprus. Four new Lubavitch couples every week, on average, set out to somewhere around the globe, intent on spreading their rebbe’s message to do good, study hard and love one’s fellows.

The word from Lubavitch global headquarters in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn is that the Mumbai tragedy will not slow down the movement, nor deter new emissaries from taking up their postings.

Next week, Rabbi David Slavin, 27, and his wife, Chani, 26, head to Yassi, Romania, a city with 7,000 Jewish families on the Ukrainian border.

Speaking by phone from their current home in Kiryat Malachi in Israel, David said the news from Mumbai has not affected their plans.

“We are not afraid at all,” he said. “We can’t understand why this happened to the Holtzbergs; it’s very hard, of course. But we are sure this is the right path for us.”

Like other emissaries, the Slavins will bring their children with them: 2-year-old Dovi and 2-month-old Chaya Mushka.

David, whose American-born parents were sent as Chabad emissaries to Israel by Schneerson, noted that Dovi and Chaya Mushka will be third-generation shluchim. That’s quite a responsibility to lay on the shoulders of two toddlers. But it’s the life they have chosen.

Grim news from Mumbai hits home

” alt=”complete coverage on mumbai chabad attack” title=”Click here for complete Mumbai Chabad coverage” vspace = 8 hspace = 8 border = 0 align = left>NEW YORK (JTA)—Until confirmation finally came that the Chabad emissaries in Mumbai were among the more than 170 victims killed in this week’s terrorist attacks in India, Chabad Chasidim and emissaries the world over prayed for the best while fearing for the worst.

By the morning of Nov. 28, the hostage standoff at the Chabad’s Nariman House was over some two days after it had begun.

Early that day, witnesses saw a series of explosions at the community center as Indian special forces stormed the site and battled with the gunmen who had taken over the house—one of 10 sites in the city attacked Nov. 26 by terrorists

When the smoke had cleared, the bodies of five hostages were found, including those of the couple that ran the center, Rabbi Gavriel and Rivka Holtzberg.

At a Nov. 28 news conference at Chabad world headquarters in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, N.Y., the mood was one of shock and grief.

“This news is fresh and this news is raw,” the chairman of Chabad’s education and social services arm, Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, told reporters. New York Police Department Commissioner Raymond Kelly also was on hand.

Chabad has more than 3,500 emissaries, known as schluchim, who run Jewish outreach centers around the world. The centers began to be established at the behest of the late Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

Those who knew the Holtzbergs—Gavriel, 29, and Rivka, 28—spoke of them as highly dedicated to the Chabad mission of spreading Judaism to Jews around the globe. The couple moved from Brooklyn to Mumbai in 2003 at the urging of Chabad’s leadership. Their apartment in Colaba, in the southern part of Mumbai, quickly became a hub both for Jews traveling in India—many of them Israeli backpackers traveling in the country following their service in the Israeli army—and for those living in India.

“Jews from all nationalities stopped there—primarily Israelis, but also those from Singapore and other places,” said Elijah Jacob, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s country manager for India. “It was almost like a second home to them. Our country director used to say it was like a second home to him because of all of the Jews there on Shabbat.”

Gavriel “was one of the finest and kindest gentlemen you could imagine,” said Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, the vice chairman of Chabad’s education arm. He recounted the last conversation Gavriel had with the Israeli Embassy, on the night of Nov. 26, shortly after the center was taken over by the terrorists.

“He said, ‘The situation is not good,’ ” Kotlarsky recalled. “And then he was cut off.”

News of the Holtzbergs’ deaths hit hard in the Lubavitch neighborhood of Crown Heights, where tens of thousands of Chabadniks live. In this tight-knit community, nearly everyone is connected to one another.

“It is painful to see,” Rabbi Velvel Farkash said outside of Chabad-Lubavitch headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway. “It is a deep pain. I really have no words for it.”

Jacob described Gavriel Holtzberg as a community builder in Mumbai, home to some 4,500 Jews living in a western Indian city of 14 million. The city has eight synagogues, mostly in the southern part in predominantly Muslim neighborhoods.

“[Gavriel] helped out with some of the local synagogues. He helped them collect donations and did fund-raising for the synagogue T’feret Israel, in central Mumbai in Jacobs Circle. He helped build a mikveh there,” Jacob, who grew up in India, told JTA.

“He was also officially a shochet [ritual slaughterer] and made chickens available to the community. They also made challah for the community. They were available for the community. If people had questions about halachic principles, what is right and what is wrong in terms of the rights and customs of Judaism, they were basically guiding the local community.”

On Nov. 27, the day after terrorists took over the Chabad House, the gunmen released the Holtzbergs’ 2-year-old son, Moishe, and the building’s cook, Sandra Samuel, who reported that the Chabad emissaries were alive but unconscious. The Holtzbergs have another son who was not in the center when it was captured.

Krinsky said Chabad would take care of Moishe.

“The world of Chabad-Lubavitch and its emissaries will adopt this beautiful toddler, and raise him and give him a beautiful upbringing,” Krinsky said at the news conference.

On the morning of Nov. 28, as reports spread that five of the hostages being held at the Chabad house were dead, Erin Beser was holding out hope that the Chabad emissaries were not among them.

Beser, who spent a year in Mumbai as a volunteer for the JDC, said she spent nearly every Shabbat at the Chabad house during her time in India.

“I was by myself in India for two months as a volunteer,” Beser said. “And in India, your week is just so stressful and foreign, and everything is different, from the food to the climate. But going to Chabad was just like coming home. And I came back every week. If I didn’t come one week, she would call.”

Another victim at the center was Norma Shvarzblat Rabinovich, 50, a Mexican citizen who was scheduled to make aliyah on Dec. 1, according to a news release from The Jewish Agency for Israel. Two of her three children already were living in Israel.

Rabinovich, who was visiting the Chabad center, had been traveling in India with the intention of making aliyah at the end of her trip.

Unlike other Chabad houses in the Far East, which see a steady stream of Israeli backpackers, the Nariman House catered more to Israeli and foreign businessmen. A typical Shabbat dinner at the Holtzbergs would include up to 50 guests, ranging from locals to the Israeli consul general and his family, Beser said.

“They were so committed to what they were doing and they were such good people,” Beser said of the Holtzbergs. “They were so welcoming. It was amazing how many people came through that house. And still she was like, ‘How was your week?’ and was able to hold all of this information about what I was doing.”



Fine Thing for Feinstein

Rabbi Morley Feinstein, senior rabbi of University Synagogue in Brentwood, and Rabbi Mark S. Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, at the General Assembly (GA) of the United Jewish Communities. Feinstein, executive committee member of the Board of Rabbis, received the Rabbinic Award of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

The Stem Cell Circuit

For one week in late January, Hadassah Southern California hosted Benjamin Reubinoff, senior physician with the obstetrics/gynecology department and director of the Hadassah Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research Center at the Goldyne Savad Institute of Gene Therapy, Hadassah University Medical Center in Jerusalem.

Recently, in what is considered to be a major medical breakthrough, Reubinoff and his research team succeeded in showing that human embryonic stem cells can improve the functioning of a laboratory rat with Parkinson’s disease. This is the first time that the potential ability of transplanted human embryonic stem cells has been demonstrated in an animal model with Parkinson’s disease.

It was a whirlwind week for Reubinoff: On Jan. 23, he was the keynote speaker at the “Healthy Women, Healthy Lives” Conference at the Long Beach Jewish Community Center; on Jan. 24, he spoke at the Women of Distinction Dinner at Le Vallauris; on Jan. 25, 160 women turned up to hear him speak at a health seminar at the Annenberg Center at the Eisenhower Medical Center; and later that night he spoke at San Diego’s Chai Society event at the Burham Institute. Two days later, Reubinoff gave a lecture to the faculty and deans at UC Santa Barbara, and last, but not least, he spoke in Encino at the Northern Area Chai Society event.

A Visit from The Rebbe

Emek Hebrew Academy Teichman Family Torah Center had some very holy guests recently. On Feb. 7, Rabbi Zvi Elimelech Halberstam, the Sanz-Klausenberg Rebbe, visited the school. Halberstam is one of the most renowned Chasidic leaders alive today.

Sol Teichman, the school’s board chair, welcomed Halberstam to Emek. Teichman has a very personal connection to the Rebbe, as he survived the Holocaust with Halberstam’s father, the late Grand Rabbi Yekusiel Yehuda Halberstam, who founded Kiryat Sanz in Netanya, Israel.

On Feb. 6, an audience of 200 gathered at the school to hear Torah scholar Rabbi Yissocher Frand speak about “Gevurah – Strength, Legacy from the Past, Hope for the Future.”

In Memory of Hindy

One year ago, on Feb. 10, 2004, Hindy Cohen, a student at Bais Yaakov of Los Angeles, died at the age of 17. She was known for her staunch faith and for the joy she felt in life.

Since her death, her parents, Baruch and Adina Cohen, have set up the Hindy Cohen Memorial Fund at Bais Yaakov. In the short time since its inception, the fund has dedicated the Bais Yaakov Yoman Calendar, which is given out to every student. It has also set up an annual award given to a Bais Yaakov graduating senior who has shown exemplary character traits. The fund also sponsored this year’s Halleli Song and Dance Festival, dedicated the Yom Iyun Day of Study at Bais Yaakov, and set up a weekly mussar (self-improvement from Jewish texts) class for seniors.

On Feb. 13, in connection with Hindy Cohen’s first yahrzeit, the Hindy Cohen Memorial Fund dedicated “Hindy’s Sefer Torah.” The Torah procession began at noon at the shul that Hindy Cohen prayed in for most of her life, Congregation Bais Yehuda on La Brea Boulevard. Hindy’s parents and the rest of the crowd then escorted the Torah to its new home at Bais Yaakov on Beverly Boulevard.

A Dance for Barbara

On Nov. 6, United Hostesses’ Charity held its 62nd annual dinner dance at the Regent Beverly Wilshire. The event honored Barbara Factor Bentley, the immediate past chair of the Board of the Directors at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, and featured a performance by singer/pianist Michael Feinstein.

Baby Love

One sure way to stop those winter blues is to help people less fortunate than yourself. In January, the American Jewish Congress sent several packages of handmade baby clothing, blankets and teddy bears to needy families in Israel. Each item sent was lovingly crafted by Stitches from the Heart, a Santa Monica-based organization whose volunteers knit garments and toys from donated yarn, which are then distributed to needy people.

In Israel, Yad Letinok, a Jerusalem-based charity that helps needy families with young children, distributed the items.