February 8, 2017

Everybody has a Schwartzie story. I would be someplace halfway around the world and tell someone I’m from Los Angeles, and they would ask, “Do you know Schwartzie?” I would reply, “Are you kidding? Schwartzie’s my brother.” And then I’d hear something like, “Well, he married us.”

I have a simple theory for why everybody has a Schwartzie story — the man was everywhere.

Rabbi Shlomo “Schwartzie” Schwartz, who passed away Feb. 8 after a long illness, was a Los Angeles Jewish landmark. You’d see his famous red beard all over town and at all kinds of Jewish events, from outdoor festivals to fancy fundraisers.

A few years ago, as I was attending a memorial service for Rabbi Harold Shulweis at Valley Beth Shalom, I scoured the big crowd and wondered why I couldn’t see any Orthodox rabbis. Then I saw his greying, reddish beard. He was limping with a cane, walking slowly down the main aisle as people were taking their seats. I caught his eye and said “Schwartzie, I have a seat for you!” He looked at me and said, “Hey, holy brother. Good to see you.”

After we sat down, all I remember him saying was, “I really loved that man,” referring to Rabbi Shulweis.

Loving Jews was something of a Schwartzie specialty. He was a Chabad-Lubavitcher who internalized his Rebbe’s message to find the pintele yid in every Jew. He took the unconditional love he had for his own family and found a way to channel it to his collective Jewish family. For him, this was a natural move. I know, it sounds corny, shmaltzy, tribal, but that’s who he was — a great, unapologetic lover of Jews.

That didn’t mean he was naïve or didn’t know the ways of the world. How could he not know? Over the years, he consulted with thousands of Jews who needed help — parents who needed help with their children, children who needed help with their parents, spouses who needed help with each other. You name the problem, he saw it. Maybe that just deepened his love for his people — he saw how needed he was.

He was especially needed on Friday nights at his home in Mar Vista, where for decades he hosted, with his beloved wife and spiritual partner, Olivia, “Dinner for 60 Strangers.” These Shabbat gatherings had an unabashed objective: Get more Jews to meet and marry one another. He was a one-man Jewish continuity machine.

Schwartzie spent most of his summers in the holy city of Tzfat in Israel, teaching at the Ascent center. Those weeks in Tzfat rejuvenated him. They were like his Shabbat for the year — an annual retreat to replenish and renew his soul. And he did it, of course, by teaching and helping other Jews.

I have a simple theory for why everybody has a Schwartzie story — the man was everywhere.

Through his Chai Center in Los Angeles, now run by his son Mendy, one of the ways he helped Jews was by teaching Chassidut, and by throwing hundreds of events where Jews of all ages would get to mingle. His teaching style, no matter how deep the subject, matched his personality: folksy, quirky, joyful. He was famous for his High Holy Day services, which he would announce by saying: “Come to the shul that doesn’t want your money.”

He loved that line. I suggested it when we first met, about 30 years ago, in my little ad agency in Venice. He was looking to promote a High Holy Day service for Jews who had nowhere else to go. He figured more people would show up if he waived admission. The line sort of wrote itself — a shul that doesn’t want your money. How do you beat that? He loved any idea that would make it easier for Jews to enjoy their tradition.

Last year, at an event in his honor, it was fascinating to see how many Jews he touched. He engaged with Jews in Hebron and Jews in Reform temples. He engaged with Sephardic Jews and Russian Jews and Persian Jews. He met Jews in music festivals and at sports venues. His quick wit was his entry card wherever he went, and he went wherever Jews went.

Among his multitude of friends was Rabbi David Wolpe, who wrote this to me on the day of his passing: “He was an igniter of souls, discovering in people a spirit they did not know they had, and bringing them to God and Judaism.”

Schwartzie spent a lifetime bringing Jews back — to their tradition, to their community, to themselves. He did it like no one else. For those of us who knew him well, it’s hard to imagine our lives without him. We can only thank God that everybody has a Schwartzie story.

Those stories, and his undying love, will be his legacy.

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