Rabbis of LA | Rabbi Noah Farkas: Looking to the Past and the Future

As Farkas embarks upon the blockbuster role of his career, I encountered someone calm but calculated, at ease selling himself and his accomplishments, but also aware he is inheriting a unifying organization at a time of deep political polarization and cultural upheaval.
October 13, 2021
Rabbi Noah Zvi Farkas

I came away from my interview with Noah Farkas feeling much the same way I did after interviewing Natalie Portman: After a long conversation, the person beneath the facade remained a bit of a mystery. 

Perhaps this was intentional on Farkas’s part. After all, he is weeks away from exiting the Valley Beth Shalom pulpit he’s inhabited for the past 13 years to assume one of the most powerful and public Jewish roles in Los Angeles, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation. From now on, every word he says will be parsed, politicized and scrutinized; it makes sense he would be cautious, not wanting to give too much away or say the wrong thing.

He warned me early in our conversation that he would not be discussing his vision for the Federation, since our timing did not comport with the prescribed timeline of succession and because his predecessor, Jay Sanderson, will continue to lead the organization through the end of the year. 

But while Farkas, 42, isn’t necessarily revealing, he is transparent, especially when it comes to his politics and point of view. “If the white male flag is being taken down, which we [as a community] have spent the last 70 or 80 years trying to fit in with, and a multicultural, multircial flag — in some ways an anti-white flag — is being raised, which army are we going to ally ourselves with?” he asked, rhetorically. 

As Farkas embarks upon the blockbuster role of his career, I encountered someone calm but calculated, at ease selling himself and his accomplishments, but also aware he is inheriting a unifying organization at a time of deep political polarization and cultural upheaval. If he harbors any self-doubt, he didn’t show it. Instead, like those who came before him, he focused both on the responsibilities attendant to Jewish thriving and the new strategies necessary for Jewish survival.

“My calling has always been, since I was 15, to help Judaism and the Jewish people.”

“My calling has always been, since I was 15, to help Judaism and the Jewish people,” Farkas said. His “chozer b’tshuva” moment — the moment that returned him to Jewish religious observance, as he put it — occurred during a teenage trip to Israel when he said he felt “touched by the divine presence.”

“It was this overwhelming sense of intimacy in many ways,” Farkas said. “Modern psychologists would call it a moment of flow.”

It was transformative for the young Farkas who, until then, had felt out of step with the Plano, Texas community in which he grew up, where he belonged to one of the few Jewish families in his county. It wasn’t until he went to Israel that he found a spiritual and cultural alignment between his inner sense of self and his external surroundings. He described his Jewish upbringing as almost closeted, which inbued him with a diaspora mentality, a sense of his own scarceness. 

In 2019, Farkas, a self-described progressive, bucked party-line when he wrote an article for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency affirming his support for AIPAC. It was a bold move, given the propensity of the Jewish left to distance itself from AIPAC but it demonstrated Farkas’s understanding that Jewish power is conditional, not guaranteed.  

And yet, Farkas’s progressivism is evident across his resume and he insisted his chief concerns as a community leader are to address “pain points” in society. His first stint as rabbi was serving Congregation Beth Israel in Mississippi, where he helped the community rebuild itself after Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc on the institution and its infrastructure. But in Los Angeles, no issue has captured Farkas’s energy and attention more than the problem of homelessness. 

Back in 2013, on his way to shul each Shabbes, he befriended an Iraq war veteran named Jack who was suffering from chronic homelessness. They would chat each Saturday and Farkas would often bring Jack leftovers from Shabbes kiddush. One day, Jack disappeared; he had been arrested for trespassing on the grounds of a Marriott hotel and Farkas never saw him again. The following Rosh Hashanah, Farkas launched a task force on homelessness at VBS, which ultimately grew into a public service role with the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) Commission. He currently serves as chair of the finance, contracts, grants committee and oversees a billion-dollar budget. 

Yet, even with all the resources the city has invested, homelessness remains an intractable problem. “There are five key drivers to homelessness,” Farkas explained, “mental health, housing affordability, poverty, drug addiction and systemic racism. You have to address all of those areas in order to solve it.”

But there’s a governance problem, too. Solving homelessness in LA, he said, “is a question of whether or not certain individuals and organizations will give up power in order to centralize [governance] to a single organization or entity.”

Though he will remain with LAHSA for another 12 months, the remainder of his term, Farkas is now shifting his attention to more abstract dilemmas concerning the Jewish future. “Right now, there is a shifting demographic and cultural power dynamic in the United States, and how we as a Jewish community respond to that shift is going to dictate whether or not we’ll be successful in the next 20 to 50 years,” he said. “Who will be our friends? Who are the people that are going to protect the Jews?”

Farkas, a husband and father of four, is worried that any Jewish communal resistance to the political priorities of the demographic realignment taking place in America — despite the sometimes anti-Israel or anti-Jewish politics that emanate from our neighbors — will backfire. He cited the example of the recent ethnic studies controversy in California in which a proposed new curriculum for public schools intended to draw attention to minority cultures included problematic material on BDS, the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement against Israel. It also initially lacked any acknowledgment of anti-Semitism or the Jewish minority experience in America.

“My thinking was, if we try to kill ethnic studies outright we will be perceived as fighting for the wrong team,” Farkas said. “So rather than kill ethnic studies, the Jewish Caucus [the California Legislative Jewish Caucus] — with some of my help — tried to mollify and blunt the tip of ethnic studies so that we’re included in that conversation, but in a way that meets our interests.

“That’s what it means to live in a diaspora.”

Farkas worries that there could be a further uptick in anti-Semitism if the Jewish community resists inevitable changes in our culture and fails to build partnerships and coalitions with other soon-to-be majority minority communities.

At the same time, he’s also relentlessly optimistic about the Jewish future.

“Engagement might not be the same as how you and I or our parents engaged in Jewish communal life, but there’s still a thirst for it. The question of what it means to be a Jew, to be a human being, of how to find purpose and meaning in life. These questions are immortal.” 

Fast Takes with Rabbi Noah Farkas

Danielle Berrin: What’s currently on your night table?

Noah Farkas: Reading glasses, a copy of The Atlantic, “The Story of the Jews” by Simon Schama, a lamp and water.

DB: Last show you binge-watched?

NF: “Schitt’s Creek.”

DB: Your day off looks like…

NF: What’s a day off? I get hours off. I write Monday mornings. I get to have good coffee because I have the time to make it. I pick up my kids from school and do homework and make dinner — especially Texas BBQ. I’m good at smoking meat. 

DB: Favorite thing to do in Israel?

NF: I love hiking in the Galil during the Springtime.

DB: Something about you most people don’t know?

NF: I play the banjo. Not well, but I still play it.

DB: Most essential Torah verse?

NF: V’asu li mikdash v’shahanti b’tocham. Build for me a sanctuary so that I might dwell among you. Exodus 25:8

DB: Biggest challenge facing the Jewish world?

NF: Why be Jewish?

DB: Guilty pleasure?

NF: Popcorn

DB: Favorite Jewish food?

NF: Matzo ball soup with chicken.

DB: If you weren’t a rabbi you’d be…

NF: An artist. My bubbe was a gallery artist and she taught me to paint and draw. I also learned how to sculpt and I used to be a photographer. Now my art is writing. 

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