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Rabbis of LA | Rabbi Brian Schuldenfrei : Rabbi with a Puppet and a Talmud

He is a rabbi who proudly displays an open Talmud and a Pac Man video game in his office.
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June 29, 2023
Rabbi Brian Schuldenfrei

It’s been 20 years since Adat Ari El’s Senior Rabbi Brian Schuldenfrei was ordained. Asked what he’s learned over the last two decades, he told the Journal,  “When I look around the room, I think of myself as a young rabbi. Then I look in the mirror. It doesn’t lie.” Actually, Schuldenfrei looks like he has scarcely aged since his Jewish Theological Seminary ordination. He wears glasses, and is happily married to Rabbi Deborah Schuldenfrei, Head of School at Valley Beth Shalom Day School and they have three young sons. 

“I am exactly where I want to be,” the native New Yorker said.  He started his career as an associate rabbi at Sinai Temple,  then served for a brief period as senior rabbi in Miami, Florida, but the lure of the west coast was too strong. He returned to southern California, spending eight years as senior rabbi at Congregation Ner Tamid, in Palos Verdes. It was quite a change. “There was no Jewish community,” Schuldenfrei said. “We were the only game in town.”

Valley Village is a happy contrast — at Adat Ari El, he leads a congregation of  600 families, twice the size of Ner Tamid’s.  Schuldenfrei says he still is learning to adjust to the Valley’s larger community.  It’s about mingling, he said. “We just got back a couple weeks ago from the March of the Living in Poland. We were part of a delegation with Shomrei Torah and Rabbi Richard Camras, about the loveliest man you’re ever going to meet. It’s very special when we have an opportunity to do that.”

Schuldenfrei looks forward to working with other congregations. “We encourage collaboration,” he said. It’s “something I have been learning to do that wasn’t part of my orientation at Ner Tamid. It was just very different.” How has he adapted to the change? “Our faith asks us,” he said. “’Why do you make a blessing before you eat?’ Our tradition is telling us we should certainly move ahead, but with thought, with intention,” Schuldenfrei said. “Maybe that is the lesson of being in a community. Your actions have implications for others.”

What he cherishes about the Adat Ari El community is that it is “rooted in tradition. The David Familian Chapel is the oldest synagogue structure in the San Fernando Valley. At the same time, we have a thriving pre-school, and we have Shabbat programs that cater to the smallest of children. We do Super Bowl Shabbat, Family Fridays, Jammies & Jeans. We are telling stories. We are on the floor. We are also davening. We have a twice-a-day daily minyan.” He is very clear that “serious learning goes on here. That diversity of Jewish life is compelling.”

He is a rabbi who proudly displays an open Talmud and a Pac Man video game in his office. Not only that, but when he leaves home for the synagogue, a certain puppet is his constant companion. “The smartest thing I ever did in my rabbinic career – and it was not even my idea – happened when I was a year or two out of JTS and working at Sinai Temple,” the rabbi recalled. “The director of education there was Danielle Kassin, a bright ray of sunshine. 

“She and I were at a conference. I was thinking about what books I was going to purchase, what curriculum I was going to investigate. I was taking myself very seriously … Danielle saw a vendor who was hawking Jewish puppets. She said ‘you should get one of those as a way of connecting with kids.’ I scoffed. I said ‘it’s a waste of money.’ “She forced me to buy it. Or bought it for me. I don’t remember. Smartest thing I ever did.”

”What I look for as a model for synagogues is that people aren’t going to study Talmud or talk theology or explore the efficacy of prayer unless you establish a personal connection.”

After he finished the story, Schuldenfrei reached toward the bookcases  that line his office and introduced that puppet — Rabbi Schuldenfrei Jr. “Now kids who are in college come up to me and ask me about the puppet,” he said. What he “loves” about his work is that Rabbi Jr. is available all day. The puppet aside, “we do serious Judaism here, too. What I look for as a model for synagogues is that people aren’t going to study Talmud or talk theology or explore the efficacy of prayer unless you establish a personal connection.”

Schuldenfrei is about connections. Once he gets people to feel comfortable, he knows it opens many doors. When you start with a child with a puppet, he believes, where does the discourse end — when the child is a teenager? Start with a puppet, make the connection, and then you are building. He is convinced that too many synagogues skip over the connection piece. A rabbi with a puppet in one hand and a book of Talmud in the other will connect.

Having children around is the greatest blessing, said the rabbi. “Several weeks ago, pre-school kids were making noise, running up on the bimah. ”Great,” Schuldenfrei grinned. “They are welcome here.”

Fast Takes with Rabbi Schuldenfrei

Jewish Journal: What is your favorite activity in Israel?

Rabbi Schuldenfrei: My wife’s favorites are shopping and eating and mine are learning and eating.

J.J. Your favorite Jewish food?

Rabbi Schuldenfrei: True to my roots as a New Yorker, you simply can’t get a good bagel in Los Angeles.

J.J. Best book you ever read?

Rabbi Schuldenfrei: I am reading a fascinating book by Rabbi Edward Feld, “The Book of Revolutions,” essentially on the editing process behind the different codes of law embedded in the Torah.

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