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Rabbis of LA | Rabbi Yossi Malka: The War Is Quite Close in Tarzana

The Gaza War is painfully personal for The Shul, a Tarzana community of Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews near the intersection of Ventura and Reseda Boulevards.
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November 30, 2023
Rabbi Yossi Malka

The Gaza War is painfully personal for The Shul, a Tarzana community of Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews near the intersection of Ventura and Reseda Boulevards. “This past week,” Rabbi Yossi Malka told the Journal, “we had a shloshim (30th day of mourning) for a girl who was killed in Israel. Her family lives here, and they are good friends of ours.”

There is much more grief to be shared. He has spoken about the personal side of the war every Shabbat for the last two months. “Because we are all Israeli,” Rabbi Malka said, “the day the news broke out, they knew about it before anyone else. All of them have family members in Israel. A bunch of people went back to Israel to fight.”

“We pray twice a day for Israel in our shul. We have given out special cards for those who still are missing. We have members who have literally suffered,” including a shul member whose parents lived in one of the kibbutzim that was struck. They are among the missing.

The congregation’s commitment to Israel is unshakable, the rabbi said. “We pray twice a day for Israel in our shul. We have given out special cards for those who still are missing. We have members who have literally suffered,” including a shul member whose parents lived in one of the kibbutzim that was struck. They are among the missing.

Away from The Shul, he has spoken at numerous rallies since Oct. 7th. His message is unswerving. “I tell them everything is related physically and spiritually.When something happens in the physical world, it affects the spiritual, and vice-versa. A physical wall was broken on Oct. 7. They came in through a wall. That means a spiritual wall was broken. For the physical wall, we have the best IDF, the best contractors. They will put it back together. Rebuilding the spiritual wall is up to the rest of the Jewish people.”

The tall, strapping Malka, father of five sons, explained how it works – traditionally. A mitzvah, Torah, tefilah —  anything related to Godliness is one brick at a time on the wall. “Then we have to make sure it is stronger than ever,” he said, “so that no one can break our walls again.”

On a recent Shabbat morning, he told the story of Ariel Zahar, a 13-year-old boy whose family was destroyed. One day he went on a bike ride. When he came back home, his family was gone, killed. Relatives took him in. Soon, it was time for his bar mitzvah. When he was asked what gift he would like for his bar mitzvah, Ariel told the rabbi “My father showed me a pair of tefillin his grandfather gave him. I would like to have that tefillin.” When relatives returned to the home of Ariel’s late family, according to a member of the congregation, the pair of tefillin was one of the only items they found.

As with generations and centuries of Chabad rabbanim, Yossi Malka was irreversibly imbued with Chabad. He grew up in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, where, for decades, his Israeli Sephardic father was the personal chef of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. As he put it, the footsteps of the Rebbe and 770 Eastern Parkway have been permanent fixtures in his life. 

In the mid-‘90s, he was dispatched as a Chabad sh’liach (emissary) to Ukraine, where he spent a number of summers. Then came an offer to move across country, to the Valley, and become a counselor at Camp Gan Israel.

Next, the late and legendary =, founder of Chabad of Valley, offered Malka a position. He stayed for 17 years. “Most likely, this was the best thing I have experienced in my life,” said Malka. “He was a giant. And it was not only that his Torah classes online went viral. But as a human being, he taught me never to limit yourself, that the world is large, and if you ever need to accomplish something, go ahead and do it. Think big. Those were his words.”

The rabbi was already thinking of  moving on, but then the pandemic struck. “During corona,” he said, “people were opening minyans in houses and backyards. At one point here in Tarzana, we were getting 40 to 50 people in a backyard.” That was when Rabbi Malka and regulars decided it was time to find a place and open a shul.

The Shul, a long and narrow immaculately white space, was born. “Since we came here, thank God, there is not an empty seat on Shabbos. We have to bring in about 30 more chairs on Shabbos.

Describing the Shul’s philosophy,  Malka said “The good part is that I was able to take my Chabad background and my Sephardi background and sort of mix it together. That is unique. We have a mixture, Sephardi, Ashkenazi, religious, non-religious.  Our attendance tilts more toward Sephardic.  I was able to combine the two” – with a noticeable twist. 

He explained that in a typical Sephardi shul, “the rabbi is a little higher up there. You have to come to him and say hello.” At The Shul, Rabbi Malka makes sure “when they walk in, I come to you before you come to me. It brings in here the love I was taught at Chabad.”

The formula and unusual environment are working. “Thank God, we have 60, 70, 80 men on a regular Shabbos. We are up to 20, 30 kids. The number of women fluctuates – this week it was about 20-plus.”

The Shul offers three minyans a day and a number of classes. During off-seasons, when boys come home from yeshivas, “whether it is summer or Pesach,” The Shul opens its yeshiva, and they sit and study from 8:30 until 3 daily. There’s even a chef on duty. “We also actually give them a stipend for coming in and learning every day,”  Rabbi Malka said. “We pay them to make them happy.”

Just as Rabbi Malka has made a Tarzana religious community happy.

Fast Takes with Rabbi Malka

Jewish Journal: The happiest day of your life, and your happiest day each year?

Rabbi Malka: When the oldest of my five sons got married last August in Tel Aviv – and Simchas Torah is my happiest day each year.

J.J.: Do you have an unfulfilled goal?

Rabbi Malka: A community center is very needed here where every Jew is welcome, sort of like a JCC but more shul-oriented. This community is growing like you can’t imagine.

J.J. Your favorite pastime?

Rabbi Malka: Standing at 770 (Eastern Parkway), watching the Rebbe’s fabringen (happy gathering) on a weekly basis, and I say ‘Wow! I miss those days.’

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