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Rabbis of LA | Rabbi Sofia Zway: War Forced Her to Adjust

When Rabbi Sofia Zway, Moishe House’s new Base Rabbi, saw how Hamas’ attack on Israel Oct. 7 affected her members, she knew she had to make adjustments. 
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December 7, 2023
Rabbi Sofa Away

Building a congregation is hard work, even in the best of circumstances. But when Rabbi Sofia Zway, Moishe House’s new Base Rabbi, saw how Hamas’ attack on Israel Oct. 7 affected her members, she knew she had to make adjustments. 

Base is a network of congregations for young Jews in their 20s and 30s. “Base is run by a rabbinic couple out of their home,” Rabbi Zway explained in her soft South African accent. “We have three core pillars: Shabbat and holiday hospitality, deep Jewish learning and acts of service. Our programming is for Jews up to age 40.”

When she saw the young men and women who entered her living room on the first Shabbat after Hamas’s deadly Oct. 7 assault, the rabbi was struck by their overwhelming sense of grief, anger and loneliness. She made the decision to make her home a grieving/processing space for the young men and women. 

After the rabbi’s introductions, they learned Torah together and sang songs. Each person had a chance to share how he or she was feeling in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. “This processing space attracted new persons who have become active members of our community,” the rabbi said. “Ever since, we have continued to offer space for people to come together — Shabbat dinners and lunches, Havdalah, and learning opportunities. “

Since that Oct. 13 Shabbat, Rabbi Zway has been meeting with her community members as needed, offering them space to talk, to share how they are feeling. She wants her home to be a space where community members can catch their breath, take a break from the news and the heated conversations they witness on social media. “It is very clear the war is taking a psychological toll on many,” she said. “That is another reason I hope that Base feels like a sanctuary for those who walk through our doors.”

“They are all searching for something, for connection, for community, for a connection with Judaism. Whether they grew up secular or otherwise — or grew up very observant — there was a dissonance. Now they are coming back to its connection with community and tradition.” 

She soon discovered what her Shabbat participants have in common. They are all “searching for something, for connection, for community, for a connection with Judaism. Whether they grew up secular or otherwise — or grew up very observant — there was a dissonance. Now they are coming back to its connection with community and tradition.”

A roster of regulars has developed. Some are talking about how they want a TradEgal minyan, meaning a traditional prayer experience where men and women participate equally, which apparently does not exist in Los Angeles.

In the Base movement, one partner is the rabbi and the other has a separate fulltime job outside of Base. Rabbi Zway is married to Rabbi Brett Kopin, middle school rabbi at Milken Community School. Rabbi Zway is employed fulltime by as the Base rabbi to build relationships with Jews in their 20s and 30s, to do cooking, cleaning, program planning and education. “Pastoral care is a huge part of the job as well,” she says, “along with really building community and relationships with 20s and 30s.”

Rabbi Zway and Rabbi Kopin are talking about introducing regular classes that both would teach.  She is convinced they are a well-matched couple who help bring out each other’s strengths.  “He’s an amazing teacher of Torah and I am good at creating ritual innovation and creating ritual moments,” she said. “I see my strength as, like, how can we ritualize our Shabbat dinners – also the masculine-feminine energy and both of us being rabbis.”  She tells her Basers (as participants are called) that the advantage of Base L.A. is “you get two rabbis for the price of one.” Plus, she noted, some 20s and 30s are more comfortable connecting with a male rabbi while others prefer a female rabbi.

Currently, there are 15 Base houses across the United States; it was acquired by Moishe House — which bills itself as the leader in Jewish young adult engagement — in 2021. 

Before Rabbi Zway opened her Base, she worried “how do I find these people I am supposedly serving?” Fortunately, she said, she had lived in L.A. for four years, and Rabbi Kopin has been here about six. “So we had a foundation. People we knew connected us to others, and that is what we started with … Being part of Moishe House,” she added, “we have a huge network we draw from. Base is all about partnership – the model of the rabbi and the rabbi’s partner building together. That is a core piece of what makes Base unique, special.”

Rabbi Zway has been meeting with community organizations to spread the word about Shabbat at their Base home. She said the Jewish Federation’s NuRoots, also for 20s and 30s, ”has been incredibly helpful. They advertise for me and draw a lot of people.”

Although she grew up in a secular home, Rabbi Zway knew what she wanted to be from a young age. At Hebrew Union College, she said “I had such tunnel vision. I thought I am going to be a pulpit rabbi. I was very determined.” She spent two years interning at a small synagogue in Las Cruces, N.M., and later a chaplaincy at Cedars-Sinai. The latter mention brought Rabbi Zway to “my favorite subject, pregnancy and childbirth. From a little girl, I was obsessed with babies.” At Cedars, she asked to be placed in the maternity units for her internship “because I wanted to be cuddling babies.”

Her dream is to open a Jewish birthing center that would have a mikvah, birthing suites and common space for mommy-and-me and daddy-and-me classes. For the foreseeable future, however, Rabbi Zway’s unswerving focus is on building a thriving Base home with Rabbi Brett.

Fast Takes with Rabbi Zway

Jewish Journal: What is your favorite Jewish food?

Rabbi Zway: Definitely charoset at Pesach.

J.J.: What is the most memorable book you have read?

Rabbi Zway: “God in the Wilderness” by Rabbi Jamie Korngold. That book shifted my relationship with Judaism and with God.

J.J.:  What do you do on your day off?

Rabbi Zway: Since we are new to the neighborhood, I have been taking walks. I also like trashy rom-coms.

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