fbpx

SOLA Energy

Pioneering Synagogue Chabad SOLA Is Expanding to Create A Community Center Southeast of Pico-Robertson
[additional-authors]
May 4, 2023
Breaking ground on the Eiden Project

On a typical Shabbat, when you walk into Chabad SOLA, the first thing you feel is the energy. You’ll hear men and women praying loudly and see a particularly excited man or two dancing on the tables during one of the more upbeat prayers. Children of all ages are running around, playing tag and giggling among one another. Rabbi Avraham Zajac and his wife Stery, who run SOLA, can be seen joining in, laughing with their congregants, generously giving out hugs and inviting newcomers to stay for lunch. 

Rabbi Avraham Zajac

Someone unfamiliar with the synagogue may wonder: Is this a prayer service, or is this a party? 

There is no question that people have a good time at the lively SOLA. But for the Zajacs (pronounced “Zions”), their work is about much more than having fun: It’s about serving their beloved community and bringing Jews closer to their Yiddishkeit at the same time. Now, with an ambitious expansion of the shul, the Zajacs are hoping to attract more families to the neighborhood as well as provide much-needed resources to the entire Jewish community of L.A. 

Nineteen years ago, Avraham and Stery arrived in L.A. Chabad headquarters sent the couple, who was running a community center in São Paulo, Brazil, to L.A. to start a new synagogue. It would be located southeast of Pico-Robertson, one of the main Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods in town. At the time, there were very few families who lived east of Robertson. 

“When we moved here, it wasn’t considered such a safe neighborhood,” said Avraham. “But the security situation in São Paulo was so bad that this was Gan Eden [the garden of Eden] for us.” 

Interior of SOLA Synagogue, The Jewish Montessori and Eiden Plaza.

Chabad SOLA, which stands for Chabad-Lubavitch of South La Cienega, first opened in 2007. The synagogue would meet every Shabbat inside Cheder Menachem, the newly purchased Chabad boys’ day school across the street. Then, once the school started renovations, the Zajacs rented trailers on the lot and were there for a year and a half. A few families that had moved to the area quickly became regulars. 

Josh Moorvitch, a lender and mortgage broker in real estate, joined SOLA when it opened.

“We were very inspired by Rabbi Zajac in his ability to connect with us and many other young couples and families,” he said. “Although the physical environment was definitely very humble in temporary trailers, the rabbi’s positivity and personal attention made it an easy transition for our family.”

When a large building across the street from Cheder Menachem at 1627 S. La Cienega Blvd became available, the Zajacs moved the shul there.

In addition to Shabbat services, they also offered daily minyans and classes. They became known for their epic Purim parties, which feature a DJ blasting music, gourmet food and drinks, separate dance floors for men and women and a red carpet with a photographer. 

Pretty soon, word spread that this friendly and enthusiastic Chabad couple were building a community outside of the typical boundaries of Pico-Robertson. Jews of all different backgrounds — frum from birth, converts, secular, singles, married couples, seniors, young professionals, Sephardic, Ashkenazi — started coming, even if they didn’t consider themselves Hasidic. 

“Regardless of cultural background, nussach [custom], level of religiosity, gender or age, SOLA is welcoming for all,” said the shul’s gabbai, Daniel Fishman, who has been going to SOLA since it began. “SOLA is more than a synagogue. SOLA is home for its congregants. It’s why my kids and I walk over two miles there every Shabbos, passing more than 30 fantastic shuls on our way.”

To outside observers, it was obvious that SOLA was on the up and up. 

It made sense. Not only were the Zajacs and their community welcoming, and the prayer services and events enjoyable, but also rents and mortgages in Pico-Robertson were becoming too expensive, especially for young people. 

Homes were listed at $1.5 million and above in Pico, while homes around SOLA were going for around $1 million or below. Rents were at least a few hundred dollars less per month, and people could get bigger places if they moved a little bit outside of what was dubbed the “’‘hood.” Once they heard that there was a nice shul they could walk to on Shabbat that was close to more affordable houses and apartments, many began their exodus east. 

“Having a local shul on South La Cienega allowed for other families to afford homes and lower rent in this new location,” said Moorvitch. “Over these 15 years, the community has now expanded to east of Fairfax, to Venice Boulevard, attracting families from Carthay Circle and others from Beverlywood. Real estate values have doubled and tripled in some areas due to all the new families moving around Faircrest Heights and surrounding areas.”

SOLA got so big that they hosted separate minyans for Ashkenazim, Sephardim, teens and young professionals. 

SOLA got so big that they hosted separate minyans for Ashkenazim, Sephardim, teens and young professionals. They also invited people to stay after kiddush, providing a catered lunch from Lieder’s every week, and hosted a singles lunch every Shabbat as well. 

According to the Zajacs, they currently serve upwards of 500 adults and children every Shabbat. During the week, Avraham, who is a grandparent, teaches a number of classes, speaks to members of his community in private, organizes events with Stery and is actively involved in every facet of his synagogue. 

On Shabbat, he gives animated speeches that weave in teachings from the weekly Torah portion, Hasidic tales and inspiration for his congregants. He speaks loudly, ensuring he reaches the hundreds of people who are listening. Many wonder: Where does he get the energy?

“Anyone involved in something that’s important and meaningful will be filled with energy.” — Rabbi Avraham Zajac

“Anyone involved in something that’s important and meaningful will be filled with energy,” he said. “The ultimate goal of what we’re doing is to bring Moshiach. That means we have to inspire people to really redeem themselves, break out of their boundaries, really reach their own promised land. We’re speaking about inner work that doesn’t happen from one day to the next. As the rabbi of Chabad SOLA, it’s very inspiring to watch other people’s journeys. If I can be part of that, and help them reach their promised land, that’s a big goal of my life.”  

Years ago, Stery, an educator, made it her personal project to open up a Jewish Montessori preschool, which didn’t exist in L.A. at the time. After all, she knew how important it was to instill a love of Yiddishkeit in children.

“When other parents saw what I was doing, they were intrigued and signed up. We started with one classroom, and the following year, we had two.” — Stery Zajac

“I started it for my son,” she said. “When other parents saw what I was doing, they were intrigued and signed up. We started with one classroom, and the following year, we had two.”

There are now close to 100 students in the school, which caters to Jews of all backgrounds—the norm in many Chabad preschools.  

“You have many families that identify themselves belonging to Conservative or Reform movement and they go to services in those synagogues,” Avraham said. “They did not send their children to Stery’s school because they were looking for a community. They were looking for best education you can find in L.A. It’s a badge of honor that families that are already part of other communities that have a preschool and educational systems understand the quality of the Jewish Montessori.”

While some families hope to keep their children in Jewish schools after they graduate from the Montessori, others plan to transition into public school. 

“But after coming to our school, some of the Jewish boys want to wear a yarmulke and tzitzit,” Stery said. “It happens because they experience the joy of Yiddishkeit. The child feels it and wants to continue.”

The Jewish Montessori Preschool is a huge priority for the Zajacs. In 2014, they raised $4.5 million to purchase an 8,000-square-foot property at 1701 S. La Cienega Blvd., just steps away from the shul. After completing construction on the land, which used to be home to a luxury car dealer, their first item of business was to move the preschool from the shul to the new property in 2019. It’s now the permanent home for the preschool, and has a large and shady outdoor space for the children to play outside. 

“When it comes to a community center, what is the greatest communal service you can provide?” said Avraham. “Without a doubt, the answer is anything connected to Jewish education. It’s education that impacts the next generation of Jews and gives them a happy, meaningful Jewish experience. The Lubavitcher Rebbe, who gave attention to everyone, would give additional time for people involved in educating young children. If you want to build a community and guarantee the continuity of the Jewish people, it all begins with education.”

Along with housing the preschool, the Zajacs have even bigger plans for their new property: They plan to make it into a multifaceted space for the community not just south east of Pico-Robertson, but also for any Jew in L.A. and beyond.

Through what they call The Eiden Project, they’re aiming to raise $13.5 million to build a women and men’s mikvah and spa, create a 4,000 square foot rooftop events space with two fully equipped catering kitchens and move the shul into the new building, which is a key priority.

“We are doing good and busting at the seams,” said Avraham. “If we get another 10 to 20 families, we’ll be in good trouble.”

The Eiden Project is expected to break ground in October of this year and complete the rest of the necessary work within an estimated 12 to 18 months. In total, the project will cost $20 million.

“The new building will enable us to do everything we’ve been doing for the past 17 years, but do it better. [It will have] a more comfortable synagogue environment, a nicer kiddush, a larger Friday night meal, a better kids program, a more attractive environment for singles, more Torah learning as well as add a local women’s mikvah, which is critically needed in our area.”  — Daniel Fishman

“The new building will enable us to do everything we’ve been doing for the past 17 years, but do it better,” said Fishman. “[It will have] a more comfortable synagogue environment, a nicer kiddush, a larger Friday night meal, a better kids program, a more attractive environment for singles, more Torah learning as well as add a local women’s mikvah, which is critically needed in our area.”

Currently, women in Pico-Robertson who need to go to the mikvah on Friday nights or the holidays will walk all the way to Pico and Reeves, nearly a two-mile walk each way for some. Observant women need to walk to the mikvah after sunset, which can present some safety issues for them.

The mikvah at The Eiden Project will solve that issue.

“A woman cannot walk over an hour and go to the mikvah and walk an hour back at night when they have a family,” said Avraham. “This is a real need for all of the families that live in this area.”

So far, donations for the mikvah and other amenities have come in from people who go to SOLA, as well as the greater L.A. Jewish community. Earlier this year, SOLA’s marketing team, made up of members David and Chaki Abehsera, Justin Oberman and Chaim Berkowitz, launched a billboard and print campaign throughout L.A. with different slogans from The Eiden Project showing a variety of people. 

There was a picture of a man with tattoos on his arms. It said, “You don’t need to be a Chassid to have a place in Eiden.” There was another billboard with a photo of women talking to each other that stated, “You don’t need to be married to have a place in Eiden.” The billboards were reflective of the mission that the Zajacs want to continue to fulfill and the experience of congregants. 

“Rabbi and Rebbetzin Zajac have created a haven for an eclectic group of Jews from every imaginable background,” said Sarah Adivi, a member of the SOLA community who sends her children to the preschool. “Theirs is the first shul my husband Elan and I visited after becoming baal teshuva, and where we dropped any concern for whether we ‘fit the mold’ or not. At SOLA, there is no mold. Nobody fits, so everybody fits.”

Community member Chana Leah Lacesa echoed a similar sentiment.

“Rabbi Zajac is a true leader,” she said. “The community he has built is nothing short of incredible. He has always made time to speak to me and I truly feel heard and listened to. l feel so privileged to be a part of such a flourishing, active and dynamic space. This is at the same time that hundreds of other families want to speak with him as well. I am excited about to think of what the future holds for SOLA.”

The Zajacs named their venture The Eiden Project because of what the word “eiden” signifies. Their entire mission is to make Judaism not only meaningful, but also exciting to every Jew.

“The word ‘eiden’ represents the highest level of pleasure that God created. We can guarantee the continuity of Judaism and all our people if we celebrate all aspects of Jewish life with tremendous joy and pleasure.” 

— Rabbi Avraham Zajac

“The word ‘eiden’ represents the highest level of pleasure that God created,” Avraham said. “We can guarantee the continuity of Judaism and all our people if we celebrate all aspects of Jewish life with tremendous joy and pleasure.” 

The Eiden Project is emerging at a time when La Cienega Boulevard is going through its own changes. Many of the businesses and stores surrounding SOLA became vacant during the pandemic, which then gave rise to homeless encampments and frequent fires. But over the past year or so, the area has seen a bit of a revival. Small businesses are coming back, and some of the encampments have been cleared. A Beverlywood-esque housing development emerged in nearby Faircrest Heights, while numerous luxury apartment complexes are being built just to the east. And recently, the city repaved the street outside of SOLA, down a few blocks to the 10 freeway, ridding it of potholes and making it safer for drivers.

The Zajacs, who have witnessed how much the neighborhood has changed over the years, know that the Jews of L.A. have some concerns about where their city is headed. But for the rabbi, the benefits greatly outweigh the downsides.

“As people move out of L.A., many people are moving in, and it’s our responsibility to give them a home,” he said. “Housing is a problem, but we are a big part of that solution. We appreciate how objectively we are an amazing city. We will work to make it better. But we’re not gong from bad to good. We’re going from good to great.”

Did you enjoy this article?
You'll love our roundtable.

Editor's Picks

Latest Articles

More news and opinions than at a
Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.

More news and opinions than at a Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.

More news and opinions than at a Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.