April 1, 2020

Rabbi Shlomo Schwartz, had colorful and unconventional approach to outreach in L.A., dies at 71

Rabbi Shlomo Schwartz, founder and director of the Chai Center, a Jewish nonprofit outreach organization in Los Angeles that engages Jews through weekly Shabbat dinners, free High Holy Day services and other events, died Feb. 8 of multiple myeloma (Kahler’s disease) at the age of 71.

Known as “Schwartzie,” the rabbi is survived by his wife, Olivia, 12 children and 50 grandchildren.

Born in 1945 in Atlantic City, N.J., his father had been a cantor in Vienna before fleeing in 1939. Schwartz attended public school in Atlantic City through fifth grade, followed by Talmudical Academy of Baltimore, where he was exposed to Chabad through the late Lubavitch Rabbi Yitzchok Springer. He had catching up to do in terms of his Jewish studies abilities, but soon excelled, Steve Bailey, a childhood friend and co-founder of Shalhevet High School, said in a phone interview. 

He attended college at Yeshiva University, spending his time on the weekends enjoying the folk music scene in Greenwich Village. So began a love with the hippie movement that would stay with him until the end of his days.

“That hippie-ness never left him, and that was a good thing … except it had an overlay of Chassidus and traditional Judaism. It wasn’t free-for-all and free love and that part,” Bailey said. “It was the part that was social and cared about other people.”

While at Yeshiva University, he met Rabbi Boruch Cunin, today the director of Chabad West Coast. The Chabad movement made an impression on Schwartz, and he dropped out of the university to attend the Chabad’s Rabbinical College of America. His relationship with Cunin led him to serving as a Chabad rabbi on the UCLA campus for 16 years.

Schwartz split with the Chabad movement in the late 1980s, but continued a practice, which he’d cultivated through Chabad, of finding Jews where they were, as opposed to waiting for Jews to come to him.

“Instead of having one center, one physical location, he ended up going to thousands of locations. He went into different synagogues, different venues, different homes. He took the idea of Chai Center and made it Judaism-to-go,” Jewish Journal President and longtime friend David Suissa said.

He regularly set up a booth on the Venice boardwalk and offered Jewish astrology readings to the skateboarders, workout enthusiasts and others who frequented the bohemian enclave. Through the Chai Center, he also held Friday night dinners in his house — the event was called Dinner for 60 Strangers — that drew singles and couples.

Bailey, who attended both Talmudical Academy of Baltimore and Yeshiva University with Schwartz, said his friend appealed to people of all backgrounds.

“People loved talking to him and listening to what he had to say. He was very stubborn and kept on people until they’d hear him out and hopefully reconnect with their Jewish identity,” Bailey said.

David Sacks, a television writer and producer (“The Simpsons,” “3rd Rock From the Sun”) and co-founder of the Happy Minyan, a Pico-Robertson Orthodox congregation, was among those attracted to Schwartz’s colorful style.

“He was often in rainbow suspenders with his long red beard and huge smile,” Sacks said. “He was someone who really embodied a joyous Judaism and an embrace of everyone, a genuine love for everyone, especially for, in his words, ‘every Jew that moves.’ ”

Even as his health began to fade and he was confined to a wheelchair, Schwartz continued to show up at Happy Minyan and express his love of life, music and Judaism, Sacks said. He recalled that Schwartz attended Happy Minyan on the last night of Chanukah, which was also New Year’s Eve, and stayed until 2 a.m.

“Till the end, he was going to concerts and plugging into the joy,” Sacks said.

Bailey, for his part, said Schwartz’s mission in life included the fight against intermarriage.

“He was very dedicated for Jews to marrying Jews,” Bailey said. “That’s what he wanted.”

Also among those in the entertainment industry touched by Schwartz was Thomas Barad, an independent film producer who praised Schwartz for his ability to speak the language of everyday people.

“Schwartzie loved all Jews. That was his thing, and he could put it in layman’s terms,” Barad said. “He spoke the language of the ’60s and ’70s. He was hip. He had the lingo, and yet he had a profound knowledge of Torah and he had an understanding of human nature that gave him an entry into people’s hearts very quickly.”

Schwartz was buried on Feb. 10 in Safed, Israel.