On a late December night in Pico-Robertson, about 30 people crammed into the back tasting room of The Cask. Employees of the liquor store poured kosher wine and glasses of whisky, as a man in a suit and yarmulke addressed the crowd.
“L’chaim, everybody, l’chaim,” Rabbi Shlomo Einhorn said as he set down a notebook and an audio recorder and began counting down his top 10 Torah lessons of 2014. (He uploads his lectures as podcasts at yutorah.org.) Einhorn began with Purim, and a lesson from Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Morgenstern about the worlds of Esther and Mordecai.
“While Esther elevated herself by going to the king’s chamber, Mordecai, a man of nobility, went down to the street,” Einhorn said. One lesson of their story, he said, is that “you have to stay grounded” as well as “take care of those in need.”
It’s a lesson Einhorn, 35, has taken to heart, and it’s a window into his personal philosophy. By day, he’s the dean of Yavneh Hebrew Academy, an Orthodox Jewish school in Hancock Park that teaches preschool through eighth grade. But at night, he goes into the community to teach Torah lessons, often to a non-Orthodox crowd.
“I think that the Torah is amazing. I just think the way it’s presented and packaged sometimes is an arcane style, and I think it has a way to reach people we thought it couldn’t reach,” he told the Journal. “The content is dynamic, it’s infinite, it’s always growing, it’s relatable to people. I just think it needs to be used in the right way.”
Einhorn’s religious lessons are far from conventional. Another of his top Torah lessons of 2014 focused on New Age guru Deepak Chopra’s latest best-seller, “The Future of God,” in which the author explains three stages of spiritual awakening: from “unfaith” (or doubt), to faith, to knowledge. Einhorn applied that process to Abraham, Moses, Esther and other biblical characters.
In another lecture, titled “Relentless Rosh Hashanah With Kobe Bryant,” Einhorn compared the basketball star’s training strategies to our attempts at setting resolutions for improvement within the framework of a Jewish life. Einhorn also spoke fondly of life coach and self-help author Tony Robbins and his message of personal empowerment.
Einhorn’s passion for self-development goes back to his childhood.
“When he was 10 or 12, he saw TV commercials for this program to remember numbers and improve memory,” recalled his father, Jerry Einhorn. “He took speed-reading classes, drama classes and got tapes in the mail to improve his knowledge. He loves self-help books. He’s read them all.”
The walls of Einhorn’s office at Yavneh are lined with leather-bound religious books and photos of rabbis. One is of Einhorn with the 87-year-old Chaim Kanievsky, a highly respected rabbinic leader in the Charedi Orthodox world. Einhorn’s dark mahogany desk is covered with stacks of paper and framed photos of his wife, Shira, and their five children, ranging in age from 2 to 11.
When Einhorn decided in 2012 to take on a leadership role at Yavneh, it was also a return to his roots — he was raised in Hancock Park and attended Yavneh as a child. After graduating from Yeshiva University in New York with a master’s degree in education, Einhorn served as a rabbinic intern at Lincoln Square Synagogue in Manhattan, and then was hired as the only rabbi at West Side Institutional Synagogue, also in New York. Through innovative programming and a message that resonated, the congregation grew.
“It was a dream opportunity, because it was a huge shul in Manhattan with nobody in it, which meant it was like a blank canvas,” he said. “By the time I left, we had 400 young couples. Every Shabbos was packed there. I loved it. I never thought I’d leave.”
Rabbi Steven Weil, senior managing director of the Orthodox Union, called Einhorn “the top young Orthodox rabbi in all of North America.”
“He’s an outstanding orator. He’s a real budding scholar,” Weil said. “He puts an inordinate amount of time into learning all aspects of Jewish and secular knowledge.”
About three years ago, Einhorn was called to meet with two Yavneh board members, Walter Feinblum and David Rubin, at a Manhattan hotel. They’d heard of his success at building a community at West Side and wanted him to consider coming back to Yavneh, this time to help lead the school.
“He had been [at West Side] for five years and had rebuilt that institution from basically having nobody come to being a very engaging place for people to go pray,” said Rubin, Yavneh’s current board chairman. “We felt that if we could bring him back to L.A. — for community events, fundraisers, for … positivity — he could bring a tremendous dynamic and engagement with the community that we were missing.”
Einhorn serves as both the school’s rav and its first dean. He was preceded by Rabbi N. Daniel Korobkin, who left in 2011 to be senior rabbi at Beth Avraham Yoseph of Toronto.
One of the things Einhorn said he hopes to change about Yavneh is a long-standing view that the school is only meant for students with traditional academic strengths, not for those with learning disabilities or who have trouble paying attention.
Since his arrival, the school is close to maxing out its enrollment to 498 students, a cap set by zoning regulations. The number was stagnant for years but has been growing in the last five years or so, according to Lev Stark, Yavneh’s executive director. Tuition is close to $20,000 a year.
Einhorn is working to build an alumni network, with creative events such as an alumni basketball tournament fundraiser, and encouraging the use of social media to spread the word about school activities. Students even host an online news program called “Yavneh News,” filmed in a small on-campus studio complete with green screen and teleprompter.
“Rabbi Einhorn really spearheads that concept of getting the good stuff that goes on in here out to the parents, and to the families, and to the community in general,” Stark said.
As Einhorn strolled the poster-lined halls and bustling recreation areas one afternoon, students waved and greeted him warmly. On the basketball court, one young girl in a long skirt tossed him a ball. He took a couple of practice shots as students cheered him on.
“He’s not a disciplinary figure, he’s a positive figure,” Stark said.
His role as a positive figure is not limited to the classroom.
“Rabbi Einhorn being out in the community, doing his shiurim” — Torah teachings — “broadening the public profile of the institution is very important in the long-term mission of the school,” Stark said.
There’s another reason Einhorn leads extra Torah classes at people’s homes, or places like The Cask — zoning won’t allow such activities to be done at the school except as part of the educational process. Because of neighbors’ complaints about zoning infractions, Einhorn has become somewhat of an itinerant teacher, but he likes it that way.
“People like going out to different places. You reach different social pockets that way. It’s good,” he said. “It’s all good.”