August 20, 2019

The Laugh Factory: 35 Years of Free High Holy Day Services

Rabbi Bob Jacobs and Robin Winston Photo courtesy of Robin Winston

The Laugh Factory on Sunset Boulevard has been a mecca for stand-up comedy since 1979. But twice a year, it serves as a synagogue, welcoming Jews from all over the city to worship at free Reform services for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Club owner Jamie Masada originally opened his doors 35 years ago to give visiting, cash-strapped comics a free place to pray, but it has become a High Holy Days haven for unaffiliated members of the Tribe. “It’s a mix of old, young, single people with kids,” Masada said. “Everybody is welcome to become part of our family. People see the warm, wonderful feeling of the place and want to keep coming back. Eight of my employees converted [to Judaism] because of the services.”

For Masada, an Iranian-born cantor’s son who lived in Israel before coming to the United States in 1977, offering free, no-donation services and the Kiddush and break-fast following them is a mitzvah he’s delighted to perform. “I’m the luckiest person in the world to be able to help other members of the Tribe,” he said. “I get so much happiness from it.”

Rabbi Bob Jacobs has presided over the pop-up synagogue for 25 years. Referred by the Union of Reform Congregations, Jacobs signed on after he met Masada and was assured that he wouldn’t have to tell jokes. “I didn’t know what to expect but it has been the highlight of my career,” he said.

From Shaker Heights, Ohio, Jacobs studied at Hebrew Union College, Hebrew University and the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. He had congregations before, including Temple Beth El in Laguna Niguel, but these days he works in corporate organizational change management, officiating at weddings, funerals and baby namings on the side. To him, the Laugh Factory Synagogue “is a friendly, welcoming place that exudes a sense of community. There’s no politics.”

Also avoiding politics in his sermons, he prefers to discuss “values: who we are and what we choose to be. Last year on Yom Kippur, I talked about forgiveness and how do we deal with someone who has wronged us? That sermon wrote itself in about three hours,” he said. “I sit in the living room with some music on and let the feelings run through me and I start writing. I only do four services a year so I don’t have to go back to the till for inspiration.”

Joining him for the 12th time is soloist Robin Winston, a friend from an Israeli folk dance group whom he “talked into doing this,” he said. A fourth-grade teacher at Mar Vista Elementary School who’ll retire this year, Winston is a Los Angeles native who has been singing at monthly Lev Isha (heart of a woman) Shabbat services for 18 years. Although she’s not a professionally trained cantor, she knew a lot of the liturgy. But she had to study and practice the specific High Holy Days prayers and melodies to prepare for her Laugh Factory debut.

“I went everywhere with my prayer book. I was in Yosemite for a week that summer, singing to the squirrels,” Winston said. She still puts plenty of prep time in with Jacobs and on her own. “I always have to over-learn things so they become second nature.”

Winston loves that the Laugh Factory draws such a diverse cross-section of people, not all of them Jewish. “I know some non-Jews who have come with partners and friends, and thye find the services very meaningful. We’ve had people come who’ve found us on the internet. A woman came from Alaska. She happened to be here over the holidays,” she said.

She looks forward to doing it again this year. “I see it as my opportunity to give back to the community,” she said. “It makes me feel good to know I have something of value that I can give.”

 “Everybody is welcome to become part of our family. People see the warm, wonderful feeling of the place and want to keep coming back. Eight of my employees converted [to Judaism] because of the services.”
— Jamie Masada

The daughter, granddaughter and great-granddaughter of men who blew the shofar, Sue Karlin has been carrying on the tradition for more than two decades at the Laugh Factory.

“I asked my dad, who blew the shofar at our synagogue, to teach me how to do it when I was in elementary school. I thought it would be fun to continue the lineage,” she said. When she first started blowing the shofar, Karlin “didn’t know any other women who did it. Now you do see women and kids doing it,” she noted.

This year she will bring three shofars to the Laugh Factory; one that her grandfather brought with him from Poland, and the other two that her father bought on a trip to Hebron in the 1970s. Of varying size, “they each have a different sound,” Karlin said. People in her apartment building are now aware of that. “I always freak out my neighbors when I practice.”

The Rosh Hashanah service on Sept. 10 will be held from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., with refreshments to follow. The Kol Nidre service begins at 5 p.m. on Sept. 18. On Sept. 19, the Yom Kippur service will be held from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and conclude with the Neilah service from 5:30 to 6:15 p.m., followed by a break-fast. Both morning and Kol Nidre services tend to be full, so plan to get in line at least an hour early.

To find other free services in the area, click here.