December 10, 2019

Charedi yuppies

Moshe Shapoff was blown away by the look of the building. He was seeing it on a computer screen in three dimensions, and he couldn’t believe the level of detail. It was a redesign of a residential building in Jerusalem, which the architect had made bigger, more modern and certainly more beautiful.

Shapoff might have been impressed by the building, but he was even more impressed by the architect, a man named Yochanan.

Three years earlier, Yochanan was one of those Talmud-studying, out-of-work Charedim with lots of children who would knock on doors in Jewish neighborhoods across America to help feed their families.

Then, one day, a group of Charedim said dayenu — enough. Enough with the handouts. Enough with losing dignity. Enough with not going to work. They said, simply: Why can’t we find jobs like everybody else?

Last week, I had a chance to catch up with two of the Charedim behind this new effort: Asher Klitnick and Moshe Shapoff.

Their story began in 2004 in the tiny office of the Karlin-Stolin rebbe in Givat-Zev, a small suburb of Jerusalem. The rebbe, Baruch Meir Yaacov Shochet, was quite anxious that day. More and more poor families were coming to him for help. With the reduction in state subsidies, it was hard to help them all. Fundraising efforts were falling short. Something had to be done.

So the rebbe called for one of his trusted aides, Klitnick, a seventh-generation Karliner who would later enlist the aid of another of the rebbe’s followers, Shapoff.

In the Chasidic world, a rebbe is more than a rabbi and teacher. He is also a leader who guides you in all aspects of your life.

Klitnick and Shapoff were clearly in that mode. Whatever the rebbe said was gold — no questions asked.

This rebbe, by the way, was no ordinary rebbe. He was born in Brooklyn’s Borough Park in 1955 to the daughter of the previous Karlin-Stolin rebbe, who had no son. As the story goes, the previous rebbe, who was ailing when Baruch was born, held the baby in his hands every day during his first year and saw enough to anoint him as his successor. When the rebbe died in 1956, 1-year-old Baruch Meir Yaacov became the leader of one of the largest Chasidic sects in the world.

And don’t think he wasn’t taken seriously.

There are hundreds of stories of followers putting kvittels — pieces of paper with Hebrew names of people needing blessings — under the baby’s/rebbe’s crib. Even while he was an infant, thousands of his followers, who are known for their intense and joyful davening, would visit him from Israel to bask in his aura.

As the rebbe grew in Torah knowledge and stature, the Karliner sect expanded into other communities on the East Coast and in Israel, as well. By the time the rebbe decided to move to Israel when he was in his mid-30s, he had picked up enough American know-how to begin doing outreach with secular Jews and enough savvy to understand the importance of image in the modern world.

So when he called Klitnick into his office on that day in 2004 to discuss the growing crisis of poor Charedi families, the rebbe had more on his mind than just fundraising. This time, he was also thinking about jobs. He asked Klitnick and his team to prepare Charedis to join the working world.

After a few stumbles, Klitnick and Shapoff, who were also born in the United States and speak fluent English, broke through with the launch of Amida, a job training organization dedicated strictly to Charedi Jews. So far, they have helped fund the education of almost 100 of their fellow Charedim in fields like graphic design, computer programming, business management, engineering, travel agencies and, yes, even architecture.

Their biggest problem now is that they have a huge waiting list of Charedim anxious to go to school and find work, which is why they’ve come knocking on doors in America.

But this time, they’re asking for fishing rods, not fish.

I can tell that Klitnick and Shapoff have struck a chord in the Los Angeles Jewish community just by seeing who they visit when they come to town. In addition to their Charedi brethren in Hancock Park, they have visited and received support from Rabbi Marvin Hier, Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, Rabbi Laura Geller, Rabbi David Wolpe and even an award-winning Hollywood producer, Howard Rosenman.

They have also been invited to participate in the Limmud Conference on President’s Day weekend in February, which will bring together Jews of all denominations to celebrate the richness and beauty of Judaism.

In truth, it’s painful to admit that over the years, the image of the Charedim has been anything but beautiful. When Prime Minister Ben-Gurion, at the time of Israel’s creation, gave a few hundred Charedim a pass on army service — in deference to their tradition of daily Torah study — no one could have predicted that 60 years later, they would represent almost a quarter of the Jewish Israeli population. With a general resistance to joining the secular work force and a heavy dependence on the state, it’s not hard to see why they have suffered from an image problem.

Now, these two affable, BlackBerry-carrying, black-hat Charedi yuppies, Klitnick and Shapoff, are hopping all around Los Angeles and Hollywood hoping to improve that image.

In addition to their bright-eyed charm, they will have something else going for them. The schools in Israel have told them that Talmud experts, which the Charedim certainly are, are now in big demand among employers. Apparently, the mind-numbing precision of Talmudic discourse, combined with the breadth of knowledge inherent in the Talmud, creates ideal job candidates.

Come to think of it, Shapoff did marvel at the extraordinary amount of detail and precision in Yochanan’s building designs.

Who knew that yeshivas could train future architects?

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and He can be reached at