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The "unique breed" of Downtown Jews

By Omar Shamout
Published: Thursday, May 31, 2012, at 01:27PM
Community Torah Celebration Eric Richardson [Flickr]

The Chabad of Downtown Los Angeles celebrated the completion of its first Torah in 2009.

Sitting near in the bustling intersection of 7th and Broadway, Rabbi Moshe Greenwald and the Chabad of Downtown Los Angeles inhabit the crossroads of religious and secular life in contemporary urban America.

“The Downtown Jew is a unique breed,” Greenwald said. “You have the artistic, hipster type of Jew that prides themselves on being apathetic, so it can be difficult getting them to believe in something for a change.”

He said many Jews in Los Angeles grow up without a spiritual connection to the faith and see it mainly as a social club.

“For many young Jews their bar mitzvah upbringing is anything other than spiritual,” Greenwald said. “The emphasis was on the big party – what kind of music to have? How many presents did I get? How much money did I make?”

Greenwald said he strives to offer a deeper connection to Judaism without judging anyone based on his or her experiences.

He added that the synagogue, nestled in the heart of the Historic Core, gets between 30-40 guests at its weekly Shabbat services. The center also has Mexican converts to the faith as well as attendees from other South American countries too, reflecting the city’s diverse Hispanic population.

“We try to reach everyone … there is something in it for every Jew,” he said.

Greenwald said he maintains “theological differences” with the Reform and Conservative Jewish movements, but said all Jews are welcome at the Orthodox synagogue, regardless of which branch of the religion they belong to.

However, Greenwald adds that most Downtown Chabad attendees choose not to classify themselves, which is fine by him.

“I don’t like labels. Most of the Jews here are not even affiliated. They don’t belong to a specific branch,” Greenwald said.

Someone who does classify himself is Luke Ford, 46, who converted to Orthodox Judaism in 1993 after being raised as a Seventh-Day Adventist in Australia. The infamous blogger lives in the Pico-Robertson district that’s home to a myriad of Orthodox synagogues and kosher restaurants and markets.

While Ford acknowledged that Greenwald is right to open his doors to every Jew, he said it would be very difficult to live a strict, Orthodox lifestyle Downtown.

“There really isn’t an observant community in Downtown Los Angeles,” Ford said. “Jews who want to take Judaism seriously are not going to be able to live in Downtown Los Angeles.”

An April decision by the Schechter Rabbinical School, a Conservative Jewish Seminary in Israel, to admit gay and lesbian students ignited debate in that country about the coexistence of religious law and social equality.

Greenwald explained that despite Orthodox Judaism’s strict interpretation of Jewish law as written in the bible, he doesn’t judge a person’s Jewish identity based on sexual preference.

“The Torah speaks about the act [of homosexuality] … the Torah does not in any way condemn the person,” Greenwald said. “I am of the belief that every single man, woman and child of the Jewish faith should have an authentic Jewish experience.”

As for the recent decision by the Israeli seminary to admit gay and lesbian students – it has an effect on local Jews as well.

Out of protest, L.A.’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University (which along with New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary is one of only two Conservative rabbinical schools in the country) sent its students to a different Israeli seminary for their mandatory year of study in the country until Schechter changed its policy.

One of those students is 28-year-old D’ror Chankin-Gould, who is a member of Beth Chayim Chadishim (The House of New Life) in the Pico-Robertson district. Claiming to be world’s first synagogue founded by and for gay and lesbian Jews, its website has a section dedicated to what it calls Queer Liturgy.

Chankin-Gould said via email he was thrilled by the decision to admit gay and lesbian students, calling it “a great triumph for the Conservative Movement, for Israel, and for the Jewish people.”

On a more personal level, he said his heart was “especially moved by the news and its consequences.”

Beth Chayim Chadishim’s head rabbi, Lisa Edwards, said Schechter’s controversial call also has broader ideological implications.

“When the liberal movements of Judaism take these kinds of steps forward knowing there will be opposition among the more powerful Orthodoxy in Israel, it’s a really important step to say that there are many ways of being Jewish,” Edwards said.

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