The rabbi I most looked forward to meeting when I moved to Los Angeles in March of 1994 was Rabbi Shlomo Schwartz of the Chai Center, formerly of the Westwood Chabad synagogue that served UCLA.
In his lectures, on his radio show, and in real life, Dennis Prager had all these wonderful things to say about Schwartzie and I couldn’t wait to see if this guy lived up to his billing.
He did and he turned out to be one of those remarkable people who inspired my conversion to Orthodox Judaism. Most of the people I most admire are Orthodox Jews. There’s something in that stark difficult tradition that speaks to the deepest parts of my soul. There’s something in Orthodoxy that just helps life and the universe make sense. There’s something in the mesora (tradition) that touches the divine.
In my first weeks in town, I saw Schwartzie at various Jewish events and I ran up to him and introduced myself and bubbled over with my naive enthusiasm for Judaism. I found Schwartzie accessible, warm and funny. Many, perhaps most Orthodox Jews, have an understandable skepticism about would-be converts. It seems like for every 10,000 goyim who want to convert, only about one or two make it through the conversion process and then still keep Shabbat five years later. But Schwartzie never displayed that ambivalence or skepticism with me. Perhaps he saw that I was serious. Perhaps he just liked me. Perhaps I amused him.
We had these wide-ranging conversations. I’m sure I said stupid things, I’m sure I opined on matters I knew little about, I’m sure I was off-balance and off-kilter, but he enjoyed my hunger for learning Torah.
Over the years, I went to dozens of his Jewish events. I enjoyed a Shabbat meal in his home. I was always inspired by his love for his people.
The world seems like a colder, darker place without him.
Luckily, we still have Chabad. The Lubavitch movement is Schwartzie written across seven continents.
Everybody had a Schwartzie story.
I would be someplace halfway around the world and tell someone I’m from Los Angeles, and they would ask, “Do you know Schwartzie?” I would respond, “Are you kidding? Schwartzie’s my brother.” And then I’d hear back something like, “Well, he married us.”
Everybody had a Schwartzie story.
I have a simple theory for that — he was everywhere.
Schwartzie, Rabbi Shlomo Schwartz, who passed away this morning after a long illness, was a Los Angeles Jewish landmark. You’d see his red beard at all kinds of Jewish events, no matter the cause or denomination.
A few years ago, as I was attending a special memorial for Rabbi Harold Shulweis at Valley Beth Shalom, I scoured the huge crowd and wondered why I couldn’t see any Orthodox rabbis. Then I saw his greying, reddish beard. He was limping with a cane, walking slowly down the main aisle as people were taking their seats. I caught his eye and said “Schwartzie, I have a seat for you!” He looked at me and said, “Hey, holy brother. Good to see you.”
After we sat down, all I remember him saying was, “I really loved that man,” referring to Rabbi Shulweis.
Loving Jews was somewhat of a Schwartzie obsession. He was a Chabad-Lubavitcher who internalized his Rebbe’s message to find the “pintele yid” in every Jew. He took the unconditional love he had for his own family and found a way to channel it to his collective Jewish family. For him, this was a natural move. I know, it sounds corny, schmaltzy, tribal, but that’s who he was– a great, unapologetic lover of Jews.
That didn’t mean he was naïve or didn’t know the ways of the world. How could he not know? Over the years, he consulted with thousands of Jews who needed help—parents who needed help with their children, children who needed help with their parents, spouses who needed help with each other. You name the problem, he was there. He saw it all. Maybe that just deepened his love for his people— he saw how needed he was.
He was especially needed on Friday nights at his home in Mar Vista, where for decades he hosted, with his beloved wife and spiritual partner, Olivia, “Shabbat for 30 strangers.” Or 40, or 50 or 60. These weekly gatherings had one unabashed objective: Get more Jews to meet and marry each other. He was a one-man Jewish continuity machine. Is it any wonder I would meet Jews around the world who would say, “Oh yeah, he married us”?