In 20 Years, The Haredim Will Dominate Pico-Robertson

Los Angeles has little culture of Torah learning (except among the Haredim aka the traditional Orthodox). There are only two first-rate Modern Orthodox Torah scholars in Los Angeles — rabbis Yehuda Bukspan and David Rue.

L.A.’s Modern Orthodox shuls don’t look for Torah scholars to be their rabbis.

When Beth Jacob of Beverly Hills embarked on their latest rabbi search, they made it clear early on that they were not looking for a Torah scholar. They were looking for someone pastoral who’d stay around a long time. They weren’t look for a community spokesman.

The Modern Orthodox have long dominated Pico-Robertson but they’re going to lose out to the Haredim within two decades unless things change.

There are little marriage prospects for single Modern Orthodox serious learners in Los Angeles. There’s no daily program for them to immerse themselves in Jewish text while they go to secular college. A lot of things have been tried, such as Rabbi Moshe Ben Zaken with Touro College Los Angeles, but none of them have worked.

Graduates of Modern Orthodox day schools in Los Angeles go to Israel to study for a year. If they want to keep studying Torah seriously, they do not have the option of returning to Los Angeles. They usually stay in Israel or go to the East Coast and enroll at a place such as Ner Israel, where Yaakov Yitzchok Ruderman — the founder — insisted that his students simultaneously get a degree from a secular college.

These serious students of Torah are the foundation for any shul. They’re the most likely to be consistent in their practice of Judaism and they are the most likely to back the rabbi when he has conflicts with his congregation (baal habatim).

YULA used to be a yeshiva (1977-1984) before it was a high school. It was Yeshiva University of Los Angeles. It had an impressive collection of teachers, including the Rav’s nephew Moshe Meiselman, Rabbi Yitzhock Adlerstein, Rabbi Nachum Sauer who gave a great maggid shiur — he was pulled left at this time by his colleagues — he seems lost today as a posek for the RCC, he’s getting pulled right, Rabbi Elimelech Goldberg, Dovid Rothstein (sp?) now at Bar Ilan, Rabbi Danny Landes.

YULA died as a yeshiva because it refused to open a women’s school. You can’t have one without the other. People want to get married. Without that women’s school, the yeshiva bochers didn’t have much chance for a compatible marriage partner. They moved elsewhere where they’d be more likely to meet the right woman. If they’d stayed in LA, they’d have to fly to Denver or Chicago or New York for shidduchim (matching up for marriage).

If you go to Ner Israel, you’re two hours drive from New York. That’s a much easier distance to travel for a shidduch.

People who grow up Orthodox tend to find their partners through shidduchim. People at shuls such as Young Israel of Century City, for instance, tend to find their partners through shidduchim. That’s the Orthodox way.

Bnai David-Judea and the Happy Minyan, for instance, have a lot of singles but they’re rarely Orthodox from birth. They tend to be on the margins of Orthodoxy and hence have a harder time getting married.

Women who are serious about their Orthodox Judaism want a man who’s going to learn Torah every day.

Why doesn’t Los Angeles have post high-school Torah learning for the unmarried? It’s because of LA’s Modern Orthodox rabbinate and the haredi rabbinate.

The haredi rabbinate have no interest in encouraging Modern Orthodoxy, which they usually regard as apostasy.

LA’s Modern Orthodox rabbinate probably has not thought much about this matter. They intuitively know that if Torah superstars came to LA to teach, they’d set up their own shuls and attract an elite crowd, thus siphoning off the cream of Modern Orthodoxy from Beth Jacob, YICC, Bnai David, etc.

YULA has a minyan on Shabbos and holidays but Rabbi Marvin Hier doesn’t want the baal habatim (regular synagogue members) to come. That would attract the ire of the Modern Orthodox shuls in the community. Instead the YULA minyan is for the yeshiva elite.

Many of Yeshiva University‘s elite rabbis — Benjamin Blech, Mordecai Willig, etc, — have their own shuls. If any of them moved to LA, they’d start their own shuls. Jews would flock to their shiurim.

If you brought a superstar of the caliber of Michael Broyde to LA, the best Modern Orthodox Jews would flock to him.

There have been several attempts to create serious Torah learning for the unmarried Modern Orthodox in Los Angeles. To make such a project succeed, you’d need a lot of money and a few Torah superstar rabbis and broad community support.

Where do single Haredi boys go after high school to learn Torah in Los Angeles? Yeshiva Gedolah has a post-high-school learning program.

After the Haredim take over Pico-Robertson, what will it be like? I suspect that the Modern Orthodox will feel less comfortable holding hands in public. I’m going to have to make my shiksas dress tznius (modest) and wear sheitls when they walk with me. There will still be some hold-out Modern Orthodox shuls, just as there are Modern Orthodox shuls in Brooklyn, but they won’t be the flavor of the community.

Twenty five years ago, YULA had a daily minyan. Beth Jacob had two morning minyans. Young Israel of South Beverly Hills had a morning minyan. YICC had a morning minyan but no mincha-maariv on weekdays. And that was about it.

Beth Jacob’s new rabbi Kalman Topp has a significant skill that his predecessor, Steven Weil, lacked. He can read Hebrew. Like Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, Rabbi Topp is a good listener.

Unlike Steven Weil, Kalman Topp grew up Orthodox.

Unless you grow up Orthodox and are familiar with the key texts of the Jewish tradition, it is easy to be intimidated by Orthodoxy’s right-wing. It’s hard to find your place in the Orthodox world without fearing that people will say, "You’re not frum enough."

During his tenure at Beth Jacob, Rabbi Steven Weil made many friends with the traditional Orthodox on the other side of town (Fairfax – La Brea), raising vast sums of money for them. He did not have as much success earning the good will of his fellow Modern Orthodox rabbis in Pico-Robertson.

I suspect that Rabbi Topp will have an easier time standing up to the right-wing Orthodox. He’ll feel less need to ingratiate himself with them because he is at home in Torah.

Rabbi Topp gives a good 30-minute parsha shiur every Shabbos at Beth Jacob at 8 a.m.

Beth Jacob has about 750 member-families. It’s more than twice as large as any other shul in the neighborhood. It has three morning minyanim attracting about 250 on a typical weekday morning. YICC has two morning minyanim attracting about 40 people each. Bnai David has one morning minyanim attracting about 20 people.

Beth Jacob has about 50 members learning Torah (in Hebrew and Aramaic) every day (including some Holocaust survivors). YICC has about ten. Bnai David has three.

On a typical Shabbos morning, Beth Jacob will attract about 1,000 Jews to all its minyanim. Bnai David and YICC will attract about 400 (about 90% of whom did not make a minyan during the week).

The only minyan in the neighborhood where people seem to enjoy davening is the Happy Minyan. "I have given up on Beth Jacob," some Jews tell me. "It has a nice new rabbi but it seems tired to me."

Beth Jacob’s longtime nickname has been Death Jacob. Not even the dynamic Steven Weil could erase this perception.

Beth Jacob’s senior rabbi was traditionally a community spokesman, whether it was Maurice Lamm, Abner Weiss or Steven Weil. When a newspaper was writing a story about the Orthodox community, they’d tend to call Beth Jacob. I wonder if this will still be the case? I assume Beth Jacob is abdicating this position of leadership.

Until about 20 years ago, almost all Ashkenazi rabbis in the diaspora spoke Yiddish. Rabbi Schroit spoke Yiddish at Bnai David. Though American-born, Rabbi Schroit learned Torah in Poland. Rabbis Abner Weiss and Maurice Lamm grew up speaking Yiddish.

Most of the Haredim speak Yiddish. Most Modern Orthodox under 40 do not.

When Rabbi Abner Weiss was hired at Beth Jacob, they knew they were getting a Torah superstar, someone who was the runner-up to the position of Chief Rabbi of the British commonwealth (taken by Immanuel Rackman). He was about 50. They knew he would not be around that long. He left when at age 65 to take a position in England for a year.

Beth Jacob hired Steven Weil knowing he was not a Torah scholar but they expected him to be around a long time. He lasted eight years before moving on.

Rabbi Reuven Bulka — a Torah superstar but not a flashy dresser — also applied for the position at Beth Jacob in 2000 but he was in his late 50s. The shul wanted to skew young with its senior rabbi to attract a more lively demographic.

If you look at the Orthodox rabbinic scene in California, there are no superstars in Torah knowledge.

The future of Orthodox shuls in Los Angeles is Adas Torah (at 1135 S. Beverly Drive, across the street from the Crown Plaza), which is led by the learned and pious Lakewood rabbi Dovid Revah.

The haredim in Pico-Robertson also daven at Anshe Emes. These are mostly baalei teshuva.

Prior to Rabbi Yitzchock Sommers taking over the shul around 1984, Anshe had mixed seating and was about as lax about Jewish law as a Conservative shul.

Anshe has always been owned by Rabbi Sommers’ family.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
This entry was posted in Abner Weiss, Anshe Emes, Beth Jacob, Bnai David-Judea, Modern Orthodox, Nachum Sauer, Orthodox Union, Orthodoxy, R. David Rue, R. Kalman Topp, R. Yehuda Bukspan, YICC and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.