Downtown: Everything Jewish is Waiting for You

Downtown: Everything Jewish is Waiting for You

Rabbi Moshe Greenwald, Downtown, LA

by Dvora Lakein - Los Angeles, CA

August 13, 2009

( When Patti Berman moved into her sunny loft in downtown Los Angeles, the rough-and-tumble neighborhood was known as skid row. Her building, recently gentrified, was one of only three proper hi-risers in the city’s grim center. Berman’s doorman had to shoo away homeless people from her stoop and sidewalk, so that residents could leave to work each morning. 

The Jewish scene was just as bleak.

Story Highlights

• As Downtown LA comes alive again, Chabad rabbi sparks area's Jewish revival.

Now, eight years later, downtown L.A. is at the pinnacle of a cultural and social boom. Berman lives in the center of a thriving arts scene, and as vice-president of the Downtown Neighborhood Council, she is passionate about the community’s growth and potential. 

“It’s like living in a small town in the middle of a big city,” says the Chicago native, “everyone says 'hi' on the street and we all know each other’s business.

“When I first got here, I thought that I was the only Jew in a two-mile radius,” Berman divulges. “Jewishly, there was nothing. I had people ask me what the strange, but beautiful, thing on my door was all the time. But then the rabbi came and everything changed.”

“The rabbi” is Rabbi Moshe Greenwald, who opened the Jewish Community Center of downtown in 2007 together with his wife, Rivky. Today the couple welcomes several dozen people for weekly Friday night dinners and Shabbat services and hosts a monthly “L’Chaim” social club. 

Greenwald has met many residents and local businesspeople through classes he gives in office buildings and the well-attended Jewish Business Network he maintains. His neighborhood is comprised of yuppies, artists, and musicians, many of whom transferred from other large cities and enjoy urban living. A strong contingent of empty-nesters, looking to downsize but still remain in the thick of things, has settled here as well.  

Downtown Revival

Though the vicinity has a significant Jewish background, early Jewish pioneers first settled downtown and the area’s original synagogue was constructed here, its Jewish populace dwindled and disappeared starting in the 1940s. Suburbanization, construction of a modern highway system, and the advent of the inexpensive automobile, all contributed to the neighborhood’s general, and Jewish, demise. A revitalization program started in earnest over a decade ago has seen the West Coast’s business center come alive again: Greenwald’s Jewish center, the only Jewish organization or synagogue in the area, has done the same for Jewish pride and population.

“Honestly, the main reason we are staying here still is because of the shul,” states Matthew Weiss, a screenwriter who lives with his girlfriend just off of Union Station. The two were in search of High Holiday services last autumn, several months after moving downtown, when a friend gave them Greenwald’s number. “It was love at first sight,” Weiss says.

Weiss enjoys Torah classes (“where we debate philosophy as it connects to our current world”) and “Saturday morning chulent.” Often, he says, he “just hangs out with the rabbi, talking things over, over coffee.” Weiss admits that being part of a Jewish community “is nothing I thought I would be doing.” But, he continues, “I really love them. They [the Greenwalds] are my favorite people to hang out with.”

Chabad Rabbi Reaches Out On All Fronts

When he is not teaching a class or sharing a coffee, Greenwald can be found at his other vocation: chaplain, to both the Los Angeles Police Department and four neighborhood hospitals. As a member of the LAPD, Greenwald ministers to police officers and accompanies them on their beats. Last month, he found himself at a gang shootout. He spent the evening comforting the victim’s mother. 

Greenwald also spends a significant part of his day reaching out to local businessmen and residents, dropping leaflets wherever he can, popping into offices, and spreading the word via Facebook. “It is hard to draw people in,” acknowledges Weiss. 

“People are nervous of what they think will be a huge commitment, they think that suddenly they will find themselves religious. But really, it’s not what you would expect. There is no pressure.” Weiss tries to help with outreach, believing that big events like the popular Menorah lighting and cavernous sukkah attract many people. 

New Torah Scroll To Be Dedicated

On the third of September large crowds from the Jewish community, as well as local city council members and the chief of police, will gather for downtown’s first Torah dedication ceremony. Sponsored by community members, the scroll “is a magnificent gift to the community,” says Greenwald. 

“Despite the difficult financial times, many people have made its creation a priority. It is a great way to start a new community and a great asset.” The scroll will find its new home at the center’s 1,300 square foot loft, donated by local developer Zuri Barnes. 

“Being part of a Jewish community has made living here much better for me,” asserts community activist Berman. “And I am sure that there are so many more Jews living here that have no idea that anything is available, that we have services right here, downtown.

“I find myself observing more of the little rituals, like lighting candles Friday night and giving some coins to charity,” Berman concludes. “And I am really enjoying it.”

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