Rabbi Shlomo Schwartz, a veteran activist of Jewish outreach whose circle of influence expanded well beyond his California base, passed away today.
He was 71 and battled multiple myeloma (Kahler’s disease).
Schwartzie, as he was known, was born in Atlantic City, NJ, the son of a Conservative cantor who had fled Vienna in 1939. Despite being a onetime bongo-thumping Greenwich Village beatnik, he was drawn to Judaism’s mystical aspects.
At 19, he left New York’s Yeshiva University for Chabad’s Yeshiva at the Rabbinical College of America in Morristown, NJ, where he studied Chassidus.
“I figured I could always hang out in the Village,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “Studying with a rabbi seemed more difficult, so I decided to try that first. I wanted to leave in the beginning a few times, but I ultimately saw a future there.”
At 23, married and with a child, he decided his calling was outreach, and the place in most need was Los Angeles. California Head Shliach Rabbi Shlomo Cunin placed Schwartzie at Chabad House at University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA) in the Westwood district, the first such center in the world.
Over the next 13 years, Schwartzie became a highly visible campus figure, setting up his stand on the main student thoroughfare, next to the Moonies and Christian missionaries, and reaching out to Jewish students.
Never shying away from using unconventional methods, he wore T-shirts that read, “I survived Hebrew school,” ran prayer services in English, and organized events.
“Humor is the medium that dispels the misconception that Judaism is uptight and serious, retrospective and Holocaust-oriented,” he said, adding that he “could identify nine out of 10 students as Jews just by their looks. The other one was either Armenian or Italian.”
For many Sundays, he set up a folding table at Venice Beach boardwalk and affixed a prominent “Jewish Astrology!” placard, thereby meeting and changing the lives of thousands of Jewish people.
He later founded and directed the Chai Center, a nonprofit organization he ran with his wife, Olivia, and their 12 children from their Mar Vista home.
The rabbi’s impact is not just recognized in the local observant Jewish communities, but also in the entertainment industry, the Los Angeles Times reported in 1997.
Schwartzie, as he was known, said his students have included actors Richard Dreyfuss and Elliott Gould, radio personality Dennis Prager, talent manager Joan Hyler and record producer Richard Perry.
A master storyteller and inspirational speaker, it was not uncommon for him to make “office calls” in Century City to lead lunchtime Torah classes for lawyers and Hollywood executives.
His supporters noted his unorthodox approach, based on the premise that if Jews, especially the younger generation, won’t go to shuls or join Jewish organizations, then he has to go where they normally gather, or provide a setting in which they feel comfortable.
“I’ve been called a Reform Chassid and G-d’s court jester, but whatever the label, I do believe that to bring Jews back into the fold one must serve G-d with joy,” he once said.
Rabbi Schwartzie lectured at Jewish communities throughout the United States, as well as Canada and Israel.
He is survived by his wife Olivia and children: Chana (LA), Shalom Yishaya (Crown Heights), Rivka Sara Chein (Crown Heights), Mayshe Schwartz (Brookline MA), Hindel Swerdlov (Yerushalayim), Mendel Schwartz (LA), Nechama Dina Schallman (LA), Yosef Schwartz (Miami), Aura Rosenblatt (LA), Shmuel Asher Schwartz (LA), Berry Schwartz (LA), and Cobi Schwartz (LA).
Yehi zichro boruch.