Chai Center’s New Trends by Jewish Journal

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For nearly three decades, the Chai Center — a nonprofit Jewish outreach group — has done things differently. In an effort to reach Jews who don’t attend High Holy Day services, the Chai Center holds free Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services.

“We have always been targeting the Jews who are not interested,” Chai Center Rabbi Mendel Schwartz told the Journal in a telephone interview. “One of the ways we can grab those Jews is by taking away the biggest excuse, which is, ‘I don’t want to pay to pray.’”

The Chai Center is just one of many local organizations or synagogues that hosts free High Holy Day services. Others include Temple Ner Simcha, in Westlake Village; Beth Shirah Congregation at the Matrix Theatre on Melrose Avenue;  Vital Transformations, a Kabbalistic community, which holds Erev Rosh Hashanah and Rosh Hashanah services at a private home in Pico-Robertson; and Bais Naftoli, an Orthodox congregation on La Brea Avenue.

Nevertheless, free High Holy Day services are pretty uncommon. Usually tickets are provided to synagogue members who have paid their dues and therefore are in good standing. Tickets are also often available to non-members but even those tickets can cost several hundred dollars. Many synagogues open their second day and evening services to the general public (see this issue’s High Holy Days calendar on pages 88-91).

While synagogue leaders have no choice but to charge for services to cover their overheads, an organization like the Chai Center, which has no building, has relatively few expenses and can therefore afford to put on free services, Schwartz said. The organization relies on a group of individual donors to pay for the $35,000 needed for annual High Holy Days services, which covers the rental space, the cantor, the advertising budget and the prayer books.

This year, the Chai Center will hold its Rosh Hashanah services at the Writers Guild Theater in Beverly Hills. Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur service will be held at the Landmark Regent Theater in Westwood.

“Sixty, maybe 65 percent of [Los Angeles] Jews, are still not going to temple [on High Holy Days],” Schwartz said. “Not Conservative, not Reform, not Reconstructionist. If you count all the temples and theaters, there are well over 250,000 seats, and a lot of temples all competing for the same minority of Jewish people that are interested in going to temple.”

Over the past three decades, The Chai Center has appealed to not only those looking to pray for free but to those who belong to a synagogue and find it difficult to connect with services. Despite coming from a Chabad background, Schwartz, who took over the organization in 2017 following the death of his father, Rabbi Shlomo “Schwartzie” Schwartz, leads services almost entirely in English.

“We don’t want people to feel left out of the service,” said Schwartz, 42, who describes himself as Chasidic Reform. “I can’t call my service an Orthodox service. No one gets bored. Everyone understands what is going on with the rabbi and the cantor.”

That effect is reflected in the number of attendees at the Center’s High Holy Day services each year, which Schwartz said averages around 3,000.  Many of them are disengaged Jews, whom Schwartz hopes become involved in the Chai Center’s year-round programming following a positive High Holy Days experience.

“For a Jew that’s secular, that’s not involved, we feel that their gateway and their potential entrance into the Jewish religion would be through the High Holy Days,” he said, “because they carry the most weight.”

The Chai Center’s strategy has had an impact. Offering free services has inspired people to step up and support Cantor Estherleon Schwartz’s Beth Shirah Congregation. She said people are happy to donate because they are grateful for the free services.

“I would not have the courage to do this if not for the example of Rabbi Shlomo ‘Schwartzie’ Schwartz of blessed memory. He did this for a long time.”
— Rabbi Michael Barclay

“I do not feel comfortable asking for money in a sacred space when one is yearning to be with God,” the cantor said via email. “People give generously from free choice.”

Temple Ner Simcha’s Rabbi Michael Barclay runs his synagogue without membership dues and offers free High Holy Days services because of the Chai Center.

“I would not have the courage to do this if not for the example of Rabbi Shlomo ‘Schwartzie’ Schwartz of blessed memory,” Barclay said in a phone interview. “He did this for a long time.”