There has been a longstanding opinion that the orthodox Jewish community of Los Angeles is centered on La Brea, Pico, Robertson and Hancock Park. The total Jewish population of Los Angeles is probably between 600,000 and 700,000 in size and the San Fernando Valley used to number a smaller crowd of, perhaps, 100,000. But times they are a changing. An influx of Jewish families has relocated to areas of the Valley because of lower property prices and for their work and the word is out; the Valley has an excellent network of shuls, schools, kosher restaurants and Jewish communities.
There has been no official censor since 1997, yet there is agreement that over the last years the number of Israeli, Persian and Russian families has grown the Valley community to twice that size, perhaps 250,000 strong. Where do these families turn for events that make up the Jewish lifecycle?
In 1973, the first Chabad house in the Valley was started by Rabbi Gordon, who was sent by the Lubavitcher Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, as emissary, along with Rabbi Gordon’s wife, Deborah, and 3 week old son. This was at the time of the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s 70th birthday and Chabad of Encino was one of the last of the 71 new Chabad houses that were established around the world in honor of the Rebbe’s milestone celebration.
Rabbi Gordon was raised in Newark, New Jersey. His parents were sent there by the previous Rebbe; the Gordon family has always been a family of shluchim. Rabbi Gordon tells the story of his first meeting with his wife to be. “Are you interested in becoming an emissary and travelling to some community where Jewish life is unrealized?” She said she was, and a courtship was born. The story did not end there.
There was a dearth of Jewish activity in the San Fernando Valley in those days. When the young Rabbi Gordon visited influential people and asked how they thought he might start a Chabad House, he met with apathy or even resistance. “Go back to New York!” was not uncommon advice.
Now, it is a very different story. Rabbi Gordon is Executive Director of the Chabad centers in the Valley and under Rabbi Gordon’s watch, there are currently 26 Valley Chabad Houses. This month sees the newest synagogue opening in North Ranch, Agoura Hills. Doubtless there will be more, all of which offer low cost learning and frequent activities that support contemporary Jewish life. Indeed, the ball has come full circle with Rabbi Gordon’s son, Rabbi Yossi Gordon, now running events up the street from his father, as the shliach of Chabad of Woodland Hills. Rabbi Gordon explains the path to Chabad’s success, “Chabad finds Jews; Jews don’t find Chabad.”
And there is another way that Rabbi Gordon finds those Jews. In the summer of 2009, Rabbi Gordon started teaching a vibrant online learning program that Rabbi Gordon had neither forethought nor predicted. For many years the classes had been held daily in Torah, Ramban and Tanya. Then the students encouraged Rabbi Gordon to take to the internet. He was initially resistant, concerned that an online presentation of his words would stymy him. Finally, however, Rabbi Gordon agreed to take the plunge and five years later, the classes are fully available online. They are free to listen to and easy to access from anywhere in the world. With a simple Google Search of “Daily Torah Class,” students can click and study. Classes run between 20 and 35 minutes; a short presentation that starts and ends many people’s days with meaningful results.
For the more dedicated students, the Rabbi started studying the Mishneh Torah on the three year track established by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. This December 14 will see the lesson on the final chapter and the whole program will have been recorded for future students. And still the learning continues! The next recordings will be on Talmud, approximately one page a day.
The number of students who have used this learning program are overwhelming. Daniel Aharonoff is a tech investor and longtime student of Rabbi Gordon and it was Aharonoff who was instrumental in organizing the classes. Aharonoff is privileged to watch thousands of people logging into the sessions in real time. There are men and women of all religions and all ages who join the seminars live and at a later time that suits there schedule. The classes are transforming. In fact, the latest statistics from Chabad.org show the rabbi’s classes have been viewed nearly 2 million times since Chabad.org began tracking hits to the site.
Chabad.org hosts the classes on Jewish.tv and given that Chabad is the largest online Jewish site in the world, the numbers are set to grow further. From the Jewish Rice Farmer in Thailand who was recently reported to be a most enthusiastic pupil, to mum’s on their way to school, the lessons are reaching thousands of Jews who want to study. Daniel Aharonoff explained the appeal, “I know that I often share things that I’ve learned throughout the day with business acquaintances and family, and other people do that as well. The effects are just astronomical.”
Rabbi Gordon understands how this can be and attributes his successful learning style to his father, Rabbi Sholom Gordon, ob’m, from whom he learned how to teach. “My father had a sense of humor. He was charismatic and inspirational and was blessed with the power to enthuse people with simple words. I listened to him all through my youth and this is how I tackle my online classes. My goal is clarity. Not deep hidden meaning. I teach so that listeners can pick it all up and understand what they have heard and take that knowledge with them. I don’t want them to run away from learning.”
Rabbi Gordon has been a teacher for most of his life, “I’m a born teacher,” he explains, although he never thought his career would lead him to create the most successful online Torah classes in the world. “I was in Wholefoods, Tarzana last year and an African American man with wild hair approached me and said, “Rabbi Gordon, I study with you.” “What do you study?” I asked. “Why parashah of course” the man replied and Rabbi Gordon answered in the same way that he has always answered, “Well, thank you.”
Rabbi Gordon now has many requests for meetings from travelers who are coming to LA. They are thrilled to meet the man whose voice and image have brought Jewish knowledge to their homes. Rabbi Gordon takes it all in his stride and is particularly pleased when he hears that Jewish learning has impacted unaffiliated Jews.
Today’s horrors and tragedies, in Israel and beyond, are endless. Now publicized online, they are often with accompanying images of the most negative kind. In contrast, the simple presentation of quality Jewish learning offers a kind of antidote. Online learning is still new but the potential for teaching a positive message to an untapped market is infinite. Rabbi Gordon’s classes are making a difference for many participants and reaching untold numbers of people.
“When terrible negativity comes down, there is only one possible response. Do something positive. That’s what these classes offer to people. I know of many listeners who have become more observant of mitzvot because they have listened to the Shiurim,” affirmed Rabbi Gordon.
It has been two years since Rabbi Gordon’s mother passed away. He tells the story that it was while he was sitting shivah that an immense number of emails of condolence came to him from people across the world who had been listening to his lectures. “It was very meaningful. I could never have imagined this kind of support. I still have all the letters in a book of condolence and this year I read them again and I’m so appreciative.”
Is this acknowledgement the highpoint of Rabbi Gordon’s teaching? Perhaps not. “One of my granddaughters had a test in Tanya. She’s in High School and she was very nervous. One of her friends knew that she was worried and told her to visit a website that would make Tanya clear to her.” The site, was Rabbi Gordon’s classes. “Now that is my dream! To help High school kids and college kids find clarification and understanding in what they are learning. This is the best part of online teaching. I never stop being amazed by the impact of these classes. And it grows and grows; every time I travel I meet people who tell me, ‘You’re Rabbi Gordon! I study with you.’”