Today, Olivia Schwartz teaches Jewish women about Torah and Chassidus through the Chai Center. She hosts dozens of Shabbos guests weekly, and many of her students turn to her for advice. Upon the suggestion of mutual friends, I spoke with her recently about her personal journey to leadership.
Shabbos in the Mountains
Shabbos captured Olivia’s imagination for the first time at a Reform summer camp in the mountains near Yosemite. Everyone wore white, and they prayed at the edge of a cliff, overlooking the valley, with guitars strumming. Compared to these services, those in her family’s synagogue appeared “empty.”
When Olivia showed up for college in the 1960s, Eastern spirituality was all the rage. Although she didn’t consider herself a “seeker,” she studied Buddhist and Hindu philosophy and took yoga classes. After graduation, her parents paid for her to travel to Israel and Europe. Olivia hated Israel, except for 6 months she spent on kibbutz at Kfar Blum in the Galeel. She much preferred Germany and Austria, and only left Vienna when she realized how much settling there would hurt her grandmother, who had fled Europe due to the Shoah.
Returning to the States, Olivia entered a Master’s program in Education at San Jose State. While there, a friend told her that she planned to move to India with her children to study with her gurus. Intrigued by her friend’s description of their teachings, Olivia saved up her money until she had enough for an indefinite stay in India.
“Not What I Wanted to Hear”
When Olivia arrived in India, she studied at the ashram of Sri Aurobindo and Mirra Alfassa (known as “The Mother”). Later, she would recognize many of their teachings as overlapping with Chassidus. Indeed, she eventually learned that The Mother was Jewish and had access to this knowledge during her early life in France.
Over time, though, Olivia gravitated towards Tibetan Buddhism. “In 1974, I was sitting in a tiny coffee shop in the village of McLeod Ganj, where the Dalai Lama lived, and sitting at another table were two Israeli backpackers…I was very excited to see them, and they told me there had been the Yom Kippur War. That moment was very pivotal for me. Israel had been in danger, and I hadn’t known about it.”
Not long after, Olivia moved to Katmandu, Nepal. She lived there for six months to continue her study of Tibetan Buddhism. A teacher told her, “I can teach you to be an enlightened being (the goal of Buddhism) in three years. But you were born Jewish, and I think you need to serve G-d, and I don’t know what that means.” He told her that there are no accidents and that if G-d had decided that she be born a Jew, there must be a reason. “Judaism is the highest spiritual path,” he told her, “but also the hardest to find spirituality in.”
Smiling, Olivia says, “This was not what I wanted to hear.” Reluctantly, she consented to go for a month to Israel, to learn “how to serve G-d.” After that, she planned to return to India, where she intended to spend the rest of her life.
Olivia had had a positive experience on a secular kibbutz during her previous visit to Israel, so she sought out a religious kibbutz upon arrival back in the country. The administrators in the central office for kibbutzim attempted to dissuade her from choosing a religious setting. “You’ll have to live separately from the men,” they told her, and “You’ll have to dress modestly.”
“But I already did those things on the ashram,” she said, undeterred.
Eventually she found her way to a Daati moshav that had an ulpan program. In the evenings, she studied Judaism with a tutor. “I wasn’t happy, but I felt compelled to learn more. I’d felt stuck, you see, and I hoped that learning Torah would help me move past that block.”
The single month she planned to stay in Israel stretched out when she realized how much more she needed to learn.
After six months, she looked for a seminary and ended up at the Diaspora Yeshiva in the Old City. Olivia studied Torah there for four years. “[The rosh yeshiva] Rabbi Goldstein attracted musicians, artists, yoga practitioners. Many of us shared experiences with Eastern philosophy, and we supported each other.” Her teachers included Rabbi Yitzchok Ginsburgh, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach and other Chassidishe instructors even though the Diaspora Yeshiva had a Litvish approach overall. Most of what they said went over her head.
While at the Diaspora Yeshiva, Olivia also made a lifelong friend, Chana Rochel Schusterman. However, Olivia struggled to find a deep, spiritual connection to mitzvos. For example, she lit Shabbos candles for many months feeling no joy or special connection with the Divine. This frustrated her.
Then, Olivia spent one Friday afternoon busily planning a trip to Europe with friends. As Shabbos approached, she still hadn’t finalized her flights. She felt anxious and distracted right up until candlelighting time.
And then everything stopped when she kindled the flames. No worries, no thoughts about the trip zipped through her head. She simply experienced peace.
Despite this experience, she continued to struggle with finding joy in daily Jewish practice.
“I’d been wearing dirty glasses my whole life.”
On a visit to the U.S., a friend from Israel encouraged Olivia to visit Rabbi Manis Friedman’s seminary in Minnesota. Olivia turned down the suggestion because she had attended a Litvishe style seminary. However, the next time Olivia returned to the U.S., that friend had settled in Crown Heights.
It turned out that Rabbi Goldstein had a sister who was close to the Lubavitcher Rebbe. She arranged for the ladies from the Diaspora Yeshiva to meet him.
“I walked out transformed,” Olivia says today.
Heading to Minnesota, she enrolled in Rabbi Friedman’s seminary. “After 20 minutes of learning Tanya, I felt like I’d been wearing dirty glasses my whole life and could suddenly see.” Tanya continues to be her favorite thing to teach to this day.
Later, Rabbi Friedman arranged Olivia’s marriage to Rabbi Shlomo Schwartz, better known as “Schwartzie.”
Starting in the 1950s, the Lubavitcher Rebbe spoke about women as integral parts of Jewish communities. He believed that the world needed female leadership, and encouraged them to to take visible leadership positions. Nonetheless, Olivia did not feel obligated to lead just because she’d married a rabbi.
“I really grew into it. You might not believe it now, but I was painfully shy when I was young.” While Schwartzie was co-founding the first three on-campus Chabad Houses, UCLA, Berkeley, and San Diego, Olivia took on a leadership position in an entirely different venue: La Leche League.
At meetings, Olivia saw whenever a child had a Hebrew name, their mother was not Jewish, but their father was. If the child had a Hindi or Sanskrit name, the mother was almost always Jewish. With this realization, Olivia now understood the Rebbe’s call for kiruv.
Olivia believes that women make exceptional leaders because of their feminine qualities. “Leadership means bringing out the best from each other. Men can sometimes be competitive, but women champion each others’ successes… [They] raise each other up to a higher level.”
She admits, though, that leaders who are also wives and mothers have struggles. For example, they may forget to take care of their own needs and desires. “You can nurture others and still nurture yourself. It’s not an either/or proposition.”
Reflecting, she continues, “It was hard when I had small children…I had challenges, but I didn’t ignore them. I put them aside. I learned and studied, and then re-examined the problems…” For example, when her eldest children were small, the Schwartzes lived outside the eruv. She studied the halachos of carrying on Shabbos, then decided to hire help for Shabbos so that she could leave the house. This method – confronting the problem, setting it aside while studying the Torah view on the subject, then figuring out a solution – is one she still embraces.
Final Words of Wisdom
The Chai Center has a unique tagline: for any Jew that moves. Jews from all walks of life find their way into her home. However, Olivia points out that all Orthodox Jews interact with people who are not Orthodox. “Our role was always just to be normal with each other, and balance our differences by finding commonality.” She adds, “I am not a pusher…I make a connection and don’t ask anything but for them to show up.”
Before we part, I ask Olivia to share a final piece of advice. She points out that the prophet Isaiah tells us that the word of the Lord comes out from Jerusalem. “[E]very Jew has the responsibility…to give light to other people, but [also] to talk about Israel.”