Rabbi Shlomo Schwartz, OBM, 71 Years Young
There is nothing more painful than the early demise of someone who hasn’t finished living. Such is the sadness that accompanies the passing of Rabbi Shlomo Schwartz, OBM, on February 8th, the 12th Shvat 5777.
Born in Atlantic City, Shlomo Schwartz was the youngest child. His parents were Holocaust survivors from Vienna, Austria. His father had seven siblings, his mother had nine, but most of his family were taken in the war. Rabbi Schwartz recollected, “We were a very small family. We had no other family because everyone had been killed. This made me jealous of the goyim who had grandparents.” In Atlantic City, as in Vienna, his father was a popular cantor, and Shlomo Schwartz was the young son who shared his father’s vocal skills and would sing popular Yiddish songs at the chaggim. They had a comfortable life, with Schwartz Senior running The Vienna Corset store for 40 years.
As a teenager, Schwartz left home to further his Jewish education and was soon connected with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson. He studied in New Jersey before moving to Israel in 1966. His colorful stories of his yeshiva days in Jerusalem during the Six Day War are the stuff of history. “My intuition had not failed me. Perhaps ten minutes later, for the very first time in my life, I heard and experienced the sound of machine gun fire and it was directed at me.”
Returning to Crown Heights, Schwartz enjoyed a unique relationship with the Rebbe. Schwartzie, as he was affectionately known, frequented services at 770, sometimes wearing a brightly colored shirt or multi-colored suspenders. He created a distinctly non-conformist impression but his prayers were heartfelt, his tears were genuine, and his presence was respected.
In 1969, married and with his first baby, Schwartzie went on shlichus to California, where he lived for the rest of his life. Rabbi Shlomo Cunin assigned Schwartzie to establish the first Chabad House on the UCLA campus in Westwood. Schwartzie’s success with college students was bashert. He was sensitive and open-minded, which won the hearts of many non-observant teenagers in the heady days of the sixties. Always with a good schtick, but without judgement, he drove his bumper-sticker-clad station wagon to campus events and brought young Jewish kids to a life of G-dliness.
Schwartzie was the organic Chassid who loved to reminisce about his role as the unofficial rabbi to the 400,000 participants at the 1969 Woodstock Music Festival. Rabbi Schwartz had a zappy wisdom that was created by his unique background. He guided the young and the old, the observant and the newbies, explaining, “Humor is the medium that dispels the misconception that Judaism is uptight and serious, retrospective and Holocaust-oriented.”
It was this mantra that guided the formation of his organization, the Chai Center, established in the eighties, “For Conservative, Reform, and any Jew that moves.” Schwartzie was an expert at creating pithy advertising that drew crowds to his “very not-for-profit organization,” which continues to preserve, recover, and support Jewish life. This is a charity built on all-inclusive no-cost membership and dedicated to promoting Jewish authenticity with a support structure for thousands of non-frum but wholly Jewish people living in L.A.
It’s unusual to offer no-cost High Holiday services at the elegant WGA building or a highly affordable seder dinner at the snazzy Olympic Collection. Schwartzie did this. He was happy to offer a Jewish stranger an invitation to his home for Shabbat dinner. Here, guests would enjoy a memorable serving of Rebbetzin Olivia Schwartz’s famous whole wheat bread. How better to meet a possible soulmate? Or build your social life, find your Jewish roots, and focus your spiritual growth? Olivia, a powerhouse of her own, has taught classes and retreats to huge numbers of women while Schwartzie provided free house visits to affix mezuzos, “Stump the Rabbi” events, and more.
There have been few charities who have been thrilled to meet “Any Jew that Moves.” Rabbi Schwartz wanted to meet them all and he was jazzed to meet everyone. He was not a neighborhood Rabbi, although he had ample opportunity to have his own shul. Instead, he functioned as The Chief Southern California Rabbi who influenced, supported and entertained Jews who shared his favorite characteristic: a Jewish soul.
Black hat or baseball cap, young or old, famous or immigrant, Schwartzie was the rabbi who would ask you which tribe your family came from. For many, this was a question that took visitors back to roots they had never considered. Then he directed participants to find their local shul where many families continue their Jewish life today. Is there a synagogue in the city without someone who came through the Chai Center?
More recently Schwartzie started an ever-so-groovy Talmud group, where he taught kabbalah concepts at a weekly meeting in the Farmer’s Market. And as always, without cost. It’s hardly surprising that the Chai Center has built a following of thousands who attend or refer friends to this community of 10,000+ annual attendees. Always aware that the future of Judaism is at stake, Schwartzie spent the last years passing on the leadership of his Chai Center to one of his sons, Rabbi Mendel, who will continue to lead the Chai Center with his own style and magnificence, even without the unique leadership provided by his father. Another son, Rabbi Mayshe Schwartz, already runs a successful Chai Center in Brookline, Massachusetts.
The Chai Center wasn’t Schwartzie’s only legacy. He sat on interfaith groups and a Cedars Sinai-based marriage advisory group. He has advised and supported thousands of couples and offered marriage advice of the highest level. Without a situation of alcoholism or mental disease, G-d forbid, Schwartzie was convinced that every marriage could be saved and enhanced. He shared information that is difficult to find. “I’ve asked at least a thousand people maybe more, maybe two thousand people, why do you get divorced? Because when people get married everybody is in love with each other.” He taught the art of meaningful dating. “Dating is lying. It should be six months. Three months is too soon!” and he knew there were only three ways to fix a marriage; therapy, date night, and perhaps an apology.
Rabbi Schwartz affected the lives of so many, and his legacy continues with the guidance and memories he has created. “I’ve performed marriage ceremonies on more than 2000 couples, so I’ve stopped counting,” he said. When asked if he charges for this services, he would shrug his shoulders. Schwartzie was bereft of a desire for wealth, claiming that his parents taught him to enjoy what he had and not to worry about having any more. Still, it took tenacity and dedication to raise sufficient funds to cover the cost of the Chai Center events.
Always wanting to teach and grow his spiritual self, Schwartzie started spending his summers at the Ascent Center in Tsfat, the holy city in the north of Israel where he had studied as a young man. Schwartzie was welcomed as the Scholar-in-Residence for a total of twenty consecutive summers. He loved to sit on the balcony, look over the valley and teach kabbalah. Sitting out the war in the bomb shelters of Tsfat during the summer of 2014 was no picnic, but it did nothing to deter his enthusiasm for this peaceful enclave. Little wonder that he chose his final resting place in the burial ground of this ancient town which teams with the souls of the righteous that went before him.
Schwartzie was the proud father of twelve children and many more grandchildren. Towards the end of his life, his children spent increasingly more time with him, and the youngest grandchildren brought noise and laughter to his home. This was his joy, as he explained, “There is no sweeter sound.”
It is hardly surprising that so many came to know, admire, and appreciate the wisdom and kindness of Rabbi Shlomo Schwartz. His influence has been magnificent and will continue. Not all Jews show respect and love to others who have different levels of observancy and customs. Schwartzie did all this and far more. His passing at the young age of 71, leaves a vacuum that will be hard to fill. May his legacy sustain countless stories for future generations to enjoy. May his followers bring more light to the world in his honor.