When most people think of Hollywood, they think “lights, camera, action,” along with images of movie stars, celebrities and the Lakers. They think of Hollywood, California. But on the opposite side of the country, there’s another Hollywood: Hollywood, Florida, which just happens to be one of the most vibrant Jewish communities in the United States.
If you were to drive through the “other” Hollywood on December 25, you’d be quite surprised how few houses are adorned with Christmas decorations. In fact, the city is home to over 40,000 Jews. Many of them are either unaffiliated or non-practicing, or both. Yet there is an impressive amount of Orthodoxy within Hollywood, and several strong kiruv establishments are helping bring unaffiliated and undereducated Jews closer to Judaism.
Congregation Ahavat Shalom
The largest shul in the area is the Young Israel of Hollywood, where Rabbi Edward Davis has been the spiritual leader for over 25 years. The shul has a membership of over 450 families, and a strong youth department that has three different minyanim on Shabbos: one for post-bar mitzvah boys (and bat mitzvah girls); one for 5th graders to bar/bat mitzvah young adults; and one for 3rd and 4th graders. The Young Israel also runs one of the two mikvahs in Hollywood. The other is under the auspices of Chabad.
While the Chabad Mikvah might be small, Chabad’s presence in Hollywood certainly is not. There are an impressive five Chabad shuls in the Hollywood area, each with its own shlichim. The shuls have separate minyanim daily and on Shabbos, but synergize several times throughout the year for certain occasions. In fact, the five Chabads recently had a joint Lag B’Omer celebration. One might wonder if so many Chabad establishments in one place are necessary or even practical. “People ask why five Chabads,” responds Rabbi Zalman Korf of the Chabad of Walnut Creek. “I would tell you why not 15? The need exists in Hollywood. We are dealing with people who have little connection to Torah other than the fact that they are Jewish. Chabad is bringing basic Judaism to these people.”
Rabbi Joseph Korf of the Hollywood Community Synagogue-Chabad
And it seems to be catching on. Hollywood’s Chabad of The Ocean has a noticeable senior citizen presence (many are Holocaust survivors), but is now seeing a strong increase in attendance from younger people in the community. (About 100 people, on average, attend davening Shabbos morning.) “Orthodoxy is on the upswing here,” says Rabbi David Kudan, “and there are a good amount of people who are searching for spirituality. There are a lot of great opportunities for Jews of all ages here.”
Chabad is just one of three different kiruv organizations trying to revitalize the Jewish spirit in Hollywood. PATH, the Project for Advancement of Torah Study in Hollywood (www.pathtotorah.org), was started four years ago by members of the Orthodox Hollywood community. PATH’s mission is “to bring Torah learning and appreciation to the Jews of Hollywood regardless of background, affiliation or education.”
Headed by Rabbi Yossi Jankovits, PATH has so far inspired 60 unobservant Jews in the community toward Orthodoxy. While the teens in Hollywood are involved in National Conference of Synagogue Youth (NCSY), Achva Programs and Bnei Akiva, PATH is directed mainly for adults (though it is slowly starting to work with college-age students as well). Rabbi Jankovits is the only official rav of PATH, but he relies on his students to help achieve PATH’s goals. Many of the young men and women who have gone far down PATH’s road often assist and teach new students. But this does not mean that they don’t have the chance to learn with the rabbi as well.
Rabbi Yossi Jankovits of PATH
Rabbi Jankovits, who routinely has 25 people over for Friday night dinner, works relentlessly in hopes of inspiring even more of Hollywood’s Jews. Giving 48 shiurim per week, his day begins at 5:30 a.m. with a daf yomi shiur at the Young Israel, and often ends with one of the various shiurim given at the South Florida branch of Aish HaTorah (located in Hollywood) at night. PATH is not officially affiliated with any of the shuls in the area, but rather uses several synagogues to host its shiurim.
“PATH is not trying to pull people away from their shuls,” says Rabbi Jankovits, “but provides community outreach accessible at any level. We help increase the numbers of people attending [Orthodox] shuls.” Dov Tilles, president of the snowbird-friendly Congregation Ahavat Shalom, is quite impressed with what PATH is doing in the neighborhood. “They are doing an excellent job here,” he says. “We have a wonderful turnout at the shiurim. More and more people are coming, and get a lot out of it.”
It is perhaps telling that Aish HaTorah’s South Florida branch is in Hollywood. Opened in 1988, the branch has attracted tens of thousands to its programs from Hollywood and all of the surrounding communities. Rabbi Tzvi Nightingale has been the executive director since 1993.
Rabbi Tzvi Nightingale, executive director of Aish HaTorah of South Florida, with his family
Make no mistake that despite the excellent kiruv that is going on there, Hollywood is not a neighborhood with scattered elements of Orthodoxy. In fact, it has everything a modern-day Jewish community could want. There are nearly a dozen kosher restaurants, three kosher groceries, two bakeries, and a Judaica store. (And while we’re at it, the weather isn’t half bad!)
Many of the grade school level children in the community attend Brauser Maimonides Academy, located in Hollywood. But Miami is only 30 miles away, and some parents send their kids to one of several yeshivot in the area. Most high school students either attend the Rabbi Alexander S. Gross (RASG) Hebrew Academy, Hillel Community Day School (both located in North Miami Beach), or Weinbaum Yeshiva High School in Boca Raton (though there are also some other, smaller yeshivot). Many of these young adults also spend a year in Israel. Subsequently they head off to college, a majority of them out of state. While their lives lead them in different directions, many have a longing to return.
“Hollywood is a great place to come home to,” says Devora Bergman, a Midreshet Lindenbaum and Columbia University alumnus who now lives in Manhattan. “I definitely see myself moving back there at some point.” Mark Ginsberg, a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and now the av bayit of Yeshivat Eretz HaZvi in Jerusalem, was raised in Hollywood. “It was really a great place to grow up,” he says, “and though my heart is in Eretz Yisrael, I’ll always feel a strong connection to Hollywood.”
Hollywood Community Synagogue-Chabad’s annual Chanukah concert
While certain Jewish neighborhoods fit a particular niche, mold or even stereotype, Hollywood cannot be simply labeled in any one category. “There is a very interesting trend happening in Hollywood,” says Rabbi Ryan Girnun. “And I think it’s actually occurring in many Jewish neighborhoods in the U.S. Here you have FFBs (Frum From Birth) and BTs (Ba’alei Teshuvahs), but now what you’re seeing are a lot of FTPs (Frumer Than Parents), which makes for a nice mix.” Rabbi Girnun, a second year law student at the University of Miami, his wife Barri, the student activities director at RASG Hebrew Academy, and their two children represent a growing number of young married couples moving into Hollywood.
On nearly every Shabbos afternoon, one can walk into Giulianti Park (located at N. 42nd Terrance, about three blocks from the Young Israel) and see dozens of the neighborhood’s children at play. Nearly all of these youths are Jewish. But what makes this site so interesting is the parents who accompany them. Some of the fathers are dressed in white shirts and black pants, with their tzizit out. Others wear polo shirts and slacks, and some of the dads might be wearing shorts and sandals.
At Aish HaTorah of South Florida’s 2006 Purim party
Yet no one is really paying attention to garb, which makes Hollywood such a wonderful neighborhood. It is a warm, accepting community, where the people are friendly and sincere. Judaism is available in Hollywood on many different levels, and this is part of what makes the Young Israel, the five Chabads, PATH, Aish HaTorah, and all the other shuls – and the community as a whole – such successes.
Rikki Rothstein, a resident of Hollywood for 11 years, says it best: “This is the type of community for all types of Jews.”