Once a Gotham-like void that went dark after the law offices, jewelry shops and fashion houses closed for the day, Los Angeles’ downtown is now a center of arts and culture, its trendy cafés and chic galleries entertaining a growing number of young professional residents.

And with the arrival of Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Moshe and Rivky Greenwald, the neighborhood boasts—for the first time in 60 years—its own full-time synagogue.

“We were living in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn and looking for places to start a community,” Moshe Greenwald recalls of the move that landed them in Southern California. “We looked into several places, and over Passover 2007, someone mentioned that there was a tremendous amount of growth in Los Angeles. After the holiday I went online and started reading about the downtown area, and was completely blown away by it.”

Greenwald, who was actually raised not far from his new home, in the port city of Long Beach, had known of downtown’s reputation for being unsafe. Crime-ridden and with a significant presence of homelessness, it was not the sort of place where people walked around at night.

“I would never have imagined it as a place for a Chabad House,” says the rabbi. “But then, in 1999, a city law was passed allowing contractors to raze old abandoned buildings and convert them into residential lofts. After that, 25,000 people moved to downtown. In the past several months, 40,000 more have moved. Before 1999, downtown had only 3,000 full-time residents. The population has since ballooned in size.”

Aside from the full-time residents, between 40,000 to 50,000 Jewish Angelenos work in the downtown area.

“These are Jews who often spend more time in the office than they do at home, and they don’t have the opportunity to have a Jewish experience,” says the rabbi. “I flew out and spent a day and a half in downtown. We decided that this place very much needed a permanent Chabad center.”

When the Greenwalds and their two small children moved to L.A. in September 2007—they’ve since had a third child—they didn’t know a soul, Jewish or non-Jewish. But within weeks, their 1,900-square-foot loft in the Hass Building was a hotbed of activity, with the Greenwalds hosting upwards of 30 people, mostly young professionals in their late 20s to mid-30s, at weekly Friday night dinners. Today, Saturday afternoon gatherings see crowds of 40 to 50 people, and this year’s Purim party drew 400 people. Over the last five years, the couple has put up 1,000 mezuzahs on the doorposts of Jewish homes and businesses.

A Jewish businessman affixes a mezuzah to his workplace entryway with the assistance of Rabbi Moshe Greenwald.
A Jewish businessman affixes a mezuzah to his workplace entryway with the assistance of Rabbi Moshe Greenwald.

“Every group get-together was bigger than the one before it,” says Rivky Greenwald. “For our Shabbat Around the World dinners, which we organize every six weeks to feature different styles of kosher food from different countries, I usually have 60 people in my kitchen.”

Patti Berman, a 12-year resident of downtown and president of the Downtown Los Angeles Neighborhood Council, says that prior to the establishment of the Chabad House, there was no Jewish community in the area.

“Some of us knew each other; some of us didn’t. A friend and I used to joke that we were the only two Jews. At the end of the workday, most people drove to their homes on the west side or in the Valley, but for those of us who lived here, there was nothing,” says Berman. “Now there’s a place where we can go worship, a place where we can have a real community. I can walk to Shabbat services if I want, which before was never an option. All of a sudden there are more than two Jews—there are a bunch of them. The Jewish community is now thriving, and it’s all because the Greenwalds came here and saw possibility where others saw nothing.”

To service the undermet needs of the area’s Jewish children, the center is currently developing plans to establish a downtown preschool.

“There is nothing here for Jewish kids,” notes Rivky Greenwald. “There is a desperate need for a Jewish preschool in the heart of downtown. It’s been a challenge finding a space, but we hope to have something up and running by September 2013.”