Hollywood cop-movie rabbi shocked by the criminality on his Los Angeles doorstep

Nolan Lebovitz watched the attack on his neighbouring congregation in LA with horror


Nolan Lebovitz (Image: Facebook)

In a previous life, he was a Hollywood crime thriller film director with classics of the genre including Tortured under his belt.

But now Nolan Lebovitz is a rabbi in Los Angeles living in times that he can only describe as terrifying.

The rabbi was with some of his congregants on a volunteer mission to Israel two weeks ago when he saw footage of an attack on his neighbouring congregation in Los Angeles, the Adas Torah Synagogue, where he has many friends.

“It was a surreal experience to watch it happen from Israel,” he says. “Surreal is the only way I can describe it. And scary, on multiple fronts. This was a pogrom that we saw being played out and it was scary to see the way the police reacted and the city reacted; both were very disappointing.

“And it was strange to be there – we would show up to help soldiers getting ready to go into Gaza and they wanted to talk to us about the antisemitism we are facing in Los Angeles. There is a war going on in Israel – they are facing a battle on a second front – and people are asking us why we don’t move there because they see it as safer than LA.”

It is not something he is ready to consider yet. “I think that Israel needs a strong diaspora,” he says. “I also think that American Jews and British Jews and Australian Jews are going to have to learn to live differently than they lived for the last 50 years. The bubble has burst. We’re no longer living in our in our dream state. We’re back to the Jewish experience of our grandparents and our great-grandparents. And so the way that we raise our kids has to be different. The way that we walk through the streets has to be different, the way that we advocate for ourselves has to be different.

Referring to the attack on his neighbouring LA shul, Adas Torah – in which a keffiyeh-clad mob descended on the synagogue while it was hosting an Israeli property fair – he adds: “I always give people the benefit of the doubt in that I believe what they’re saying. So when someone gathers outside a synagogue chanting hateful, hateful phrases, I really believe that they mean it.”

Despite the violence of the “protest”, only one person was arrested – for misdemeanour. Rabbi Lebovitz goes on: “I desperately want my children to grow up in a peaceful world where they’re safe, and where they can express their Jewish identity without fear. But if I sense that that’s not the case, then I want them to grow up with the strongest Jewish character possible that won’t allow for these types of forces to penetrate their soul.

“We try and understand why evil people do evil things; we want to understand that in context. But I’m struggling here. There’s no context that justifies rape and beheadings and burning alive of babies.”

The 45-year-old rabbi’s best known film as a Hollywood director was Tortured, a 2008 crime thriller starring Cole Hauser, Laurence Fishburne and James Cromwell. He also made Roadmap Jerusalem, a documentary that tracks the connection of Jerusalem to the Jewish people, and Dr Benny, about the romantic adventures of a 28-year-old gynaecologist.

He has been at the helm of the Valley Beth Shalom, one of the biggest United synagogues in the US, for two years – and since October 7, he and his community have witnessed a sea change in American Jewish life.

While antisemitism has perhaps crept up slowly in the UK, for American Jews it is something that suddenly exploded, seemingly out of nowhere.

The rabbi has been part of the effort to fight what is happening on American college campuses – the nearby University of California (UCLA) has one of the worst anti-Israel encampments.

“I participated in writing letters and petitions and leading the community in standing up for itself,” he says. “It’s time we turn inwards and find strength in one another. The kids on college campuses this year faced a tsunami – they were on the front line of hatred and they were not prepared for what they faced. But next year, when it happens, then the students will be prepared. Otherwise it’s our fault.”

The student activists’ zombie-like “genocide” chants give the protests a dystopian horror movie feel. But Lebovitz – who got into directing crime films by way of comedy – says this is far more frightening than any movie.

“The magic of film-making is you see how fake it all is – the conventions and all of that. But this is real-life horror, rearing its head in a way that it hasn’t for a long time. We know it’s always been there. This kind of evil inclination is something that rabbis acknowledged in antiquity but it hasn’t been socially acceptable for many decades. And now in the US, and around the world, what we’re seeing is Jew hatred that is socially acceptable.”

Rabbi Lebovitz became more interested in Judaism and its teachings when he realised he wanted to protect his then young children from watching horror films, which led to him questioning his own life choices.

Gradually his love of Judaism led to him going on a course and becoming a rabbi. There are a few things common to both of his careers, including his love of storytelling.

“The Jewish experience is one amazing story,” he says. “We’re characters in the greatest narrative ever told. And I don’t think that we appreciate that enough. To be the inheritors of the Torah is one story that Hollywood could never think of. We are the living breathing protagonists of that story and we’ve now just got to get through the next chapter.”

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