My normal routine is to arrive at work at 8:00 a.m. I open up a coffee shop, serve drinks, and converse with UCLA students until the afternoon, when someone else takes over my shift. Despite how much this might sound like I work at Starbucks, I actually work for Jews for Jesus.
I’m sure making oat milk lattes and small talk with locals isn’t what you picture when you think of what an employee of Jews for Jesus does all day. Maybe you know us as those people who hand out religious pamphlets on street corners. And not that long ago, that was one of the main tasks of our staff in the United States.
There was a good reason we handed out so much free literature, which we called broadsides. We did this because for decades, it was a highly effective way to engage with our local communities. Back in the 1970s when Jews for Jesus was founded, if you had a message to get out to the world, the way to do it was person-to-person, street corner-to-street corner. In the era before YouTube or Instagram, this was the best strategy to stimulate grassroots change. Our founder Moishe Rosen was famous for saying about that era, “All you needed was a guy with a mimeograph machine at 8:00 a.m., and you could get 5,000 people to People’s Park by the afternoon.”
It was never the pamphlets we cared about; it was the conversations.
It was never the actual pamphlets we cared about; it was the conversations. Today, what used to be street corner connections have shifted online or into “third spaces” that are designed to facilitate dialogue outside of home and work environments.
I joined the staff of Jews for Jesus in March of 2018 with one mission: to be the project manager on a renovation of our Los Angeles building. This building is located in Westwood Village, right across the street from UCLA. For years, the space had functioned as offices. But the staff that worked there had a dream that it could be more—that it could be a place that would facilitate community, creativity, and conversations about the things in life that really matter. After much discussion, a concept came together to transform the office into a multi-faceted space that could serve as a cafe, an art gallery, and an event space.
I caught this vision through my friend Isaac, the leader of the Jews for Jesus Los Angeles branch. We had become friends a couple years earlier, and it didn’t take long for me to discover that coffee was one of Isaac’s main interests. Not first wave coffee, like the type you drink in a diner, or even second wave coffee, the fancy frothy and overpriced drinks that helped to make cafes popular hangout spots outside of Europe. Isaac loved “third wave coffee,” a high-quality product served in local coffee shops that functioned as hubs for a community. And it just so happened that Westwood Village didn’t have a third wave coffee shop.
By the time I had come on board, Isaac and his team had already navigated through a sea of neighborhood plans and building departments. Finally, we began the construction and renovation of what became “Upside Down,” a place where students, locals, artists, and of course, coffee lovers could gather. After the building project was completed, I stayed on to make and serve coffee to the community, free of charge, and for a suggested donation.
That’s how I became a barista for Jews for Jesus, at the Upside Down coffee shop in LA. Jews for Jesus also operates a soup kitchen and a food truck in Tel Aviv and an art gallery in the West Village of New York City. We also have a Victorian house in San Francisco and a bookshop in Sydney. Any night of the week around the world, we might be hosting a game night, a movie night, a Torah study, an art show, or a Shabbat dinner.
We want to have conversations with other open-minded Jewish people.
On the surface, these places and events may seem dramatically different, but their heart and mission are the same – to enable Jewish life and serve local communities. We want to have honest conversations with other open-minded Jewish people about issues that deeply affect our people and how these issues relate to Jesus. This has always been, and always will be, the heart of what Jews for Jesus seeks to do, using whatever types of materials or spaces that will best accomplish it, in each chapter of history and culture. You will always find us loving and serving our neighbors, because that is what being Jewish and being for Jesus is all about.
*EDITORS NOTE: Upside Down LA reopened June 16, 2020 per the California State COVID-19 guidelines. Follow them on Instagram @upsidedown_la to find out about hours and other updates!