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A Hollywood Rabbi Who's Served Christmas Meals To The Homeless Is Retiring After 30 Years

Umar Hakim of the ILM Foundation (left), Rabbi John Rosove of Temple Israel of Hollywood (center), Reverend Denyse Barnes with Hollywood United Methodist Church (right). (Courtesy of Rachel Schwartz)
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On Christmas Day, the kitchen of the Hollywood United Methodist Church was crowded with volunteers decked out in red and green. Dozens of hands flew over mixing bowls and carving stations, busy preparing more than a thousand turkey dinners for homeless and hungry Angelenos.

Elyse Pallenberg was bustling around the church, training some of the 200-plus volunteers and checking on the frazzled kitchen staff.

"The stoves aren't working in the church this year, so we are outside," she said, pointing out volunteers cooking turkey in the garden outside the church.

Pallenberg said the problem was discovered last week, and it took a few panicked hours until rental ovens could be located. "But we made it work, thank God."

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The most important thing, she said, was to make folks who come for Christmas dinner feel at home.

"There's no buffet line. We serve them," she said. "We are hosting them as guests."

Jace Blanco (left) and his sister Janesa Blanco with turkey dinners at Hollywood United Methodist Church. (Libby Denkmann/LAist)

The annual free interfaith dinner celebrates a Christian holiday, but the main organizers are Jewish. And the head rabbi behind the event is getting ready to hang up his Santa hat.

"It's a real labor of love that we do," Senior Rabbi John Rosove said. His Temple Israel of Hollywood congregation has organized the dinner for at least 32 years, working with partners like the United Methodist Church and the ILM (Intellect-Love-Mercy) Foundation, which is rooted in Islam.

Rosove is retiring in June after three decades with the Los Angeles temple.

"I have mixed feelings. I love this event," he said, standing in the large gymnasium-turned-dining room at United Methodist. "This is the fruit of a lot of labor by a lot of people."

Volunteer Johanna Cure helps kids pick out new clothes and socks. (Libby Denkmann/LAist)

Rosove was surrounded by long tables covered in red and green paper and walls adorned with kid-decorated posters wishing all a "Merry Christmas." A large evergreen tree sparkled with ornaments in the entryway. The musical entertainment warming up onstage -- Aejay Jackson and his Full Spectrum Band -- played jazzy Christmas favorites.

Not the setting you'd normally associate with a leader in Los Angeles' Jewish community.

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But Rosove says the dinner evolved from interfaith Thanksgiving meals put on by a coalition of churches and other religious organizations in the 1980s.

"Temple Israel decided we wanted to do this for our Christian friends on a day that's holy for them, when they are in church or with families" Rosove said. "So many Jews, they don't have anything to do on Christmas because it's a national holiday -- so this became what they love to do."

Hollywood United Methodist Church provided the facilities for the free interfaith Christmas dinner. (Libby Denkmann/LAist)

The interfaith dinner was first held at the Salvation Army in East L.A., but Temple Israel was forced to find a new home for the event when the original building was torn down.

This year, coordinators expected up to 1,500 people to stop in for a meal, new socks, hygiene kits, and toys for the kids. Santa was also on hand to take photos with families.

"And Santa Claus is one of our members, so he's a Jew. Just like Jesus," Rosove laughed. "So he gets a kick out of it."

Norma Perez (left) and 4-year-old Jayden Santos pose with Santa at the annual interfaith Christmas dinner hosted by Temple Israel of Hollywood. (Libby Denkmann/LAist)

Though his role is coming to a close, the rabbi is confident the dinners will carry on long after his retirement.

"This is not dependent on one person," Rosove said. "It's a real community effort."

Outside the church, on the corner of Franklin and Highland, Kevin Carlson said he took four buses to get to Hollywood from Porter Ranch. "I know the bus system really well," he said.

Carlson's been homeless in the past. He has a place to live for now, but it's precarious.

"I've actually got a sleeping bag in a heavily wooded area just in case I need it. Radio, flashlight, all that stuff," he said. "But hopefully I don't need it."

It's his third year stopping in for Christmas dinner at United Methodist. "This means I can get a hot meal, and I love turkey," he said.

"I wish everyday was like Christmas," Carlson said. "Because it seems like that's when everybody wants to be nice to everybody."

Volunteer Samuel Brunelle serves a guest at the free Christmas dinner hosted by Temple Israel of Hollywood. (Libby Denkmann/LAist)

Rosove also sees room for improvement. The fractured political landscape makes community events like this more important than ever, he said.

"This is a response. We will not succumb to division and polarization of our community," he said. "We're here for each other."

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