We had the good fortune of connecting with Isaac Brickner and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Isaac, how does your business help the community?
There was nowhere in our neighborhood where the community could just “be.” At Jews for Jesus, we’ve had our LA branch office in Westwood Village right across the street from UCLA since the early 90’s. We’ve seen this neighborhood go through a lot of change–positive and negative. At times there was a lot of animosity between UCLA students and business owners/residents in the Village, and so much unused/underutilized space. Everyone had a different idea of what our neighborhood should be, and it felt kind of toxic. So when the opportunity came to renovate our space and reimagine how we could impact our community, we spent time wrestling with these frustrations and talking to people. This led to the creation of Upside Down — a coffee, art, and community space designed for our neighborhood to foster connection. We decided to create an environment that emphasized hospitality, and reinforced this in several ways. First, as a religious nonprofit, we knew people would be inherently skeptical. The main way we use this to our advantage is through our donation-based business model. There are no fixed prices for beverages, and whatever people decide to give for their drink goes right back into keeping the space alive, rather than lining the pockets of a corporation/organization. This doesn’t sound earth-shattering, but from the feedback we’ve received from our community, it’s been a breath of fresh air. We’re looking forward to emerging from the pandemic with more opportunities to host events and connect with our community through the arts as well–to welcome them. One quote that summarizes our ethos well comes from C.S. Lewis – “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal…your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.”
Let’s talk shop? Tell us more about your career, what can you share with our community?
My work is all about having spiritual conversations with people. As a Jewish person who follows Jesus, my identity creates a unique bridge between spiritual worlds, but for some presents an inherent conflict. It’s not easy for people to engage in spiritual conversations, but it’s these conversations that make the most difference in how we live our lives, and create the bedrock of meaningful relationships that go beyond, “So, what do you do?”
So the challenge is to engage in meaningful spiritual dialogue with people who have differing degrees of awareness that they even have spiritual needs. The opportunity to create an environment where this could happen in a productive, nonthreatening manner was very exciting. How might we facilitate a hospitable environment where the stigma about these types of conversations could be replaced by mutual respect and trust? We follow the leadership of Jesus on this matter, who could engage in generative conversations with anyone.
I realize that this is a polarizing topic for some, but it’s important for transparency and vulnerability to characterize our efforts as we try to create a space where all are welcome.
Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
Great question! I’m all about great food experiences, the outdoors, and the arts.
I try to live as locally as possible — most of my life centers on my neighborhood of Westwood Village, and the Westside in general.
Selfishly I would swing by our cafe to hang out for a bit, grab an Espresso Tonic, and introduce you to all of our amazing, friendly baristas. Then we’d walk over to the Mildred E. Mathias Botanical Gardens at UCLA — one of the most magical hidden gems on the Westside. It feels like you’ve walked into a different world where the city just disappears. Then we could walk over to the Hammer Museum in Westwood and see what the newest gallery installation is — totally free!
If it was a Thursday, we’d hit the Farmer’s Market in Westwood and maybe grab some tacos or papusas, and grab some fresh produce to cook dinner back at my place. Cooking for my family and guests is one of my favorite things.
Other days I would probably text my friend Sam who works for Go Get Em Tiger to see if he could hook us up with something yummy at one of the Westside locations — Santa Monica or Culver. Then we could head to Kenneth Hahn or Will Rogers park to hike up to a great view and have a picnic. Looking over the entirety of the city helps me get perspective on the people I’m trying to serve, and to pray for them.
Possibly one of the most classic LA experiences in my opinion is the Hollywood Bowl. I got to see Fleet Foxes and Beach House for my birthday a few years back — one of my favorite shows so far. That would cap off a great week.
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
One of the most influential mentors in my life is a man named Jhan Moskowitz. He passed away in 2012, and was one of the founders of Jews for Jesus. He had a way of making you feel like you were the most important person in the world when you talked to him. He could have just as meaningful of a conversation with someone who vehemently disagreed with him as with his best friend. He invested most of his adult life into mentoring young people. His legacy is vast. Now, I actually get the privilege of serving alongside Melissa Moskowitz — she is our Art Director at Upside Down, and Jhan is her late husband. I’d like to think that this gives him a lot of naches (Yiddish term for pride).
Photography by Shelby Montelongo and Ari Bishop