If you build it, they will come: Valley Beth Shalom confident its new community center will serve its synagogue, students and beyond
Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) broke ground Sept. 7 on a new addition to its Ventura Boulevard campus, a community center that will include meeting rooms, a gym, a music room and a library — all to be used by the synagogue and its adjacent day school.
The Howard and Irene Levine Community Center, set to open in fall 2018, “gives VBS a chance to be a true community center for this part of the San Fernando Valley,” said Bart Pachino, executive director of VBS.
“We expect it to be a 16-hour-a-day building that we use after school hours for adult recreation, community events and adult education,” he said.
The 18,000-square-foot building will feature meeting spaces on the basement level, along with a ground-level gym with ample court space. It will replace an outdoor play area abutting Ventura Boulevard.
Pachino said the Conservative synagogue and the attached K-6 Harold M. Schulweis Day School have not seen major upgrades to their Encino location since the early 1990s.
Plans to expand and renovate the campus began to take shape some 15 years ago. By 2011, a master plan had been approved by the city of Los Angeles, Pachino said, but construction was put on hold because of the Great Recession. In 2015, with positive trends in the synagogue’s size and demographics, its leadership decided the time had come to modernize, Pachino said.
“Despite some of the larger negative demographic trends in Conservative Judaism, our community is getting younger and our membership is even up a bit over the last several years,” he said.
The synagogue’s membership now stands at more than 1,500 families, and 750 children attend the day school, preschool and Hebrew school operated by VBS.
“We believe in the Encino community as a key location for young Jewish families to continue to live in,” said Nancy Sher Cohen, a VBS past president and co-chair of the synagogue’s building committee. “And because of our location and our size, we think we can serve as a Jewish community center for the larger Valley.”
When VBS leaders began to approach potential donors in late 2015, community members “responded overwhelmingly,” she said.
“Our community understood the idea that we are planting the future of our Jewish community here in Encino in particular and Los Angeles in general,” she said.
By the time it broke ground, VBS had raised $26 million, with further fundraising planned for a slew of future building projects. After finishing the community center, the synagogue plans to renovate its entry pavilion, as well as its chapel and main library, according to Pachino.
Many of the leading donations came from young members, Cohen said, a sign of the synagogue’s continued health.
“Our view is if you provide what families want, they will be there for you — they will be there for each other,” she said.
VBS Senior Rabbi Ed Feinstein was optimistic about the synagogue’s future.
“We’re growing younger,” he said. “And we’re seeking to build facilities that will accommodate this new gen of young members and their families.”
Feinstein attributed the synagogue’s demographic trends to the welcoming environment it provides as well as the increasing isolation amid Southern California’s urban sprawl. The new community center at VBS aims to double down on that growth.
“Life in suburbia can be kind of lonely,” Feinstein said, “And there’s something to be said for a lifetime of community affiliation, and people have a sense, they have an intuition for that.”