Shomrei Torah burns its mortgage

For a congregation that faced millions in debt and a dwindling membership 10 years ago, hosting a “Burn the Mortgage” event was a particularly sweet moment for Shomrei Torah Synagogue. More than 500 people turned out on June 16 to celebrate the Conservative congregation’s final payment on its West Hills complex.

Judy Groner, a former executive director, recalled the importance of the June 16 date.

“On June 16, 1992, the ceremonial ground-breaking took place when the site was just a dirt lot. Four years later, the building was dedicated on June 16,” she said. “What the builders envisioned happening then is now happening. It’s been a very exuberant experience.”

Canoga Park’s Congregation Beth Kodesh, led by Rabbi Eli Schochet, purchased the Valley Circle Boulevard property with plans to move west and develop a larger, more modern facility. Two years after Beth Kodesh broke ground on its state-of-the-art complex, the congregation merged with Reseda’s Temple Beth Ami, led by Rabbi David Vorspan, to become Shomrei Torah Synagogue.

“They joined forces to develop a new building,” said Robert Weingarten, a member and financial adviser to Shomrei Torah. “It was expected that membership would grow after the merger, but there was a gap between expectation and reality.”

But when Schochet retired in 1999 after almost 40 years of service and Vorspan was not promoted to senior rabbi, Vorspan left, and many of his original congregants followed.

“When Rabbi Richard Camras came on board, it was a risk for him to move his family here from Maryland,” Groner said. “But he has done a fantastic job. … He helped to bring new life to the congregation.”

By 2001, the congregation realized that it was unable to repay the loan on the building. The synagogue had to restructure its debt by taking out a new loan.

“Half a million was put up for the loan, from 10 generous congregants,” Weingarten said.

After the 2001 restructuring, the congregation was under pressure to come up with a way to pay down the principle on its new mortgage. One generous donor came up with a solution.

“Barry Wolfe, who at the time was an anonymous donor, came up with a matching-funds campaign, where he would donate $100,000 every year if the community could match it,” Weingarten said.

Board member Leah Kuluva, who was charged with collecting the community’s donations,  said it was a very daunting task in the first year.

“I was worried,” she said. “We had 22 days to try and raise $100,000. But the response was just amazing.”

In the nine years that followed, Shomrei Torah consistently matched Wolfe’s donations, and in some years surpassed the $100,000 goal.

Kuluva said Wolfe bowed out in the final two years of the loan after contributing $900,000 to the synagogue, and the congregation approached 10 donors to complete the final two years of payments.

Over the years, the congregation has hosted Los Angeles Hebrew High School, New Community Jewish High School and the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School to bolster its finances.

With the loan finally paid off in late May, Shomrei Torah is looking to the future.

Former president Marcia Weingarten says the congregation’s membership is on the upswing with 525 families.

“There are challenges ahead, but we are well prepared for the future,” she said. “Over the last four or five years, there have been an increasing amount of young families joining the congregation. We see a lot of faces now we don’t know, and it means we are a community that is growing, and that’s always a good thing.”

New Community Jewish High School, which has been located on Shomrei Torah Synagogue’s campus since 2004, is set to move to the Milken JCC building in 2013. With the potential loss of a consistent source of revenue, the synagogue is already looking for a new occupants for the space.

“We are looking at various alternatives,” Weingarten said. “The school has been an integral part of our campus, so we are looking to replace it. We’ve been speaking with other schools and other community service organizations about the premises. As the school isn’t scheduled to move until possibly June 2013, these are general, exploratory discussions for the moment.”