Mogen David: A Sephardi, Ashkenazi and Orthodox future?

On a recent Saturday morning, at Congregation Mogen David’s Ashkenazic Shabbat service, a blond-haired girl in a shimmery pink sundress tugged at the fringes of a man’s tallit (prayer shawl). The tallit belonged to Alex Katz, and he tried to ignore her entreaties as he led 90 people in the social hall in the prayer for the United States. 

Across a narrow foyer, in the synagogue’s main sanctuary, about 200 people watched as the Torah — enclosed in a cylindrical silver case, in the Sephardic style –— was returned to the ark at the front of the brightly lit room. 

For anyone who knew Mogen David in its heyday, seeing a few hundred people at the synagogue, which occupies most of a full city block on Pico Boulevard west of Beverwil Drive, might seem unimpressive. 

Starting in the 1950s, when the congregation first moved from its original West Adams home to its current location north of Beverlywood, Mogen David was a powerhouse Traditional congregation. Prayers at Mogen David were conducted using an Orthodox siddur (prayer book) and a microphone. Men and women sat together, though only men participated in the service. Under the long tenure of Rabbi Abraham Maron, who died in the early 1980s, the congregation had as many as 1,800 members.

But to anyone who experienced the congregation’s darkest hours, the present-day attendance would be unexpected, even unbelievable. Starting in 2000, when the board decided to become an Orthodox synagogue and install a mechitza (a divider separating men from women) in the main sanctuary, Mogen David entered a tailspin. Board members battled over the synagogue’s direction, a young Orthodox rabbi was hired only to be fired 18 months later, and many longtime supporters became alienated from the congregation, leaving Mogen David languishing with few members and fewer regular attendees. 

“We lost 400 families in two months,” said Rabbi Gabriel Elias, who was and remains Mogen David’s rabbi and executive director. 

Even as recently as a few months ago, the after-effects of the decade-old upheaval were still readily apparent. 

“The first time I walked in here, there were 15 people in a 500-seat shul,” said Katz, who is originally from the East Coast. 

Katz, together with a number of other young Orthodox men and their families, are attempting to revitalize the synagogue, specifically its Ashkenazic service. Earlier this year, Elias hired Katz to serve as cantor and also brought on a young rabbi and law student, Rabbi Todd Davidovits, to serve as spiritual leader. 

Elias, who first came to the synagogue as a weekly Torah reader more than three decades ago and has been rabbi of Mogen David for 20 years, also brought the Sephardic service to the synagogue. 

“I had a vision that there’s a Sephardic community here in Los Angeles that doesn’t have a home,” Elias said in an interview in his office. 

That vision appears to be coming to fruition. Sometime in the late 2000s, a group of about 20 Sephardi Jews approached Elias to ask if it could hold services in the synagogue’s social hall. Elias agreed, and the congregation quickly grew to about 50 or 60 people. In 2009, Elias brought in Rabbi Yehuda Moses, a Judaic studies teacher at Maimonides Academy. Moses has expanded the Sephardic minyan further; an average of 200 people now gather for a typical Shabbat morning. 

In January, the two services switched spaces, with the larger Sephardic service taking over the main sanctuary and the Ashkenazim moving up the half-flight of stairs into the social hall. 

“We might pray separately,” Moses said, “but we do everything else together.”

Practically everyone, not just the rabbis, speaks about unity — achdus, in the parlance of the Ashkenazic newcomers — as the concept driving the new Mogen David. Accordingly, they planned to rid the synagogue kitchen of kitniyot before Passover, even though Sephardic tradition allows for the legumes to be eaten during the holiday. 

The young Ashkenazim treat the half-dozen “old-timers,” men in their 80s and 90s who have hung with Mogen David through the difficult years, with respect, even as the congregation they’re going about building bears little if any resemblance to the services that those men knew. 

Davidovits delivers sermons in shul most weeks and leads a weekly class as well. The hope is, he said, to attract “floaters,” young people who feel disenfranchised at the other Orthodox synagogues in Pico-Robertson. Katz, Davidovits said, is helping to make that happen. 

“A guy turned to me and said, ‘Alex is making it fun for me to pray again,’ ” Davidovits said. 

The synagogue building has other tenants, as well: Elias rents space on the second floor of Mogen David’s adjacent school building to Yeshiva High Tech, an alternative high school program that began last fall with 54 students in the ninth and 10th grades. That building is also home to a nursery school, which is bringing in some money, Elias said. All 65 spaces at the nursery school are full, he said, and there’s a waiting list. 

Whether those partnerships — along with healthy doses of good will, Torah study and tuneful prayers — will be sufficient to bring this embattled synagogue back to life remains to be seen. After all, over the past decade, Mogen David has tried myriad ways to revive itself. 

The synagogue still owns its building outright, but the sizable endowment built up over years by Maron, reportedly worth $4 million just a decade ago, has been completely spent, Elias said. 

Over the years, the synagogue lost money on unsuccessful projects, like the elementary school it established in the 1990s. It folded after just a few years; according to David Schwarcz, an attorney who served as vice president and president of the synagogue in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the synagogue took a “seven-figure loss.” 

The rest of the money disappeared slowly, Schwarcz said, used over time to cover annual deficits. During his time in leadership, Schwarcz said Mogen David raised about $500,000 annually, but spent about $650,000. 

Absent its endowment, Mogen David will have to raise funds to close its budget gap, Elias said. Although he declined to offer specific budget numbers, Elias said the synagogue has about 150 family members today; according to a membership form available online, each would owe about $1,100 in dues — a total of $165,000. 

Schwarcz first joined Mogen David in 1997 and led the effort to install the mechitza in the sanctuary. The mechitza stayed put, but the conflict that drove the young rabbi from his post pushed Schwarcz to leave the synagogue.  

Schwarcz is now a member of Beth Jacob in Beverly Hills, but on a Shabbat in mid-March, he came back to the synagogue to celebrate his son Joseph’s bar mitzvah in the same place he had celebrated those of his two older sons. 

“I wanted to complete the chain for the third bar mitzvah, to be there,” Schwarcz said. 

Schwarcz acknowledged that the young newcomers would face challenges in their efforts to create a new spiritual home for Orthodox Ashkenazi Jews, but still, he said they stood a better chance of success than he did a decade ago. 

“The synagogue has gotten used to being Orthodox, and now it’s more receptive to young Ashkenazi Jews,” Schwarcz said. “The timing is much more propitious at this time than when I tried to do it. We still had an identity crisis when I tried.”