Young Israel Matures

Had Elazar Muskin not locked himself out of his uncle’s house while on his honeymoon here 13 years ago, he might not today be rabbi of one of Los Angeles’ most vibrant Orthodox shuls.

Fortunately for Young Israel of Century City, Muskin didn’t wait around for his uncle to return. Instead, he took a self-guided tour of Los Angeles’ shuls and, confusing Pico for Olympic Boulevard, stumbled into Young Israel. Add that to the fact that his uncle knew someone who knew someone who could set up an interview that afternoon, and some might call it a sign of divine intervention.

And so, after a two-year search, Young Israel finally had its first full-time rabbi; the search committee took just a few days in 1986 to offer the position to Muskin.

This week, the shul is honoring Muskin and his wife, Ruhama, for 13 years of service to the shul and to the greater Los Angeles community.

“I didn’t know if the shul would survive when I first came,” says Muskin, a warm smile shining through his trim red beard. Sitting in a meticulously organized home study, where books and family photos line the walls, Muskin, 43, pulls out a yellow Western Union telegram that apprised him of the offer to lead the “200-family” congregation. “If there were 50 families when I got here, we were lucky,” he says with a laugh.

But, he adds, he took the job because he knew the Orthodox community and the fledgling synagogue were both on the verge of a growth spurt. Muskin’s gamble was successful, and, today, he has helped build the shul into a 280-family venue of haimish prayer, high-caliber Torah study and bountiful tzedakah.

He was also right about the growth of the Orthodox community, which now wields significantly more influence than it did just 13 years ago. And Muskin is proud to have among his members some of the most successful doctors and lawyers in town, as well as many leaders of the greater Los Angeles Jewish community.

“We have a responsibility to the community,” says the rabbi, who recruited 30 of his members to man the phones on Super Sunday. “We cannot be people with our heads in the sand, only interested in our own Shabbos. Our members are successful young people committed to Torah and mitzvot, who can have enormous impact upon commitment to Jewish life.”

Like many shuls in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood, Young Israel was spawned at Congregation Beth Jacob, the largest Orthodox synagogue west of the Mississippi River. The founders of Young Israel of Century City had a vision of a more intimate and participatory, less formal service, with a philosophy that cut right down the center of Orthodoxy.

After 10 years with a part-time rabbi, shul leaders were ready for a full-time leader in 1986. They decided on Muskin, whose father was a rabbi in Cleveland for 40 years, and whose grandfather, a scholar from the renowned Slabodka yeshiva in Lithuania, led a congregation in Chicago.

“Rabbi Muskin is a visionary,” says Dr. Mark Goldenberg, a past president and co-chair of the tribute dinner committee. “Because of him, the shul is a citywide model of programming, we do incredible chesed [good deeds], and the amount of tzedakah he extracts is unbelievable.”

There were some rough spots when Muskin first arrived, fresh from five years’ experience at a small, mostly elderly congregation in New York’s Washington Heights.

Shul leaders told Muskin that they weren’t satisfied with his speaking style, so he worked to change it. Today, he is one of the most dynamic speakers in the Los Angeles rabbinate.

He told them there was too much talking. Now, you can hear a pin drop during services, according to Muskin.

The building, on Pico, a few blocks east of Beverly Drive, has changed, too. In 1996, three new storefronts were added to the former dry cleaners, purchased in 1983; seats were added to the main sanctuary, and a youth wing was created for Shabbat morning children’s groups.

A marble-and-glass-and-brick facade allows light to filter in to the rustic main sanctuary, where dark wood beams hang overhead, and pearly tapestries adorn the brick walls.

“My balabatim [members] live affluent lives; why should shul be any different than the way we live at home?” Muskin asks. “This is God’s home, our home away from home. It should be beautiful.”

Throughout the years of growth, the challenge has been to maintain the intimacy the founders envisioned. Muskin makes sure to know each member, to keep track of their personal lives. He prides himself on the details he covers, from sending a mazel tov cake and card to every family with a simcha, to the calls he makes every Friday afternoon to his list of widows, widowers and the ill — something he learned from his father.

He and his wife and their two daughters, Gila, 11, and Dina, 9, have a tableful of guests every Shabbat. Ruhama, who is the assistant principal for girls’ Torah studies at Yavneh Hebrew Academy, also heads up the shul’s chesed committee, arranging meals for the bereaved, the ill or for families who just had babies.

“They are a fantastic team,” says Rebekah Jalali, an administrator who is the only other full-time staff member at Young Israel. “There is not one little detail they don’t take care of, and everything is done with a tremendous amount of warmth and love.”