Shul Searching

Shul SearchingFor many Los Angeles Jews, looking for the ‘right’ synagogueat the High Holidays is a late-summer rite

You would think that, in a city with 519,000 Jews and at least 175synagogues of all different strains, Judith–she requested her lastname not be used–would be able to pick a place of worship to spendthe High Holidays. But she can’t. “I have no idea where I’m going,”she said. “I just haven’t found the place.”

Call it Judith’s Dilemma. Call it shul-searching. Or call itfinding the place. For thousands of Los Angeles Jews, the problem issomething of a late-summer ritual. “Every year, every year, we gothrough this,” said screenwriter Adam Gilad, whose own High Holidaysearch has taken him from Orthodox minyans to feel-good pray-ins (seesidebar page 14).

At High Holiday time, no term seems more apt than “wandering Jew.”Only 41 percent of all Jews are affiliated with a synagogue, yet alarge percentage of those unaffiliated find themselves, whether outof need, love or guilt, slouching toward shul. The phenomenon is sowell-documented, it has a name. “We call it the ‘mushroomsynagogue,'” said Rabbi Paul Dubin, executive director of the Boardof Rabbis of Southern California. “These places experience enormousgrowth all at once, then shrink after the attendance falls backdown.” The problem for synagogues is dealing with the enormous ebband flow. The problem for congregants is finding where to go in thefirst place.

Of course, it didn’t used to be like this. In the old days, yousimply went wherever your parents or friends brought you. If you camefrom a small town or a particular neighborhood, you didn’t have thechoice of more than a couple houses of worship. Synagogue membershipwould remain in the same family for generations.

But Jewish life today is much more menu-driven. The questionfacing most post-World War II Jews is not “where do I have to go?”but “where do I like to go?”

This Rosh Hashanah, which begins at sundown on Oct. 1, Amy JoDonner, a public relations executive, will attend synagogue with herparents, as she almost always has. But next year, she said, she andher husband, Michael, both Reform Jews, will begin looking for theirown temple to call home. “I want to find a temple we really like,”said Donner. “We haven’t found one yet.”

So what are Jews looking for in a High Holiday service?Inspiration, relevance, child care and good parking — though notnecessarily in that order.

What they don’t want is too much Hebrew, dull sermons, expensivetickets and a stuffy or snobby atmosphere. Amid the wealth ofsynagogues, many Los Angeles Jews find a poverty of viable choices.Traditional synagogues that have choirs, long sermons and an almosttheatrical approach to the solemn liturgy clash with a youngergeneration’s demand for a more participatory approach.

“The problem,” said Rabbi Shlomo Schwartz, “is they’re going,expecting something big, and they’re being disappointed.”

Seven years ago, Schwartz — known as Schwartzie to anyone who’sever come into his high-energy orbit — began holding services aimedat those dissatisfied with New Year’s at mainstream synagogues. About90 people attended. This year, Schwartzie’s Chai Center expects about1,200 to show up. The services, held this year at the Henry FondaTheatre in Hollywood, are conducted largely in English, withSchwartzie’s running commentary and plenty of Shlomo Carlebach tunes.The rabbi calls it “Chassidic Reform.”

But the Chai Center is not for everyone: There’s no child care,men and women sit separately, and parking on torn-up HollywoodBoulevard is challenging. “You’d be surprised how many calls I getabout parking,” said Schwartzie. “This bothers me.” The rabbiwondered aloud if the most important selling point for a serviceisn’t “freeway close.”

But the wandering Jews interviewed for this story cite numerousreasons beyond parking for deciding against a particular shul –boring sermons, tickets that can cost hundreds of dollars per seat,standoffish fellow Jews, too much Hebrew liturgy, too much Englishliturgy, a hammy cantor, an iffy neighborhood. Donner’s pet peeve isreserved seating, which usually means members with seniority get thebest seats. “Young people are at the back of the bus the whole time,”she said.

Judith’s dissatisfaction is harder to pin down, yet common. At 40,the parenting teacher is a committed and learned Conservative Jew –just the type of new congregant synagogues ache to attract. She hasbeen to several High Holiday services at various congregations in thepast and has yet to call any one home. What’s missing from most, shesaid, is a soulfulness that’s at once elusive and, when present,palpable. Her experience at a Rosh Hashanah service last year withRabbi David Cooper of Congregation Ohr Ha Torah, which involvedchanting, singing and meditation, was her favorite so far. But thatservice is held just one evening. The rest of the time, she searches.”It’s more than the service,” she said. “It’s the place, the people.”

Schwartzie hears such complaints frequently. “I don’t even know ifthey know what they’re looking for,” he said. “They’re dating, butthey want to fall in love.”

Synagogues — aware that the High Holy Days are their bestopportunity to pull in new members — advertise their services in The Journal and the Los Angeles Times. Schwartz and some Chabadcongregations post fliers on telephone poles and shop windows,complete with phone numbers and World Wide Web addresses.

But those searching rarely rely on ads alone. They are more apt togo where their parents go (“I might not like it,” said one youngwoman, “but at least I don’t have to pay for tickets”), where friendsrecommend, or to whatever synagogue is closest to home.

And where will Judith go? “I have no idea,” she said. “I’m notlooking for hip; I just want to be able to sing and pray.”