Malibu Shul Begins Building — Finally

Construction crews broke ground at the site of the Malibu Jewish Center and Synagogue (MJCS) last week — two and a half years after the congregation held a gala groundbreaking celebration for the new $10 million building.

"Building in Malibu is legendary — it’s very difficult to get through the regulatory process. Thank God, we’ve made it through all of that," said George Greenberg, congregation president.

It took about seven years for the 225-family congregation to work through the red tape that binds any building project in Malibu, from city permits to the daunting state Coastal Commission. With permits finally in hand and $7.5 million raised, construction trucks moved onto the 5-acre site on Pacific Coast Highway (PCH), about a mile up the coast from Pepperdine University.

The new building, a sweep of steel and glass that is deliberately ambiguous about where the outside ends and inside begins, will be the first major synagogue erected in Malibu. Chabad has a small congregation nearby, also on PCH, and the nearest shuls are in Pacific Palisades and Santa Monica.

"Malibu is an interesting place because people come here to get away — they come here specifically not to join, to be secluded with nature," Greenberg said.

Set into a lush hillside on PCH where lizards and dragonflies crisscross dirt paths, the Reconstructionist MJCS has eschewed the conventional routines of some communities, offering alternative portals to participating in services or classes. Rabbi Judith HaLevy relishes in programs such as Shabbat on the Beach — a hallmark of summer here — and she has set up a regular rotation on Friday nights of healing services, family services and small Kabbalat Shabbat services in people’s homes.

Until now, the physical space has worked well with the ad hoc aura. The "temporary" cluster of prefabricated units put up 10 years ago on the northern end of the site still serve as the way-too-cozy administrative offices, the preschool, the religious school and the main sanctuary — which also serves as a preschool room and a kitchen — and where bar and bat mitzvah’s require setting up tents outside the sliding doors on either side of the ark.

For the High Holidays, 1,200 congregants will worship in a tent set up in a dusty athletic field in the shadow of the mountainside, where if you sit in the right spot you can see over the trees lining PCH and catch a glimpse of the ocean.

HaLevy and Greenberg have worked with architects to maintain both the closeness with nature and the intimacy with each other in the new building.

The new campus will house the preschool and offices in the old prefab units. The centerpiece of the new 20,000-square-foot indoor/outdoor complex is the nearly all-glass main sanctuary, which opens up in back to two roofed patios covered on three sides. On the other side of the bimah and ark, glass doors open up to an outdoor amphitheater. The entire building is surrounded by lushly landscaped concourses. Catered events can also be held in the space, and the new kitchen will be under kosher supervision.

The natural beauty of the site is one of its biggest assets, and also turned out to be a major obstacle toward developing the property. The parcel of land, acquired from NBC 10 years ago, is a long, narrow lot, and about 40 percent of it turned out to be designated as an Environmentally Sensitive Habitat Area, rendering that part of the land ineligible for any development. (NBC agreed to forgive almost $800,000 of the remaining mortgage when the condition of the land became known.)

The entire property has to be regraded, sound barriers to PCH will be built and the shul will have its own waste water treatment facility.

While the delays were a headache for the congregation, Greenberg acknowledges the extra time was also necessary for more fundraising. Malibu Beach’s image as playground of the rich and famous holds true for a small percentage of the congregation, but most members are from plain old Malibu — just regular professionals, says Greenberg, attracted to Malibu’s small-town feel.

As one of the only shuls for miles, MJCS attracts a wide range of members, from the very traditional to the barely affiliated. It tries to be inclusive of the many intermarried families, while not lowering the bar of what is expected from both kids and adults.

Greenberg and HaLevy both realize that putting up a major edifice will challenge the warm and intimate character they have worked hard to nurture.

HaLevy looks to innovative programs like Shabbat on the Beach, where the candles flutter in the wind and the dolphins come for a weekly dose of spirituality, to keep congregants tied to the community.

"The direct spiritual experience is very difficult to provide, but my saying ‘let’s be quiet for a three minutes and listen to the waves before we say the Shema’ might be enough for you to find a place in your soul that is very hard to find," HaLevy said. "Hopefully the space we are building will have that kind of a feel."