The Leading Congregations exchange, part 3: ‘Today, a congregation with a bland mission is at risk of going out of business’


Rabbi Hayim Herring is an author, consultant and nonprofit organizational futurist. Rabbi Herring has worked with over 300 rabbis and congregations of all sizes and denominations throughout North America on issues including assessment, volunteer leadership development, strategic planning, organizational foresight and innovation. He has served as a senior rabbi of a congregation, assistant director of the Minneapolis Jewish Federation, and has published dozens of scholarly articles on the American Jewish community. Rabbi Herring holds degrees from Columbia University and The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, where he was ordained, and a doctorate in Organization and Management from Capella University’s School of Business.

This exchange focuses on Rabbi Herring’s new book, Leading Congregations in a Connected World: Platforms, People and Purposes (co-written with Dr. Teri Elton). Parts 1 and 2 can be found here and here.

***

Dear Rabbi Herring,

Near the end of your last answer, you wanted some clarifications about what I meant when I asked you if thinking in marketing terms doesn’t hurt the purity of the tradition.

Now, of course I didn’t mean that all modern synagogues should strive to promote a “Haredi sect” vision of Judaism (if I believed that, I would never have hosted you and dozens of other progressive rabbis in my Torah talks)… What I was referring to is the idea that, for many people, the notion of treating faith and religion as a product, as something that needs to be “marketed” or “rebranded,” can be quite off-putting. I assume most people would like their shul to be a place free from everyday corporate lingo and wouldn’t like to imagine their Rabbi as having marketing in mind when he or she preaches from the pulpit, supports community members in times of need, or advances communal initiatives.

For my third-round question I’d like to ask you to elaborate some more on the idea of mission. In your previous answer you stated that: “people’s lives are so cluttered with excellent opportunities for programs, entertainment and socially valuable causes that unless a congregation or nonprofit has a mission that is so clear and so compelling that can cut through the clutter, marketing efforts are questionable.”

Now, your book tries to address issues facing both congregations and nonprofits. But while in the case of nonprofits the need to state a mission and set goals is understandable, what does having “a clear and compelling” mission mean in the context of a synagogue? What kind of missions can synagogues have besides just being a place of worship, Jewish learning, and community life (as in the days of yore)?

Thank you again for participating in this exchange.

Yours,

Shmuel

***

Dear Shmuel,

Thanks for pushing the discussion about congregations and nonprofits with increasingly difficult questions. Following up on our debate about “marketing,” you clarify: “I assume most people would like their shul to be a place free from everyday corporate lingo and wouldn’t like to imagine their Rabbi as having marketing in mind when he or she preaches from the pulpit, supports community members in times of need, or advances communal initiatives.”

True-and that’s a great segue into today’s question: “What does having a clear and compelling’ mission mean in the context of a synagogue? What kind of missions can synagogues have besides just being a place of worship, Jewish learning, and community life (as in the days of yore)?”

Spoiler alert: a congregation with a bland mission in today’s hyper-connected world of unlimited choice is at risk of going out of business. But congregations with differentiated, focused and compelling missions, that allow people to express and explore themselves Jewishly within those missions, have a better chance of thriving.

“Marketing” and “mission” are dual engines of congregational and nonprofit vibrancy. Marketing is about building relationships with people for whom you care based on causes which you share. That means that leaders of congregations and nonprofits have to define what their primary purposes are. As you suggest, the broad mission of every congregation is to engage its community in “Torah, Avodah and Gemilut Chasadim” (Torah study, prayer and acts of kindness expressed by and for members of the community). Not too long ago, most congregational mission statements were indistinguishable from one another. A typical mission statement might have read: Synagogue XXXX is a welcoming congregation devoted to creating a sacred community expressed through study of Torah, worship and acts of kindness.

That typical 20th Century mission above reflects hierarchical organizations. The missional proposition was, “join our community and here is what we, the more involved/elite group of insiders, pledge to provide to those of you who are not nearly as informed.” But when individuals sought deeper involvement, they often found a disconnect between what these standard missions professed and how they were actually expressed. There was Torah study – but it wasn’t not particularly challenging or inspiring. There was prayer – but the words of the book/siddur didn’t speak to their hearts. And these places that claimed to be “welcoming” didn’t always seem to behave that way. Congregations still work for some, but if you look at their increasing financial and membership pressures, they aren’t working for many.

Adapting the thinking of, Peter Drucker, a founder of modern nonprofit management, we suggest that the mission of a congregation or nonprofit is measured in:

– Changed Jewish lives.

– Changed Jewish communities.

– A changed world.

That’s why mission is critical and some congregations are really beginning to differentiate themselves with a focus on mission. These congregations and nonprofits are making hard choices. They have accepted the reality that trying to be all things to all people and do everything well guarantees mediocrity. Using their missions as filters, they decide where they want to focus their talent, time and funds to have the greatest likely impact on changing lives and communities, pursue those several goals with relentless excellence, and collaborate with other organizations in areas where they decide to place fewer resources so that members and potential joiners can have their other Jewish needs met through congregational partnerships.

A few examples of parts of contemporary mission statements (and I’m using both Jewish and Protestant examples from my book, as Protestants are also recognizing the need to focus less on programs, and more on purpose or mission):

Lab/Shul: Welcome to Lab/Shul, an artist-driven, everybody-friendly, God-optional, pop up, experimental community for sacred Jewish gatherings based in NYC and reaching the world.

Jacob’s Well Church (Minneapolis): If church is boring, something’s broken. Instead of being a once a week obligation, we want our time together to awaken who you are – you know, your real selves. Honest, thinking, relevant and casual gatherings impact the lives we live.

Romemu (New York City): Romemu seeks to integrate body, mind, and soul in Jewish practice. Unabashedly eclectic, we engage in body practices like yoga, infuse traditional liturgy with the energy of ecstatic chant, and ground our practice with meditation and contemplation. This is a Judaism that will ignite your Spirit…

GPS Faith Community (Machesney Park, IL): (Our mission is) Finding direction by loving God and serving others. We do this by joining together for worship and fellowship and then going out into our lives and into the community to love and serve others.

These mission statements:

– Invite an individual’s involvement on personal and not institutional terms, and also make their institutional parameters and expectations clear.

– Point individuals toward becoming part of a community of greater impact.

– Assume that most of a person’s time is spent outside of the walls or websites of the congregations, and that one must live out the mission even when not in services.

A Talmudic legal principle, “if you grasp too much, you wind up holding nothing,” applies to congregational and nonprofit missions. For many reasons, it’s not possible for congregations to excel at everything, although members have that expectation. My advice based on what we have learned: better to go deep in a few areas of Jewish life and build partnerships with others who can provide excellence in others.

When that happens, I think that you’ll find more people participating in congregational and Jewish nonprofit life because their individual and communal experiences will provide them with personal, enduring and powerful purpose as they live out their communities’ missions. I know that you have much to write about, but hope that others will be stimulated to purchase Leading Congregations and Nonprofits in a Connected World. Platforms, People and Purpose and delve further into your provocative questions!

Thank you,

Hayim

Congregations help the homeless into homes — one family at a time


Sharon (not her real name) and her 4 1/2-year-old son have been in and out of shelters and temporary housing for the past several years, sometimes living on the streets. A recovering drug addict, Sharon now has a steady job working at a bakery but is about to reach her time limit in a transitional housing apartment.

But this time, she has a team of congregants from Leo Baeck Temple to help her not only find a place she can afford to live, but create and stick to a budget. They’ll help her furnish her apartment, will set up her transportation and will even baby-sit for her son so she can get an occasional break.

Leo Baeck connected with Sharon through Imagine LA, a program in its pilot year that aims to end homelessness among families by connecting Los Angeles’ 8,000 places of worship with the city’s 8,000 families who are on the verge of homelessness.

Three churches and Leo Baeck have signed on, and by 2009 Imagine LA hopes to have 30 families adopted.

Congregations make a financial commitment of $5,000 to adopt a family for two years. Most of that money is put into a donor-directed bank account overseen by the family, the congregation and case managers.

Imagine LA inserts itself into the problem of homelessness at a critical juncture: the exit from transitional housing. While case managers and psychologists help residents in transitional housing stabilize, many find themselves spiraling lower in the cycle of homelessness when the six-month to two-year limit there is up.

Imagine LA coordinators work with facility case managers and faith partners to determine the family’s needs and set up a plan for independent living. They might help a single mother get her high school equivalency diploma, help kids with homework or shuttle kids to sports programs. Sometimes, a mother needs to learn how to shop for and cook meals for a week, or sometimes she just needs moral support.

“The idea is to create a sustainable exit from homelessness, so they don’t just get into housing and get on the treadmill, but feel like they can grow and have some hope,” said Jill Govan Bauman, executive director of Imagine LA, an independent nonprofit founded in 2005 at the Bel Air Presbyterian Church.

The Leo Baeck team has met with Sharon once a week over the last month, since they signed on, and they’re hoping to have her in an apartment soon.

“Many of us here are socially active in many different ways, and there were enough of us who wanted to really do this hands-on,” said Scott Sale, a Leo Baeck member working with Imagine LA. He said the team bought into the idea of each faith-based organization in Los Angeles adopting one family to make a huge impact. “If we have to do it one at a time, that’s how we’ll do it. It’s just like the Jewish idea of saving one life is like saving the whole world.”

For additional information, visit http://www.imaginela.org/main/index.html.

L.A. boasts record turnout at AIPAC


WASHINGTON — At the largest American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference in the organization’s 55-year history, where more than 7,000 pro-Israel activists from across the nation are attending the three-day summit in Washington D.C., Los Angeles has set a historic record.

During the opening plenary breakfast on June 2, the pro-Israel lobby announced that three out of four synagogue delegations with more than 100 people in attendance were from Los Angeles: Sinai Temple (240), Stephen S. Wise Temple (160) and Valley Beth Shalom (105).

The Southern Pacific Region represents the country’s largest delegation to the conference this year with 1,500 attendees coming from Southern California, Southern Nevada, Hawaii and Arizona; 1,250 members of that constituency hail from the greater Los Angeles area.

AIPAC’s annual conference attracts scores of pro-Israel supporters, congressmen and world leaders, and culminates with delegates lobbying their representatives at the Capitol Building, an experience that has recently gained momentum in the L.A. community.

“This effort has been building itself,” said Donna Bender, 44, an AIPAC lay leader in the San Fernando Valley. “Every year, we are so overwhelmed at the effectiveness [of AIPAC] and access to national leadership that we’re getting our friends to come.”

Bender added that the presidential election has heightened intergenerational interest in the conference, which saw appearances by all three presidential candidates.

“This is a testimony to our community — that we care deeply about the issues affecting Israel, that we understand the average citizen can make a difference,” she said.

While Los Angeles has been portrayed as lackadaisical in its approach to politics, despite its reputation as a potent source for political contributions, the record attendance at Policy Conference signals a change.

“I don’t think L.A. gets enough credit for its political activism,” said Michael Tuchin, 43, incoming president of University Synagogue and an avid AIPAC supporter since he was a student at Stanford University.

“Under Elliot Brandt’s leadership, we’ve come a long way,” he said, referring to AIPAC’s Western States director. “L.A. is on the map; but as one of the largest Jewish communities in the world, we’ve barely scratched the surface.”

Teenagers reveal why this service is different from all other services


Since the recent holiday of Passover was one of asking questions and thinking about transitioning from one state of being to another, it is an appropriate time to think of the bar and bat mitzvah in a similar context. These four questions — or more accurately one question and four answers — can be recited by 13-year-olds, but their explanations are particularly relevant for all of us.

Why is this prayer service different from every other prayer service?

At every other service I didn’t count, today I count for the first time.

All too often we forget that we count. In fact we discount how much our voices and our actions matter or can matter. At every prayer service from this time forward the bar or bat mitzvah literally counts, literally matters. Without his or her presence a group of nine other adults (or eight if one’s tradition is to count the Torah) would not be able to chant Torah or recite the Mourner’s Kaddish, as well as several other prayers.

Knowing that one’s presence not only counts but matters is very powerful for any one of us, let alone for a 13-year-old who so often can get lost in the crowd. The power of this counting can be traced back to the story of Abraham’s argument with God on behalf of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, a story which not only serves as the source for the 10 that make up the minyan, but also reminds us of the obligation of each individual to stand up on behalf of others.

On this day let each bar and bat mitzvah be given the message that he or she counts.

At every other service I listened to others, today at this service they listen to me.

When I do a walk through “rehearsal” with families the day before a bar or bat mitzvah, the young person practices announcing pages and telling the congregation to stand or sit. Often the parents remain seated when their child says “Please rise.” I joke that the parents and siblings need to do whatever the bar/bat mitzvah says and must follow his or her directions. Then I let the young person know that he or she shouldn’t get too used to this — that in 24 hours things will go back to normal. But the fact is that they should get used to this. The young person is leading the congregation in prayer and a d’var Torah (words of Torah). The bar/bat mitzvah is taking a place among the adults in the community and is letting us know (or reminding us) that he or she has something to say.

On this day let us give the bar/ bat mitzvah (for the first time or yet again) the message that what he or she has to say is worth listening to and hearing.

At every other prayer service I was a participant, today at this service I am the leader.

We know that a community needs leaders and participants. Many of us would also agree that for a community to be healthy there needs to be fluidity in these roles. Participants need opportunities to take leadership, and leaders need to take opportunities to join with participants and give others the opportunities to lead.

A central part of becoming a leader is the active and continuing pursuit of knowledge and the implicit message that learning is lifelong. (Some congregations have given the education director the title “director of lifelong education.”) It is the parents’ responsibility to model their own continuing Jewish learning and to make it a priority for their children. (Encouraging young people to continue to learn post bar/bat mitzvah should come with a parental commitment to do the same.) It is a Jewish community’s obligation to offer compelling opportunities for continued Jewish learning.

On this day, let us give the bar/bat mitzvah student the message (including by example) that to be a participant and a leader we need to recognize how much we have to learn and we must continue to learn.

At every other service I was seen as a child, today I am seen as the adult I will some day become.

A parent once shared with me the bittersweetness of observing how her child moved from one stage of life to the next. As she began to love her child in each stage of his growth, he would move on to another stage thus morphing into a new child, leaving her to cope with the loss of the child she had just gotten to know and to adjust to this “new” son.

When a child becomes a bar/bat mitzvah we see aspects of him or her that we may or may not have glimpsed before. As parents there is an obligation to treasure the pieces of those previous stages and recognize all those parts that will one day come together and become the adult that the child will one day be.

On this day let us recognize all the parts of the child and let him or her know how much we treasure all of who he or she is.

May this question and the four answers open our minds to new ideas and to even more questions.

Jeff Bernhardt is a b’nai mitzvah teacher at Temple Israel of Hollywood. He is also a writer living in Los Angeles.

Survey says Reform rabbis don’t know what members want


Leaders of Reform synagogues don’t quite get their members, according to a new study by the movement.

The study shows a marked disconnect between what the leaders think their members are looking for and what the members say they actually want.

In general, the synagogue leaders seem to underestimate their members’ interest in Jewish practice and worship. And they overestimate the synagogue’s importance in the religious lives of their families.

The two-year study, to be released at the Reform movement’s upcoming biennial, suggests that synagogue leaders better focus more on building warm, welcoming communities if they want to have and hold their members.

Questions addressed by the study — Why do people join Reform congregations? Why do they leave? And what can synagogues do to make themselves into warm, welcoming communities? — will be a major focus of the 69th biennial conference of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) set for Dec. 12-16 in San Diego.

A week ahead of the conference, 3,200 people had registered for what generally proves to be the largest national gathering of any Jewish stream. That includes a higher number of international delegates than usual, according to conference organizers, as well as a strong showing of high school and college students.

In addition to unveiling the survey on membership, highlights of the five-day biennial will include:

  • URJ President Rabbi Eric Yoffie’s announcement of a movement-wide initiative to increase the personal observance of Shabbat by Reform Jews;
  • The first large-scale use of Mishkan Tefilla, the movement’s long awaited new prayer book that has begun arriving in synagogues this past month. Copies will be given to every participant and it will be used at worship services during the biennial;
  • Release of three new URJ Press publications — “The Torah: A Women’s Commentary” and two books on men’s programming — as part of an exploration of gender differences kicked off by a two-day pre-conference symposium;
  • A closing-day plenary address by Ingrid Mattson, the president of the Islamic Society of North America — the same group Yoffie addressed over the summer.
    Of the many topics to be addressed at the biennial, the most popular are turning out to be those sessions on outreach and membership.

Conference organizers report that hundreds have signed up for workshops on those issues, as well as intermarriage and conversion — more than for any other topic, and significantly more than those who enrolled for workshops on those issues in previous years.

Movement leaders attribute the spike in interest to a generally positive response to Yoffie’s 2005 biennial initiative. In his Shabbat morning sermon that year, he urged Reform congregations to honor their non-Jewish members, to invite those non-Jewish members to convert and to focus on how to remake their congregations so members stay throughout their lifetime rather than quitting after their children become b’nai mitzvah.

Those initiatives “clearly resonated” among Reform Jews, said Kathy Kahn, the union’s director of outreach and membership.

Now the Reform movement has some data with which to frame its outreach and membership discussions.

The new membership study involved two years of phone interviews, online surveys, case studies and undercover visits by “mystery shoppers” to Reform services in four cities — Cleveland, Seattle, Springfield, Mass. and Boca Raton, Fla.

Results showed that current and former members of Reform synagogues mostly join for reasons of community, not for “services” provided.

“Congregations that work go out of their way to integrate new members, inviting them to Shabbat dinner rather than just putting them on committees,” said Emily Grotta, URJ’s communications director, who conducted many of the study’s phone interviews.

Grotta points to one Cleveland congregation that created small chavurot, or prayer fellowships, of members with similar interests, and successfully built a sense of community that permeated the larger congregation.

“You could hear it in people’s voices, the difference,” she said.

The survey found that synagogue leaders misunderstood members’ interest in spirituality and worship.

It included interviews with 910 former members of Reform congregations to find out why they joined and why they eventually left.

Whereas 50 percent said they joined because they wanted a place to worship, synagogue leaders thought worship was important to just 5 percent of those former members.

Synagogue leaders also overestimated the importance of their institutions in the religious lives of their members.

Fifty-eight percent of former members said they “were able to be Jewish without a congregation,” a factor that didn’t show up on the leadership’s radar. Also, 18 percent said they filled their Jewish needs “elsewhere,” again a factor the leadership failed to recognize.

That should serve “as a wake-up call to all the denominations,” Grotta said.

Interest in worship and spirituality is pronounced among newer as well as former members of Reform congregations, she said.

“What jumped out at us was the number of new people who join for worship, for spirituality, to learn how to become better Jews,” Grotta said. “The leaders didn’t get that at all.”

Money is also important, or rather the perceived value of what members get for their dues: 40 percent of former members of Reform congregations said they withdrew because membership was too expensive. Just 9 percent of the leadership thought cost was an issue.

Overall, the study shows that Reform Jews remain synagogue members if their congregation becomes their community, the place where their friends and family are.

Thirty-five percent of those who left Reform congregations said they “didn’t find community” at the synagogue, and 33 percent said it was because their “children didn’t connect” after they became b’nai mitzvah.

“If we don’t build a sense of community,” movement leaders warn in the study’s conclusion, then members of Reform congregations “will leave when they have received the services they want.”

New congregations net results online


When Ikar, a 3-year-old congregation in Los Angeles, wants to make an announcement to the 1,500 people on its mailing list, it doesn’t send a letter. It sends an e-mail.

“We’ve never sent out a piece of hard mail,” says Joshua Avedon, who is in charge of technology for the young, unaffiliated community that describes itself as “traditional yet progressive.”

That’s not all they use the Internet for.

“We get people interested in Ikar who don’t live here, who follow us” via the community’s Web site and then show up if they move to Los Angeles, Avedon says. “We have donors in New York and Jerusalem who have never been here.”

Keeping people virtually abreast of the group’s activities is “a way of creating a global constituency,” Avedon says.

For dozens of new congregations and minyans, or prayer communities, like Ikar, the Internet is not just a faster, more convenient communication tool. It’s a central organizing mechanism and community-building tool, filling the roles performed in more traditional synagogues by administrative staff, newsletters, membership committees, religious school, even rabbis.

The creation of ShulShopper.com, an interactive tool, still in beta testing, is designed to allow people to find and rate local synagogues, and it aims to take the global Jewish conversation to a new level.

“The Internet is critical,” says Avedon, who also is communications director for Synagogue 3000, which works with emerging Jewish communities nationwide.

Without the Internet, many of these new Jewish communities wouldn’t even exist.

Kol Zimrah, an independent minyan in New York, has no building of its own but meets once a month at various locations. It sends out an e-mail to the 500 people on its list telling them when and where services will take place.

“All of our communication is over the Internet,” Kol Zimrah co-founder Ben Dreyfus says. “We don’t have a phone list or snail mail.”

In fact, he continues, the minyan was started five years ago by people “sending an e-mail around.”

Kol Zimrah posts the music it uses for people to download, learn and use at their own services.

“It’s a way of teaching people,” Dreyfus says.

The Internet also enables interaction within a congregation. Elie Kaunfer, a founder of Kehilat Hadar in New York, says members and other participants “sign up for programs, offer feedback and pay for events online.”

Not only is the Web convenient, it enables young, fiscally challenged Jewish communities to cast a wider net and “advertise” their activities for free. Hadar doesn’t spend any money on marketing, Kaunfer says. That’s crucial for the many communities that do not charge fixed dues.

Kavana, an independent Jewish community in Seattle, draws its members — or partners, as the community calls them — largely from young Jews who loved to the city to work in the high-tech industry.
The Internet “helps us assess how we are delivering our services,” notes Suzi LeVine, who used to work at Microsoft and Expedia.

Kavana maintains online charts to track how people move from attending one event to attending three, to finally joining the community.

All this puts pressure on the communities to keep their sites looking spiffy.

Shira Cohen, communications director for Minyan Tehillah in Cambridge, Mass., notes that the group’s Web site has not been updated since it was created nearly four years ago — and the young people drawn to these groups have high Web standards.

“We realize that when people visit the area and are looking for minyanim of this type, they’ll Google us, and if our site looks bad, they probably won’t come,” she says.

A new tool will added when Daniel Sieradski, founder of the jewschool blog, fully launches ShulShopper. Sieradski pledges it will “provide the greater Jewish community with entirely free tools and resources conducive to independent Jewish learning and community organizing.”

The site will post descriptions of congregations written by its members, and users can log on to look for the congregations that best fit their needs. They can search by various factors, including level of observance, denominational affiliation, size and interfaith friendliness.

ShulShopper will function like a wiki, allowing users to contribute to congregational profiles and “review” their worship experiences — something that makes several people who wrote to Sieradski’s blog nervous.

Sieradski says ShulShopper is “an experiment,” the hoped-for first step in a more extensive site called Jew It Yourself. That larger venture, he says, will host congregations’ social networks and provide tools for independent Jewish study.

One idea Sieradski has is an online beit midrash, or study hall, where “people in Jerusalem and Houston can turn the same page” of text on-screen.

Certainly there is a generational shift behind this reliance on the Web. The new congregations, minyans or communities — whatever they choose to call themselves — are organized by or include Jews in their 20s and 30s who grew up with the Internet and are accustomed to interacting with others via computer screen. While their parents might find this technology impersonal, they don’t.

“The Internet fosters a degree of intimacy you rarely get elsewhere,” says Avedon, who notes that Internet use “is slowly infiltrating” older, established congregations. Rabbis of these new communities share their deepest thoughts on blogs.

Other blogs, like jewschool, “allow you to see the inside of the counter-cultural Jewish world,” something that in the pre-Web world “you’d need to sit in a smoke-filled cafe” to see, he says.

The Web fosters social networking. Many independent minyans and their members post their profiles on MySpace or Facebook, popular online communities. That helps sustain relationships among members of a congregation between the times they actually see each other.

Kol Zimrah just started a Facebook group, says member Elizabeth Richman, a rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary. One woman used it to compliment the curry served at a recent Shabbat meal.

The next week, Kol Zimrah member Dreyfus ran into the woman at Hadar, recognized her from Facebook and told her where to find the curry recipe.

“That’s a phenomenal cycle of technology allowing interaction between human beings,” Richman says.

For more information, visit local Jewish community networking startup PlanitJewish.com

Social justice moves to front of some congregational agendas


Three state Assembly members and a lone county supervisor were no match this week for 500 Jews demanding more money for health care.
“We meet tonight to ensure health-care coverage for all county residents,” said Rabbi Joel Fleekop of Congregation Shir Hadash of Los Gatos, host of the Feb. 12 event in that Silicon Valley town.

Invoking Judaism’s exhortation “to care for the widow and the orphan,” Fleekop and a dozen other speakers presented universal health care as a God-given right. If funding is not forthcoming, they warned the four elected officials, more than 300,000 children in California will be uninsured by 2012.

“As people of faith, we won’t stand for it,” one speaker declared.
It was hardly a fair fight. But that’s how it usually goes at such events, whispered Simon Greer, president of Jewish Funds for Justice, which had bused in more than 200 participants for the meeting from its national conference, “Holy Congregations, Just Communities,” in nearby Santa Clara.

These congregations were following a model of congregation-based community organizing put forward by Jewish Funds for Justice five years ago.

By joining with like-minded churches and civic groups in large, regional interfaith networks, Greer said, these synagogues are multiplying their strength and enhancing their effectiveness.
Participants from around the country said they are helping to transform their congregations into more caring, connected communities.

On the social action front, they are moving beyond once-a-year “mitzvah days” to become effective agents for social change in housing, education, crime prevention and health care. They are helping to push through laws and policies at local and state levels that they never could have alone.

The model is proving to be popular. In 2002, when the Jewish Funds initiative began, 20 synagogues signed on. Today that number has climbed to 70. Staffers hope it will move past 100 by the end of the year.

Nearly 300 Jewish clergy, rabbinical students and lay leaders, representing 63 of those 70 congregations, spent three days this week at the group’s second national gathering devoted to the issue.

Forty-four rabbinical students, from Reform to Orthodox, have taken the group’s semester-long course in leadership development and community organizing. It is required of all second-year students at the Modern Orthodox seminary Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in New York.

Synagogues engaged in the work are reporting success.

A congregation near Chicago, working in concert with other faith-based groups, shut down one of its neighborhood’s main suppliers of guns.Another congregation in Columbus, Ohio, secured $1 million to expand community health-care centers to serve an additional 3,500 people.A third, in Northern California, convinced county officials to set aside $18 million for affordable housing. And a fourth, in Maryland, doubled the number of taxis so local seniors could get around.

There are bigger victories as well. Rabbi Jonah Pesner spearheaded a successful organizing initiative at Temple Israel in Boston before being hired by the Reform movement to head its national “Just Congregations” project. He said the statewide health-care reform in Massachusetts passed last March because of the efforts of the 55 churches, synagogues and civic groups in the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization.

Beyond the tangible victories, those involved in this work say it has transformed their synagogues into communities where the people know and care about each other. In making the world a little better, they are making their congregations more warm, friendly and caring.

“My relationships with people are deeper, stronger,” said Rick Zinman of Temple Beth El in Aptos, Calif.

The process itself is important, say participants. Instead of having the rabbi or social action committee decide which projects to work on, congregants sit down with each other to talk about who they are, what they care about and why, to hone in on the issues they want to focus on.

Kehilat Shalom in Montgomery Village, Md., decided to work for affordable housing because many of its members’ children couldn’t afford to buy homes in the area.

“My empty nesters said, ‘Our kids are moving out, we want to be near our grandchildren,'” Rabbi Mark Raphael said.

Kehilat Shalom joined Action in Montgomery, a group of 31 local churches committed to social action, and together they got the county to earmark $140 million for affordable housing on public land.
The congregation still collects clothes for the homeless and holds its annual mitzvah day.

The process is time consuming. Congregation Sha’ar Zahav in San Francisco held 150 one-to-one meetings over the course of a year before joining the San Francisco Organizing Project, an interfaith network, to work for health-care reform.

“There was a lot of hesitancy in the synagogue,” congregant Susan Lubeck said. “The idea of being the only Jews in a Christian context was unnerving.”

It turns out that the churches had been seeking a way to draw synagogues into their social justice work, said Erika Katske, associate director of the San Francisco Organizing Project, just at the time that synagogues nationwide were becoming more interested.

Last June, Sha’ar Zahav hosted its first meeting with city officials to push for health-care reform. Rabbi Camille Angel watched as her congregants stood up and, one by one, told their stories: One had AIDS, another couldn’t afford medical insurance.

The politicos voted unanimously, and San Francisco became one of the first cities to pledge universal health-care coverage.

“I saw my congregants become leaders,” Angel said. “It was one of the most religious moments I’d ever seen in my sanctuary.”

Chasids in the Hood (or Not)


It’s one of the quirks of the Pico-Robertson neighborhood. There’s a movement that owns a huge block on Pico Boulevard right in the middle of the hood, runs a preschool,elementary, middle and high school for girls on that same block, has official or unofficial connections with six shuls in the area, has one of the higher-profile brand names in the Jewish world and yet, strangely, you walk around the hood and you don’t really feel their presence.

I’m talking about Chabad-Lubavitch.

They have two shuls on Robertson Boulevard, both south of Pico. The one closest to Pico — commonly called the Yemini shul, after its founder and leader Rabbi Amitai Yemini — has been in the area the longest. The other shul, farther south, is a small minyan called Chabad of Beverlywood.

On Pico, you’ll find one minyan officially connected to Chabad — a tiny weekly minyan in their Bais Rebbe building — and three independents: a Persian Chabad near Cresta Drive; a shul near Beverwil Drive recently opened by Rabbi Eyal Rav-Noy, who used to run a branch of Chabad’s Jewish Learning Institute, and finally, near Robertson is Bais Bezalel, the biggest Lubavitch synagogue on Pico, also known as the Rabbi Lisbon shul.

So with all this presence, how come Chabad is so, er, quiet around here?

In a way, it’s an easy answer: Chabad doesn’t make a lot of noise in areas where people put on tefillin.

They thrive in nonobservant communities, where their unconditional love for every Jew, and their flair for promoting mitzvahs, make them highly visible. For more than 50 years, Chabad has taken this outreach model throughout the world and has lit up thousands of communities with a tireless, single-minded focus on “giving you” a mitzvah.

The problem is that here in the hood, most of the mitzvahs are already taken. The soul of the hood is clearly Modern Orthodox, with the majority of Jews already observant and affiliated with one or more congregations, which cater mostly to their members. So it shouldn’t surprise anyone if there isn’t a market in the hood for Chabad-style outreach.

Of course, I had to meet a rabbi who thinks all this is baloney.

He’s a chabadnik who lives in the hood and who believes that there is, in fact, a market for outreach in this part of town. He doesn’t just believe it, he lives it.

In truth, he does outreach all over Los Angeles — with an emphasis on the Westside — but he has a special place in his heart for the hood, maybe because he lives and hangs out here. He’s like a gold prospector. He loves, for example, those buildings on Bedford and Wooster avenues, where he has discovered plenty of single, unaffiliated Jews who are now on his mailing list and come to his outreach events.

He recognizes that the hood is more of a post-outreach neighborhood, where Jews come to pursue their Judaism after their Jewish spark has been lit, usually elsewhere. But that doesn’t faze him. He thinks there’s a fair amount of unaffiliated Jews in the hood, but they are hidden (I think some of them are hiding). Either way, he says that even if there’s a tiny amount, he wants to reach them all.

His name is Rabbi Mendel Schwartz, and for the past few years he has been running the outreach organization called Chai, started 20 years ago by his father and former Chabad emissary Shlomo Schwartz (I’ve rarely met a Jew in L.A. who hasn’t heard of “Schwartzie”; I go to a lot of events, and he or a look-alike is at all of them). Chai, like the other independents, does not fall under the official Chabad umbrella, and it is neither a shul nor a location.

Rather, it’s a nimble guerrilla outreach operation that uses cool events to bring Jews to Judaism. A Purim party at a comedy club; a haimish Shabbat “dinner for 30 strangers” at Schwartzie and Olivia’s (his wife and partner); High Holiday services at the Writer’s Guild; a Chanukah lighting party in a minimansion. Because they move between venues, they supplement the work of other shuls. Their outreach feeds the shuls for inreach.

But while Chai may be eclectic and independent, their inspiration is classic Lubavitch: using mitzvahs to light Jewish sparks.

This, for me, is the Chabad genius: a knack on the deed, not the talk. They don’t get turned on by grand debates that lead to more grand debates. While the Jewish world agonizes over “profoundly important” issues, Chabad agonizes over getting to Kinko’s on time to get their flyers out for their Chanukah event.

And at Chanukah time, all Chabads make noise. Here in the hood, the Yemini shul had their big outdoor bash at the Wells Fargo parking lot on Saturday night, with the hot band, 8th Day (major sound system). Across the hood, many Lubavitchers have placed large portable menorahs on their cars (they were part of a Chabad citywide parade Monday night) and a giant menorah billboard is on the wall of their Bais Rebbe building, to go along with the actual menorah in front of the building.

There’s no doubt: Hood or no hood, outreach or inreach, Chabad salivates for Chanukah.

It’s the holiday that embodies, through one simple icon, what the Lubavitch movement yearns for all year long: a chance to make observant Judaism shine. With thousands of public menorah lightings around the world, they proudly shine a light on the Jewish faith, on the freedom to practice that faith, and on the value of doing another mitzvah.

They are the Nikes of the Jewish world: They believe that if you just do it, the mystical power of the mitzvah will win you over, and your heart and mind will inevitably follow. And if you live in Los Angeles, where might that lead you?

I’m guessing right back here in the hood, to look for a house.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is the founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.

The Diaspora may be moving, but it isn’t going away any time soon


When Howard Grossman moved to the northeastern Pennsylvania town of Wilkes-Barre 35 years ago, it was a thriving industrial city with a substantial, long-established Jewish community. Today, anyone who visits Wilkes-Barre cannot help but come away with the impression that this town of 43,000 has seen better days, and will perhaps see not too grand a future.

Along with the decline of the city’s industry, there’s been another loss: a massive reduction in its Jewish population. The community that numbered some 8,000 Jews in the 1920s has now shrunk to barely 2,100, a far more precipitous drop than the 40 percent decline experienced by the city at large.

Wilkes-Barre Jews, Grossman recalls, were prominent among the store owners of its bright and busy shops. But hard times for everyone had an even greater effect on the Jewish community. Today many Wilkes-Barre stores are empty while others have been replaced by low-end retail chains. The children of the original store owners, and of local garment manufacturers, teachers and professionals have, for the most part, decamped.

“It’s a shame,” Grossman says. “This is a town where they had a strong commitment.”

That commitment, Grossman insists, is still there. He estimates that 80 percent of Wilkes-Barre’s Jews are affiliated with a synagogue, a percentage far higher than in most places. Yet the depth of commitment doesn’t reduce the prospect that the community could eventually fade away.

The Protean Diaspora

The trajectory of this Pennsylvania city is nothing new — not in today’s United States, and not throughout the two-millennium-long history of the Diaspora. Jewish communities like the one in Wilkes-Barre have grown to prominence, only to decline over time into insignificance or even oblivion.

“The reality of Jewish life remains complex and protean,” Israeli historian David Vital suggests. “Jewry has no formal boundaries; its informal boundaries are subject to constant movement, change and debate.”

This has also been the history of the Jewish homeland itself: a bright period of ascendancy, followed by a stretch of desolation, and finally, today’s emerging reality, where Israel stands at the brink of becoming, for the first time since the heyday of the ancient state, the home of the largest Jewish community in the world.

Yet through history it has been the Diaspora, for all the contempt felt for it by some in Israel, that has dominated the “protean” history of our people, and marked what Martin Buber once called our “vocation of uniqueness.” Even when the old kingdom still existed in Palestine, Jews thrived mostly in “exile.” As early as 500 B.C.E., Jews established communities from Persia to North Africa. By the time of Jesus, when Hebrews accounted for roughly one in 11 residents of the Roman-dominated Mediterranean, nearly two-thirds lived outside Palestine, with roughly 1 million in Egypt alone.

Over the ensuing centuries these populations were constantly in flux, waxing and waning as economic, political and theocratic fashions forced migrations. Communities rose and then fell. At various times, Jews gathered in Antioch, Alexandria, Trier and, of course, the Eternal City itself. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Jewish fortunes shifted towards the Eastern Empire; later, to Islamic-dominated lands from Spain to Persia.

The Diaspora reached in all directions. Intolerant rulers spurred Jewish colonies to spread northward to The Netherlands and westward to England.

A different movement led eastward, this one from Germany and Central Europe to the vast, under-populated and economically backward lands of Poland and Russia. Between the 16th and 20th centuries, it was there that the largest concentration of Jews, more than 5 million, came to live.

Meanwhile, as Britain, Holland and other European powers stretched their influence around the world, Jews followed. The Diaspora spread as far as India and China, to the “new world” of Australia, and, most portentously, to the Americas.

The Reshuffled Diaspora

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, poverty and growing anti-Semitic pogroms led to the movement of 1.8 million predominately Eastern European Jews to the United States, transforming America into the leading center of Diaspora life.

Then, two inextricably related events further shattered the archipelago of historic Jewish communities: the rise of Nazism and the establishment of the State of Israel.

The first event all but wiped out the great Jewish communities of continental Europe.

The second event, the establishment of the State of Israel, was, of course, a blessing to the notion of global Jewish survival. But it also signaled the end of many of the world’s oldest Jewish enclaves. Muslim reaction against the state led to the virtual elimination of long-thriving Jewish communities in Egypt, Iraq and North Africa. Most of their members sought safety either in Israel, or in the United States, Canada, Australia or France.

This process of consolidation has now accelerated. The collapse of the Soviet Union brought a large population — roughly 1 million at least — out of a traditional center of Jewish life, and in to Israel, the United States and the remaining handful of countries willing to receive it, including, ironically, post-war democratic Germany.

The trend is continuing under the current Russian regime, which, although not openly anti-Semitic, follows an authoritarian, nationalistic bent uncomfortable for many Jews. Perhaps slightly more than 250,000 Jews from the former Soviet Union have immigrated to the United States since the collapse of the communist regime.

Most recently, new developments have enhanced the global concentration of Jews. Rising anti-Semitism and hard economic times, for example, brought many Mexican, Argentine and other South American Jews to Israel and the United States in the 1980s and 1990s. And the rise of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez — a man deeply influenced by the Argentine anti-Semite and Holocaust denier Norberto Ceresole — seems likely to accelerate the diminution of yet another small (roughly 15,000) but well-established Latin American community.

Also significant has been the rise of Islamist Iran, a country closely allied to its fellow oil producer Venezuela, and arguably the leading center of anti-Jewish agitation in the world today. Since the 1979 revolution, about 80 percent of Persian Jewry have left. More than half — at least 50,000 — have relocated to the United States, mostly to Los Angeles and to Long Island, N.Y.

Evangelicals Slate Pro-Israel Lobbying


Some 2,000 extremely pro-Israel community and religious leaders will meet in Washington on July 19, fan out across Capitol Hill and, in effect, tell their legislators: If you want our political backing, you must support the Jewish state — no ifs or buts.

There won’t be a single Jew among the citizen lobbyists. They will all be evangelical Christians, mainly ordained and lay pastors, embarking on the first major public action of the newly formed Christians United for Israel (CUFI).

The founder and leader of the group is the Rev. John C. Hagee of the 19,000-member Cornerstone Church of San Antonio, Texas, and a televangelist whose broadcasts reach millions in the United States and 120 other countries.

In 1978, in the first of his 21 trips to Israel, “I went as a tourist and returned as a Zionist,” Hagee said.

Last week, Hagee visited Sacramento, Los Angeles and San Diego to enlist support for his 4-month-old organization –both among fellow evangelicals and in front of generally enthusiastic, but occasionally skeptical, Jewish audiences.

Addressing the Board of Rabbis of Southern California at the L.A. Jewish Community Building, Hagee outlined two major projects, in addition to the July summit in Washington:

  • Expand the existing “rapid response network” of 12,000 pastors, who can mobilize their congregations instantly to flood the White House and Congress with e-mails on any legislation affecting Israel’s security and well-being.
  • Institute an annual “Night to Honor Israel” in every major American city to assure Israel and Jews everywhere that “you do not stand alone.” The emotional event is already a fixture in large Texas cities and in other Southern states.

Hagee and his followers have given a total of $8.5 million to Israeli causes, including an orphanage and for absorption of Russian immigrants, he said, but the major impact of CUFI is likely to be on the political scene.

The pastor didn’t spell it out, but his associates made clear that they view CUFI as a kind of super American Israel Public Affairs Committee, representing some 50 million evangelical Christians. This constituency, in sharp contrast to the Jewish community, shares the conservative social outlook of the present administration and represents its hardcore political base.

This kind of influence cannot be ignored by U.S. Jews, said Shimon Erem, founding president of the Israel-Christian Nexus, who introduced Hagee.

“We don’t have too many friends; we cannot prevail without them,” said Erem.

CUFI’s purpose, according to its official brochure, is “to provide a national association through which every pro-Israel church, parachurch organization, ministry or individual in America can speak and act with one voice in support of Israel in matters related to biblical issues.”

The last six words may sound vague, but they are key to the evangelicals’ deeply rooted advocacy for Israel. As unquestioning believers in the inerrant truth of Scripture, Hagee and his followers are convinced that every inch of the God-given land belongs to the Jews alone and forever.

Hagee insists that he never interferes in the decisions of the Israeli government, but his opposition to the withdrawals in Gaza and the West Bank, for instance, gives concern to liberal Jewish organizations.

However, it is mainly Orthodox spokesmen, who otherwise agree with Hagee’s social and biblical views, who have publicly questioned whether the pastor’s underlying motive is the conversion of Jews in Israel and the Diaspora.

The Rabbinical Council of America, representing Orthodox rabbis and congregations, has officially protested the Israeli government’s license to Daystar, the second largest Christian network in the United States, to broadcast 24/7 over an Israeli satellite network.

Hagee, a major Daystar supporter and on-air personality, has consistently affirmed that he will not proselytize Jews, although the network’s lineup also includes “messianic” Jews with long pro-conversion records.

When Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz, head of the anti-cult Jews for Judaism, raised this issue with Hagee at the Los Angeles meeting, the pastor did not respond directly, but his genial Southern folksiness took on a harder edge.

“If rabbis would put more emphasis on putting Jewish kids into Jewish schools, young Jews would never want to become Christians,” Hagee said.

 

Conservatives Focus on Intermarrieds


Stephen Lachter didn’t know what to expect when a friend dragged him to a men’s club meeting at his Conservative synagogue five years ago.

“My father was in a men’s club, and to me, it was guys sitting around playing pinochle and volunteer ushering,” he admitted.

Instead, Lachter was surprised to see “interesting people having serious discussions,” and he “fell into a session on kiruv,” or outreach, to intermarried families. “I said to myself, this is something shuls need to be talking about.”

Today, Lachter is a kiruv consultant, a lay leader trained to reach out to intermarried families in his Washington congregation. He’s part of a nationwide program run by the Conservative movement’s Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs, which is aimed at making Conservative synagogues more welcoming to their non-Jewish members.

The initiative comes at a time when the Conservative movement is concerned about declining numbers. The Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs has consistently been ahead of the Conservative movement in reaching out to the intermarried.

That groundwork is bearing fruit. Last December at its biennial convention, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism announced its own kiruv initiative, advocating a more open attitude toward members’ non-Jewish spouses, while still holding conversion as the preferred goal.

The document, which has been distributed to Conservative congregations around the country, doesn’t go as far as the Men’s Club kiruv initiative, but it’s a big step in the right direction, said Rabbi Chuck Simon, executive director of the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs.

“Four years ago, we set our goal to put kiruv on the Conservative movement agenda within five years. We did it in three and a half,” he said.

In the past three years, the Men’s Club organization has held seven training seminars for lay leaders and now has close to 40 kiruv consultants working in Conservative congregations around the country. The consultants set up kiruv committees at their synagogues and organize discussion groups with intermarried couples, their parents and grandparents.

At Kiruv consultant Lachter’s congregation, “people have come out of the woodwork,” he said. “How do you talk to your child who is interdating? We don’t have that language. How do grandparents deal with their grandchildren, teaching them what Judaism is without treading on toes?”

The Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs also has organized rabbinic seminars for interested Conservative rabbis on the assumption that kiruv consultants have to work closely with their rabbis to be effective. More than 120 rabbis have taken part in such seminars, including about 30 at a gathering held recently at Berkeley’s Congregation Netivot Shalom.

In its April 2006 edition, the federation’s Kiruv Initiative states its position as “in favor of conversion if possible,” while recognizing that many non-Jewish spouses “lead Jewish lives and raise Jewish families” even if they don’t convert themselves.

“The [federation] favors meeting these people where they are and assisting them in making Jewish choices,” the document concludes.

That’s a subtle distinction from the United Synagogue position. Rabbi Jerome Epstein, the United Synagogue’s executive vice president, spoke diplomatically about the federation approach.

“Anything one can do to encourage people to identify more clearly as Jews is good,” he said. “It’s not the approach we’re using, but it’s hard to be against an attempt to reach out to people.”

Rabbinic and lay training seminars are planned for Cincinnati and Anaheim in November, with more to follow next spring. This winter, the federation will begin an online evaluation of cultural change in the congregations taking part in the program.

At the Berkeley gathering, some of the rabbis, including Netivot Shalom’s Rabbi Stuart Kelman, were part of the Tiferet Project, a four-year effort that culminated with last year’s publication of “A Place in the Tent,” a booklet that urges the Conservative movement to adopt a more welcoming attitude toward intermarried families.

“For me, it’s not even a question,” Kelman said of the kiruv consultant idea. “One of the reasons there’s no bimah in my congregation is I’m trying to create a congregation that is accessible. I don’t think the rabbis can do it themselves; the best way to create cultural change is to empower lay people.”

Many of the rabbis have practical concerns: Their members are intermarrying, and they don’t want to lose them.

Rabbi Chai Levy of Marin County’s Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon noted that the most recent statistics in the county show that 90 percent of children ages 2-5 in families that identify as Jewish have a non-Jewish parent.

“The future of my congregation is, obviously, intermarried couples,” she said. “I have to think seriously about these people.”

 

Wisdom of the Ages


Ten years ago, when my parents, z”l, were 82 and 89, they traveled from Chicago to Los Angeles to be with my partner Tracy and me as we stood together under the chuppah. At the celebration of her daughter’s lesbian wedding, my mother was heard to say quite matter-of-factly: “I guess if you live long enough, you see everything.”

Amazingly, two-thirds of all the people who have ever lived past the age of 65 in the history of the world are alive today, according to Ken Dychtwald, author of “The Power Years: A User’s Guide to the Rest of Your Life.” This suggests that our way-beyond octogenarians in the Bible were the exception, not the rule.

The Bible gives skeptics many things to be skeptical about, but perhaps nothing so much as a verse in this week’s Torah portion: “Moses was 80 years old and Aaron 83 when they made their demand on Pharaoh” (Exodus 7:7).

Why would God call on octogenarians to lead the Israelites out from slavery and through 40 years in the wilderness? No wonder Moses was reticent, say the doubters (not a few of whom are octogenarians themselves, and know how it feels).

If the Torah mentioned Moses and Aaron’s advanced ages because here was yet another one of God’s miracles in redeeming us from slavery, then I’m beginning to think we’ve entered another age of miracles. For I have not only my parents (who lived to see, and even enjoy, ages 91 and 88), I also count myself blessed to have in my life a significant number of remarkable elders.

Last month at our synagogue, we heard a marvelous sermon from one of our oldest members, Harriet Perl, on the occasion of her 85th birthday. Her speech prompted us to embark on an oral history project at our synagogue (our recent newsletter profiled three of our elders, and includes Harriet’s speech). Last weekend I went to Chicago to visit four relatives and friends I’ve known all my life — ages 82, 89, 95, 96. They move more slowly than they used to, but give few other clues about their age.

In fact, surprisingly few commentators take note of the simple statement of Moses and Aaron’s ages in Parshat Vaera. But it should call out to us, reminding us that Moses is not the young man portrayed in the still-popular animated movie “The Prince of Egypt.” Maybe the filmmakers’ choice tells us something we need to know: God chose octogenarians to bring us out from slavery, while modern interpreters keep us enslaved to our worship of youth.

Fifty generations before ours, the Mishnah’s collection of wisdom known as Pirke Avot provides a list of attributes that come to each human being with each new decade. Ben shmonim ligvurah (80 years is the age of greatness and strength). Surely Yehudah ben Tema, the sage who said this, knew how old Moses was when God called him to lead.

These days, life expectancies are on the rise, or perhaps just returning to biblical proportions. At the beginning of the 20th century, life expectancy was only 47 years, casting a different light on the 1880s choice to make 65 the “definition” of old age. Today “the United States’ Jewish community is disproportionately elderly. Close to 20 percent of Jews are already over the age of 65, compared to less than 13 percent of the general population. A significant number are over the age of 85 and need help with activities of daily living like eating, dressing and walking,” according to The Jewish Federation’s Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities project.

Perhaps our Torah verse this week about the ages of Moses and Aaron is overshadowed by the more well-known verse at Torah’s end about the death of Moses, 40 years later, at age 120, in which we are told: “his eyes were undimmed and his vigor unabated” (Deuteronomy 34:7). That one echoes God’s decision in Genesis 6:3 to cut back on the centuries-long human life spans mentioned there (remember Methuselah?), and leads us to the popular Jewish birthday wish ad meah v’esrim (until 120). Tradition says that in wishing for this impossibility, we are simply saying that no matter at what age someone dies, they died too young.

I don’t always offer that wish; I have seen people who have lived too long, and I’m not na?ve or removed from some of the traumas that come with aging. But more and more we are all also seeing some incredible septuagenarians, octogenarians, nonagenarians and centenarians.

And since we’re talking about time, isn’t it time we stop making assumptions about elders based on “old” prejudices? Instead — as God did so long ago in calling two octogenarians to lead us to freedom — isn’t it time to appreciate the wisdom, the strength, the humor, the experience of people who have “lived long enough to see everything”? They are here to be seen and heard and known in our families, in our congregations, in our Jewish community, in our city, in our world. And all of us gain gevurah and countless blessings from their presence in our lives.

Lisa A. Edwards is rabbi of Beth Chayim Chadashim in Los Angeles, and is also currently teaching Bible at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

 

Lay Leaders Keep Synagogues Going


During the week, Dr. David Kolinsky practices family medicine in Pacific Grove, a sleepy Northern California coastal town. But on Saturday mornings he dons his tallit and leads Shabbat services for Congregation B’nai Torah, a Conservative congregation in neighboring Monterey.

Kolinksy serves as spiritual leader and president of B’nai Torah, which has been lay led since it broke off from a nearby Reform temple 13 years ago.

Visiting rabbis have passed through, but with just 24 dues-paying members, there’s no budget to hire even a student rabbi. The congregation also lacks a building — it rents a small room in a local church, where it stores its two Torah scrolls and where, every Saturday morning, the stalwarts wait to see whether a minyan will show up.

“Probably half our members are happy without a rabbi, and the rest would like one if we could afford it,” Kolinsky says. “Many synagogues have gone through a process of professionalization, where unless you do something of professional grade, you have no right to represent your community before God. Here, everyone does their best. If someone wants to try, the answer is always, come up and do it.”

Among U.S. congregations, B’nai Torah is still in a tiny minority: Most congregations from all streams have rabbis, unless they’re too small or isolated to attract one. Those that can’t afford full-time clergy usually hire visiting or student rabbis.

But the number of lay-led congregations is on the rise nationwide, movement leaders say. Much of that is due to economics — it’s expensive to hire rabbis and cantors, and many older congregations in economically depressed regions have dwindling memberships.

“It’s costing more and more each year to hire a rabbi, so congregations of 100 to 150 families are finding it harder,” says Jay Weiner, United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism’s director for Northern California and the Pacific Northwest.

Demographic change also creates congregations in new parts of the country, as young Jews move west and north, and their parents retire south. And some congregations consciously choose to forgo clergy; they just want to run their own show.

“By and large, the congregations that don’t have rabbis do it because they don’t have a choice,” said Rabbi Victor Appell, a small-congregation specialist for the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ). “Because of their size or location, it’s a challenge to find a rabbi to serve them. But that puts them in the position of becoming self-reliant. If you asked many of them now whether they’d want a rabbi, I’m not sure they’d say yes.”

According to Jewish law, congregations don’t need rabbis. U.S. law requires clergy (or other state-sanctioned representatives) to officiate at a marriage, but other than that, any Jew — male in Orthodox circles, male or female in other congregations — can lead services, proclaim a bar or bat mitzvah, name a baby or run a funeral.

Still, most congregations choose to hire a professional.

“It’s the preferred course of action,” said Steven Huberman, director of regional and extension activities for the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism (USCJ). “Congregations do prefer professionally trained clergy. They look to them as pastor, spiritual stimulant, lifestyle catalyst — it’s difficult for lay leaders to do all that on a regular basis.”

Congregations also turn to rabbis to decide points of halachah, or Jewish law. Clergy can mediate between warring factions in a congregation, or decide delicate questions such as the role of interfaith families, or whether it’s time to take down or put up a mechitzah, which divides men and women at Orthodox services.

The number of lay-led congregations varies from movement to movement. Roughly speaking, the Reconstructionist movement has the highest percentage, the Orthodox Union has the least and the Reform and Conservative movements fall in the middle.

Rabbi Moshe Krupka, executive director of programming for the Orthodox Union, says “very few” of his 900-plus congregations operate without rabbis. They are mostly newly formed congregations that hire rabbis as soon as they can afford it.

“In the Orthodox world that puts a high premium on Torah, mitzvot and spiritual growth to have someone who will infuse the community with a sense of mission and scholarship; it willy-nilly becomes a necessity [to have a rabbi],” he said.

The highest percentage of lay-led congregations is in the Reconstructionist movement. Since its inception, the movement has emphasized the importance of empowering lay leadership and looks at rabbis more as educators and consultants than as pulpit heads.

Rabbi Shawn Zevit, director of outreach and external affiliations for the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation, says 30 to 40 of its 107 congregations operate without rabbis. Even so, he believes many of those congregations would hire rabbis if they could afford it. The Reconstructionist movement has also inherited some havurahs, or lay-led minyans, from the 1960s and ’70s, Zevit said, though most havurahs don’t affiliate with a movement.

Very few Conservative congregations function without rabbinic support, according to Huberman. He says the USCJ is unable to place rabbis in only about 5 percent of its 750 affiliated congregations.

The percentage is slightly higher in the Reform movement. Between 75 to 100 of the 900-plus congregations in the URJ don’t have full-time rabbis, according to Appell.

Size matters: Most lay-led congregations are very small, which in the Reform and Conservative movement generally means less than 150 members.

Place matters, too: Lay-led congregations are more numerous in regions with smaller Jewish populations, “more often in the South, sometimes in the Midwest,” Appell said.

Many of these congregations used to be larger and more prosperous. They were built in the late 19th or early 20th centuries by Jewish merchants and professionals who followed the general population shift westward. When the industries supporting these towns dried up, so did their Jewish communities. The children and grandchildren of the original settlers moved to cities with greater job opportunities, leaving behind tiny congregations maintained by a handful of elderly Jews.

“You have congregations dying out, entire towns that have disappeared,” said Rabbi Lawrence Jackofsky, director of the URJ’s Southwest Council. About one-quarter of the 82 congregations in his region are lay led, though most of them used to have rabbis. Jackofsky said some of his congregations can afford rabbis, but can’t find candidates willing to move to their isolated towns.

Reform and Conservative leaders say the much-publicized shortage of non-Orthodox rabbis doesn’t really factor into the equation.

“It’s mainly larger congregations looking for second rabbis who are affected” by the shortage, said Emily Grotta, marketing director for the URJ.

Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of USCJ, says there are actually enough Conservative rabbis being ordained to serve all the movement’s congregations, it’s simply that fewer are taking up pulpits.

The 90-year-old Conservative Congregation B’nai Isaac in Aberdeen, S.D., lost its last rabbi 30 years ago. With just three couples and a few single members left, they still manage to hold Friday night services — when Bea and Herschel Premack are in town.

Herschel Premack, who had his bar mitzvah in the synagogue in 1940, leads services for the congregation. When he and Bea go to California every winter, the shul shuts down.

The congregation, which held its last bat mitzvah 15 years ago, often thinks about closing down, but Bea Premack said B’nai Isaac serves an important educational role in the small Midwestern city.

“We’ve always had the synagogue open for Christian groups, so they can come and learn about Judaism,” she said.

Another kind of demographic change is creating new lay-led congregations, particularly in the fast-growing regions of the West and Pacific Northwest. As younger Jews pour into these areas looking for work and personal fulfillment, congregations are popping up.

Some of these are university towns that attract Jewish students and professors. Others are resort communities, or towns near computer jobs, research facilities or military bases.

“Sometimes enough people in these outlying areas get to know each other and realize there are enough Jews to organize a synagogue,” says Rabbi Alan Henkin, URJ’s Pacific Southwest director. Henkin estimates that one-third of his 85 congregations operate without full-time rabbis.

Then there’s the phenomenon of members splitting off from existing congregations to practice Judaism their own way. Weiner describes a lay-led Conservative congregation in Olympia, Wash., that broke away from its Reform parent congregation because some members wanted a kosher kitchen.

B’nai Torah, the congregation in Monterey, also split off from a local Reform temple to lead its own, Conservative services. Seven members who showed up one recent Shabbat say they prefer the nonhierarchical structure and personal involvement.

“We had a visitor who said he’d never been asked to come up to the Torah before because he doesn’t read Hebrew,” said Devorah Harris, who grew up Reform in Minnesota and led a women’s havurah in the San Francisco Bay Area before joining B’nai Torah four years ago. “We encourage everyone to come up. We help them.”

Change also occurs in the opposite direction: After four decades as a lay-led Reconstructionist congregation, Dor Hadash in Pittsburgh has just hired its first ordained rabbi, who will visit once a month.

Some lay-led congregations consciously decide not to hire clergy.

“I’m not sure I miss having a rabbi,” said Jackie Gish of Reform Congregation Hugat Haverim in Glendale, a lay-led group of 30 to 35 people that split off from its parent Reform temple five years ago. Most Hugat Haverim members are in their 50s or 60s with grown children, so there’s no religious school, just monthly Shabbat services.

Congregations like hers serve a purpose, Gish said. Some Jews don’t want to meet every Friday night. They don’t want to shell out a lot of money for religious school or feel the pressure of capital campaigns, but they still want the warmth and closeness of being part of a Jewish community.

Tolerance and a respect for diversity are required to keep lay-led congregations going, particularly in smaller towns where they often have to serve Jews with very different backgrounds and observance levels.

Weiner points to Conservative Congregation Emanuel in Reno. The congregation is egalitarian, but a mechitzah goes up for Shacharit services because the lay leader in charge comes from a more Orthodox background. The other members tolerate it.

“You have to admire lay leaders who keep these congregations going,” he said.

 

Rural Shuls Make Do Without Rabbis


There’s been a Jewish community in Muskogee, Okla., since 1867, when furrier Joseph Sonderheim opened his import-export business.

In 1916 the first synagogue was dedicated, Congregation Beth Ahaba, a lay-led Reform congregation that served a tight-knit Jewish community of merchants and professionals.

“As Oklahoma grew and prospered through the 1920s, so did our congregation,” said Nancy Stolper, 77, who moved to Muskogee 50 years ago.

Beth Ahaba reached its height of 75 families in 1929 but dwindled to 40 families during the Depression, as stores shut down and people moved away to find work.

Since then, Beth Ahaba’s fortunes have declined steadily. Its young people, including the Stolpers’ four children, grew up and moved away.

Its last student rabbi left 15 years ago.

“We’re now just a group of frail senior citizens,” said Stolper, noting that only eight to 10 members are still able to get to synagogue.

Three months ago they gave up their monthly Friday night services, and this High Holiday season, she fears, will be their last.

“My children have invited us to spend the holidays with them, but I can’t do that, you understand?” Stolper said, crying quietly. “What will we do with our beautiful little building? And our Torah? We haven’t forced ourselves yet to make those decisions. But we know the inevitable is in sight.”

Beth Ahaba’s story is playing out across America, from the mining towns of upper New York state and Pennsylvania to rust-belt factory towns in Michigan and Illinois, sweeping across old Civil War communities like Vicksburg, Miss., and Jonesboro, Ark., and following the pioneer trail into Texas, Arizona and New Mexico.

As local fortunes headed downward in these towns, so did their Jewish communities.

“It’s very often a function of changing demographics,” explained Rabbi Victor Appell of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ). “The vast majority of these places had congregations that have grown smaller over the years.”

Rabbi Lawrence Jackofsky, director of URJ’s Southwest region, relates the story of Ardmore, Okla., a once-booming oil town that now has just two or three Jews left.

“The guy who was running services at the end told me, ‘I looked out one day, saw two Jews and 10 Catholics in the room, and said, it’s time to move on.'”

Some of these historic congregations were able to support rabbis and even cantors in their heyday.

Others like Beth Ahaba never could, but survived from the beginning on the strength of their lay leadership.

“A lot of dying congregations exist simply because they’ve always been there,” said Jay Weiner of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ).

The Reform and Conservative movements, which represent most of the country’s lay-led congregations, try to provide support through a variety of means, including student rabbis, visiting rabbis and lay leadership training courses.

Yvonne Youngberg, a fifth-year rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, directs the school’s student-run rabbinical student placement service, which sends students to small Conservative congregations that ask for help. She said about half of the fourth- and fifth-year students have regular pulpits.

“Twice a month is the norm, but it’s increasingly common for students to split a pulpit,” she said.

Youngberg shares her gig in Watertown, N.Y., with a cantorial student, so each of them makes the six-hour drive just once a month.

“It’s better for our schedules, and the congregation gets to hear my services and her davening,” she said.

Many congregations are served by visiting rabbis from the movements’ regional offices.

In his 13 years with the USCJ, Rabbi David Blumenfeld visited more than 170 of the 200 smallest Conservative congregations. He’d show up on Friday, lead services, answer questions, advise them on fundraising and youth work, even coach members suffering burnout.

“In these congregations, you have a core of people who are always doing everything,” he said.

Blumenfeld focused on congregations in the most geographically remote areas. He’s given impromptu sermons in Yiddish to a congregation of Russian-speakers, and he’s mushed through snowstorms outside Reno, Nev.

Everywhere he went, Blumenfeld said, he saw ingenuity and spirit.

He asked one Texas congregation how they got a minyan every week. A member pointed to a nearby street lamp and said when they need another Jew on Fridays, he makes the light blink during the evening rush hour.

At one North Carolina synagogue, the lay leader showing him around couldn’t find his keys to the building.

“He told me, ‘Don’t worry I can get a key from any congregant,'” Blumenfeld recalled. “I said, ‘What, all 40 of them have keys to the synagogue?’ And he said, ‘Why not, it belongs to them.'”

The Conservative and Reform movements both run summer training programs to help lay leaders learn the basics of running a service, read Torah, teach Hebrew school, perform baby-namings, even conduct funerals.

“Everything except officiating at weddings,” said Rabbi Sue Ann Wasserman, director of worship, music and religious living for URJ.

Wasserman said about half of this year’s participants in the Reform movement’s synagogue associate course come from lay-led congregations. The others want to learn skills to help support their clergy.

One Texas congregation sends people every year, she said.

“They have a rabbi but can’t afford a second clergy, so they are building up their lay leadership,” she noted.

But it’s the lay-led congregations who really benefit, she said.

“It’s amazing the difference it makes in their congregational life,” she said.

Last year, Temple Kol Shalom, a Reform congregation with 47 families in Placerville, decided to send Dale Wallerstein, a chiropractor who had been acting as a cantorial soloist for years.

The temple had been hiring visiting rabbis and student rabbis. Finally, Wallerstein said, “we looked at continuity and consistency issues and the cost, and decided it would be good if I learned how to give dvar Torahs,” or interpretations of the Torah, “do funerals and provide pastoral care.”

After completing the two-year course, which meets for two weeks each summer, and attending a winter session on Jewish education, Wallerstein said she is “thrilled” with what she’s learned.

Even more than actual skills, she said the course has “given me confidence, which adds to my credibility,” and showed her “how to access areas I hadn’t know about, so I can direct our adult education to a different place.”

Blumenfeld, now retired from his visiting rabbi days, said larger congregations and their rabbis have a lot to learn from small, lay-led groups.

“Every rabbinic student should spend time in one of these congregations,” he said. “They have such heart.”

 

Wilshire: Boulevard of Sanctuaries


Wilshire Boulevard’s stature as the grand concourse of Los Angeles is due in part to its many architecturally distinct synagogues and churches. Those located in the Wilshire Center district, between LaFayette Park and about Western Avenue, are some of the most notable and serve some of the city’s oldest congregations.

The boulevard in the 1920s was the natural place for the institutions and their members to relocate. They saw that, in the future, downtown’s narrow, congested streets would no longer be the center of the community. Los Angeles was turning into a driving city, and Wilshire became the nation’s first Automobile Age thoroughfare. Religious establishments that wished to be part of the exciting future moved to Wilshire Boulevard.

On the boulevard of big dreams they constructed edifices on a grand scale to suit the surroundings. It was in the same era that architects gave Los Angeles proud, new symbols of aspiration, such as the marvelous City Hall and the museum-quality Bullock’s Wilshire department store. The new houses of worship also aspired to greatness. Their membership typically numbered in the thousands, and the pews were filled with mayors, judges, publishers and other movers.

Congregations didn’t need to advertise their addresses, just the corners: Wilshire at Berendo Street for Immanuel Presbyterian, Wilshire at Harvard Boulevard for St. Basil’s Catholic Church, Wilshire at St. Andrews Place for St. James Episcopal. They formed a community that crossed denomination lines. During the years around World War II, the Christian churches joined for an annual procession on Easter Sunday. At the conclusion of services, worshippers would jam the sidewalks to watch cars promenade along Wilshire.

Neighbors took care of one another. The congregation at Wilshire Boulevard Temple welcomed offers to hold High Holy Days services in the larger sanctuary at Immanuel Presbyterian, a few blocks to the east. The temple also held services inside the gorgeous Wilshire Christian Church, built at Normandie Avenue on land donated by the Chapman family, for whom Chapman University is named.

Likewise, when the original St. Basil’s burned down, Wilshire Boulevard Temple invited parishioners to worship in its sanctuary until a new Catholic church was finished. At the dedication of new St. Basil’s in 1969, Rabbi Edgar F. Magnin sat as an honored guest at Mass alongside John Francis Cardinal McIntyre.

Congregation B’nai B’rith had been the leading downtown synagogue at the time its members voted to relocate at Wilshire and Hobart boulevards. The new Wilshire Boulevard Temple served some of the city’s most respected and influential Jews.

At the dedication in 1929, banker Marco Hellman presented the ark, and Jack Warner, one of the studio-owning Warner brothers, bestowed colorful murals depicting the history of the Hebrew people painted by Hugo Ballin. The artist, whose work also decorates Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles and the lobby of the Los Angeles Times Building, painted on canvas in his Santa Monica studio, then mounted the murals around the 100-foot-high, mosaic-inlaid dome in the octagonal sanctuary.

Placing such prominent artwork in the synagogue was not typical of the time. But Rabbi Magnin hoped it would add warmth and an element of mysticism to the surroundings. The temple’s architecture by David Allison and Abraham Edelman is regarded as a work of art in itself. With Italian and Belgian marble, carved mahogany and inlaid gold, it is the only Wilshire Center religious home listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Allison was the Wilshire architect of choice in the 1920s. He is credited with designing the cathedral-like First Congregational Church on Commonwealth Street, across from LaFayette Park, the similarly regal Wilshire United Methodist near Windsor Square and the imposing First Baptist Church off the boulevard behind Bullock’s Wilshire. Allison also contributed the design for several of the original Italianate buildings at UCLA, including the stunning Royce Hall.

Like Wilshire Boulevard Temple, Immanuel Presbyterian opened in 1929. The acquisition of the land five years earlier had stirred up controversy among the members. Some opposed the idea of giving up the prestige of being downtown to start over as a country church. Today, Immanuel Presbyterian is the most Gothic-looking structure found along Wilshire, dark and brooding with a soaring bell tower and windows by the historic Judson Studios and Dixon Art Glass Co. Gothic chandeliers hang inside the massive sanctuary, capable of seating 2,000 worshippers.

These days, the congregations in mid-Wilshire are not as large as at the district’s peak. But their establishments all stand as important monuments to the dreamers who saw where Los Angeles was headed and knew how to get there.

Adapted from “Wilshire Boulevard” by Kevin Roderick, to be published next year.

Day School for Reform Jews, Too


The idea that a significant number of American Jewish children would come to attend Jewish day schools would have seemed unimaginable no more than 40 years ago, and the notion that thousands from Reform Jewish homes would attend such schools would have seemed even more fantastic. After all, the public school was the major institution that facilitated the entry of upwardly mobile immigrant Jews and their children into American life throughout the major part of the 20th century.

For the overwhelming majority of these Jews, loyalty to this school system was an absolute article of faith. And for Reform Jews, as for others, devotion to the public school system was a sign of fidelity to the United States. During most of that period, the exclusive norm for Reform Jewish education was the after-school or weekend religious school.

Much has changed since those years. Reform Jews, like so many others, have embraced practices and displayed attitudes regarding a number of areas of Jewish tradition that would have been unthinkable decades earlier. The reasons for these changes are many. Foremost among them is that the American Jewish community is no longer predominantly an immigrant one, and traditional barriers that formerly discriminated against Jews have all but been completely destroyed. Jews have become full and accepted participants in every sector of American life.

On one level, this means that the public schools are no longer required in order to facilitate Jewish entry into American society. On a deeper level, we would point out that public expressions of ethnic pride and religious commitment are applauded in ways that would not have been possible in earlier decades. The complex shoals of an ethically unsure American landscape and an excessively individualistic American society where traditional roots of identity are shallow and where traditional religious-moral values are frequently called into question are the new challenges facing American Jews. Many Jewish parents, and we include ourselves, feel that an intense exposure for our children to the ethical-cultural-religious-national heritage that is Judaism constitutes an invaluable and unparalleled resource for educating and preparing our children for participation in a pluralistic and constantly changing and expanding world.

Viewed from this perspective, Jewish day school education does not reflect a lack of allegiance to the United States. Nor need such education embody a narrow particularistic exultation of Jewish tradition.

Instead, Reform day school education indicates that a significant number of liberal Jewish parents now regard our tradition as a precious source that will allow our children to anchor and explore their personal and communal identity as Jews in a meaningful way. Such education permits many of us as parents to express our confidence that the values and teachings of Jewish tradition that our children will learn from a liberal Jewish perspective in such schools will cause our children to contribute as Jews to the American public square in an authentic liberal Jewish voice.

The creation of an ever-growing network of more than 20 North American Reform Jewish day schools that educates thousands of Reform Jewish youngsters — as well as the decision made by hundreds if not thousands more Reform Jewish parents to send their children either to Jewish day schools under community auspices or to Solomon Schechter schools — indicates that a growing number of Reform Jewish parents resonate to the motifs and concerns we have outlined here.

We recognize that most Reform Jewish parents will unquestionably continue to send their children to afterschool Hebrew and religious school programs, and we affirm the worth and importance that must be assigned these schools. Indeed, initiatives at our Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) Schools of Education in both Los Angeles and New York are helping congregations reimagine their congregational schools and the educational leadership required to guide these schools to meet the challenges confronting today’s children and their families.

At the same time, we are delighted that increasing numbers of Reform Jews are choosing the day school option for their children, and we would urge more to do so. Our hope is that larger numbers of Reform and other liberal American Jews will regard an intense encounter with Judaism as a desirable option for their children in a multicultural world, and that these same parents will understand that such an encounter does not represent a retreat from the larger world.

In an open American society that thankfully embraces Jews so warmly, we do not believe that there is any simple panacea to the challenges that confront the creation of a vibrant Jewish community. Nevertheless, we would submit that the insight provided in the Talmud is a recipe for meaningful Jewish life and ongoing Jewish commitment and values.

If we educate our children in schools that allow for optimal exposure to Judaism, we will foster their maturation as knowledgeable and serious liberal Jews.

We know already that such day schools succeed. A number of studies shows that graduates of liberal day schools over the past 20 years play a disproportionate role in the leadership of every sector of our community – Hillels, synagogues, Israel advocacy groups and federations.

We are confident that more such day school children, along with others, will one day be the guarantors of a Reform Judaism that is vital and inclusive, a liberal Judaism that will address and attract broad numbers of Jewish adults and their children, and that will inspire both Jews and non-Jews in the highest and most humane values of our tradition.

Article reprinted courtesy The Jewish Week.


David Ellenson is president and professor of Jewish Religious Thought at HUC-JIR. Michael Zeldin is professor of Jewish education at HUC-JIR, Los Angeles, and was recently appointed director of Day School Initiatives.

Rabbi Revolution


Picture major rabbinic leaders of Los Angeles gathering to discuss the future of synagogue funding. Now, instead of seasoned rabbis with well-earned wrinkles and gray hair, picture a group of energized new leaders in their 30s and 40s.

With the retirement this year of several prominent senior rabbis, youthful faces have come to occupy the majority of Westside pulpits and others throughout the city, a confluence of vitality that has the potential to herald the beginning of a new era for the wider Los Angeles Jewish community.

Along with the try-anything spirit of youth, these rabbis bring a refreshingly unladen approach to working with each other and a determination to quicken the momentum of outreach and spirituality that characterized the last decade. In many cases, however, this freshman class lacks a local track record to back up its innovations and represents a loss of communal memory and an attenuated commitment to that which the previous generation held dear.

All the young rabbis expressed admiration for the older generation of rabbis who built the community, and now they have set out on a path that falls somewhere in the middle of the spectrum between evolution and revolution.

Just how things fall into place will affect not only the style and substance of synagogue life, but the entire Los Angeles Jewish community.

"Ultimately, the synagogue has the opportunity to inspire, to teach, to create a sense of community and connectedness and to enhance Jewishness," said Marvin Schotland, president and chief executive of the Jewish Community Foundation, who, along with Jewish Federation President John Fishel, co-hosted the meeting with rabbis this month.

Among those sitting around the table were Rabbi Steven Leder, 43, who on June 1 becomes senior rabbi at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, when Rabbi Harvey Fields retires; Rabbi David Wolpe, 44, who has been rabbi at Sinai Temple for six years; and Rabbi Elazar Muskin, who at 47 and with 17 years of service at Young Israel of Century City, is the most senior rabbi among Orthodox congregations on the Westside.

In the past year, Rabbi Morley Feinstein, 49, became senior rabbi at University Synagogue in Brentwood, after Rabbi Allen Freehling became rabbi emeritus; Rabbi Ken Chasen, 37, will be arriving from Westchester, N.Y., this summer to become senior rabbi at Leo Baeck Temple, where Rabbi Sanford Ragins will become emeritus.

While other rabbis are retiring — Gilbert Kollin at the Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center, Eli Schochet several years ago at Shomrei Torah in Woodland Hills — the generational shift is especially concentrated on the Westside.

"There is an opportunity for the generation of rabbis coming into this community to create a glorious future together, not just making Shabbos for ourselves, but creating a wider Jewish community that is strong and vibrant," said Feinstein, who has won many admirers in his first 10 months at University Synagogue.

While all the new senior rabbis are men, Rabbi Laura Geller of Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills doesn’t think that point should be overblown.

"The fact that there aren’t women at this moment stepping up as senior rabbis in major congregations doesn’t mean for a moment that there isn’t an extraordinarily rich and talented group of women colleagues who in time will, I’m sure, have open to them all of the different choices that the American rabbinate has to offer," she said.

In fact, some of those women — Rabbi Michelle Missaghieh at Temple Israel of Hollywood, Rabbi Sherre Hirsch at Sinai Temple — have been mainstays in the interdenominational cooperation that is emerging as a hallmark of this generation of Los Angeles rabbis, many of whom are close friends and expressed an interest in working together.

"Without a lot of the baggage of interdenominational squabbling that was really a main characteristic of the generation above us, we have been able to define a new era in interdenominational relationships," said Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, 39, of B’nai David-Judea Congregation.

The Jewish Community Foundation has opened the question of whether the new era demands a new model of funding. It has suspended its program of seeding individual programs at synagogues — a total of $100,000 last year — as it examines whether that money might be better spent on a communitywide endeavor in the model of Synagogue 2000, a revitalization program to bring fresh ideas and energy to congregations.

Community leaders are hoping that pooled resources will go far in giving the current generation of spiritual seekers the fulfillment they are looking for, perhaps even winning back the many Jews who have left the fold in the past several decades.

"The younger rabbis coming in now are facing in a sharper and more intense fashion the dislocation and erosion of the Jewish community," said Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom, who at 78 brings some of the most cutting-edge ideas and programs to the community. "It is much more difficult to be a rabbi in the 21st century."

The current generation has been reared on new ideas about spirituality, egalitarianism, social justice and tikkun olam (repairing the world) and is equipped with — and challenged by — new modes of communication.

It is also a generation of rabbis and congregants who are grappling with a growing distance from the drama that shaped the modern Jew — the immigrant experience, the Holocaust, the creation of Israel. Population surveys depict rapidly declining numbers of Jews and dissipating affiliation.

Schulweis lays some of the blame on his colleagues, who he said neglected to address the growing desire for spirituality and the big questions people had about Judaism.

"There is a lack of philosophical and theological response to people’s needs," he said. "Normally unspoken, not articulated, there are questions of God, of evil, of conflict with scientific outlook…. You just scratch the surface and you’ll see it there."

While older rabbis had to retool their thinking midcareer, rabbis in their 30s and 40s are more prepared for moderating interactive Torah study in place of formal oration, delivering sermons that focus on individual spiritual growth and intellectually challenging an educated core. Text study has become more central to these rabbis, whose ordination process required a year of study in Israel.

But some older rabbis fear that the renewed spiritual quest and the desire for more meaningful Jewish rituals and observance may come at a cost.

"There is an excessive interest in finding satisfaction in religion rather than challenge," said Ragins, who has served Leo Baeck Temple since 1964. "People want religion to make them happy, and I don’t think that is the job of religion. I think the job of religion is to help us deal with life, and sometimes that means things have to upset us."

Ragins and several other senior rabbis worry that the focus on Jewish continuity has left little interest in interfaith dialogue and building bridges to other ethnic communities.

"If all of this means that there is a withdrawal from the larger community, and if that means there is going to be a sense of provincialism and a lack of contact and interaction with others, that will work as a detriment to the welfare of the larger community in which we all live," said Freehling, who is currently the executive director of the Los Angeles Human Relations Commission.

Whether youth is the key ingredient necessary to deal with these new challenges is yet to be determined. In this younger-is-better age of botox and Tiger Woods, presumptions abound.

"You find that, contrary to the conventional belief, younger people can be very conservative and fearful of change," Schulweis said.

"The rabbinate, like so much else in the Jewish mind, is so linked to the bourgeois temperament and the corporate structure of the way life is organized that it is not a ground in which creative thought can always take root," warned Rabbi Leonard Beerman, founder of Leo Baeck Temple, who retired 16 years ago.

Some wonder whether young rabbis will have the same fundraising clout as their older colleagues. Leder, who has been at Wilshire Boulevard Temple for 16 years (see box below), has already begun pulling his weight in that area, said Bruce Friedman, incoming president at the synagogue.

"People tend to gravitate to people in their generation, and we’re already seeing that" in involvement and contributions from younger people, Friedman said.

The younger rabbis recognize the limitations of not having the life experience of an older rabbi.

Rabbi Daniel Bouskila, who 10 years ago became rabbi of Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel in Westwood when he was 28, said the first funeral at which he officiated was the second funeral he had ever attended.

"Until I experienced, about six years ago, the death of my mother, I had no idea what I was doing at a funeral," he said.

In the Orthodox community in the Pico-Robertson area, nearly every one of the pulpit rabbis is in his 30s or 40s — a situation that leaves some with mixed feelings.

"It is both liberating and at times frightening," Kanefsky said. "There are moments of self-doubt that would be clarified if there were a grand scholar figure who would help define the center of gravity for the community."

On the other hand, the open slate has been a breeding ground for creativity, and the lack of a firm hierarchy among colleagues has led to friendship and cooperation.

Rabbi Jonathan Muskat, 33, came to Congregation Mogen David last year, and Rabbi Steven Weil, 37, took over for Rabbi Abner Weiss at Congregation Beth Jacob two years ago.

Joining them this summer will be Nachum Kosofsky, a 33-year-old rabbi who will lead Congregation Shaarei Tefilah in Hancock Park.

Rabbi Daniel Korobkin, 39, founding rabbi at Kehillat Yavneh in Hanock Park, echoes other young rabbis in recognizing that what is being built now is only possible because of the infrastructure built and nurtured by the previous generation of rabbis.

"We have to be respectful of the achievements of rabbis who have been here so many years and helped build this community," Korobkin said, "and at the same time, try to identify those areas where there is room for greater achievement for the community."

The Frozen Chosen


Although my rabbinic colleagues will always go the extra mile to serve their communities, I believe I actually cover the most miles in my commute: Every other month or so, I start my journey at 4:30 a.m. in the North Valley and end it some 10 hours later in a small airport in Juneau, Ala. Outside the gate, a member of the Juneau Jewish Community (JJC) smiles and waves to me — a weekend of serving the Frozen Chosen begins.

Through many years of rabbinic traveling and teaching, I’ve been blessed to serve congregations from Long Island to Maui and from Canada to Australia. I’ve prayed in shuls from Transylvania to Argentina, and I’ve discovered that in all the world Juneau’s community is unique. The fusion of Alaskan life and Jewish tradition never ceases to amaze me.

The JJC presently has about 40 core households and no permanent building. We often pray in local senior centers, churches or members’ homes.

I began learning about Alaskan customs during my first Shabbat morning service in spring of 2001. I sat in a cozy, rustic living room, and as I prepared to sing an opening nigun, I looked around the crowded room and realized I was surrounded by a circle of smiling faces and wiggling toes — I was the only one wearing shoes. I then noticed the mountain of rubber shoes and winter boots piled near the door.

"It’s always snowy, slushy or just plain muddy in Juneau," the president said. "We don’t wear shoes in our houses."

So I quickly added my black dress heels to the pile, and now know how to lead home-based services in stocking feet.

Jews initially arrived in Alaska in the mid-19th century as whalers and traders. Eventually, Jews began to settle in the territory, teaching their traditions and learning about native ways. Over time, Jews married natives and Jewish family names are not uncommon among native peoples. An unexpected name emerged among the natives of a Northwestern tribe, which resides in the area around Bethel. The tribe is known as the Yupiks, and numerous marriages have occurred between Yupiks and Jews. The offspring actually call themselves "Jew-piks," proud of each culture and welcome in Bethel’s small Jewish community.

Of course, Juneau is Alaska’s capital; this year, when the legislative session began, the Jewish population swelled, because four Jewish legislators and their families joined the JJC. Juneau is a very political little town, and many JJC members serve the government in some capacity. Before one of my last visits, one of the members unexpectedly arranged for me to open a session at the state House of Representatives. Although I was ambivalent at first, because of church-state issues, I realized that my participation was important to the Jewish community.

"A rabbi hasn’t opened a session in years," they told me, "and most legislators have never even heard of a female rabbi."

With some hesitation, I accepted the honor, viewing it as a unique opportunity to teach and to offer a context for making the decisions of governing. Careful to avoid explicit reference to God and phrases such as "let us pray," I offered these words to open the legislative session on Jan. 27:

"In ancient days, the sages of the Talmud — who compiled Jewish law and lore — taught that ‘every deliberation conducted for the sake of heaven will … have lasting value.’ As it is said in the ancient tongue: Kol machloket she’he l’shem shamayim, sofah l’hitkayem. (Pirke Avot 5:19)

"May your deliberations, in these honorable halls, truly be for the sake of heaven. May your discussions genuinely be for the sake of the men and women who depend on you, as well as the innocent children and the wild creatures whose care is entrusted to you. Through your debates, may you honestly pursue the best interests of those who dwell in the cities, towns, villages and untamed places of this great state. May you also fulfill your sacred obligation to protect this precious land itself.

"May you continue to be a privileged partner with the Eternal Holy Source of Life to protect and promote the well-being of those you serve — and may all your deliberations truly be of lasting value. Cain y’hi ratzon, so may it be."

While remarkable opportunities like addressing the House make serving in Juneau exciting, unexpected daily activities and conversations make it unforgettable. In the winter, it was amazing to sing "Shechecheyanu" as congregants and I stood beside an iceberg that had frozen in Mendenhall Lake in front of Mendenhall Glacier. An equally memorable moment occurred on an earlier visit, as I discussed a bar mitzvah project with a 12-year-old Alaskan student; he wanted to make a shofar.

"Great," I said, "what kind of horn will you use?"

He replied "Dahl sheep — they’re all over."

"And how will you get the horn?" I asked.

"Well," he said matter-of-factly, "Dad and I will go hunting."

Only in Alaska, I laughed to myself, feeling, again that the commute is always worthwhile.


Sheryl Nosan is rabbi of Temple Beth Torah of the San Fernando Valley in Granada Hills. She will be returning to Alaska on May 30.

Domestic Violence: A Jewish Issue, Too


During Jewish holidays and festivals, many of us recite the
familiar blessings for our loved ones. As a Jewish communal professional for 30
years and a synagogue member for 23 years, I wonder why congregations don’t devote the
same time and attention during religious services to discussions of Jewish
family issues as we give to prayers for the Jewish family. The former might
make the latter more meaningful.

One of these issues is domestic violence, in all its
virulent forms and varieties. Jews, despite their reputation as a peaceful and
family oriented ethno-religious group, are not immune from domestic violence.

Nevertheless, there is a prevalent myth that Jewish men don’t
beat or sexually abuse their wives and children. When there is a publicized
incident involving a Jewish family, Jews gasp in horror and disbelief. After
all, these things don’t happen in the Jewish community.

Perhaps the most notorious incident in recent memory was the
1988 story of Joel Steinberg and Hedda Nussbaum, an upper-middle class Jewish
couple in New York City. Steinberg was an attorney who systematically beat his
wife.

Both Steinberg and Nussbaum beat their 6-year-old adopted
daughter, Lisa, and it was Steinberg who struck the blow that killed her. When
this violence was discovered and during the subsequent trial, this family was
headline news in this country. How could a Jewish couple be so physically
violent? Yes, Jews commit acts of domestic violence, like our gentile
neighbors.

It is estimated that 2 million women in the United States
suffer as victims of spousal-partner abuse each year, and that between 3,000
and 4,000 battered women in this country die each year from physical abuse.
Equally tragic is that 2,500 abused children in the United States die each year
from abuse. Figures show that 95 percent of the perpetrators of domestic
violence are men.

The incidence of domestic violence in the Jewish community
approximates the incidence in the general community. Domestic violence is an
equal opportunity phenomenon. It transcends racial, religious, ethnic,
geographic, sexual orientation and socioeconomic boundaries. Children who are
victims of abuse often become abusive as adults, abusing their children and
spouses or partners.

In Jewish homes, there is an intensified shame and stigma
associated with family violence. When there is violence in the Jewish family,
both victims and perpetrators go through great pains to conceal it from their
friends, employers, clergy and other segments of their social and community
life. Jewish victims tend to go to family and friends for shelter and financial
help.

What can the Jewish community do?

Spokespeople in the Jewish community, such as rabbis,
educators and other Jewish communal professionals, should learn the following:

1. Signs and symptoms of victims, as well as perpetrators.

2. Mandatory reporting requirements, with respect to child
and elder abuse.

3. Local community resources, such as the community’s Jewish
Family Service. The staff there can provide many direct services and refer the
calling party to other important resources, such as domestic violence shelters,
law enforcement agencies, other social service agencies, legal assistance,
medical care and financial assistance.

4. Rabbis and other congregational leaders should talk about
domestic violence at religious services, in children’s classrooms and in
adult-education programs. Domestic violence issues should be on the curriculum
for all age groups, as prominent as Torah study. Identify religious and sacred
texts and traditions that are the foundations for the sanctity of life and
teach them to all congregational members.

While we are talking here primarily about physical abuse,
let’s remember that relationship abuse can also be economic, emotional, verbal
and sexual. All forms of abuse are seriously damaging to individuals and
families.

If you know someone who is being abused, be supportive and understanding.
Help the victim develop a safety plan and assist the victim in securing
assistance to ensure survival, safety and recovery.

If our religious traditions believe that human life is
sacred, then domestic violence is wrong in any form and under any
circumstances. We have a collective responsibility to educate ourselves about
the problem and to do everything possible to prevent domestic violence and
reach out and help victims and perpetrators alike. Â


Mel Roth is executive director of Jewish Family Service of Orange County.

Reform Shuls Object to Kol HaNeshamah


Objections raised by two established Reform congregations to
a start-up alternative shul in Irvine has forced the new group to temporarily

postpone seeking admission to the Reform movement’s national
organization, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC). Nearby
synagogues, Newport Beach’s Temple Bat Yahm and Irvine’s Congregation Shir
Ha-Ma’alot, opposed UAHC membership by tiny Congregation Kol HaNeshamah, said
Rabbi Linda E. Bertenthal, associate director of the UAHC’s Southwest council,
which reviews new congregation applications.

Kol HaNeshamah, a self-described Reform congregation,
consists of 32 families that hold services monthly and religious school weekly
in low-cost, Irvine community centers. Dues are $650 a family. A
nondenominational seminary, the Academy for Jewish Religion, ordained its
part-time spiritual leader, Rabbi H. Rafael Goldstein, who is also the chaplain
of San Diego’s Jewish Healing Center. About half the families are refugees from
defunct Congregation Or Ami, which collapsed due to unable to meet their
expenses.

“We’re not really a threat to anybody,” said Pat Goldman,
who with her husband, Howard, are co-founding presidents. “They don’t realize
how alternative we are,” she said, adding that Kol HaNeshamah has attracted
members who previously had no synagogue affiliation. “We have very low dues, no
building, no cantor. We offer much less.”

Perhaps, Goldman surmised, Bat Yahm, with 700 families, and
Shir Ha-Ma’alot, at 350 families, fear a repetition of the explosive growth
experienced by another newcomer established in the late 1980s: Irvine’s
University Synagogue today has 570 families. “We’re not going to grow; we’re
tiny,” she said. “I used to think we could grow to 45.”

Many synagogue budgets are shrinking as more congregants in
financial straits seek dues relief, fail to fulfill pledges and drop membership,
Bertenthal said. “They’re anxious for their own interests,” she said of Bat
Yahm and Shir Ha-Ma’alot.

Though UAHC congregations lack veto power over the admission
of new members, their opinions are solicited and territorial invasions that
undermine a congregation’s viability are reason for rejection, said Peter B.
Schaktman, UAHC’s new-congregation department director. About 30 new
congregations were admitted nationally since 2001.

“The level of displeasure by surrounding congregations was
surprising,” he said of Kol HaNeshamah.

At Bertenthal’s urging, the congregation agreed to withdraw
its UAHC quest to attempt to collegially quell concerns. Goldman said its
leaders intend to establish relationships with the other synagogues, including
attending the movement’s convention next month in Costa Mesa. She expects to
reactivate the congregation’s membership application in time for their
scheduled review in June.

More than one-third of UAHC’s more than 900 congregations
are small congregations of 150 members or less that seek membership to gain
access to the movement’s myriad resources, including political clout,
leadership training, placement services and education curriculum. Dues are
based on a formula that includes expenses and membership.

Kol HaNeshamah’s expected UAHC dues would be $500, Goldman
said. By comparison, Bat Yahm’s and Shir Ha-Ma’alot’s dues were $59,233 and
$19,289, respectively, says the 1999-2000 annual report, the most recent
available. Or Ami, which also raised objections, was delinquent in paying, the
report shows.

“We can pay our dues,” said Goldman, a previous Or Ami
member.  “We don’t have many expenses. We don’t ever want a building. That’s
what killed us.

“People don’t come to us because we’re cheap. We give them
something they don’t get,” she said, including a spiritual and intellectual
component, and less restrictive rules about participation in rituals.  

Finding the ‘It’ Shul


In Los Angeles, the happening High Holiday haunts sell out faster than Springsteen at The Forum. And the tickets cost just as much. So every fall, Jewish singletons like myself do the New Year hustle, seeking out affordable, last-minute tickets to The Main Event. About a week before the big Rosh, the calls start coming in: "Davis, where are you going to services this year?" "How are you ringing in 5763?" "What are you doing New Years, New Year’s Eve?"

This September, my friends and I once again find ourselves without a place to hang our kippot. With the holidays near, and our plans in the air, we’re scrambling to secure seats in a sanctuary. We’re calling ticket brokers, checking eBay, there’s even talk of resorting to scalpers (Two? Anyone need two? Great seats, near the aisle, obstructed bimah view…). But so far, no luck. No shirt. No shoes. No services.

To be fair, it’s not that all Southland synagogues are posting sold-out shows. It’s that my crowd isn’t looking for just any Rosh Hashana service. They’re looking for the Rosh Hashana service. Where "The Player" meets the prayer.

Like everything else in Los Angeles, Rosh Hashana is immersed in the entertainment industry. Aliyahs (calls to the Torah), double as auditions for "American Idol 2"; the gabbai has a recurring role on "Buffy"; and what my rabbi really wants to do is direct. No wonder my friends carry their head shots and demo reels in their tallit bags, hoping to be assigned a seat next to a congregant who can greenlight their career. In this city, if you don’t schmooze, you lose. And what better place than services to network with Jews in the biz? My writer friend, Alex, met his manager two years ago while nabbing a piece of pre-"Kiddish" honey cake. Emet.

And my peeps who don’t spend Rosh Hashana looking for their next big break, spend it looking for their next big date. Like any other Hollywood night, my wannabe swinger friends wanna spend Erev Rosh Hashana with the cool cats and the beautiful babies. For these Juppies (Jewish urban professionals), the holidays have become the ultimate meat market. According to the National Singles Council, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur boast the highest singles-per-service numbers of the year. Any Jewish singleton who’s even remotely religious attends services on the High Holidays, so the odds of meeting someone who’ll dip his apples in your honey are pretty high. Blind dates, SpeedDates, even JDates can’t hold a bread crumb to the pick-up potential at a good Tashlich. Meeting the Jew of your dreams is as simple as praying in the right place at the right time. Which is why my friends insist that we get tickets to the "it" shul.

Last year, my friend, Andy, scored big — huge — when his boss, a Hollywood macher with a first-look studio deal, handed him six free tickets to a high-rent service. We’re talking $185 face value — each. Valet parking. Tallit check. The works. Packed with industry folks and single blokes, it raised the Rosh Hashana bar. And now my friends are looking to me to hook them up with this year’s ultimate davening machine. "CD, you write for The Journal, you must have some pull at the door. Can you get me ‘plus one’ on the list at Synagogue X?"

I think it’s time to re-evaluate our High Holiday priorities. I appreciate my friends’ enthusiasm to kibitz at the "Kiddush." But in all honesty, the last thing I want to hear on the holiday is, "Did the story department do coverage on the Machzor?" And as much as I want to meet my mensch, pick-up lines like, "Hey baby, wanna blow my shofar?" and "You’ll love my tekiah gedolah" send me running. Services have become such a scene!

So I’m asking my single friends to make some Rosh Hashana resolutions. In our search for High Holiday tickets, let’s remember that this New Year is about more than having someone to kiss at Musaf. We should ask for forgiveness, not phone numbers; we should be making amends, not making out. And for the first day of Tishrei, let’s put the Industry speak in turnaround. Even Tinseltown can take a day to focus on teshuvah (repentance), tefilah (prayer) and tzedakah (charity).

Of course "The Binding of Isaac" would make a great movie title. I wonder who owns the film rights?

A Home for the Holidays


The High Holidays seem to bring out not only more Jews than any time of year, but also more innovative services. Los Angeles is blessed with a creative spiritual community, dedicated to offering everything from the very new to the very traditional — to the most unlikely blends of the two.

Here is just a small sampling of where to find High
Holiday services that might give you what you don’t even know you’re looking
for. (For a complete list of services, visit www.jewishjournal.com/local/directory.php .)

Touchy Feely

The popularity of services like Sinai Temple’s Friday Night Live has spilled over from Shabbat into the High Holiday arena, where bands that lead participatory singing and dancing complement — and in some cases replace — traditional cantorial music. Many of these services also feature Torah discussions rather than sermons.

Long before there was Friday Night Live, there was the TishTones, Beth Shir Sholom’s in-house band led by Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels on guitar. Some of the music is original, some of it is traditional music arranged for the band. Beth Shir Sholom, a Reform congregation in Santa Monica, will also offer a music workshop on Rosh Hashana afternoon, a spiritual dance workshop on Yom Kippur afternoon and a service for interfaith families on the second day of Rosh Hashana. In addition, guest speaker Mayor James Hahn will visit the congregation on Yom Kippur.

Services will take place at the Marina Beach Marriott
Resort, 4100 Admiralty Way, Marina Del Rey, (310) 453-3361, www.bethshirsholom.com .

The New Emanuel Minyan at Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills is an alternative service that is more intimate than the main sanctuary service, with participatory music and an interactive study of High Holiday themes. Participants are encouraged to pick up a tape of the holiday music before services, so they can become familiar with the tunes they will hear.

In addition, Emanuel’s family service is led by teenagers who have been studying with the cantor and accompanied by the family choir made up of children and adults.

8844 Burton Way, Beverly Hills, (310) 274-6388, www.templeemanuelbh.com .

Sinai Temple, home of Friday Night Live, has been evolving its alternative minyan — one of five services — for several years, under the leadership of Rabbi Sherre Zwelling Hirsch and Cantor Tannoz Bahremand. Craig Taubman leads a full band, and singers from the community participate in a choir that leads congregants in lots of singing throughout the service. Lay leaders help guide congregants throughout the service, which this year will include some yoga and meditation and a choreographer who will lead a dance interpretation of a prayer. Chairs are arranged around the bimah, which helps facilitate the Torah discussion.

10400 Wilshire Boulevard, Beverly Hills, (310) 474-1518,
www.sinaitemple.org .

Adat Ari El, home of One Shabbat Morning, offers two Rosh Hashana days and one Yom Kippur day, with 1,000 families joining for participatory services with lots of music and a warm environment.

12020 Burbank Blvd., Valley Village, (818) 766-9426, www.adatariel.org.

While you won’t find a band at The Happy Minyan at Beth Jacob, you will find music and dancing that can go on for hours into the afternoon at this Orthodox service. For Happy Minyan-goers, the Days of Awe are more aptly called the Days of Joy, where service of God is out of love, not out of fear, says founder Stuart Wachs. Using the tunes and the spirit of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, the Happy Minyan is a traditional alternative for the alternative crowd. On Saturday night, Sept. 14, join the Happy Minyan for a concert with the Moshav Band.

The Happy Minyan meets at Congregation Beth Jacob, 9030
Olympic Blvd. (310) 285-7777, www.happyminyan.org .

B’nai David Judea, also an Orthodox congregation, has been building up its musical repertoire for its High Holiday services for several years. Tapes go out to congregants during the late summer so they can start familiarizing themselves with the tunes. Under the leadership of Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky and with prayers led by members of the congregation, the service is a warm and spiritual option, with lots of singing, for those looking for a traditional service.

8906 W. Pico Blvd., (310) 276-9269, www.bnaidavid.com .

The Sports Club L.A., Los Angeles’ premier luxury and fitness complex, offers alternative High Holiday services and an opportunity to participate in an intimate journey to heal and rejoice in body, mind and soul.

Services will be officiated by Cantor Esther Schwartz, spiritual leader of Temple Beth Shirah and a Holocaust survivor, who will share her personal story of faith and hope. Participants will take part in a memorial candlelighting ceremony to honor heroes from Genesis to Sept. 11, and services will include the music of Rachel Brill and Vera Budinoff and the insight of various guest speakers.

1835 Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. For more information call Esther Schwartz (310) 666-9918.

Start Here

The High Holidays is always a good chance for beginners to enter the fray, and several congregations are offering minyans for those who have minimal background, or for those who want a better understanding of what they’ve been doing all along.

Beth Jacob Congregation is offering free services on both days of Rosh Hashana and on Yom Kippur conducted by Dr. Daryl Temkin, author of the forthcoming book “Teachings of the Soul.” His spiritual and psychological presentations will be molded together with prayer, song and discussion, designed for those seeking deeper and more spiritual ways of making Judaism relevant as a life tool. Seats must be reserved.

Services will be held at Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy,
9120 Olympic Blvd., (310) 278-1911, www.bethjacob.org .

The Jewish Learning Exchange, home to one of Los Angeles’s largest selection of beginner’s classes and services, offers a traditional service accessible to those with no background, that is also interesting and meaningful to those who have spent years immersed in Judaism. Prayerbooks are Hebrew/English and Rabbi Avrohom Czapnik offers insights throughout the service.

Services for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are at 7011 Clinton Ave., near La Brea Avenue. For information, call (323) 857-0923.

In addition to its regular service, which is Orthodox and accessible to those with varying backgrounds, Aish L.A. is offering an intermediate service that is 70 percent English with lots of explanations along the way. And Aish has caught the “alternative” bug, with a minyan for 20-35-year-olds that is advertised as provocative and user-friendly. For the alternative minyan, $36 and pre-registration covers both days of Rosh Hashana, a catered lunch, Yom Kippur and a break the fast.

1417 Doheny Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 278-8672, www.aish.com/branches/los_angeles_ca/ .

Something Old, New and Borrowed

While Main Sanctuary services meet some people’s needs some of the time, rabbis and lay leaders are working to make those services more relevant and meaningful to more people more of the time. Here are some new twists on standard services:

At Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills, Rabbi Stewart Vogel wanted to take one of the most neglected services, Neilah, and turn it around. At the last service on Yom Kippur, congregants used to tolerate having to stand for the whole 45 minutes to an hour, looking forward to the end of the fast. So Vogel added a feature that is practiced in some traditional and liberal settings. He invited congregants up to the bimah to offer their own personal prayers in front of the open ark during Neilah.

“Some people put a tallit around the entire family and offer personal prayers for health; some will sit in almost a meditative state. When they turn around to descend from the bimah, sometimes people are crying and sometimes you see a look of satisfaction, of connectedness. And the congregation is privy to this drama,” Vogel says.

6025 Valley Circle Blvd., Woodland Hills. (818)
346-3545, www.templealiyah.org .

Temple Israel of Hollywood had enough of the supplementary handouts of additional prayers and readings that went along with the Machzor, so rabbis at the Reform congregation decided to craft a new High Holiday prayerbook.

Over the last five years the temple has also developed its own Shabbat prayerbooks. The new machzors, which will be used experimentally for two years while feedback is integrated, will include translations and transliteration and all the songs.

The new book will be used both in the main sanctuary and in the alternative minyan, which will meet first day Rosh Hashana and feature the Chai Tones congregational band and interactive Torah study.

There will be free services for children on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur and for adults on the second day of Rosh Hashana.

7300 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles, (323)876-8330, www.tioh.org .

Out of Shul Experience

Sometimes, getting out of synagogue might be the best option. Here are a few services from those who have gone out on their own.

The Moveable Minyan will celebrate the High Holidays in much the same way it did in its early days of existence: In the space at the Westside Jewish Community Center once occupied by the Zimmer Children’s Museum. The chavurah-style, lay-led minyan, which hasn’t been moveable for some time, spent several years in the space before the children’s museum moved into the JCC, and then wandered through rooms at the JCC until the museum moved out. This year, minyan members have spent a summer’s worth of Sundays refurbishing the space to have it ready for the High Holidays.

The minyan will meet for both days of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, and there will be children’s services as well as child-care. 5870 W. Olympic Blvd., (213) 229-5359.

Metivta: A Center for Contemplative Judaism offers a prayer venue for those looking for a meditative experience where traditional liturgy is infused with kabbalistic insights and cantorial singing blends with chanting. Rabbi Rami Shapiro, head of Metivta, leads participants on a journey inward, where congregants work together to search and heal.

Services will take place at Beth Shir Sholom, 1827
California Ave. in Santa Monica. (310) 477-5370, www.metivta.org  

An ‘Embrace’ to Remember


Sixty members of Young Israel of Century City gingerly walked on the muddy path and crowded into Dalia Har Sinai’s little farmhouse in the southern Hebron Hills community of Susia. Outside, the sheep and goats were in the barn. The farm and grazing land and organic vegetable patch were freshly green after much-needed rains.

Har Sinai sat in front of her small kerosene stove. Her visitors sat on cushions on the floor and on some plastic chairs that neighbors supplied. Weavings and crafts hung from the walls and ceilings while some of Har Sinai’s nine children passed out juice and fruit. “It’s fruit from Eretz Yisroel. Take some,” she said, a smile radiating inner peace.

However, the synagogue members hadn’t come to sightsee or eat. They came to bring Har Sinai’s family things it badly need — money and, more importantly, friendship and understanding. But they left Har Sinai without the one thing she needs more than anything else and no one can give — her husband, Yair. Arab terrorists gunned him down last summer, 200 yards from the house, on that picturesque, pastoral, peaceful-looking field, as he was herding his sheep and goats.

Project Embrace linked up Young Israel with Har Sinai, and is trying to connect all Jews with Israeli terror victims. It is sponsored by the One Family-Israel Emergency Solidarity Fund (IESF), American and Israeli-based organizations that recently teamed up and were behind the L.A. walk-a-thon in December that raised more than $300,000.

Sharon Evans of Ashkelon, director of Project Embrace, describes how the project started. “I visited a congregation in New York and shared my story of my daughter, who still is recovering from a terrorist attack. I was asked how a family in the States could personally help a victim of terror and their family. It was then that the idea of ‘adopt a family’ was born.”

Project Embrace bills itself as apolitical. It brings money directly to terror victims, circumventing heavy administrative costs that burden many organizations. “More than 2,000 people have been injured and 260 have been killed in the past year and a half,” says Chantal Belzberg, whose 12-year-old daughter Michal helped inspire her parents to start One Family.

Michal’s bat mitzvah was on the same day an Arab terrorist killed 15 people in Sbarro’s restaurant. Her party was to be a week later. Her parents discussed the idea of a celebration amid the reality of terror. She said she did not want a lavish event when people were suffering. The Belzbergs canceled the party and instead, visited the wounded and spoke to them about their needs. Afterward, the Belzbergs formed One Family, linked up with the IESF and then began Project Embrace.

“When you meet someone personally, it becomes reality,” said Rabbi Elazar Muskin of Young Israel of Century City following the visit with Har Sinai.

Har Sinai needs about $15,000 to hire two people to herd the sheep and goats, work that her husband used to do, Muskin said, noting that they used to get by on income from goats’ milk, butter, homemade organic bread and organic vegetables. With nine growing children, her expenses continue to mount.

“Yair and I saw the farm as an important educational tool in the age of high-tech and mechanization,” Har Sinai said. They have no television or computer. “Yair compared ‘computer’ to a witch, which in Hebrew is almost the same word.”

“We always wanted to be close to the land, to get back to basics and live as our forefathers did,” she adds. The couple grew up on non-religious moshavs (cooperatives) in the north, before they became baal teshuvah (returned to Judaism).

“Yair never carried a gun,” Har Sinai said. “One night the sheep and goats came to the barn. It was unlocked, and Yair was not with them. I knew something had happened.” Neighbors searched the fields into the middle of the night when they found him — murdered.

Congregation members from B’nai David Judea in Los Angeles also were in Israel last week. Project Embrace spoke to them in Jerusalem and they immediately changed their schedule and asked to adopt a family, another mother of nine children. They were teamed up with Pnina Gutman, who lives in Emmanuel, a community of about 4,000 in the Samarian Hills, about 45 minutes east of Tel Aviv. Terrorists murdered her husband and nine other Israelis in December.

“We live comfortably in Los Angeles and felt a need to help,” said B’nai David Judea’s Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky. “We want our children to keep in touch with them so they know they have friends in the Diaspora.”

For both congregations, it’s not just a one-shot deal. “We want to keep up communication with Dalia and the children,” Muskin said.

“Everyone has said to us that you don’t know how much your visit means, that Jews in the Diaspora care.”

Congregational Directory


The listings below are for Jewish congregations within the geographic area of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. Congregations in areas adjacent to Los Angeles Federation can be found by calling neighboring federations:

San Gabriel Valley: Jewish Federation of San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys at (626) 967-3656; sgpvfed@aol.com

Southeastern Los Angeles County: Jewish Federation of Greater Long Beach and West Orange County at (562) 426-7601, ext. 1314 or 1008; sharonk@jewishlongbeach.org

The Internet is a great tool to use in screening synagogues. Many, many congregations have Web sites, as do the national offices of the major Jewish movements (which have links to those synagogues with Web sites). Also, local movement offices may be able to help you find a congenial synagogue:

Chabad Lubavitch West Coast Headquarters (310) 208-7511; rabbicunin@chabad.com

Jewish Reconstructionist Federation (323) 933-7491; Jrfwcreg@aol.com

Union of American HebrewCongregations (Reform) (323) 653-9962; pswuahc@uahc.org

Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations (310) 229-9000; srebro1@juno.com

United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (818) 986-0907; pacsw@uscj.org

Key to denominations:

A denominational label means that a congregation is formally affiliated with a Jewish religious movement OR that it generally follows the philosophy and worship style of that movement.

(R) Reform

(C) Conservative

(O) Orthodox

(T) Traditional (Orthodox-style service without separation of men and women)

(S) Sephardic, including Persian and Middle Eastern congregations

(Rec.) Reconstructionist

(Ren.) Jewish Renewal

(I) Independent

Westside South

Adat Shalom (C) Rancho Park area: (310) 475-4985; ADATSHALO2@aol.com

Temple Akiba (R) Culver City: (310) 398-5783; TemAkiba@aol.com

Temple Beth Torah (C) Mar Vista: (310) 398-4536

Bais Chabad of Simcha Monica (O) Santa Monica: (310) 829-5620

B’nai Horin (Ren.) West Los Angeles: (310) 559-0587; lindasings@aol.com

Chabad of Cheviot Hills (O): (310) 837-8083; aronbcoch@aol.com

Chabad of Marina Del Rey (O): (310) 578-6000

The Chai Center (O): (310) 391-7995; schwartzie@chaicenter.org

Temple Isaiah (R) Rancho Park: (310) 277-2772; Sue@TempleIsaiah.com

Kahal Joseph (S) Westwood area: (310) 474-0559

Kehillat Ma’arav (C) Santa Monica: (310) 829-0566; office@KMwebsite.com

Cong. Mishkon Tephilo (C) Venice: (310) 392-3029; mail@mishkon.org

The Movable Minyan (I): (310) 285-3317

Nessah Educational & Cultural Center (S/O) Santa Monica: (310) 453-2218

Cong. N’vay Shalom (I): (323) 463-7728, (310) 535-1617

OhrHaTorah (I) Rancho Park area: (310) 278-9049, (818) 769-8223; office@ohrhatorah.org

Pacific Jewish Center (O) Santa Monica: (310) 392-8749; office@pjcenter.com

Sha’arei Am (R) Santa Monica; (310) 453-4276: shaareiam@aol.com

Sholem Community (I) Culver City: (818) 760-6625

Society for Humanistic Judaism (I): (213) 891-4303; info@shj.org

Westwood Kehilla (O); (310) 441-5288: outreach@kehilla.org

Young Israel of Santa Monica (O): (310) 314-3888

Young Israel of Venice (O): (310) 450-7541

Westside North

Beth Shir Shalom (R) Santa Monica: (310) 453-3361

Chabad of Bel Air (O): (310) 475-5311; belair770@aol.com

Chabad of Brentwood (O): (310) 826-4453

Chabad on Montana (O) Santa Monica: (310) 394-5699

Chabad of Malibu (O): (310) 456-6581

Chabad of North Beverly Hills (O): (310) 859-3948

Chabad of Pacific Palisades (O): (310) 454-7783

Temple Emanuel (R) Beverly Hills: (310) 274-6388; TEBBJS@aol.com

Kehillat Israel (Rec.) Pacific Palisades: (310) 459-2328; KIHOME@aol.com

Leo Baeck Temple (R) Bel Air: (310) 476-2861; lbtoffice@aol.com

Magen David of Beverly Hills (S/O): (310) 285-9957

Malibu Jewish Center & Synagogue (Rec.): (310) 456-2178; mjcandsynagogue@earthlink.net

Sephardic Jewish Center/Persian Chabad (S/O) Beverly Hills: (310) 855-0555; (310) 275-6920

Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel (S/T) Westwood: (310) 475-7311

Sinai Temple (C) Westwood: (310) 474-1518

Stephen S. Wise Temple (R) Bel Air: (310) 476-8561

Synagogue for the Performing Arts (I): (310) 472-3500

University Synagogue (R) Brentwood: (310) 472-1255; jkrautman@unisyn.org

Westwood Village Synagogue (O): (310) 470-0080

Young Israel of North Beverly Hills (O): (310) 203-0170; rst@pacbell.net

Hollywood/ L.A. East

Temple Beth Israel of Highland Park (C): (323) 255-5416

Chabad of Greater Los Feliz (O): (323) 660-5177

Chabad of Mt. Olympus (O): (323)650-1444

Chabad Russian Synagogue (O) West Hollywood: (323) 848-2999

Creative Arts Temple (I): (323) 656-6685

Hollywood Temple Beth El (C) and Iranian American Jewish Center (S) West Hollywood: (323) 656-3150

Temple Israel of Hollywood (R): (323) 876-8330; shalom@tioh.org

Temple Knesset Israel of Hollywood (C): (323) 665-5171

Cong. Kol Ami (R) West Hollywood: (310) 248-6320; staff@kol-ami.org

Shir Hadash (R) Mid-Wilshire: (310) 456-5323

Wilshire Boulevard Temple (R) Mid-Wilshire; (213) 388-2401

Fairfax/LaBrea

Aaron David Cong. (O): (323) 933-1411

Ahavas Yisroel Syn. (O): (323) 937-1247

Cong. Bais Naftoli (O): (323) 931-2476

Cong. Bais Yehuda (O): (323) 936-7568

Cong. Bet Elazar (O): (323) 857-0577

Bet Midrash (O): (323) 939-0298

Cong. Beth Israel (T): (323) 651-4022

Chabad of Hancock Park (O): (323) 954-8381

Chabad Mid-City Center (O): (323) 655-9282

Etz Jacob Cong. (O): (323) 938-2619

Jewish Learning Exchange (O): (323) 857-0923; jleoutreach@yahoo.com

Kehilas Yaakov (O): (323) 935-8572

Midrash Od Yosef Hai (S/O): (323) 653-5163

Cong. Ner Israel (O): (323) 933-3405

Cong. Ohel David (O): (323) 651-3594

Cong. Ohev Shalom (O): (323) 653-7190

Cong. Shaarei Tefila (O): (323) 938-7147

Temple Shalom for the Arts (I): (310) 858-1100

Tifereth Zvi (O): (323) 931-3252

Torah Ohr (S): (323) 939-6763; torahohr@torahohr.org

Cong. Torah V’Chesed (O): (323) 653-5083

Yismach Moshe Cong. (O): (323) 939-2681

Young Israel of Hancock Park (O): (323) 931-4030

Young Israel of Los Angeles (O): (323) 655-0300

Pico-Robertson

Aish Los Angeles (O): (310) 278-8672; LA@aish.com

Anshe Emes Synagogue (O): (310) 275-5640; info@anshe.org

Temple Beth Am (C): (310) 652-7353; betham@tbala.org

Cong. Beth Chayim Chadashim (R): (323) 931-7023; bcc@bcc-la.org

Beth Jacob Cong. (O): (310) 278-1911; bjacob@pacbell.net

Temple Beth Zion (C): (323) 933-9136; TempleBethZion@juno.com

B’nai David-Judea Cong. (O): (310) 276-9269; bnaidavid@aol.com

Congregation Bais Bezalel (O): (310)282-0444

Chabad Israeli Center (O): (310) 271-6193

Kehillat Hashalom (O): (310) 652-9014; hashalom@hotmail.com

Cong. Knesseth Israel of Beverlywood (T): (310) 839-4962

Midrasho Shel Shem (O): (323) 935-6081

Cong. Mogen David (T): (310) 556-5609

Ohel Moshe Cong. (S): (310) 652-1533

Torat Hayim Synagogue (S/O): (310) 652-8349

Arbeter Ring/Workmen’s Circle (I): (310) 552-2007; ArbeterSCA@mindspring.com

Yeshiva of Los Angeles Beis Midrash (O): (310) 553-4478 ext. 296

Young Israel of Beverly Hills (O): (310) 275-3020

Young Israel of Century City (O): (310) 273-6954; Rebekah@yicc.org

San Fernando Valley West

Temple Ahavat Shalom (R) Northridge: (818) 360-2258; templeas@aol.com

Temple Aliyah (C) Woodland Hills: (818) 346-3545; sylvia.moskovitz@templealiyah.org

The Ami Havurah (C) Woodland Hills: (818) 884-6042

Beit Hamidrash of Woodland Hills (O): (818) 712-0365

Temple Beth Solomon of the Deaf (R) Tarzana: (818) 363-5580

Temple Beth Torah (R) Granada Hills: (818) 831-0835; office@bethtorah-sfv.org

B’nai Ami Syn. (C) Chatsworth: (818) 700-0492; tuckeranch@aol.com

Chabad of Encino (O): (818) 784-9986

Chabad of Northridge (O): (818) 368-3937

Chabad of Tarzana (O): (818) 758-1818

Eretz Cultural Center (S/T) Reseda: (818) 342-9303

Temple Judea (R) Tarzana: (818) 758-3800; judeatarz@templejudea.com

Kol Tikvah (R) Woodland Hills: (818) 348-0670

Makom Ohr Shalom (Ren.) Woodland Hills: (310) 479-0559; mikem@melnick.com

Temple Ner Maarav (C) Encino: (818) 345-7833

Temple Ramat Zion (C) Northridge: (818) 360-1881; gayleb@trz.org

Sephardic Cohen Syn. (O) Tarzana: (818) 705-4557

Shomrei Torah Syn. (C) West Hills: (818) 346-0811; info@shomreitorahsynagogue.org

Valley Beth Shalom (C) Encino: (818) 788-6000; info@vbs.org

Valley Outreach Syn. (R): (818) 348-4867

Young Israel of Northridge (O): (818) 368-2221

San Fernando Valley East

Adat Ari El (C) North Hollywood: (818) 766-9426; alankarpel@adatariel.org

Adat Yeshurun Cong. (O) North Hollywood: (818) 766-4682

Bais Medresh Ohr Simcha (O) North Hollywood: (818) 760-2189

Beis Midrash Toras Hashem (O) Valley Village: (818) 980-6934

Bet Midrash Mishkan Israel (S) Sherman Oaks: (818) 901-1598

Temple Beth Emet (R) Burbank: (818) 843-4787

Temple Beth Hillel (R) Valley Village: (818) 763-9148

Cong. Beth Meier (T) Studio City: (818) 769-0515

Cong. Beth Ohr (I) Studio City: (818) 773-3663

Temple B’nai Hayim (C) Sherman Oaks: (818) 788-4664

Burbank Temple Emanu El (C): (818) 845-1734; Btee2000@juno.com

Chabad of Glendale (O): (818) 240-2750

Chabad of North Hollywood (O): (818) 989-9539

Chabad of Sherman Oaks (O): (818) 789-0850

Em Habanim Cong. (S/O) North Hollywood: (818) 762-7779

Shaarey Zedek Cong. (O) North Hollywood: (818) 763-0560

Temple Sinai of Glendale (R): (818) 246-8101

Valley Beth Israel (C) Sun Valley: (818) 782-2281

Valley Mishkan Israel Cong. (O) North Hollywood: (818) 769-8043

Yad Avraham (O) North Hollywood: (818) 766-6736

Conejo Valley/Santa Clarita

Temple Adat Elohim (R) Thousand Oaks: (805) 497-7101; adatelohim@earthlink.net

Temple Beth Ami (R) Santa Clarita: (661) 255-6410

Temple Beth Haverim (C) Agoura Hills: (818) 991-7111; tbh@templebethhaverim.org

Beth Knesset Bamidbar (R) Lancaster: (661) 942-4415; office@bkb.org

Cong. Beth Shalom (C) Santa Clarita: (661) 254-2411

Cong. B’nai Emet (R) Simi Valley: (805) 581-3723; bnaiemet@rain.org

Chabad of Agoura Hills/Chabad of Conejo/Chabad of Oak Park (O): (818) 991-0991; rmdb@aol.com

Chabad of Santa Clarita Valley (O): (661) 254-3434

Chabad of Simi Valley (O): (805) 577-0573

Temple Etz Chaim (C) Thousand Oaks: (805) 497-6891; office@templeetzchaim.com

Cong. Or Ami (R) Agoura Hills: (818) 880-6818; kipper23@aol.com

South Bay

Temple Beth El (R) San Pedro: (310) 833-2467; bethelsp@aol.com

B’nai Tikvah Cong. (C) Westchester: (310) 645-6262; btc@lafn.org

Chabad of the Beach Cities (O) Redondo Beach: (310) 372-6879; chabad@msn.com

Chabad of Palos Verdes (O): (310) 544-5544; chabadpv@aol.com

Chabad of the South Bay (O) Lomita: (310) 326-8234

Temple Menorah (R) Redondo Beach/Torrance: (310) 316-8444

Cong. Ner Tamid of the South Bay (C) Rancho Palos Verdes: (310) 377-6986

Temple Rodeph Shalom (R) El Segundo: (310) 390-3242; irvnao@aol.com

Southwest Temple Beth Torah (C) Gardena: (310) 327-8734

Cong. Tifereth Jacob (C) Manhattan Beach: (310) 546-3667

Balancing Acts


A common complaint of the unaffiliated Jew is having to buy tickets for the High Holy Days services they choose to attend. They see it as being required to “pay to pray” and often get quite huffy about what they see as a predatory hunger for cash on the part of synagogues.

The temples, on the other hand, see charging for High Holy Days tickets as a matter of survival, and their leaders and staffers are understandably annoyed at religiously marginal Jews’ stubborn cluelessness about what it takes to run a house of worship.

“In addition to the extra time for hourly staff, we rent chairs for additional attendance, we pay child-care workers, we order supplies for the children, we bring in special outside program runners for junior congregation and children’s services, we pay for valet parking, and more,” said Lisabeth Lobenthal, executive director of Adat Shalom in West Los Angeles. “The amount for seats barely offsets our additional expenses.”

Brenda Brook, a staffer at Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills, reeled off a similar litany: “Increased security, Beverly Hills police and fire protection, increased payroll costs, musicians, music, audio technicians, publicity, printing, additional maintenance help, child care, temporary office help.”

And those are temples that stay in their own buildings for the holidays. Many synagogues, whose sanctuaries don’t accommodate the extra crowds that come for holiday services, rent larger spaces, with good-sized congregations going into hotel ballrooms, theaters, and civic auditoriums, while small congregations go into churches, larger synagogues, and secular spaces such as hotel meeting rooms. Those rents constitute a hefty expense.

And for a lot of temples, the sale of High Holy Days tickets is an important and necessary fundraiser. “Ours is a small congregation comprised mainly of older people on fixed incomes who are not able to endow us with large sums of money,” said Harvey Malloy, president of Congregation Beth Ohr in Studio City. “This is the one time of year that we are able to raise money to support our rabbi and pay our overhead for the year. We welcome guests, but we will only be able to meet our financial obligations if everyone contributes.”

“It’s simply a matter of keeping the doors open,” said Rabbi Michael Beals of B’nai Tikvah Congregation in Westchester. “For us, High Holiday tickets are a budget item. The synagogue counts on a certain number of High Holiday tickets sold to make the budget each year.”

There are philosophical considerations at work too. Synagogues want Jews to become members, supporting the institution year-round – and coming to services year-round. “The only way we can create a synagogue that really makes a difference in people’s lives is through Jews supporting [them] by being members of the congregational community,” said Laura Geller, senior rabbi at Temple Emanuel.

“We’re here for the community all year because our member families support us,” said Sheryl Goldman, executive director of Congregation Beth Am near Beverly Hills. “On the High Holidays, those who choose not to affiliate by way of full synagogue membership are asked to do their financial part for the community.” To encourage membership, many congregations allow purchasers of holiday tickets to apply the cost of the tickets to membership dues if they decide to join.

Some institutions, of course, do offer free seats for holiday services, most visibly the Chabad network of Chassidic congregations and the Chai Center, whose rabbi, Shlomo Schwartz, expects to host more than 2,000 worshipers in a user-friendly, English-language Orthodox service near LAX.

“At Chabad, you don’t have to pay to pray. It’s a fundamental belief we have that goes back to the Baal Shem Tov, the father of Chassidism,” said Rabbi Chaim Cunin, director of public relations for West Coast Chabad Lubavitch. “If someone comes to us on Rosh Hashanah for their first encounter with Judaism, the last thing we want to do is ask them to pull out their checkbook.”

In an unusual move, a small Conservative congregation in Gardena that’s planning a move to Torrance, Southwest Temple Beth Torah, is opening all its services to the public without tickets. “We’d like to offer Jews a place to go,” said Jo Kahn, one of the temple’s vice presidents. “And we’d like to have as many unaffiliated Jews as possible join us for holiday services, because we want them to see what we’re all about and if they’d like to join us once we relocate.”

Goldman pointed out that her temple never turns away anyone who truly can’t pay for holiday tickets, a policy of many area synagogues. And while horror stories abound of temples that have given financially strapped would-be congregants a hard time, and while it isn’t a lot of fun to approach a synagogue kippah in hand, so to speak, it is often possible to arrange for tickets at a congenial shul at little or no cost.A number of congregations keep their ticket prices well under the local median of about $175 for the full series. “We charge $95 because it’s enough to help the budget without scaring people off,” Beals said. “Some synagogues make the tickets so expensive that it’s cheaper to become members. But we realize that people are at different levels of Jewish growth, and we don’t want to shut people out of the experience because they can’t afford it. So we’re not going to price them out.”

“If someone calls a synagogue and are told they can’t go to services unless they pay $300, that could be the last Jewish decision they make in their lives. We can’t let that happen,” said Rabbi Yaacov Deyo, education director of Aish Los Angeles, an Orthodox institution.

But Aish does charge a nominal fee these days for its beginner’s High Holy Days services, which used to be free. “We found that if we didn’t [charge], people didn’t take it seriously,” Deyo said.Keep in mind that some synagogues, for reasons of space or for philosophical reasons, don’t make tickets available at all to nonmembers.

When Rabbi Elazar Muskin arrived at Young Israel of Century City 15 years ago, he was informed that the Orthodox shul does not distribute High Holy Days tickets. “I thought to myself, ‘Finally, somebody understands. It’s not a show,'” Muskin said. “The philosophy is to encourage membership, involvement and commitment.”

While synagogues, like businesses, have financial bottom lines, they also have a doctrinal bottom line: Jewish worship is a week-in, week-out proposition, not a once-a-year event, and week-in, week-out worship is absolutely free. “Synagogue doors are open daily, on Shabbat and for every other holiday of the year for those who wish to worship, all without a fee,” Goldman said.

Rabbi Mark Diamond, the new executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, fielded many angry e-mails on the issue of buying holiday tickets when he administered an “Ask the Rabbi” board on America Online. “When we think of the question, ‘Why do I have to pay to pray?’ that’s a very consumer-oriented way of looking at spirituality and synagogue membership. It’s unfortunate,” he said. “My message would be to convey to people the importance of belonging to a congregation. That’s what it means to be a part of the Jewish community.”

“There was a time when Jews were involuntarily taxed to support the community, the rabbi’s salary, maintenance of the building, et cetera,” Lobenthal said. “For better or worse, we no longer enjoy that luxury.”

Eating and Praying Near Downtown


Where to Pray

There are no established synagogues serving the immediate downtown area, but among the major movements, the shuls closest to Staples Center are:

ReformWilshire Boulevard Temple 3663 Wilshire Blvd.Los Angeles, CA 90010Phone: (213) 388-2401(Large and grand, built during and for the era of movie palaces)

Beth Chayim Chadashim6000 W. Pico Blvd.Los Angeles, CA 90035Phone: (323) 931-7023(Small and haimish, with an outreach to the gay and lesbian community)

ConservativeTemple Beth Am1039 S. La Cienega Blvd.Los Angeles, CA 90035Phone: (310) 652-7353(Offers daily morning and evening minyans, plus multiple Shabbat services)

OrthodoxA large concentration of Orthodox shuls not far from downtown Los Angeles is in an area radiating from the intersection of La Brea Avenue and Beverly Boulevard. To find a congenial Orthodox worship service, start with these organizations:

Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations: (310) 777-0225Chabad Lubavitch West Coast headquarters: (310) 208-7511

Where to Eat

Kosher Restaurants

The Persian, Moroccan and Tunisian Jewish influx into the garment industry has given rise to a crop of good kosher meat restaurants in the downtown area. Most of these places close on weekends, so call ahead for precise hours. There are numerous kosher restaurants about 15-20 minutes west of downtown on Pico Blvd. between La Cienega and Doheny and on Fairfax between Beverly Blvd. and Melrose Avenue. Check www.jewishjournal.com for listings.

Afshan Restaurant306 E. 9th St.Los Angeles, CA 90015(213) 622-1010

Classic Restaurant108 E. 8th St.Los Angeles, CA 90014(213) 623-6234

Cohen Restaurant316 E. Pico Blvd.Los Angeles, CA 90015(213) 742-8888

Pasha Café112 W. 9th St.Los Angeles, CA 90015(213) 622-7578

Sharon’s II306 E. 9th St.Los Angeles, CA 90015(213) 622-1010

Solomon’s Place934 S. Los Angeles St.Los Angeles, CA 90015(213) 623-0094

And while downtown, don’t neglect Langer’s Deli at Alvarado and 7th, home to what many consider the best (non-kosher) pastrami sandwich in America, or Brooklyn Bagel at 2217 W. Beverly Blvd. near Alvarado for some of LA’s best bagels.

Healing Has a New Home


When Gateways Beit T’Shuvah dedicates its brand new Mar Vista-area facility on Nov. 14, it will be celebrating a colossal move upward for its residential therapeutic community. The much-lauded recovery center will architecturally expand from 3,500 to 40,000 square feet. And it will be better equipped than ever before to cater to its clientele of Jewish criminal-offenders and addicts.

The brand new Goldrich, Kest and Breslow Gateways Beit T’Shuvah Campus consists of two adjacent buildings — male and female housing — as well as more office space, bathrooms, and a larger dining area.

Executive Director Harriet Rossetto thinks that the new campus — named after lead donors Jona Goldrich, Sol Kest and Warren Breslow — will make a dramatic difference in the way Beit T’Shuvah will offer assistance.

“I’m hoping now that with this attractive, comfortable facility to become the model for recovery locally and nationally,” she says.

The actual capital campaign to raise money to establish the new and improved House of Return took about a year and a half.

“But the idea for a Westside building was 10 years in the making,” says Rossetto, who told the Journal that the downtown Los Angeles environment surrounding the original Beit T’Shuvah locations was “not conducive to recovery.” The original male facility, a two-story Victorian structure near downtown Los Angeles, was established 13 years ago; its nearby sister counterpart about 4 years ago. The director points out that the new campus, across from the landmark former Helms bakery on Venice Boulevard, will triple the present treatment population of 25 men and 12 women. She also says that the size of staff will gradually increase as well, once they have settled in.

In addition, the Beit T’Shuvah grounds boasts the Bess and Ben Maltz Memorial Sanctuary, which will provide program recipients with an onsite place of worship. The Sanctuary (which will also be dedicated next Sunday) will be presided over by Rabbi Mark Borovitz, who is Rossetto’s husband. After all, T’Shuvah — which roughly translates as “repentance, return and response” — is the key component of the institution’s name. And spiritual healing is a large part of overcoming vice and personal demons.

“Our challenge now is in the future will be to continue to raise the operating funds to keep the place going,” says Rossetto.

For more information on Gateways Beit T’Shuvah, call (310) 204-5200.