A pioneering minyan celebrates double chai birthday


Back in 1971, a group of young married rabbinical school graduates with small children requested a meeting with Rabbi Jacob Pressman of Temple Beth Am. Many of them had just moved back to Los Angeles after graduating the Jewish Theological Seminary, and they were looking for a meaningful prayer experience. Not only that, their children were being shushed for being disruptive in the main sanctuary.

Pressman proposed creating a separate, “parallel” service for the young Jewish professionals and took the concept back to his board, who did not like the idea at all. One man pointed his finger at Pressman and warned, “Rabbi you are going to create another shul that’s going to grow up and leave.”

Temple Beth Am library
In fact, the board member was half right. Pressman and the group did create another entity, what has become known as “The Library Minyan,” named for the downstairs library where the 15 families began to meet weekly to pray. Members organized and participated in all parts of the service (especially the weekly sermon), discussed all aspects of Judaism and debated the increasingly complex issues of the changing times. But even as the group grew — eventually eclipsing the main sanctuary in attendance — it stayed at Beth Am. In fact, it became a draw for new members, some of whom went on to serve on the synagogue’s board and who are now among the top Jewish professional leaders in and beyond Los Angeles.

Thirty-six years later, the Library Minyan, with its opportunities for engagement and intellectual rigor is seen as having helped to start a revolution — empowering lay leaders in the essential structure of spiritual leadership. It has become a model for many Conservative and Reform congregations seeking to create alternatives both within and outside the fold of conventional synagogue structure, and has allowed individual congregations to morph it into new and ever-changing incarnations.

This weekend, the Library Minyan will celebrate its double-chai anniversary (two times “life”) with a Shabbaton Nov. 2-4 that will remember the past but also look toward the future.

So, what does the future hold for the Library Minyan and its members? Will they continue to be a creative influence on Judaism? Or is it time for them to step aside and let other younger people establishing new and innovative communities of their own take over? Has the revolution ended?


Not that the Library Minyan set out to be revolutionary. “We were looking for a place where we could daven,” said Rabbi Stuart Kelman, who worked at United Synagogue Youth, Camp Ramah and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion before leaving town in 1984 to work in Jewish education in Northern California.

“Since most of us were knowledgeable, we could create a service that was more informal, more intimate, more participatory. I think this minyan was an evolution and not a revolution,” Kelman said.

Pressman, for example, helped found Camp Ramah and American Jewish University (formerly the University of Judaism) and got the hotels in town to have kosher kitchens. Under his stewardship, Beth Am grew from 218 families in the 1950s to 1,300 by the 1970s. He recognized the need for something new: “It was unreasonable we could serve all these people,” he said, so he gave the green light to the group, which was soon to include Rabbi Eliott Dorff (now rector of American Jewish University), professor Steven L. Spiegel (now UCLA’s director of the Middle East Regional Security Program) and Rabbi Joel Rembaum.

“I wish I could call it an immediate success, but it was not,” Pressman said. “There was scarcely a minyan” in the early years. Not that that mattered to its attendees, who were happy to have a mixed-seating, lay-led, traditional prayer group where members read from the Torah, delivered parsha sermons and held weekly potluck lunches. They also debated issues: first, whether women could read Torah (they could by the mid-1970s) and then whether women could lead prayers and be counted as a minyan (they could by the early ’80s).

“In the late ’70s all these people started coming,” recalled Dorff, who joined two months after the start, in April 1971, and is now considered one of the driving forces behind its egalitarian spirit. The minyan is filled with rabbis — more than a dozen — but has no one rabbi. “There were more and more people who wanted this kind of service.”

There was another attraction: “Word came out that the Library Minyan was a good place to meet the opposite sex,” Pressman said.

The group relocated a few times, first into the youth building adjacent to the shul, and then to the old chapel (today it’s in a newly renovated chapel).

“The minyan also acquired a certain star appeal, with members such as the Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt, the scholar of mysticism Jonathan Omer-Man, and the historian of ideas David Ellenson, a Reform rabbi who grappled with Modern Orthodox theology in his doctoral dissertation,” as described in a chapter devoted to the history of the Library Minyan by Samuel Freedman in his seminal book, “Jew vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry,” published in 2000).

Freedman pointed out that the participants were “products of the Jewish counterculture, committed to applying the New Left’s ideal of participatory democracy to religious practice. Yet they did not throw out all convention: Ninety percent of services were in Hebrew, and most members were Sabbath observant.”

Other forces were also at work: In 1985, Pressman retired and handed Beth Am’s senior rabbi mantle over to Rembaum, one of the original members of the Library Minyan, which was now considerably larger, with about 130 individuals on a Shabbat morning, Rembaum said.

The complaints continued: “Why don’t you bring those people in?” some of the same Beth Am members now complained to the new rabbi.

“I’m one of them,” Rembaum replied.

A congregation grows in Whittier — Hispanic outreach blooms


Something extraordinary is going on at Whittier’s Beth Shalom Synagogue, which has been in its present site east of Los Angeles since the early 1960s. As the area’s Jewish population base has dwindled — and as the Conservative congregation has aged — Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak has reached out to the Spanish-speaking community in the area.

“One of the purposes was to educate our neighbors about Judaism,” Beliak said. “But it was also to reach out to those in the Hispanic community who may have had some kind of Jewish connection: people in mixed marriages, those with a Jewish parent or grandparent or those who may have had a Jewish boss they felt close to. Was it with the hope of converting some to Judaism? I would say yes, that, too. All of the above.”

In recent years, several neighbors trickled in and converted, becoming part of the congregation, but it was last February that the real change took place. Beliak asked Argentine-born Rabbi Aaron Katz to teach a class — in Spanish — about Jewish history, philosophy and traditions. The class started with six students of Mexican and Central American background, most having been brought up in Catholic households.

Katz was surprised when the class quickly expanded, some bringing in spouses, friends and children. It was clear to him that the participants felt a deep spiritual connection to Judaism — they weren’t there merely to learn, they came for faith-driven reasons. These people wanted to practice Judaism.

Several in the Grupo Hispano, as a couple of the members referred to the group, said that they had grown up in homes with what they later realized were Jewish traditions: no eating of pork, devotion to study. They have no proof that they’re descended from those forcibly converted to Catholicism 500 years ago, but several said that the first time they stepped into Beth Shalom it felt familiar, as if they had “come home.”

After a couple of months of study, members of the group asked Katz for their own services. So, since June, in a separate room within Beth Shalom, Katz has led them in Spanish-language services, as does another Argentine-born rabbi, Daniel Mehlman.

The Grupo Hispano is also learning Hebrew prayers and songs. It has become a community within a community and now numbers about 30.

Katz said that when he came to the United States four years ago, he had no intention of becoming a congregational rabbi again. He wanted to teach and study, which he’s done at several institutions.

“When I started giving classes to this group,” he said, “I thought it was just a teaching assignment. But their interest and enthusiasm drew me in. So now I’m once again a rabbi with a community. It’s these people. They made me a rabbi again.”

Nearly everyone in the group seems to be in the process of converting or intends to do so soon. Some have already done so.

How has the existing congregation dealt with this?

“Some have grumbled,” Beliak said. “But for the most part, the new members have been welcomed warmly.”

One congregant, 80-year-old Zelda Walker, said, “It’s wonderful! I’ve seen the conversion of two already. I’m delighted to see the community take in new members.”

Other congregants echoed the same thought. Recently, the two groups had Tisha B’Av service together, and now, after the Grupo Hispano has its separate Spanish-language service, members join the English-language congregation for Torah reading and Kiddush.

“Hopefully, in the coming months we will enjoy a renaissance,” wrote Beliak in the shul’s newsletter, Mishpacha, now published in English and Spanish.
Beliak said that the new members are extremely interested in matters of faith and have revitalized his shul.

“They have a yearning for divinity, as sincere as anyone I’ve ever known,” he said. “A sense of the spiritual. They are the ones setting the standard. In their own way, they’re more interested in being observant than the existing congregation.”

“This group,” Katz said, “is intensely involved in the spiritual aspect of our religion. That’s rare in Los Angeles or anywhere else. Of course, the social part is important, but [the Grupo Hispano] is looking for something more, and so am I. For many, it’s going to be their first High Holy Days, and they’re thrilled.”

Beth Shalom is located at 14564 E. Hawes St., Whittier. Parking is at 14579 Mulberry St.

On Sept. 22 at 7:30 p.m., there will be a joint service of the two groups at Beth Shalom’s sanctuary. On Sept. 23-24 at 9 a.m., there will be separate services in Spanish and English, then the two groups will join for Torah reading.

On Kol Nidre, Oct. 1, the two groups will be together, and on Oct. 2, the Spanish-language group will have its own Yom Kippur service, then join the others for Torah reading.

For further information, call (562) 941-8744, visit bethshalomwhit@adelphia.net

Jewish bond doesn’t draw all to Holiday observances


They include a law professor, a newspaper editor, a computer scientist, an architect and a retired Army colonel.
 
However diverse, they have one thing in common: They generally do not attend synagogue services on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
 
Yet they are neither self-denying Jews nor rare exceptions. Some are intensely dedicated Jews, and all feel bound to the Jewish people. Statistically, 39 percent of all American Jews, and 44 percent of all Jewish college students, do not attend religious services, according to the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey.
 
Judea Pearl is a UCLA professor of computer science and a leading international authority on artificial intelligence. He is also president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation, established to carry on the work and world view of his son, a Wall Street Journal reporter who was murdered by Islamic extremists in Pakistan.
 
With his wife, Ruth, Judea Pearl is co-editor of the award-winning collection of essays, “I Am Jewish,” the title reflecting his son’s last words before his execution.
 
Yehuda Pearl grew up in Bnai Brak, one of the most ultra-Orthodox enclaves in Israel, which was co-founded by his grandfather, Chaim Pearl, a Chassid from Poland. It was not exactly the place to declare oneself a nonbeliever, but Yehuda did just that at the age of 11.
 
“I had thought a great deal about it and decided that it was impossible that the deity worshipped by my parents and grandparents existed,” he said. “Everybody thought it was just a youthful phase, but I never got over it. I cannot believe that there is a God who listens to my prayers.”
 
Yet, the Pearls light candles every Friday night and make Kiddush.
 
“My parents and grandparents did this, and I do so in their memory,” he said.
 
“Or perhaps, to show my daughters something about their tradition.”
 
With a laugh, Pearl recalled a recent dialogue with a Muslim academician, after which he, some Jewish friends and about 30 Muslims adjoined to a restaurant for dinner.
 
It was a Friday night, so Pearl asked the waiter for glasses, a bottle of wine (juice for the Muslims) and recited the Kiddush prayer. Both his Jewish and Muslim friends were flabbergasted.
 
“But you said you were secular,” they said, shaking their heads.
 
Bret Israel, editor of the Los Angeles Times Sunday Calendar section, usually takes a long walk on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur near his home in the Hollywood Hills.
 
“I am not a deeply meditative person, but I find that a walk on that day helps to cleanse the spirit,” he said.
 
Some years, he will take the holiday walk along Santa Monica Boulevard or another city street. “For me, it’s a way of being of this world and not being of this world,” Israel said.
 
Israel was raised in a Reform family on Long Island, N.Y., had a bar mitzvah but stopped going to synagogue during his college years.
 
His immigrant grandfather from Germany was adamantly secular and refused to step into a synagogue as a matter of principle.
 
“I am not like that. I’ll go occasionally with a friend, usually to Temple Israel of Hollywood,” he said. “But in general, by temperament and philosophy, I don’t feel comfortable in organized worship.”
 
However, in the past two years, Israel has taken to fasting on Yom Kippur, explaining, “Somehow, it’s a cleansing experience.”
 
Jonathan Zasloff loves Shabbat services, takes and teaches classes on Judaism, fasts on Yom Kippur and Tisha B’Av and generally walks out of the High Holidays services before they conclude. A UCLA law professor, specializing in environmental and urban planning, Zasloff, 41, was raised in a Conservative home and tends to attend Conservative synagogues.
 
However, “I find much of the liturgy and services outdated, inaccessible, highly stylized and not very spiritual,” he objected. “And too many of the services are formalistic and stilted.
 
“I don’t like other people praying for me,” he continued. “Though I find parts of the services meaningful, we must find some ways to make them more participatory and interactive. That’s why I like to go to the Brandeis-Bardin Institute.”
 
Architect Allen Rubenstein, project manager for capital construction for Beverly Hills, grew up in the Bronx in the 1930s and ’40s. His American-born parents observed no particular ritual on Friday nights, “but we always had chicken soup,” he recalled. “And on Sunday mornings, we had herring and boiled potatoes.”
 
When he reached 13, his mother wanted him to have a bar mitzvah, and Rubenstein shudders at the recollection.
 
“They sent me to an old rabbi, who spoke hardly any English and rapped me on the knuckles,” he said. “I read without understanding anything.”
 
The experience did not induce a love for religious study. “I saw no reason to go back,” he said.
 
Rubenstein moved to the San Fernando Valley and married. When his two daughters grew up, “they sort of wanted to have a bat mitzvah because their girlfriends had them. I was neither for it, nor against it,” he said.
 
Occasionally, he went to a synagogue for the High Holidays, “more to listen to the sermon than for the service.” But last year, when his daughter invited him to her temple for Rosh Hashanah, he declined.
 
So what makes Rubinstein, a thoughtful and sensitive man, a Jew at all?
 
“Culturally, I feel very comfortable in a Jewish environment. It’s in the food we eat, the family feeling, what we talk about,” he replied. “I feel connected to Israel, and I support Jewish charities. But when it comes to the formal parts of religion, I feel alienated.”
 
Rubenstein’s daughter, Karen Willis, is on the board of directors at Temple B’nai Hayim, a Conservative congregation in Sherman Oaks, and sends her children to a Jewish day school.

Closing the Gap on Believers


Is religion more prominent or less today in American life? Is it fading away or roaring ahead? Articles about the conservative Christian influence in the Bush administration point — often fearfully — in one direction. Statistics about the disappearance of young adults in the 18-30 age group point — with another kind of anxiety — in the opposite direction. Ironically, those who are the greatest removed from religious affiliation tend to believe that religion is more powerful than ever, while those in the thick of congregational life tend to believe just the opposite. Meanwhile, is any force more powerful in American life than inertia?

From Oct. 10-11, a colorfully diverse group of Jews, Christians and Muslims gathered at USC to address what some in the clergy have called the “black hole” in religious affiliation. Synagogues, churches and mosques are all more or less equally affected. Membership tends to be strongest among those younger than 18 or older than 30. Ominously, this black hole seems to be growing at its upper end. Can this common problem have something of a common answer? Can there be learning across canyons that usually divide these groups? Is there a set of identifiable “best practices” that work for all Americans? The conference was given the name Faith, Fear & Indifference: Constructing Religious Identity in the Next Generation.

The diversity of sponsorship of the conference is unusual enough in itself to deserve mention: The Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the Omar Ibn Al Khattab Foundation, and three entities under the roof of USC.

Among Americans of the middle class, the experience of “going away to college” has long been thought a key to the interruption of religious affiliation. That departure from hearth and home has been sanctioned for many years as a salutary separation away from childhood itself, a coming of age, a major step forward in individuation that would properly include a stock-taking with regard to religion. But because American education has been growing longer and more costly, this interruption between childhood and achieved adulthood has been growing longer as well. American marriage has been taking place later and, as a result, parenthood has come later. In an earlier era, when college education, marriage and first parenthood were all accomplished by age 25, the early adulthood hiatus frequently enough ended with a religious wedding ceremony that was simultaneously a kind of spiritual homecoming. Now the seven years have grown to 12 or 14 or more — And the longer the hiatus lasts, the more likely it is to become permanent.

In a presentation spiced with sometimes-hilarious direct quotes from survey respondents, Berkeley sociologist Christian Smith characterized what might be called the majority or default religiosity of young Americans — present among the unaffiliated as well as among the affiliated — as “moralistic therapeutic deism.” According to MTD, there is a God, he cares much about right and wrong; while he wants you to do right, he mainly wants you to be happy, which means that he wants you to be involved or not in any organized form of religion to the extent — and only to the extent — that it fosters your happiness. In effect, no other value is operative for adherents to MTD.

The surprise, given this as an opening state-of-the-population vision, was then a set of presentations by groups that have been most successful in reaching the age group in question. In every case, the successful seemed to ask a great deal, did not promise happiness or customer-is-always-right service and stressed to newcomers that their communities — be it study group, worship community, summer camp, whatever — were going forward for authentic reasons of their own that would remain valid whether or not new, young recruits were attracted.

This was the message that I, for one, took away most especially from presentations by two charismatic leaders: Brother John of Taizé, an American member of a French Protestant monastery that attracts thousands of young Europeans to a remote village in Burgundy every summer; and Rabbi J. Rolando Matalon, an Argentine who shares leadership of the extraordinarily successful Congregation B’nai Jeshurun on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Actions always speak louder than words. The cleverest pitch will always seem no more than a pitch when contrasted with a quietly embraced way of life.

We speak proudly in the West of our pluralism, but what happens when you substitute the phrase “the religion market” for “religious pluralism”?

But is it not obvious that religions do compete with each other in this country? Different congregations within the same religion compete with each other, as well, and all religious activities compete with other claimants for the free time of the American. This being the case, there always looms the possibility that market success — and market techniques for building market success — can drive out all other kinds of success and all other techniques for reaching it.

But those who live by the market also die by the market, or so the conference seemed to conclude. The young are, if nothing else, very market savvy. They can spot a pitch. They are the hardest of hard sells. Yet they crave authenticity and, perhaps the largest surprise, they hunger for mystery.

Jack Miles, author of “God: A Biography” and other works, delivered an address at the Faith, Fear & Indifference conference titled “The Leisure of Worship and the Worship of Leisure.”

Music Makes the Service Go ‘Round


Since distributing a CD of hymns to members of Tustin’s Congregation B’nai Israel, the Conservative synagogue’s cantor, Marcia Tilchin, and congregant Carl Cedar, a veteran musician, no longer sing alone in the sparsely filled sanctuary on Friday night.

“The house was rocking,” said Cedar, who last summer first began accompanying Tilchin on an acoustic guitar during “kabbalat,” a less formal preface to the mandatory Friday evening Shabbat service.

“The congregants were drowning us out. It’s very different then it was even a month ago,” he said.

Both musical innovations reflect a cultural shift by the county’s youngest Conservative congregation and reveals the challenge facing Conservative Judaism.

Since an organist was welcomed in Reform pulpits as early as 1817, the addition of a guitar player is sure to strike some observers as a tempest in a theological teapot. But playing sacred music remains a forbidden Sabbath activity in most Conservative synagogues, though organ music was sanctioned after the State of Israel was established. The exception remains the West, where even 10 years ago half the congregations enlivened worship with instruments, a percentage far higher than elsewhere in the country.

So local Conservative congregations are latecomers, experimenting with instruments only in the last two years. But what is welcomed by some congregants alienates others, who feel compelled to worship now in Orthodox settings, said Rabbi David Eliezrie, who said his Yorba Linda Chabad has seen a small influx from Conservative congregations.

Other leaders say music is too powerful a spiritual engine to forego.

“I think it’s the right thing to do,” said Stuart Altshuler, rabbi of Mission Viejo’s Congregation Eilat, where once a month piano, guitar and mandolin are included in a service that is better attended than most. “It makes the whole experience more meaningful.”

Doris Jacobson, president of Anaheim’s Temple Beth Emet, hired Craig Taubman this year to lead four abridged Saturday services, where he played guitar and led congregants singing prayers in a smooth-jazz style. Four-hundred seats were filled instead of the normal 75.

“There is a joy to it,” she said, absent from liturgy sung to melodies that are generations old. “We have to change as times change. It doesn’t mean our values are devalued. It’s like freeze-dried coffee. Why drink it when you can go to Starbucks and have so many choices?”

Aside from the human voice, musical instruments historically were banned because their use could lead to violating prohibited Sabbath activities, such as public carrying and fixing, and out of mourning for the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E.

“Rabbis say they’re willing to accommodate because of the payoff both in numbers and quality,” said Dr. Jack Wertheimer, provost of New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary, the Conservative movement’s flagship academy. “Synagogue renewal regards the use of music as a critical force for positive change, and getting them involved, and enhancing their religious experience. This is very much in the air,” he said.

Yet, contemporary issues, such as music and same-sex marriage, create tension within the Judaism’s centrist denomination, whose mission is to integrate modernity with devout religious observance. United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the movement’s congregational arm, claims 760 congregations with 1.5 million members. But the number of self-described Conservatives declined 10 percent over a decade according to two population surveys, though survey questions about affiliation were not exactly comparable.

Conservative leaders like Tilchin consider music an invaluable hook to engage a constituency lacking fluency in Hebrew and whose allegiance is based on relationships rather than ideology. Even clergy steadfast in their opposition to instruments nevertheless feel pressure from lay governing boards trying to encourage adherence to Jewish laws while still reaching out to the unaffiliated and disengaged.

“You have to meet people where they are,” said Tilchin, who joined B’nai Israel two years ago. She estimated half of its 495 families read Hebrew.

“I’m trying to teach my congregation to daven,” she said, describing “Shalom Aleichem: The Music of Kabbalat Shabbat,” as a “beautifully produced learning tool.”

The CD cost $10,000 to produce and was distributed in December.

Tilchin’s selections blend Ashkenazi sacred melodies with more contemporary ones that also previously were paired with prayers. Cedar, after familiarizing himself with popular Jewish music stars, contributed his professional talents by recording, arranging and performing separate tracks for guitar, percussion, bass and clarinet.

“In theory, you could do this style for every service,” Tilchin said. “It’s a fantasy.”

In the meantime, she is working on a fully transliterated Friday night prayer book as a companion guide to the CD. She hopes to complete it this month and distribute one to each congregant.

“Now, when they come, they’ll be able to participate,” Tilchin said.

Elie Spitz, B’nai Israel’s spiritual leader, lifted the instrument ban after researching technical issues and determining that musical accompaniment enhanced rather than distracted from religious experience.

“The guitar helped people sing along,” he said. “A capella is sufficient if you know the music.”

Spitz and Rabbi Elliot Dorff, a philosophy professor at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, are members of the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, which decides issues of Jewish law. They are co-authors of a recently submitted “responsa,” their explanation of permissible use of music on Shabbat. Their arguments must win the approval of six of the panel’s 25 rabbinical members to be considered a valid opinion. Opinions are not binding, though acceptance could influence broader use of music within the Conservative movement. The panel isn’t expected to consider their responsa for another year or more.

Dorff said the responsa explains the rationale behind the historical music ban and under what circumstances an instrument circumvents Shabbat prohibitions about creative activity.

Eliezrie, the Chabad rabbi in Yorba Linda who is president of the all-Orthodox Rabbinic Council of Orange County, is dismissive of such explanations. He cited an instrument ban from the Mishnah, oral explications of Torah recorded around the year 200 C.E.

“In an effort to market Judaism, do we loose the essence of Judaism? When you cross the line,” Eliezrie said, “you lose your raison d’etre.”

Tilchin, for one, is looking beyond theological lines.

“More people are singing than ever before,” she said. “Music is a universal language for people who feel distant from the idiom of the liturgy.”

Part-Time Work, Full-Time Families


Around the time Sally Priesand was ordained at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Conservative women began to press the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) to ordain women. In contrast to the matter-of-factness with which Priesand’s ordination took place, the ordination of women in the Conservative movement was accomplished only with a certain amount of kicking and screaming on the part of some JTS faculty and members of the denomination’s Rabbinical Assembly (RA). It took more than a dozen years from the first manifesto of Conservative women demanding equal status in the synagogue in the early 1970s to Amy Eilberg’s ordination in 1985.

Women form slightly more than 11 percent of the RA’s membership today, with both JTS and the University of Judaism (UJ) ordaining them as rabbis. They’ve had some of the same effect on the Conservative rabbinate that Reform women have had on theirs, though in some ways, Conservative Judaism has some serious catching up to do.

"The decision to work part time is not encouraged and not understood in the Jewish community," said Nina Bieber Feinstein, who in 1986 became the second woman to be ordained at JTS. She noted that the RA did not list part-time jobs in its newsletter until recently, and then only for the East Coast.

"I’ve been paying dues to the Rabbinical Assembly every month, and I’ve never received an iota of help," Feinstein said. "Every time I find a job, it’s on my own or through networking."

Feinstein, a mother of three whose eldest child was born before she was ordained, has never worked full time or held a pulpit at a mainstream synagogue; she’s currently associate rabbi at Beit T’Shuvah, the Westside congregation for Jews in recovery from alcohol and substance abuse, working three days a week.

She and her husband, Ed, associate rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, decided early on that his would be the dominant career. The decision to stay with part-time work "has been one of the banes of my career, though it’s been good for my children," Feinstein said. "At least for myself, I know I made the right decision."

As in Reform circles, female rabbinical students and rabbis are seen as civilizing forces.

"I think women rabbis have had a profound effect on the demystification and democratization of the congregational perception of the rabbinate," said Tracee Rosen, a former rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino and current rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami in Salt Lake City, who was ordained at UJ three years ago. "My own experience was that we also had an effect of reducing the testosterone-laden competitiveness of classes in the seminaries."

Sherre Zwelling Hirsch, a Conservative rabbi ordained in 1998 who serves Sinai Temple in Westwood, remembered a prayer vigil held at JTS after an accident injured students at the school. During the event, she recalled, a male rabbi told her, "If there weren’t women here, this would never have happened."

Issues of balance between work and family life are present in the Conservative movement as well and are carrying over to men, with large Conservative synagogues having trouble filling pulpits.

"Traditionally, male rabbis gained status based on synagogue size: the bigger your shul, the more important rabbi you were," Rosen said.

"Now, I think there’s more of a realization … that for many of us, there are some positions that aren’t worth the personal sacrifices, no matter how much money they are willing to pay."

Mark Diamond, who administers the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, notes that the Conservative movement has yet to see a woman at the helm of a major congregation, though the first women were eligible for such jobs 10 years ago. Conservative Judaism eventually will view women rabbis as leaders, he said, "but it’s a very slow process."

Hirsch, the mother of a infant son who said she’s frequently called about positions that would represent steps up the career ladder, is more upbeat, saying that women will break through the glass ceiling and eventually lead large congregations. Male Conservative rabbis "want women to ascend; they know it’s deeply important to the Conservative future," she said. Conservative congregations are "not exactly where I want them to be," Hirsch said, "but they’re a long way from where they were."

New Burbank RabbiBuilds on Legal Past


Richard Alan Flom is a rabbi come lately. Now the rabbi at Burbank Temple Emanu El, a Conservative synagogue, Flom was 41 before he entered rabbinical school, after a successful career as a lawyer and a management consultant. And it was not like he had always had a spiritual bent either.

"The whole idea of rabbinical school –even now when I think about it — just seems strange," said 48-year-old Flom in an interview with The Journal. "When I was a kid growing up, anybody that I knew who kept kosher was either my Bubbe or Zaide or somebody who I thought was really weird. None of it computed for me when I was young. I was raised in the classic tradition of, ‘We belong to a Conservative synagogue, but except for me being dropped off at Hebrew school, we never went.’"

Flom was completely irreligious until he married Lynn Kronzk 22 years ago. "The rabbi marrying us asked us, ‘What do you do Jewishly?’ and I said, ‘We don’t do a damn thing. We don’t do anything Jewishly.’ He said, ‘Promise me you’ll light candles Friday night. You don’t have to make a blessing or make "Kiddush," but just light the candles.’ So we started lighting candles, and then we started saying blessings, and then, because we like to drink wine, we started drinking wine with ‘Kiddush.’"

Flom found that his increasing interest in religion corresponded with his decreasing interest in the legal profession. Upset with the lack of collegiality and the prevarication he encountered as a lawyer, Flom yearned for something more. "Certainly, there were monetary rewards, but at the end of the day, I didn’t feel like I had done anything meaningful or useful," he said. "It sounds really corny to say, but I wanted to answer to a higher authority."

The opportunity to answer to a higher authority came when Flom was offered a job teaching ethics at the MBA program at the University of Judaism. There he met a lot of rabbis and rabbinical students. "I thought, I could really get into this, and so in 1995, I enrolled in the ordination program," he said.

In 2000, Flom met up again with the rabbi who performed his wedding ceremony. "I said, ‘Look what you started. You got me to light candles in 1980, and now I am graduating from rabbinical school.’ He told me that he had ‘pulled a Chabad on me’ (referring to Chabad’s campaign to get people to light Shabbat candles)."

The lesson that Flom drew from his religious journey is that in matters of faith, nothing is instant. "You can’t expect to say something to somebody and overnight change their lives," he said. "As a rabbi, you might never see the results of your labor, or it might be 15 or 20 years later before you see some results."

During his tenure at Burbank Temple Emanu El, Flom hopes to inspire the 130 member families of his congregation to grow as Jews, and he wants them to understand that there is a Jewish way of doing things that might be different to what their Christian neighbors do. He plans to develop a Bikkur Cholim program so that his congregants can understand the Jewish way to visit and comfort the sick, and he hopes to use every opportunity he can to teach his congregants Jewish texts.

"To me, adult education, family education, teaching from the bima or speaking at a bris, are all teaching moments," he said. "People don’t realize it, but they can actually learn Torah at a bris. I like to teach –and perhaps that is part of my legal background, because good lawyers educate their clients."

Flom describes his congregation as an active bunch of middle-class families, ranging from young couples with newborns to people celebrating their 60th wedding anniversaries. The community boasts a sisterhood and men’s club, a 50-student pre-school and a religious school. It is the only Conservative synagogue in the area.

Flom hopes to increase membership in the synagogue by 50 percent, and he also hopes that his congregation will be able to grow spiritually, just as he did. He wants to create a "hands-on" approach to Jewish practice, with congregants reading from the Torah, leading services and getting involved with Jewish textual study.

"What drew me here was the potential for growth," he said. "The congregation wants to grow physically, but they want to grow Jewishly, too. Programs that cause us all to grow in terms of our knowledge and in terms of our practice might or might not draw new members, but it will improve our membership, and that is really important to me."

"I want the members to develop as Jews, and to understand, as I learned, that [religious growth] is a ladder," he said. "Even if you go up only one rung higher than you were before, then you have still advanced."

Your Letters


Who Should Pay?

While Sharon Schatz Rosenthal’s cover story notes that dayschools are costly, it fails to address cost efficiency (“Who Should Pay?” Jan.31). I believe the Jewish community’s limited funding can be more effectivelytargeted at bolstering supplementary secondary schools. A good example is theLos Angeles Hebrew High School (LAHHS), which Dr. Samuel Dinin established(“Legacy in Motion,” Jan. 31).

LAHHS serves more than 500 teenagers who concurrently attendsecular high schools. With more than three dozen distinguished faculty members,its educational program is on par with the best full-time Jewish high schools.Yet, tuition is around one-tenth the cost.

Leonard M. Solomon, LAHHS Board of Trustees Los Angeles

There’s another reason some of us are unable to send ourchildren to Jewish day schools — the lack of after-school care at most of theschools. Catch 22: We work to be able to afford Jewish day school tuition, butstill can’t send our children there because the schools are not willing toaccommodate working, two-parent families.

Name Withheld Upon Request, Woodland Hills

The truth of the Jewish community is that the vast majorityof non-Orthodox students attend supplementary schools and will continue to doso.

I take particular issue with the article’s innuendo that theLos Angeles Bureau of Jewish Education could be more financially supportive ofday schools. That may be, but they are more supportive of supplementary schoolsthan most, striving to raise the quality of teachers and the esteem of thework.

It is my hope that when we talk about Jewish education, wecan engage in discussion about communal goals and the myriad options that areand could be available.

Cheri Ellowitz Silver, Education Director   Congregation NerTamid of South Bay

Editorial

I am unable to comprehend Rob Eshman’s logic regardingPresident Bush’s State of the Union address (“Ich Bin ein Missourian,” Jan.31). Saddam will never comply with the U.N. resolutions that demand hiscooperation to reveal what he has done with the weapons of mass destruction. Noamount of inspection is going to find what he has hidden.

Michael Brooks, West Hills

Interfaith Families

As a Catholic Latino married to a Jewish woman, I havelearned that many Jews consider interfaith marriage a terrible threat to thesurvival of the Jewish people (“Jews Must Draw in Interfaith Families,” Jan.24). I understand this concern, but I would argue that the threat is notnecessarily mixed marriage, but rather the Jewish community’s treatment ofmixed families. My wife and I are committed to raising our children as Jews.Sadly, while we’ve belonged to a Reform congregation for many years and havetried to become part of the temple community, we’ve had very limited success.Typically, we have been treated with reactions ranging from indifference tosuspicion. We are politely tolerated, but feel relegated to a marginal status.

In contrast, the church I attend supports a group ofCatholics married to Jews. The parish seems to welcome these families, fullyintegrating them in the church community. Although we as a family are notchurch members, we have developed closer relationships with this group than wehave with families at our temple.

Over the years, the few mixed families we’ve encountered atthe temple have gradually drifted away. We have also started looking foranother congregation. We’ll continue trying to find a Jewish community where wefit in. However, I often wonder how my children will feel about Judaism if theyare always kept at the margins.

R. Hernandez, Los Angeles

Gay Rabbis

Although I am a traditional Jewish man with traditionalideas, I support the idea of allowing gays and lesbians to become Conservativepulpit rabbis (“A Conservative Challenge,” Jan. 17). The Conservative movementshould reconsider its position and at least discuss the issue. Why should anyJewish person be excluded from fulfilling his or her dreams because of personalpreferences? The Conservative movement allowing women to become pulpit rabbisin 1985 was a great decision and helped fortify the views of ConservativeJudaism.

Israel Weiss, Agoura Hills

Correction

In Rabbi Michael Beals’ letter to the editor (Jan. 31), TheJournal incorrectly added the translation “repentance” next to the word teshuvot,which here meant “a rabbinic response to a query, based on halacha (Jewishlaw).” We regret the error.