Growing a Shul in Calabasas

It is now two years since I moved to Calabasas to become the rabbi of a new Orthodox congregation. And there is no time like the eve of the Jewish New Year to take stock.

People said it couldn’t be done. Some believed there was not much hope for an Orthodox synagogue in this community bordering the San Fernando and Conejo valleys, where expensive homes pepper the steep hills, because members would have to walk to services, and outsiders would be deterred from moving here because of the high price of housing.

But as a congregational rav 10 years prior, I knew I had never been in a shul that failed to grow dramatically. In my circles, I see a fantastic yearning for Modern Orthodoxy. The yearning comes from two directions: traditional Conservative Jews who lament that their movement abandoned them, and Orthodox laity who prefer the Shabbat-observant Torah Judaism that synthesizes the best of secular culture with the authenticity of Torah values.

Many shuls search for rabbis who are devoted deeply to foundational values of Torah-true Judaism, and who also love what is good, wholesome and valuable in secular culture. Everywhere I have gone, I have seen a positive response to the effort to synthesize Torah values and the world around us. Could it succeed in Calabasas?

Young Israel of Calabasas began with only 10 families. Last year, by Rosh Hashanah, we had grown to 25 families after a year. And this year, as we mark our second year’s conclusion, we have grown to 40 families. Our growth has been noticed. The National Council of Young Israel honored us at this year’s national banquet in New York as one of the most exciting new Young Israel congregations in America. The Orthodox Union nationally honored us as a Synagogue of the Week.

We achieved these distinctions by realizing that, at this moment in time, the "old rules" are not going to work here. Not everyone will sit at a three-hour service. Some people want the rabbi’s sermon more. Some come to pray. Ashkenazim and Sephardim have different prayers, melodies and cultures — and the congregation grows by virtue of their union. Older families — retired individuals who have built congregations and sat on their boards — bring wisdom and one set of life experiences. The group’s largest-growing core — "mid-life" families in their 40s with children in elementary school, high school and even college — arrive with a somewhat different set of needs, priorities and talent sets. And the younger families in their 30s, who are starting to establish themselves in careers and houses and building new families, come with yet other needs, augmented by an untainted idealism.

The challenge for a rabbi who would bring Modern Orthodoxy to a community — from Calabasas to Timbuktu — is to recognize that Jews are not expendable and, although malleable and flexible, cannot be coerced into going where they will not go. This is most challenging. Jews who will not walk but insist on driving to shul on Shabbat — at this moment in their lives — pose a challenge to an Orthodox rabbi. On the one hand, they are not supposed to do that. Yet. Yet.

Yet I ask myself, "Why is this family driving past two Reform temples, three Conservative temples — and a shopping mall — to spend Shabbat morning at an Orthodox shul with an Orthodox rabbi, Orthodox Torah reading and an Orthodox rabbinic message in an Orthodox service?"

And, in several sermons, I have asked that question aloud and tried to understand. These families do not want to shoot an arrow at a wall and then paint a bull’s-eye around where it lands. Rather, they covet a rabbi who will tell them honestly: "Here is the bull’s-eye. Here is Judaism in the Torah’s perfection." And then, little by little, year by year, their archery marksmanship improves. And they really want to get closer to the mark. But they will proceed at their own pace.

There are Orthodox Jews who follow all the mitzvot, pretty much. They are not the drivers. The rabbi teaches, the rabbi cites sources, the rabbi schmoozes and the rabbi needs to know where and when to let the issue rest — for another day.

Much of my job is about validating people: Teaching Ashkenazim the richness of the Sephardic heritage. Who realizes that the Babylonian Talmud that we all study and teach our kids came out of Sephardic Iraq? Teaching that Sephardim gave us the Rambam and Ramban, the Code of Jewish Law and extraordinary foods, melodies and traditions. It is about dealing, on the other hand, with the resistance of certain families from Israel to contribute their equal share to a synagogue, to pay membership dues, to understand that the Senate Religion Committee still has not approved President Bush’s nomination for secretary of churches, mosques and synagogues — so the federal funds are not here, and people have to pay privately for their houses of prayer. It is about understanding the South African preference for Friday night services; the richness of Persian rituals, customs and foods; the unique needs of those who are single or divorced adults, especially on Shabbat; the psychology of Holocaust survivors.

This is the balancing act: for one, understanding the needs of a family in crisis, another questioning whether the congregation is adhering to one rule or another, a third asking that the sermon length be elasticized to assure the same ending time each week, a fourth coming only for the sermon and asking for it to be longer. It is about seeing that the people who come only for the sermon might stay after if a creative Adult Beginners Service is inaugurated. So you inaugurate. It is about seeing that there are 20 children between ages 7 and 13 wasting their time. So you create a Shabbat Youth Service for them, find a new experimental siddur and see the service through. This one wants a newsletter, and that one wants a weeknight Bible class on the Prophets (Nevi’im) that follows the account of the Five Books of the Torah. You add a Talmud class on a second weeknight, and it cuts the Bible class attendance because some of those regulars start coming on the other night instead. So you look at the situation, the people, and you move the Talmud class to Saturday afternoon, in between the afternoon Mincha and the nighttime Maariv service, and you end up increasing the attendance at the service, while restoring the turnout at weeknight Navi class.

Now, as our Young Israel of Calabasas marks the completion of a two-year spurt from 10 to 25 to 40 active membership families, we begin our biggest experiment yet. For two years, we prayed in a private home, not big enough, not enough members to rent nicer space. The nicest space in town is in the Hilton Garden Inn located a 25-minute walk down the hill, at the edge of the town center, The Commons. We know that drivers can get there, but would people agree to do the walk down the hill (and back up again) every week — and pay for the privilege?

This time — not just for the High Holidays but for every Shabbat in the foreseeable future — the Young Israel of Calabasas is leaving the ease and tightness of private quarters atop the hill, and "The Little Shul That Could" is finally going down the hill.

Dov Fischer is rabbi of Young Israel of Calabasas. His Web site is