Chasen Forging New Path at Leo Baeck

When Rabbi Kenneth Chasen came to the Leo Baeck Temple for a final interview with the search committee in the spring of 2002, he put together a sample Shabbat service for about 40 people. During the service, congregation president Robin Bernstein closed her eyes and smiled. A feeling of peace came over her and she said that she knew that this was “our rabbi.”

Last summer Chasen joined the West Los Angeles synagogue, and at the Jan. 9-10 installation was officially made Leo Baeck’s new senior rabbi.

To grow, this congregation of 650 families must nurture its ties to broad, left-of-center political causes, while also attracting young, often apolitical families seeking innovative synagogue life for personal reasons, such as raising children.

“A good Reform synagogue should offer a road for all those types of expressions,” said Chasen, 38. He said he’ll continue the Leo Baeck tradition of innovative worship and social commitment.

“I think people are welcoming this moment and not seeing it as threatening.”

Chasen inherits a legacy created by founding Rabbi Leonard Beerman, Senior Rabbi Emeritus Sanford Ragins and Cantor Emeritus William Sharlin. A former TV music supervisor and soundtrack composer who became a rabbi in 1998, Chasen must carry the congregation’s traditions into the next generation.

“This community has a certain type of vision. The ways of this temple will bind him,” said Rabbi David Ellenson, president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) at Chasen’s formal Jan. 9 installation. “Rabbi Kenneth Chasen is one of the most gifted rabbis you’ll ever find.”

Sharlin’s daughter, Cantor Lisa Sharlin, is director of education at Congregation Shir Ha-Ma’alot in Irvine. The synagogue of her childhood, she said, has a fine steward in Chasen: “He has brought with him a spark of love for our faith that is as fresh as it is contagious.”

Beerman founded Leo Baeck in 1948 and led it until he retired in 1986. He passed the torch to Ragins, who continued the Beerman tradition, while adding his imprint to the congregation’s direction before retiring last June.

In the early 1970s, Leo Baeck created its own prayer book instead of relying on Reform Judaism’s standard prayer text. This gave the leafy Sepulveda Boulevard shul a reputation for innovation. It became known for inspiring an overall aesthetic approach to Reform worship, notably in how language is used in prayer, how people enter prayer and how sermons are written. Leo Baeck also had a strong impact in liberal Los Angeles politics and leftist activism.

“None of that is going away,” said Chasen, who came from Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, N.Y., spending five years there as an associate rabbi before joining Leo Baeck last July. “There’s a similar culture of civility,” he said in comparing the two.

Leo Baeck board member Lisa Mandel said Chasen “just stepped into the right place. For me at my point in my life, the political piece is very important to me, and he brings both. I have yet to meet a congregant who isn’t happy.”

Mandel said the anxiety about hiring a successor rabbi was, “pretty high…. You have this wealth and this history that’s so rich.”

Before entering HUC-JIR in 1993, the Kansas City, Mo.,-raised Chasen spent six years editing and composing musical scores for TV shows, such as ’80s prime-time dramas as “Dallas” and “Knots Landing.” Married for nine years to nonprofit development executive Allison Lee, they have two sons, Micah, 6, and Benjamin, 3.

Congregation President Bernstein said the search committee contacted 20 candidates before settling on Chasen and another finalist.

“We wanted a senior rabbi to give us new things to think about,” she said. “We really wanted to work with somebody with whom we could figure out together where we’re going.”

One Chasen theme is making Jewish life go beyond the synagogue and flourish at home. With writing partners Steve Brodsky and Rabbi Josh Zweiback, Chasen is one-third of the Mah Tovu trio. Their 2001, 18-page family prayer booklet, “Days of Wonder/Nights of Peace” includes a CD with four of their songs. The Behrman House booklet was made for parents seeking to build a Jewish home and also find relevant children’s bedtime stories.

“Why not make them Jewish bedtime stories?” Chasen said. “Jews are coming to Leo Baeck and seeking a Jewish experience that transcends the hours that they’re here.”