Shomrei Torah burns its mortgage

For a congregation that faced millions in debt and a dwindling membership 10 years ago, hosting a “Burn the Mortgage” event was a particularly sweet moment for Shomrei Torah Synagogue. More than 500 people turned out on June 16 to celebrate the Conservative congregation’s final payment on its West Hills complex.

Judy Groner, a former executive director, recalled the importance of the June 16 date.

“On June 16, 1992, the ceremonial ground-breaking took place when the site was just a dirt lot. Four years later, the building was dedicated on June 16,” she said. “What the builders envisioned happening then is now happening. It’s been a very exuberant experience.”

Canoga Park’s Congregation Beth Kodesh, led by Rabbi Eli Schochet, purchased the Valley Circle Boulevard property with plans to move west and develop a larger, more modern facility. Two years after Beth Kodesh broke ground on its state-of-the-art complex, the congregation merged with Reseda’s Temple Beth Ami, led by Rabbi David Vorspan, to become Shomrei Torah Synagogue.

“They joined forces to develop a new building,” said Robert Weingarten, a member and financial adviser to Shomrei Torah. “It was expected that membership would grow after the merger, but there was a gap between expectation and reality.”

But when Schochet retired in 1999 after almost 40 years of service and Vorspan was not promoted to senior rabbi, Vorspan left, and many of his original congregants followed.

“When Rabbi Richard Camras came on board, it was a risk for him to move his family here from Maryland,” Groner said. “But he has done a fantastic job. … He helped to bring new life to the congregation.”

By 2001, the congregation realized that it was unable to repay the loan on the building. The synagogue had to restructure its debt by taking out a new loan.

“Half a million was put up for the loan, from 10 generous congregants,” Weingarten said.

After the 2001 restructuring, the congregation was under pressure to come up with a way to pay down the principle on its new mortgage. One generous donor came up with a solution.

“Barry Wolfe, who at the time was an anonymous donor, came up with a matching-funds campaign, where he would donate $100,000 every year if the community could match it,” Weingarten said.

Board member Leah Kuluva, who was charged with collecting the community’s donations,  said it was a very daunting task in the first year.

“I was worried,” she said. “We had 22 days to try and raise $100,000. But the response was just amazing.”

In the nine years that followed, Shomrei Torah consistently matched Wolfe’s donations, and in some years surpassed the $100,000 goal.

Kuluva said Wolfe bowed out in the final two years of the loan after contributing $900,000 to the synagogue, and the congregation approached 10 donors to complete the final two years of payments.

Over the years, the congregation has hosted Los Angeles Hebrew High School, New Community Jewish High School and the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School to bolster its finances.

With the loan finally paid off in late May, Shomrei Torah is looking to the future.

Former president Marcia Weingarten says the congregation’s membership is on the upswing with 525 families.

“There are challenges ahead, but we are well prepared for the future,” she said. “Over the last four or five years, there have been an increasing amount of young families joining the congregation. We see a lot of faces now we don’t know, and it means we are a community that is growing, and that’s always a good thing.”

New Community Jewish High School, which has been located on Shomrei Torah Synagogue’s campus since 2004, is set to move to the Milken JCC building in 2013. With the potential loss of a consistent source of revenue, the synagogue is already looking for a new occupants for the space.

“We are looking at various alternatives,” Weingarten said. “The school has been an integral part of our campus, so we are looking to replace it. We’ve been speaking with other schools and other community service organizations about the premises. As the school isn’t scheduled to move until possibly June 2013, these are general, exploratory discussions for the moment.”

Communities can use High Holy Days to help ease economic angst

With the start of the High Holy Days, the pace of communal life starts to change, and our focus is on reflection, reconciliation, repentance and the annual response to new beginnings.

For too many in our community, however, this season will hold more angst than joy.

The economic situation in our country presents us with challenges unseen for nearly a generation. Too many will sit in synagogues through this season and be equally concerned with their own economic situation as they will the state of their soul. Increasingly, senior citizens on fixed or limited incomes are seeing their resources challenged. Young adults are concerned about job security. Too many of our people of all ages have lost jobs, been downsized or live on the edge of job and financial uncertainty.

This reality presents our community with a unique and necessary opportunity to become an even more meaningful “caring community.” This is a time when no one should be left to feel that they are “l’vado” (alone). This is a time for community and relationships to be enhanced and expanded, so that our congregations can be seen as responsive to and involved with those who are hurting.

In every community are untapped human resources: people who may have some time to give, who have experienced life and, if asked, might be willing to assist leadership in developing support systems for individuals and families in need. At the least, a call can be made to members who have experience in the workplace, who have counseled people in job changes and career moves.

Establishing a congregational or communal service corps with members willing to give advice and direction — or just lend a sympathetic ear to those who might be searching for new directions — is one possible course of action.

During a similar economic downturn in the early 1980s, I worked in Philadelphia and was involved in helping congregations create a communitywide job bank. It had some success helping people in our community get back to work. We simply polled the members of the community’s congregations for possible job openings and advertised those openings throughout the area so members could see what was available from those within their own community.

This could be done again. Synagogues can join other local organizations, JCCs, Jewish Family Service and others to broaden the base of opportunities to search. Even in this day of electronic and Internet job searches, personal networking and relationships go a long way in opening doors.

A difficulty in some of this may be the unwillingness on the part of many to come forward. So often we face this challenge of having people admit they may need some assistance, guidance or help in establishing goals. Transitions are tough and filled with fear. But let us not forget the power of the pulpit. The simple act of the rabbi offering a sermon on the need for this type of caring “inreach” can help worshipers see their congregation as more than a life-cycle institution.

The High Holy Days are a perfect example of a moment in time when Jews attend synagogue. Why not take a few moments at each service to launch this internal support network? Why not have in each prayer book a form that someone can fill out who has a job opening or position request, or has a willingness to give time to counsel or advise a fellow congregant on career change and possibilities?

Use your caring community committee to organize these forms and launch, right after Yom Kippur, a Sukkot of Transition so that all can feel the possibility of a “sukkat shalom.”

We soon will enter our season of possibilities. In each of our communities there are those we need to support and those with the ability to create that sense of support and caring. All we need to do is ask.

Rabbi Richard F. Address is the director of Union for Reform Judaism’s Department of Jewish Family Concerns (

Article courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency

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