Spiritual Redevelopment

Cantor Mark Saltzman spent Sunday, Oct. 28 wearing a smile that could solve California’s energy crisis.

Leading his congregation in a member-composed rendering of "Ki Bayti" ("Because This Is My Home"), Saltzman had reason to smile. After nine years of searching, fundraising, working and praying, Congregation Kol Ami inaugurated its 7,000-square-foot permanent home in West Hollywood.

The afternoon’s festivities began with a procession, as Rabbi Denise Eger led congregants, friends and community supporters down two closed-off lanes of La Brea. From there, the Kol Ami crew filed into a tent in the synagogue courtyard for a dedication ceremony, and then finally home, into the new building.

Founded in 1992, Kol Ami is West Hollywood’s only Reform synagogue. The 250-member congregation is the first predominantly gay and lesbian synagogue in the United States to construct its own building, an achievement made possible by an ambitious campaign which raised $2.4 million in pledges.

Kol Ami’s mission of providing a nurturing environment for Jews of diverse backgrounds and lifestyles extends beyond its core gay and lesbian membership. As State Senator Sheila James Kuehl, the first open lesbian in the California Legislature, noted in her remarks to the congregation, "This house is not our house, it’s God’s house."

In its 10-year history, Kol Ami has become "part of the fabric of West Hollywood’s community life," Eger says. Previously, Kol Ami held services at West Hollywood Presbyterian Church. With a home of its own, "the synagogue will function as a center for activity and social action," Eger says.

Situated at the Northeast corner of West Hollywood in a redevelopment zone, the synagogue represents another aspect of Kol Ami’s place within the fabric of the city — what Eger calls "the mitzvah of redevelopment."

Among the celebrants carrying Torah scrolls, before joining Eger on the podium for the dedication service, were West Hollywood Mayor Jeff Prang; assemblymember Paul Koretz; state senator Kuehl; and county supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who have "all been good friends of the temple," the rabbi says. Yaroslavsky congratulated the congregation on its success in facing the numerous hurdles to building. "I know what it’s like to build a synagogue," he said, "I know even better what it’s like to get zoning for a synagogue."

The Kol Ami building was architect Josh Schweitzer’s first synagogue. "And, since he’s not Jewish, he was kind of like a blank slate," Eger says. To prepare, the rabbi and the architect studied Torah together, particularly sections of Exodus "so he could understand this process and tradition of freedom."