In Cantor vs. Rabbi, Synagogue Is Victim

This High Holiday season, leaders of Temple Ner Maarav want people to know that they are still open for business.

Some might have thought otherwise of the Encino synagogue, which was rocked by a battle that divided members between the shul’s rabbi of 19 years and its more recently hired cantor.

But no. Despite a two-year conflict that cost both the rabbi and the cantor their jobs, caused nearly half the members to leave the synagogue and forced the other half to take out a second mortgage on the building, those who remained want to see that the synagogue not only survives but thrives.

Many temples have weathered storms — or failed to — over personality clashes between its leaders. But Ner Maarav’s civil war was particularly bitter, also causing the departure of the religious school and preschool directors along with the rabbi and cantor.

Now with half its original members and some bad memories to overcome, leaders of this 200-member family group are working several creative angles — including hiring a new rabbi and leasing space to a private school — to rebuild the shul.

Unlike some newer synagogues that hope to expand as much as possible, Ner Maarav is not seeking exponential growth. "Our goal is to have about 350 families," said Ian Smith, current Ner Maarav president. "We can’t really cope with more than that."

Temple Ner Maarav had never been a large synagogue. It was founded about 40 years ago when a group of members desiring a smaller congregation broke off from Valley Beth Shalom (VBS). Dubbing itself Temple Maarav, the group eventually merged with Ner Tamid, and, over time, evolved into a mostly senior congregation meeting in a aging building on White Oak Avenue.

At its peak, membership hit about 400 households.

The problems began about four years ago, Smith said. Friction — most say personality clashes — between Rabbi Aaron Kriegel and Cantor Hesh Mayersdorf began building, peaking in 2000 into a full-blown battle that resulted in both men’s dismissals just prior to the High Holidays in 2001. Kriegel eventually landed a position as spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Ahm in Verona, N.J. (the synagogue his father founded in 1936). Kriegel declined to comment for this story; Mayersdorf confirmed he is seeking another position.

"Still, we kept the temple going," Smith said. "Once we signed the [buyout] agreements with the rabbi and the cantor, we were able to say to the congregation last [High Holidays], ‘The world may be at war, but we at Ner Maarav, for the first time in many years, are at peace.’"

Smith and Maarav have their work cut out for them. They’ve borrowed money to buy out the contracts, "but we will have a balanced budget for the coming year and have stabilized the temple," Smith said.

One of the board’s first tasks was to choose a new rabbi. Synagogue leaders decided to go in an entirely different direction from the traditionally Conservative, somewhat left-leaning Kriegel. In April of this year, Rabbi John Crites-Borak, a convert to Judaism, whose prior careers include working as an air traffic controller in the early 1980s and heading his own public relations firm representing primarily labor unions. Whereas Kriegel was a baby-boomer idealist with a more traditional approach, similar to rabbis like VBS’ Harold Schulweis and the late Melvin Goldstine of Temple Aliyah, Crites-Borak comes across as one of those laid-back-style rabbis who would be as comfortable sitting with the congregation as on the bimah.

Crites-Borak never expected to go into the rabbinate. The idea was first planted in his head during a dinner with author and Rabbi Deborah Orenstein. "The following Shabbat, I went to shul and it was parshat Re’eh, where it says, ‘I set before you today a blessing and a curse.’ We stood for the ‘Aleinu’ and this little girl, she was about 5 or 6, came over and started pulling on my jacket. I looked down and asked, ‘Can I help you?’ And she said, ‘Are you a rabbi?’ And I said no. And she said, ‘You should be a rabbi. You look like a rabbi.’ So I called up to the University of Judaism [UJ] and looked into the program."

Crites-Borak was hired to helm Ner Maarav part time, but already is spending most of his week at the synagogue. What does he consider the greatest challenge facing the congregation? The new rabbi doesn’t mention the financial difficulties nor its struggle to reestablish itself, but a more spiritual concern.

"Ultimately, I asked myself this question: At the end of my days, when I’m standing at the very edge of my grave, what did I want to be able to say about the days of my life?

"The challenge facing the congregants here is the same one that faces Jews everywhere: How do we connect Jewish tradition with everyday life? How do we make sense of Torah, not by what it says about how Jews lived 3,500 years ago, but how we can live in the everyday world?" Crites-Borak said. "That’s my job, to help people reconnect in ways that make sense."

With a rabbi in place, Smith and the board began exploring options for improving their operations. A decision was made to limit the preschool to 15 children and work on building up the religious school until improvements could be made to the dilapidated early childhood center.

Then Ami, a religious school program aimed at Hebrew-speaking children of the Israeli emigres, reached out to the temple for help. The school had operated out of the Valley Cities Jewish Community Center (JCC) for nearly a decade but when the JCCs were faced with financial problems last December, Ami director Shula Klein began looking for a new home for the program. Ner Maarav arranged for Ami to alternate days with its own religious school if Klein would take over as director of both schools, and the families of Ami students would join the synagogue for a nominal fee. Smith said the temple board hopes the Ami families will enjoy being part of Ner Maarav and spread the word to unaffiliated friends.

Another assist arrived in the form of the Sage Academy, a private, nondenominational school run by teachers from the defunct Castlemont School in Tarzana. Sage will rent the temple’s school building during the day, running their programs through the early afternoon after which time the religious school will occupy the building.

Despite the growing population of Jewish families moving into areas like Woodland Hills, Calabasas and Agoura, and competition from nearby VBS, Smith believes Ner Maarav can find a way to fill a niche in the Encino-Sherman Oaks area.

"VBS did a geographic survey of the area, and although a lot of the younger families have moved to the west, there are still a vast number of Jewish families in this area, and because we are not looking to have a 1,700-family congregation, there are enough young people around. We can encourage people to join us if we have the programs," Smith said.

Toward that end, the shul has mailed flyers to 5,000 unaffiliated Jews in the surrounding area with the help of a list provided by The Jewish Federation/Valley Alliance. In addition, the synagogue is doing outreach to the Jewish Home for the Aging and is looking to create programs with the UJ.

"We don’t want it to be a separate entity, an island of its own, but to go out into the community," Smith said. "We want the community to know we’re here and want to be actively involved."

For more information about Temple Ner Maarav, call (818) 345-7833.