A Unique Sound

Considering where he’s been, it seemed unlikely that Craig Wyckoff would have been the man inducted on July 12 as president of Valley Outreach Synagogue (VOS).

The entertainment agent was once so disillusioned with Judaism that he flirted with Eastern religions, until his wife Mary reconnected him to Judaism.

Then again, second chances are what VOS is based on — the founders of the Canoga Park temple are recovering alcoholics.

The Temple’s new president, a principal at the Beverly Hills-based Epstein-Wyckoff-Corsa-Ross, reflects what congregants find unique about their temple: its interfaith contingent and its emphasis on music.

Wycoff was always drawn to music. It was what attracted him to Judaism and to entertainment.

"I’ve always loved music," said Wyckoff, 50, recalling his Dallas upbringing. "The first tune I ever heard was the ‘Kol Nidre.’ It moved me. I was in awe of it. From that day on, I wanted to do that."

And music is a big part of why Wyckoff has felt comfortable at VOS, where Cantor Ron Li-Paz and musical director Jack Bielan have, for years, employed music as a primary tool to make services more accessible at this Reform synagogue, which serves a broad demographic of Jewish, non-Jewish, converted and interfaith constituents. (Wyckoff’s wife of 15 years, Mary, is a practicing Greek Orthodox.)

Rabbi Jerry Fisher, the synagogue’s current spiritual leader, said that back in 1996 he helped Rabbi Richard Schachet to form a congregation that was "different than most," he said.

"People came to him and asked, ‘What are you doing for the holidays?’" Fisher recalled, "and [Schachet] said, ‘Well, I’m a rabbi on a cruise.’ And they said, ‘How about holding a service for us?’"

With just nine members, a "congregation" was born. Today, some 450 families gather most Shabbats at VOS, which occupies space at Kirk of the Valley Presbyterian. During the High Holy Days, with a congregation of about 1,500, VOS holds services at Shepherd of the Hills in Porter Ranch.

"The synagogue is run by volunteers," said Mickey Bilsky, immediate past president of the temple. "What we find is that the people are there because they choose to be there. It is due to their hard work that Valley Outreach is what it is."

What has attracted many members to VOS is the shul’s mission to make a difference, both through outreach and inclusion: SOVA Kosher Food Pantry, Valley Jewish Store Front, and various shelters for battered women, such as Women’s Care Cottage and Haven Hills, have been among the causes that VOS has supported. VOS will also co-sponsor the West Valley Community Health Expo on Aug. 4 at Shomrei Torah Synagogue in West Hills. Wyckoff and Richard Rice, VOS chair, recently assisted Nader and Mereille Manesh, owners of the Avant Garde clothing store, at their Shop to Support Israel fundraiser.

"They’re quite committed to the needs of Magen David in Israel," said Howard Parmet, executive director of Magen David Adom West.

Marlene Grossman, a three-time VOS dinner chair who, with husband Arthur, has been a member since 1995, loves the unique experience that the synagogue offers her family. Today, she drives all the way to Valencia to pick up her grandchildren and drive them to temple.

"They look forward to going," Grossman said. "It’s made them feel very Jewish, coming from a mixed-marriage. They have a sense of pride going there."

Wyckoff first visited VOS a decade ago on the advice of a neighbor of his in-laws when Wyckoff inquired about a good place where he could do yartzheit for his father. At the first meeting, Wyckoff got involved with the volunteer temple through its Ways and Means Committee, which Wyckoff later headed from 1995-2000. The temple named him Man of the Year in 1996, and he now brings his children, Michael, 8; James, 3; and Joy, 6 months to VOS.

"Craig is one of many very dedicated people who works very hard," Bilsky said. "He will bring dedication and fairness to do whatever is in the best interests of Valley Outreach Synagogue."

Wyckoff is looking forward to leading VOS as a "thank you" to the synagogue that helped him rekindle the joys of the Jewish experience.

"It’s going to be a big responsibility," Wyckoff said, "but I feel that it’s an honor."