Making sanctuaries of our lives


A few weeks ago, I spent four beautiful days on a meditation retreat with the Institute for Jewish Spirituality (IJS) at the American Jewish University’s Brandeis-Bardin Campus. Spending time in silence, mindful yoga, walking and eating, as well as deep Torah learning with leading scholars from the United States and Israel, I felt that we were doing exactly what the Torah is calling us to in this week’s parasha, Terumah. “V’asu li mikdash, v’shachantee b’tocham — Make for Me a sanctuary and I will dwell among them” (Exodus 25:8). In our ancestors’ time, they made altars, like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob did, and called on the name of God. Where in our lives today do we build altars, create sanctuaries? In addition to the wonderful synagogues we attend, how else are we bringing kedushah — holiness — into the world that we inhabit?

The striking point of this verse is that it does not say, “Make for Me a sanctuary that I may dwell in it.” Rather, the sanctuary was a fountain of holiness so God’s presence could dwell among the people. In order for God to find a place among us, we need to create sanctuaries of kedushah, of holiness; through our commitment to God’s path and the love it engenders, we find the proper motivation to create societies based on the very holiness we experience. Our world could be modeled on the sanctuary, a place where compassion, justice, peace and love are the centerpieces of the foundation. Our world could be about building bridges, not tearing them down. It could be about creating links to one another, not setting up barriers between us. Our lives could be dedicated to the idea of building social sanctuaries, dwelling places for all people and God.

Dedicating our lives to something bigger than ourselves, something that is holy and eternal, which is the call of our people that blasted forth from the mountaintop of Sinai. The pathways of holiness, which were centered in the mikdash — the sanctuary in the Torah — and continue to be centered in the synagogues and spiritual communities that we create and inhabit, are meant to be lived in the world, spread to the four corners of our Earth, shared with all people, for that was the call of God. And it won’t be easy; it is never easy. The Kotzer Rebbe understood this challenge when he said, in commenting on this verse, “It says ‘asu,’ meaning to work/make, because God’s presence cannot dwell among us without our hard work. It is not an easy task, but rather takes great and sustained effort” (Iturei Torah).

On our meditation retreat, we studied with the great Israeli scholar Melila Hellner-Eshed, who reminded us of the mystical principle that “a stirring from above requires a stirring from below.” Namely, God and the supernal realms are profoundly affected by our actions here on Earth. We awaken God’s love and compassion when we are loving and compassionate; we awaken God’s justice and mercy when we act justly and mercifully; we awaken God’s understanding and discernment when we are more understanding and discerning of the needs of others. “Make for Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.” This charge is about more than just making a building, an altar or physical place for God’s presence to dwell. It is about a social sanctuary, figuring out ways to live our lives as sanctuaries, as receptacles of the holy sparks that flow from above, as vessels of holiness.

Let this week serve as a springboard for creating a more peaceful, open-minded and compassionate world. Whether it is in your own sanctuary, in your home, on the mountain, in the valleys, in the supermarket, on the freeway or in your heart, let God’s presence dwell among us by making an opening for God to enter. Our tradition teaches that if we open our hearts just enough for the head of a pin, God can drive a chariot of love right on in. Let this week serve as a new beginning, one that creates a social sanctuary, a mikdash of the world, with room for all.

Schmoozing with the Shammes of Shanghai


The shammes of Shanghai is an 87-year-old man named Wang Fa Liang.
I often write for this paper when I return from overseas travel, but
halfway through my recent trip to China with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, I was at a loss for a topic. And then I played hooky one morning in Shanghai.

I knew the general outline of the story of the Jews of Shanghai. Fleeing Nazi persecution, thousands of Jews journeyed halfway around the world to the sanctuary offered by Shanghai’s unique status as a free trade city. A small yet vibrant Jewish community had formed on the edge of the Middle Kingdom. While not discussed in my guidebooks, I hoped its remnants might still be found today.

Armed with an address from a Google search, three of us (former California Treasurer Kathleen Brown, Los Angeles Times reporter Duke Helfand and I) hired a car and asked the driver to find 62 Chang Yang Road. After a few wrong turns, the driver pulled up in front of Ohel Moishe (the “Tent of Moses”), a shul that had stood at the center of Shanghai’s ghetto.

We stepped from a Chinese street of working-class clothing, beauty and fish merchants into the world of our fathers. Ohel Moishe is a well-maintained, small but sturdy three-story brick building recessed from Chang Yang Road via a courtyard. Under a Star of David, we kissed the mezuzah and entered a plain sanctuary. The Torah scrolls had long been removed from the ark, but one could imagine the half-dozen rows jammed on Shabbat in Shanghai long ago.
The shul was nearly empty save for a couple from Brazil and four other Americans. Wang, the octogenarian caretaker and Shanghai native, assembled us around an old table upstairs to watch a video on the area’s history.

Wang then addressed us, drawing a portrait of centuries of Jewish privation with the erudition and compassion of a skilled rabbi. Hundreds of years of history, ours and his, spilled forth.
Wang told us of the Sephardim, principally from Iraq, who had traveled the Silk Road to Shanghai. Their descendants had gone on to greatness in Shanghai — one of the city’s defining landmarks, the Peace Hotel, was erected by Sir Victor Sassoon.

Then there were the Ashkenazim (Wang could discuss the distinctions between Jews with greater dexterity than we could discuss the subtleties of the Chinese) from Russia who — following pogroms, the Russo-Japanese War and the Revolution — moved to Shanghai at the start of the 20th century.

Finally, Wang told us of the Jews who had fled the Nazis. He spoke movingly of yeshiva students from Poland and musicians from Vienna who had sailed from Genoa or traversed Siberia to settle in his neighborhood. He spoke of the heroism of Japanese Consul General Chiune Sugihara in Kaunas, who had processed paperwork permitting thousands of Jews to flee from Lithuania to Shanghai. He told us the astonishing story of a failed mid-war German-Japanese plot to kill Shanghai’s European Jews (the plotters had evidently neglected the Sephardim, he noted).

Wang’s lecture was a tour de force. He beamed as he pointed to the pictures of the Israeli leaders — Herzog, Rabin, Peres and Netanyahu, among others — who had visited Ohel Moishe. He showed off reunion photos taken with former Jewish refugees who return from time to time.

When he concluded, Duke asked him a sim

ple question — “Why do you work here?”
He responded, “I remember my colleagues Mr. Stein and Mr. Friedman from the cafe where we worked in the ’40s. There were so many Jews in this area it was called ‘Little Vienna.’ Mr. Stein and Mr. Friedman moved away, and they helped my family move into a Jewish house.”
As we left the shul, Wang followed us down the street, pointing out additional landmarks.

“Make sure you see the park — Jewish families played there,” he called after us.

We were on a tight schedule to rejoin the mayor of Los Angeles, but the mayor of Little Vienna wouldn’t let us go.

I turned to Duke and Kathleen and told them how uplifted I felt, and I mentioned the story of Sugihara.

“He’s famous — I think he’s been recognized as a Righteous Gentile,” Duke said.

The memory and sanctuary of thousands of Jews are being kept alive by an old Chinese man in Shanghai, a man who did more than move into a Jewish house — a man who moved into Jewish lives, and became the guardian of their memories. Surely Wang Fa Liang is righteous as well.

Ohel Moishe, located at 62 Chang Yang Road in northeast Shanghai, is open daily 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Telephone – 86-21-65415008.

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Councilman Jack Weiss, Kathleen Brown, and Duke Helfand.

Pico-Robertson: Live in the Hood


David and Deena Brandes’ house burned down on June 29. It was a small, three-bedroom house on a quiet street in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood, where they havelived for several years with their young daughters, Aviva and Noa.
 
On that day, David was having lunch in his study. His kids had gone off to sleep-away camp a day earlier, and he was about to start on a writing project that was behind schedule.
 
That’s when the doorbell rang. It was the house painter, and he told David that there was smoke coming from the roof. David asked the painter to get a garden hose while he called 911 and quickly grabbed some framed family photos, which he brought to the next-door neighbor.
 
When he returned a minute later, the smoke inside the house had become “billowy white.” While the painter tried to spray water, David grabbed more family photos, this time with a wet towel on his face, and he again brought them to his neighbor.
 
When he returned, a ball of fire tore through the ceiling. By now, instead of billowy white smoke, there were hundreds of surreal, ash-grey “floaters” orbiting throughout the house. The first of 13 fire trucks had already arrived, and one of the firemen asked David to immediately leave the house.
 
In all the commotion, with fire sirens blazing and neighbors starting to gather on the street, David had forgotten about Ripley, his golden retriever mutt. It was too dangerous for him to re-enter the house, so he yelled for the dog while a fireman looked inside. After a few minutes, from seemingly out of nowhere, Ripley quietly appeared. He had been hiding under the dining room table.
 
Outside, a neighbor had already alerted David’s wife, who was on her way over. While the firemen worked quickly and diligently to control the fire, David’s personal doctor, also a neighbor, showed up. His first words to David were something to the effect: “Please move into our house tonight.”
 
As he recalls it now, over a Diet Coke and a cellphone ringing with calls from insurance agents and adjusters, David’s initial emotion was not one of devastation, or even deep loss, but simply shock. When someone had suggested that he and his wife should still go on a cruise they had planned, the idea seemed so ludicrous that he couldn’t answer. The first night, when they were sleeping at their friends’ house, he remembers having his eyes open all night, and feeling as if his system had “shut down.”
 
When his hosts asked him if he wanted privacy, he replied that privacy was the last thing he wanted.
 
He was realizing how closely his house and his life were intertwined. His house was the sanctuary where his family was happy and safe, and where he had the peace of mind to do his writing, which is how he makes his living. This sanctuary, which had walls full of memories, was now ripped apart.
 
It didn’t take long for the sense of shock to give way to a sense of deep gratitude. David and Deena received so many offers to “stay at our place” or “eat at our place,” so many Shabbat invitations, so many messages reaching out to help, they had to be careful not to offend anyone when they kept saying “Sorry, we’re already invited, but maybe another day.”
 
It seemed that every time they turned around, a neighbor would offer something. A meal. A coffee. Clothing (they were lucky that the kids had taken a lot of their clothes to camp). Household items. Anything and everything.
 
Thanks to this outpouring of support from friends and neighbors too numerous to name (including fellow congregants at Beth Jacob Congregation), during the past two months of their ordeal — and it has been an ordeal — at no time did David and his family ever feel alone.
 
As I reflect on this story, part of me is in awe at the power of a neighborhood to rise to the occasion during a time of crisis. When the Brandes house came down, the same conviction that animates one to go to synagogue on Shabbat or drive a kid to school was there to help shelter a neighbor. I love that.
 
Another part of me looks at what happens in this neighborhood every day, when there is no crisis, no emergency, nothing special going on. I think of a neighbor calling from the market to see if anyone needs some challah; or another neighbor offering to take the kids to the park; or yet another neighbor letting a father know about a Shabbat drop-in party for his teenage daughter, and the list goes on; and I love that, too.
 
We’re in that time of year when Judaism seems larger than life. The Book of Life. The Days of Awe. The Day of Atonement. It’s easy to get caught up in the high drama of these big days, and forget that our Judaism lives and breathes during the quiet little days, after the big show is over and we all go home.I remember that before his house burned down, my friend David would always tell me about the little things he loved about his neighborhood — those quiet, everyday gestures among neighbors that accumulate over the years to create a real community.
 
He didn’t need the drama of a fire to know he was surrounded by an extended family. He knew it all along.
 

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is the founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

Congregation Beith David Celebrates New Sanctuary


(From left) City Councilman Jack Weiss, L.A. County Supervisor Zev
Yaroslavsky, L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and City Councilman Dennis Zine
join congregants at Beith David for their official move from their Reseda
Boulevard synagogue to a new building on Clark Street on Sunday, July 9.

City Councilman Dennis Zine grabs a Torah to carry to Beith David¹s new
building on Clark Street.

City Councilman Jack Weiss supports one of Beith David¹s Torah at the
synagogues Reseda Boulevard location.

Congregants remove a covering from the Torah Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa
carried to Beith David¹s new Clark Street building.

(From left) L.A. City Councilman Dennis Zine, L.A. Mayor Antonio
Villaraigosa, L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky and Simon Wiesenthal
Center associate dean Rabbi Abraham Cooper carry Beith David¹s Torahs down
Reseda Boulevard to the synagogue¹s new Clark Street location.

L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa addresses congregants from the bimah at
Beith David¹s new Clark Street building.


L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa inspects anti-Semitic graffiti scrawled onto
a window of the Clark Street building. Beith David synagogue was the victim
of an arson attack on Friday, July 7.

The Nation and The World


 

Accessible Ark
On April 3, B’nai David-Judea synagogue dedicated its newly renovated building, the Rabbi Philip Schroit Sanctuary. Shirley Kotlar and family named the building in honor of Schroit, who died three years ago and was at the helm of the shul for nearly 50 years.
The addition of an elevator to the lower level social hall and a ramp to the bimah and the ark, made possible by the support of the Jewish Community Foundation, opened up sections of the 80-year-old building to the disabled. The project also moved the mechitza (divider) to the center of the room.
Peter and Janine Lowy, of Westfield Corporation, Inc., sponsored the beautification of the art deco façade and main sanctuary.
Much of the $2 million price tag went to updating the inside of the 24,500-square-foot building, which now has a modern fire safety and security system.
President Robert Blitzstein and Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky recognized the professionals and shul members who made the project possible, presenting them with Hard Hat Awards. Architect Naomi Langer and general contractor Sam Shafer led the professional teams, while the lay effort was lead by Larry Gill, Jeffrey Rabin and Shep Rosenman. Mayor James Hahn also attended the event.

For the Duke
“American Classics: The Music, Movies and People We Love” was the theme of the John Wayne Cancer Institute Auxiliary’s 20th anniversary Odyssey Ball. Some 600 people attended the black-tie gala on April 9 at the Beverly Hilton Hotel.
KLAC 690 DJ Brad “Martini” Chambers hosted the ball, which featured dinner and dancing to the classic tunes of Art Deco and his Society Orchestra.
Attendees included former Wayne co-stars Harry Carey, Jr., Kim Darby and Chris Mitchum, as well as actors Kevin Dobson, Larry Hagman and Anne Jeffreys.
The keynote address at the event, which was co-chaired by John Wayne’s eldest grandchild Anita Swift and Hollace Brown, was given by Amy Smith, a current patient at the John Wayne Cancer Institute.
Patrick Wayne, the institute’s board chair, presented the Special Service Award, affectionately known as the “Duke,” to Diana and Robert W. Thom, supporters of the John Wayne Cancer Institute since its inception.
The John Wayne Cancer Institute was founded in 1981 and named for the actor, who died in 1979 from lung and stomach cancer.

Lieb Tees Off
Temple Beth El members and friends joined Rabbi David Lieb in a golf tournament and dinner on April 6 to begin the calendar of events planned to honor him as he begins his retirement at the end of July after 34 years of service.
The event was held at the Rolling Hills Country Club and organized by Dr. Myron and Susan Goldstein and Dr. Randall and Vicki Hulbert.
A special surprise appearance was made by Lieb’s former student Eric Rigler, world-renowned Scottish bagpiper, Celtic piper and recording artist.
A unique cake was prepared by Vicki Hulbert, owner of Bridal Sweets, in the shape of a golf green and giant golf ball.
The Women of Temple Beth El Sisterhood have also been busy planning an English Garden Tea in June to honor Lieb’s wife, Estelle.

‘Friends’ Indeed
On March 23, The Jewish Federation/Valley Alliance held the Women’s Department annual luncheon, “It Takes a Woman.” More than 180 people gathered to honor Marta Kauffman, co-creator and executive producer of “Friends.” Kauffman gave an inspirational speech about her experience as a woman in a male-dominated industry, the importance of family and the role Judaism plays in her personal and professional success.

Make His Mark
On March 16, Mark T. Drooks , a partner at the Los Angeles firm of Bird, Marella, Boxer, Wolpert, Nessim, Drooks & Lincenberg, P.C., was appointed president of the Bet Tzedek board of directors for a one-year term.
For more than 30 years, Bet Tzedek has provided free legal services to low-income Los Angeles residents. Drooks has been a Bet Tzedek volunteer for more than 10 years and member of the board since l996.
“I am honored to serve as Bet Tzedek’s president,” Drooks said, “and I am fully committed to finding ways to expand our mission of providing free legal services to the neediest in our society. With anticipated cuts in health care benefits and an affordable housing crisis here in Los Angeles, the need for Bet Tzedek’s services is greater than ever.”
Drooks graduated magna cum laude from Harvard Law School in 1981 and has authored numerous articles relating to business litigation.

Totally Tobin
Tobinworld, a nonprofit special-needs school, held its first fundraiser on March 26 at Shlomi Haziza’s art gallery in Sun Valley.
Tobinworld, established by Judy Weber in 1977, was initially funded by state and local school monies. Catering to students aged 5-22 with autism, emotional and developmental disabilities, the school that started out in a private home now boasts two locations in Northern and Southern California.
Israeli artist Haziza became involved with Tobinworld after Weber purchased several of his glass sculptures. After telling him about the state budget cuts to the school, Haziza donated the use of his gallery and his staff to establish the fundraising event, where vibrant ornaments hung from the ceiling, abstract art pieces and furniture lined the walls and Haziz’s trademark glass centerpieces were later auctioned off.
Entertainment included music provided by The Gear, City Sound and Codi Williams, who sang songs from the musical “Chicago.” After the buffet dinner, the audience was treated to fire dancers from Indra Yoga and Dance and a fashion show courtesy Judith Bodart Beylerian. — Emily Pauker, Contributing Writer

 

A Shul Torn Apart


Judging from the row of strollers parked in the foyer, the faces young and old who came to hear the young rabbi at the pulpit and the number of classes and programs on the calendar, it was hard to know that Congregation Mogen David’s attempt to rejuvenate itself was about to go terribly wrong.

For years, members of Mogen David, a traditional synagogue on Pico Boulevard near Beverwil Drive, watched young Orthodox families trek down the hill past the brick building at the westernmost end of the Pico-Robertson neighborhood on their way to other synagogues. Lay leaders of Mogen David, which according to the shul’s executive director, Rabbi Gabriel Elias, had a dwindling membership of about 600 families — 80 percent of them older than 80 — knew that if they were to survive they would have to get those families in the front door.

So after much soul-searching and with a painful dose of pragmatism, the board decided four years ago to carve out separate men’s and women’s sections in the sanctuary, get rid of the microphones and start a search for a Modern Orthodox rabbi.

Within two years about 30 young families joined. In January 2002, the board awarded a two and a half-year contract to Rabbi Jonathan Muskat, a 30-year-old former attorney fresh out of Yeshiva University’s rabbinic seminary. Over the next year, Muskat filled the calendar with programs and the pews with another 20 young families, according to board members.

But it wasn’t long before tensions began to simmer and flare, eventually resulting in a conflagration between older members who felt pushed aside by power-hungry upstarts and young families who felt their efforts to build a vibrant congregation were being thwarted. Within 18 months the rabbi would be fired, the young families would leave in disgust and the longtime shul members would be left with a wounded institution miles behind its original starting line.

In an era when synagogues all over are trying to reinvent themselves to attract the throngs of Jews who are opting out of any regular form of observance, there is much to learn from Mogen David’s experience.

At the root of this particular conflict are issues that can entangle any congregation that makes the bold decision to change in order to survive. Can an institution transform its core beliefs and practices just by the vote of a board? What does it take for two generations with disparate value systems to really mesh? What kind of leader does it take? And what about the strong personalities in conflict that threaten to hijack the process?

Why Go Orthodox?

Before making the decision to alter the 75-year-old congregation’s long-standing direction — as a traditional congregation it had Orthodox-style services with mixed seating and microphones — for two years a long-range planning committee weighed the synagogue’s options, said board members Marilyn Gallup and Al Spivak, who was president at the time. The committee recommended to the board to make the shul Modern Orthodox and also hold a separate, mixed-seating High Holiday service to accommodate the vast majority of members, who primarily attended only on those days.

Still, some 200 members left the congregation. But the prospect of attracting young families offset the immediate loss. Financially, the shul was on solid footing, thanks to the late Rabbi Abram Maron, who during his 60-year leadership built Mogen David up to 1,800 families, according to Alias, and established an endowment reportedly in the millions. The shul also owns outright the building on Pico, which is estimated to be worth about $6 million.

Jeff Fishman, a 35-year-old-financial planner, started going to Mogen David in the summer of 2001, and about eight families soon followed. When Muskat was hired, the new members quickly built a strong rapport with him, acting as a team to attract more young families.

But within about six months of when Muskat was hired, Fishman said he began to hear diatribes against Muskat from some older board members.

Irwin Griggs, 66, a supporter of Muskat who was vice president of finances at the time, thinks the board jumped too quickly toward Orthodoxy.

"I think the biggest problem was that I’d say a majority on the board of governors really did not fully understand what going with a Modern Orthodox direction was," Griggs said. "They hired somebody who was a Modern Orthodox rabbi, and yet somehow they could not reconcile that to what their view of Modern Orthodoxy was."

Muskat, serving his first pulpit, got caught in the middle of a congregational identity crisis that even a veteran rabbi would have found difficult to navigate.

Gallup says the board was fully aware of what being Modern Orthodox entailed, but she alleges that Muskat was taking the shul to the right of other established Modern Orthodox congregations. Others dispute those claims, saying Muskat was learning to balance the halachic imperatives of Orthodoxy and the needs of a congregation in transition.

Muskat, who now lives in Israel with his wife and four children, declined comment for this story, as stipulated in his termination agreement with the congregation.

Gallup claims that Muskat focused too much on his mandate to attract younger members and neglected the long-standing members.

"There was never a polarization before age-wise or based on how observant one was, but now we had a polarization," Gallup said, referring to a rift between the Orthodox and the non-Orthodox, between those who came every week and those who came only occasionally, between the young and the old.

Chuck Chazen, an 82-year-old past president of the shul, disagrees with that assessment.

"I didn’t feel any arrogance, and I didn’t feel that anybody was trying to take advantage of me or looking down on me," said Chazen, who noted that Muskat called him every Friday to wish him good Shabbat and also visited him in the hospital. "Some people were looking for it because they still harbored feelings about the mechitzah and maybe they were cultivating it in their own minds, but I didn’t have that feeling at all."

Ironically, many members and some board members of Mogen David are refugees of a similar situation at a shul just down the street. In the late 1980s, Rabbi Philip Schroit put a mechitzah in at B’nai David-Judea Congregation, which like Mogen David had been traditional. A significant portion of the membership left, and several rabbis passed through the pulpit until the congregation found a match that would lead to the success it enjoys today

.

Congregant vs. Congregant

When the board decided not to renew Muskat’s contract in May 2003, tensions exploded. Some of Muskat’s supporters mobilized to present a slate of nominees for the upcoming board elections in July, hoping to overturn the decision and keep Muskat beyond the end of his contract in August 2004.

There are conflicting accounts of exactly what happened at shul elections, but accusations fly in both directions about agressive campaigning, block voting and manipulating arcane bylaws to hoard the power of the 23-person board.

In the end, the slate of candidates proposed by the Muskat supporters was invalidated, and only five of the 11 candidates proposed by the board were elected. Later, the president reappointed two of the ousted candidates to the board.

"The majority of the people who were behind this attempt to take over the board had joined the congregation recently. They were people who had never done anything for the shul and had not supported it and suddenly came in and said, ‘here we are, we’re taking over,’" Gallup said. She described an encounter where a "one-year wonder" demanded a seat on the board, saying "we are the future, you are the past," which she said became something of mantra.

But Fishman said the new members were simply trying to keep a rabbi they loved and to gain a voice in the future of the shul. That effort was stymied by some board members blocking younger members from joining committees, Fishman said. The board also upped the number of years one had to be a member before becoming eligible to run for the board from three to five.

"Bylaws were changed to place them in a position where they continued to control every facet of the shul, where they were not in any way seeking any kind of inclusion in the everyday operation of the shul," Fishman said.

Griggs, who has since left Mogen David, said that the us-and-them picture is much fuzzier than Spivak and Gallup are painting it.

"The line should not be drawn as all young members were in favor and all of the longtime members were not, because there were many longtime members — some of them currently on the board — who were supportive of the rabbi and are still supportive of the rabbi," Griggs said. "I think Rabbi Muskat would have been one of the best rabbis in the community. He had the potential."

After the board elections in July, tensions elevated, with exchanges of harsh words and reports of vandalism.

Finally, in August, the board decided that the issue was ripping the shul apart. They voted to end Muskat’s tenure effective immediately, and to pay out the remaining year on his contract in full.

When Muskat was asked to leave, nearly all of the 60 young families, including the handful who had been there for as long as 10 years, left Mogen David.

"There is no desire on the part of anybody that used to be involved to go there anymore, because it is a closed book. The board is going to do what they are going to do," said one young member who did not want to be identified. "Why would I go there if there is nobody for me to socialize with, nobody for my kids to play with? And now we are being accused of trying to destroy the shul. Somebody takes a sledgehammer to where you live and accuses you of leaving your house," he said.

A Cautionary Tale

The saga of high expectations and mistrust is not surprising to experts in congregational life.

"The recognition that a congregation needs to change is a wonderful thing. The problem is that you can’t just expect it to happen without very, very, very careful tending," said Speed Leas, who for 25 years was a congregational consultant for the Alban Institute, a Maryland-based research and consulting organization for congregational life. "If you choose to change and are successful, success brings its own set of problems."

Leas, now a professor at the Pacific School of Religion at the Graduate Theological Union at Berkeley, was not involved in the Mogen David case, but said that the story fits the timeline and progression he has seen at both the Protestant and Jewish congregations he has shepherded through change.

"It takes quite a period of time — about four to five years — for a congregation in transition to settle in," Leas said. "There’s the beginning phase, that I think is appropriately called the ‘honeymoon phase’ of working hard to try to get along. Then there is always an awkward phase, which might occur within a year or two, where your run into some kind of significant challenge, and partly that is testing to see whether the relationship is going to be an authentic one as well as asking ‘how are we going to have to change and adjust to each other.’ It is the degree to which they can handle well that challenging time that is going to have to do with whether or not they can make it through this and stay together."

Leas, who has seen many false starts in situations like this, is currently helping another Los Angeles synagogue make the transition after a longtime rabbi retired, to acclimate to a young rabbi from the East Coast.

"We are thinking about every possibility we can to help the congregation adapt to the new style of the rabbi and the rabbi adapt to the style of the congregation. We are developing strategies for helping people understand and be comfortable with new things and to respond to things we didn’t even think would be new," Leas said.

"We need to do it in a very conscious way, to recognize that we’re are going to have these feelings and we’re going to have these painful experiences and they need to get talked about. That’s the No. 1 thing," Leas said.

The Future of Mogen David

Gallup said the shul just wants to move on. It plans to keep the mechitzah and eventually hire another Orthodox rabbi.

But Leas cautions that as is the case in any relationship that has gone bad, time is necessary.

"First, there needs to be a period for grieving, a time of just being quiet and of not attending to the work of recovery, but just letting what has happened be there and experiencing it and talking about it. And then, after a significant period of time — six months to a year — to begin to think about longer range planning: ‘what will we do now, where do we want to go, what resources do we have and how can those be better utilized to reinvigorate our organization?’" he said.

For his part, Elias, who has been the executive director at Mogen David for 10 years and is now the interim rabbi, is ready to steer the synagogue back on course.

"The bitterness that this caused is unfortunate, and it should go away," Elias said. "We need to move forward for the sake of the community, the sake of this synagogue and the sake of everyone involved."