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."