Klezmer musicians lead a procession of congregants to the new Valley Outreach Synagogue and Center for Jewish Life. Photo by Oren Peleg.

Valley Outreach Synagogue home at last

Much like the ancient Israelites, the Jews of Valley Outreach Synagogue (VOS) have spent decades wandering the Los Angeles desert in search of a home. Now, they’ve finally reached the Promised Land. 

On March 19, in a ceremony 32 years in the making, 400 VOS members attended the grand opening of the Valley Outreach Synagogue and Center for Jewish Life in Calabasas. Formerly a warehouse, the 15,000-square-foot facility, located at 26670 Agoura Road, has a library, a coffee bar, offices and a Meeting and Learning Center. Its high-ceilinged sanctuary seats 500 and features three flat-screens on the walls as well as a Jerusalem limestone-lined ark housing four newly donated Torah scrolls.

Funds for the $2 million facility were raised through private member donations, according to VOS Rabbi Ron Li-Paz. The nondenominational synagogue serves more than 2,000 Jews from some 600 families in the San Fernando Valley, Conejo Valley and Malibu-area communities.

In the past, VOS has held services in parks, backyards, schools, community centers, hotel ballrooms and churches. It has set up office space at five sites. And the adult choir has resorted to rehearsing in a bowling alley.

“I sometimes think of our community as spokes on a wheel,” Li-Paz, who has been at VOS for 21 years, told the Journal. “Everyone has been on the ends of the spokes. This allows us to bring them into a hub.”

The grand opening kicked off at noon with a lively procession from the parking lot to the glass doors of the new synagogue. Members took turns carrying the Torah scrolls through the asphalt lot in the shadow of the Santa Monica Mountains. Klezmer musicians played tunes while iPhone cameras documented the ceremony.

Once inside the new main lobby, Li-Paz led prayers to bless the newly placed mezuzot on the doorposts of its two main entrances. Then the former opera singer, who was cantor at VOS before becoming its rabbi, sang Shehecheyanu — a prayer that marks happy occasions.

The occasion tugged on heartstrings for many longstanding members. A teary-eyed Jack Bielan, who has been the musical director at the synagogue since its inception, was overcome with emotion when he addressed families in their gleaming new sanctuary.

“We are now in our house,” he said, pounding the podium for emphasis. “Valley Outreach Synagogue is an iconic, historic, world-class Jewish congregation. We’ve gotten this far together without a building for 32 years. We’re already seeing the infinite possibilities ahead of us.”

A musician who has worked with the likes of Seal and James Taylor, Bielan introduced a song he wrote called “We Have a Home.” He played piano and Bronwen Li-Paz, the rabbi’s wife, sang.

Rabbi Li-Paz said the synagogue has faced many “stops and starts” along the way to finding a home. In the past, chief among those has been the concern that getting a building would necessitate higher membership fees and restrict access to some potential members. Li-Paz said the new facility comes with no fee hikes for members.

“We’re committed to keeping the lowest dues structure that I know of for any synagogue,” he said. “It’s right there in our name. Outreach, to me, means that I want to break down barriers to Jewish life and not build them up. I think that’s why donors were inspired to give.”

Beyond functioning as a synagogue, the Valley Outreach Synagogue and Center for Jewish Life fills a void for his members, Li-Paz said. It will be a community center offering diverse programming beyond just prayer services.

“Religious real estate is the most underused real estate that I know of. Most hours of most days, spaces like churches and synagogues are dark and empty,” he said. “I wanted to build one that uses the space constantly for services, classes, art, plays and concerts.”

VOS already operates a home-based enrichment initiative called JEWELS (Jewish, Education, Wisdom, Ethics, Literacy and Service). Members currently host more than 20 programs, such as Jewish holiday cooking and art activities, in homes. These will continue at people’s homes and not the new center.

Anticipating the possibilities a new building would present, VOS recently contracted with Momentum Academies, a recreation company that specializes in after-school enrichment programming, to plan and execute a variety of programming for members of all ages inside the walls of the new facility.

Jennifer Maddux, Momentum’s director of operations, said programming like youth theater, homework club, adult exercise classes, bingo nights, health and wellness seminars, and current events discussion groups will be offered by Momentum’s staff of educators starting in April.

To Michele Berger, 72, a VOS member for more than 20 years, the opening of the building’s doors signaled something more than a new place for services or bingo nights.

“I think it’s wonderful,” she said, eyes darting around to other smiling guests. “Everyone has worked so hard for it, doing what they’re doing with the JEWELS program and now with the new building, helping grow Judaism in the community, encouraging families to lead Jewish lives. It’s helping to keep Judaism alive. We don’t want Judaism to die.” 

Rabbi Ron Li-Paz’s long and winding road

Ron Li-Paz certainly took the long way to the rabbinate.

The experienced cantor and spiritual leader of Valley Outreach Synagogue (VOS) describes his recent ordination at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California (AJR-CA) as one of the most transformational experiences of his life. But it was never obvious that the now-44-year-old would one day take a spiritual path. 

During his 20s, Li-Paz of Agoura Hills recalls feeling indifferent toward his faith, even though he grew up in a devout Jewish household. Born in Haifa, he moved to the United States in 1971. 

He served for three years in the U.S. Air Force in England doing base operations and flight planning and then switched to a career in theater and broadcasting, including work for the BBC. He later changed directions again, becoming a management consultant and helping international corporations create communications strategies. 

Restless and in search of his true calling, Li-Paz took up opera singing in his 30s and found great success. Having studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London and trained for opera with his father, Michael, world-renowned opera singer Giorgio Tozzi and others, Li-Paz traveled the world, singing as a soloist in some of the world’s greatest cities and theaters. In Los Angeles, he sang in places like the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and Walt Disney Concert Hall. 

It was gratifying work, but something still wasn’t quite right, Li-Paz said. The frequent traveling for concerts meant he was often away from his family for extended periods, and that didn’t sit well with his Jewish values. 

“I remember my dad saying to me, ‘I’m not sure [opera] is a very Jewish profession,’ ” Li-Paz recalled. “I knew what he meant: How can you be in a profession where, months at a time, you’re away from your family? And that was really the painful truth.”

However, there was another aspect of his life that made sense. In between traveling as an opera singer, Li-Paz started singing at temple. In 1996, he became cantor at VOS, which worships at the Hilton Woodland Hills/Los Angeles and, during the summer, at Oak Canyon Community Park in Oak Park. He combined his cantorial work with opera singing for a decade until he became the temple’s sole spiritual leader and decided to dedicate himself to Judaism. 

Li-Paz said he learned to be a cantor through self-study and from his father, who served as the cantor of Creative Arts Temple in Los Angeles and sang during the High Holy Days at a number of area shuls.

Seven years ago, when retiring Rabbi Jerry Fisher asked Li-Paz to become the full-time spiritual leader of VOS, a transdenominational synagogue, the latter felt it wasn’t enough to simply accept the new role without additional training. He wanted to become an ordained rabbi himself.

Li-Paz had already acted as part-time spiritual leader as well as cantor for several years at the synagogue, and there were fast-track options available to help him achieve his goal. Possibilities included online programs with minimal time requirements or going to another rabbi to get ordained, he said. 

Instead, he opted for six years of disciplined study, taking classes three days a week at AJR-CA, which also is transdenominational. He pored over books in between the daily demands of weddings, funerals, bar and bat mitzvahs and other synagogue duties.

“It wasn’t that I wanted a title, it’s that I wanted the education,” Li-Paz explained. “I couldn’t stand in front of a congregation without enriching what I could offer them.”

On June 10, his efforts finally paid off when — with his wife, Bronwen, two children and a very proud father watching — Li-Paz was ordained as a rabbi during a ceremony at Stephen S. Wise Temple in Bel Air.

The life-changing moment ranked alongside his marriage and the births of his children, he said. 

“I’ve been a part of thousands of services and ceremonies, and this was just incredible,” Li-Paz said. “The moment of being called ‘rabbi’ for the first time in your life after so many years of hard work is pretty awe-inspiring.” 

Tamar Frankiel, president of AJR-CA, said it’s not unusual for people to seek second careers in the clergy. About half of the students at the seminary come from non-religious careers, she said. Graduates include architects, people from the film industry and scientists, among others, she indicated. 

“Often I think it’s as people become more mature, they’re looking deeper within themselves, they’re looking more at the bigger purpose of their life,” Frankiel said. “Our institution really emphasizes the support for, you might call it a spiritual quest, or a deepening of purpose.”

Frankiel added that Li-Paz is unusual in that he has a broad range of skills.

“He’s an extraordinarily talented person musically as well as intellectually,” she said. “You don’t get so many people who are both rabbis and cantors.”

Larry Rudner, president of VOS, which has a membership of about 700 families, said Li-Paz’s ordination by a respected seminary adds a lot to the synagogue, in part by connecting it with the larger rabbinic community. But, he added, he’s always been a believer in his spiritual leader.

“He’s changed my life,” Rudner said. “It’s this charisma that he has. There’s just this feeling from him that [he’s] someone special.”

Li-Paz has proven particularly popular with kids, and there has been a marked increase in the participation of young families since he became spiritual leader, Rudner said.

For Li-Paz, his responsibilities at VOS won’t change because he’s a rabbi. However, his journey has given him a much fuller understanding of Judaism to share with his congregation.

“I’ve been leading a community, and that’s what I’ll continue to do,” Li-Paz said. “It’s still very good to have worked this hard to now be able to stand alongside my colleagues as a rabbi.”