Days of awe and days of discovery

This most recent High Holy Days, I had the privilege of experiencing a dozen different synagogues in Los Angeles. They were for me days of awe -- and days of discovery.
October 10, 2013

This most recent High Holy Days, I had the privilege of experiencing a dozen different synagogues in Los Angeles. They were for me days of awe — and days of discovery.

Having taken office just a few months ago as L.A.'s newly elected City Controller, I received many invitations to attend services at synagogues all over Los Angeles. Where was I to go? So, as the 12 tribes traveled from place to place, I decided to make 5774 the year I would visit 12 congregations during the Days of Awe of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

The experience was nothing short of amazing. As L.A. is the most diverse and vibrant city I know and love — so too are its Jewish communities. I found inspiration at each and every congregation, along with lessons to reflect upon — and a little something special in every synagogue and temple.

Creating a sense of place at Ikar — Visiting Ikar on the eve of Rosh Hashanah at the Westside Jewish Community Center on Olympic Boulevard was a wonderful reminder of how you can make any place special and holy. Crisp white sheets were fashioned into a makeshift corridor leading to the gym, creating a sense of arrival. Affixed to the sheets and to the walls of the otherwise cavernous gym were dozens of poster boards with inspiring quotes from the Torah, the Mishnah, Steve Jobs, and even the Wizard of Oz. It was both a beautiful and whimsical space to contemplate the transformative opportunities that the High Holy Days offer to us.

Taking responsibility at Temple Isaiah — “Whoever destroys a single soul destroys a complete world. Whoever preserves a single soul preserves a complete world”  Talmud Sanhedrin 37a.  That's what we reminded on the first day of Rosh Hashanah by Rabbi Zoe Klein. And, in the midst of the solemn liturgy of B 'Rosh Hashanah — where we ponder who “shall live and who shall die; who by fire and who by water” — Rabbi Klein asked “Who by texting”?  She sobered us up to the realities of 1.6 million accidents, and a growing number of deaths each year from driving while “in-text-ified”. In our everyday acts, we must take responsibility — and choose life.

Encouraging our youth at Temple Beth El of San Pedro — Yes, there are Jews in San Pedro. And, in fact, a historic and vibrant community. There was perhaps no greater evidence of its vibrancy than the most extraordinary Rosh Hashanah appeal delivered by one of the congregation's 12th graders. He recalled his Bar Mitzvah five years ago, followed by a period of minimal involvement with the shul during Junior High. Rabbi Charles Briskin wisely reached out to re-engage him, and so began a new and deep commitment to his synagogue and its youth group.  Speaking with poise and wisdom, he articulated the voice of a new generation of leaders. We were all left with the unmistakable impression that if this is the kind of young man the San Pedro shul is helping to raise — we're compelled to give.

Having an attitude of gratitude at Beth Am — I spent the second day of Rosh Hashanah accompanying my father to Beth Am. We visited both the Library Minyan (which my father has been attending for several years), and the main sanctuary. I was particularly inspired by a recommendation made by Rabbi Ari Lucas in his sermon. Accustom yourself to making “thank you” the very first thought you have when you arise in the morning. We're often so used to hitting the alarm and starting the day with the thoughts of our to-do lists and that we're already running late. Just a few seconds is all it takes to instead make gratitude the first thought of our day. I've sought to take Rabbi Lucas' advice — and I'm thankful for his prodding to do it.

Keeping a sense of perspective at Wilshire Boulevard Temple — The first of my two Kol Nidres began in the late afternoon at the venerable and newly reopened sanctuary of Wilshire Boulevard Temple. Built in 1929 with the help of movie moguls like Louis B. Mayer, Irving Thalberg, Carl Laemmle and the Warner brothers, this architectural masterpiece has been restored to look more beautiful than ever. Rabbi Steven Leder reminded us of how the temple's massive dome is both a testament to humanity's accomplishment and a bit of perspective on just how small we are in relation to all that is above and around us. He recalled the words of Rabbi Bunim of P'shiskha, who said: “Everyone should have two pockets, each containing a slip of paper. On one should be written: I am but dust and ashes, and on the other: The world was created for me. From time to time we must reach into one pocket, or the other.” The secret of living comes from knowing when to reach into each.

Balancing the big and the small at Stephen S. Wise Temple —  Sometimes referred to the “shul with the pool”, the temple has no less than 7 Rabbis — though I must concede to being quite partial to masterful Cantor Nathan Lam and to Rabbi Eli Herscher — who performed a beautiful marriage ceremony of my recently married nephew and his wife. With a wide range of activities amidst a verdant campus, Stephen S. Wise manages to be big and yet closely connected with a small-town feel. It's a lesson we could learn in government.

Pursuing justice at Leo Baeck Temple — In a world in which we sometimes forget the shoulders upon which we stand, Leo Baeck was blessed to have a bima shared by a mensch of Senior Rabbi, Kenneth Chasen, along with Associate, Emeritus and Founding Rabbis. The services — and particularly an address by the ever-energetic 92-year-old Rabbi Leonard Beerman — were as much a call to political and social change as to spiritual change. In this community with a history of activism, the spirit of the civil rights movement lives on.

Offering something for everyone at Temple Judea — On the afternoon of Yom Kippur, the growing fatigue of the fast was bolstered by an energetic trio of young Rabbis leading a ruach-filled service — aided by teenagers with some of the best voices I've ever heard. Recently remodeled, the Temple is brimming with services, school and more — including “Body Blast” workouts, a Health Care Exchange sign-up and a garden gathering. In short, something for everyone.

Finding a match at Chabad of Encino — Walking in the door on Yom Kippur is a sight to behold. Almost everyone is dressed in white — reflecting our yearning for a clean slate on this most awesome of days. There's earnest davening, and as much going on in the hallway as in the shul as friends and neighbors re-connect — and as the many singles away from the mechitza engage in a fair amount of flirting. And why not? I know many happy couples who met at Yom Kippur services and break-the-fasts — including me and my beshert (match). This Yom Kippur marked our 16th anniversary — alas, no cake until nightfall.

Passing on tradition from one generation to the next at Valley Beth Shalom — VBS has been led by some of the greatest contemporary Rabbis, orators, writers and thinkers. Their Cantor, the European-born Herschel Fox, has for more than two decades, shared his knowledge, talent, and Yiddishkeit. He is both the voice of a nearly-departed generation and a voice of today's; a real treasure. It was my personal thrill to join him on the bima to sing together a duet of L'dor Va'dor — a prayer “from generation to generation”. Indeed every generation brings something new and vibrant; but we would do well to also embrace the gifts of prior generations. Great musical classics of Hazzanut need never go out of style.

Remembering those who came before us at Adat Ari El — I arrived in time for a late afternoon Yizkor memorial service. In the tradition of putting a small stone at the grave of our departed, each of us who gathered in the sanctuary was given a small river rock. During services, we had the opportunity to recall a loved one by placing the rock on one of the steps leading to the ark — and to take with us any one of the other rocks left by fellow mourners. It was a silent way to share the memory of a loved one with others, and to share in the mitzvah of remembering the lives of others we didn't know.

Building a life with the ones you love at Temple Akiba — Amidst the various congregations I visited during these Days of Awe, I managed to attend three services at what's become my home shul: Temple Akiba in Culver City. I must also admit to being most biased in loving this congregation and its Rabbi, Zachary Shapiro — to whom I happened to be married. Having also spent 20 years as the hazzan at a congregation in Montebello, I now also enjoy doing a bit of singing with Akiba's mellifluous Cantor, Lonee Frailich. With Akiba now starting a major reconstruction project, the good Rabbi reminded us of the cycle of life: “To build, to take down and to build again”. In every congregation, and in each of our lives, there is no greater task than building our lives – and our communities — together.  

Like the 12 Tribes, each of the congregations I visited has its unique flavor — but all are bound together as a family with a shared history, values and aspirations. I can't wait to return, and I am looking forward to visiting many more synagogues — and L.A.'s many other communities of faith — in the year to come.

Ron Galperin took office July 1 as L.A.'s most recently elected City Controller.

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