Valley Outreach Synagogue home at last

March 22, 2017
Klezmer musicians lead a procession of congregants to the new Valley Outreach Synagogue and Center for Jewish Life. Photo by Oren Peleg.

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.” 

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