In describing Kehillah Chen v’Chesed synagogue in Encino, spiritual leader Rabbi Eric Morgenstern explains, “We don’t affiliate with any of the traditional movements. We are a community that believes in the idea that all human beings are created in the image of God and that everyone has the duty to treat each other with love and integrity and compassion, and we believe that there are many pathways to the divine.”
Kehillah Chen v’Chesed (KCVC) was established in 2011 by people who wanted to be a part of a Reform congregation that supported families without many of the constraints of a traditional synagogue. Morgenstern, 55, said of KCVC, “Most of the families that joined were born [into] Judaism or a combination of Judaism and Christianity and they were disillusioned by traditional synagogues. They were looking for someplace to have a sense of community and a sense of tradition, and even more so a place for the life cycle. It was important to me that the families were not affiliated because I was very set on not poaching from other synagogues.”
He added that many people come to KCVC because it’s warm and inviting. “We respect everybody for what they believe in and where they come from,” Morgenstern said. “We don’t diminish any one person’s path. Everybody is entitled to make their own decisions. We just try to teach peaceful doctrines. We really push tikkun olam — our goal is just to make the world a better place in our own way.”
Since its inception, KCVC has shared space with the First Presbyterian Church of Encino, a place where Morgenstern frequented many times as a Boy Scout in the late 1970s.
Decades later, Morgenstern said, “When the families all got together and were looking for a place to have High Holy Days, we approached Dave Jung, who was the senior pastor at FBC Encino, and he welcomed us and we had a beautiful High Holy Days there. One afternoon after Yom Kippur, the pastor came into our sanctuary and told me, ‘You can’t be staying here. We need to find you some space.’ So he took me around and found space for us and ever since then, we have had a permanent home there.”
Since then, both congregations have shared numerous holidays, community celebrations and philanthropic goals. “We’ve done MEND (Meeting Each Need with Dignity) trips together. We organized a missionary trip to Trona, which is a [California] mining town that was really devastated by the earthquake in July.”
He added that Pastor Ruth Mandernach has spoken at High Holy Day services and has been a pivotal person in both communities coming together.
“Our community is unique where if you want to come to a Jewish service, you can do that. If you want to go to a Christian service, you can do that,” Morgenstern said. “Families have come to us for some of the Jewish events and gone to the church for some of the non-Jewish events, and the events we do together are all the better because everybody enjoys it.”
Born in New Jersey, Morgenstern moved to Encino in 1977 and was a Jewish educator for 25 years, specializing in both the Conservative and Reform platforms. “I didn’t get into being a rabbi until I was 40,” he said. “I have always been involved with religious institutions. It was the families who encouraged me to be ordained and it’s worked for me.”
“We respect everybody for what they believe in and where they come from. We don’t diminish any one person’s path. Everybody is entitled to make their own decisions. We just try to teach peaceful doctrines.”
— Rabbi Eric Morgenstern
Cantor Kenny Ellis, who joined KCVC in 2018, told the Journal that Morgenstern is the big draw for attendees. “People flock to our synagogue not necessarily to hear my music but to hear Rabbi Eric,” he said. “He is very inspirational. He doesn’t talk down to people but talks to them.”
Ellis, who previously worked at Temple Beth Ami in Santa Clarita for eight years and at Temple Beth Haverim in Agoura Hills for 15 years, added, “I try to bring traditional music, new music and contemporary [music] to the service. I try to do things that the people can sing along with me, so that people feel part of the service and not alienated.”
Ellis also is involved in TV and film, having appeared in shows such as “NCIS: Los Angeles” as well as an episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” in which he played the officiant of a fictional Jewish funeral opposite Larry David.
“For the families that come for services and the High Holy Days, they get that sense of cantillation when it’s appropriate in addition to contemporary and modern music,” Morgenstern said. “It was really transformative to have Kenny join us.”
Morgenstern believes it is important to make sure that KCVC has programming events and education for congregants of all ages. “We are really hooked on experiencing Judaism,” he said. “Our philosophy is we really want to engage the young people in Jewish life. We want to make them part of our future and educate them and give them the opportunity to think.”
Moving forward, Morgenstern plans to build on KCVC’s community. “We are not competing with other synagogues,” he said. “Traditional synagogues have their role in society, and we appreciate and respect them, but we are trying to at least get a community that is Jewish by nature to be part of the Jewish community and grow within it in some way, because we truly believe that something is better than nothing. We are providing people somewhere to go to be together with a bunch of other people and just have an experience.”