VBS Fusion Attracting a Younger Generation

In Los Angeles, many families and singles seem to be in constant motion, challenging synagogues to attract and retain their commitments.
March 3, 2023
Left to right, Bryan Gershkowitz, Rachel Arditi, Lauren Ruskin, Adina Winnett and Adam Winnett Photo courtesy of VBS

Since the aging process is unstoppable, successful synagogues such as Valley Beth Shalom in Encino find themselves constantly in search of creative forms of recruiting.

With about 1,600 member families, the 73-year-old Conservative community known as VBS boasts of being the largest in the Valley. Starting in 1970, VBS benefitted from and shared the spotlight with its national celebrity rabbi, the late Harold Schulweis, one of the first rabbis to marry gay and lesbian Jews.

In Los Angeles, many families and singles seem to be in constant motion, challenging synagogues to attract and retain their commitments. In a broad-based attempt to lure a fresh crop of imaginative, ambitious young professionals in their 20s and 30s to Valley Beth Shalom’s stately red brick home on Ventura Boulevard, a recruitment program called Fusion was born last year. Fusion is defined by The New Oxford American Dictionary as “the process or result of joining two or more things together to form a single entity,” as in new members who will check out VBS and decide to participate.

This is not a mission for old timers. As Jaclyn Singer, assistant director of membership, explained: “We have a small Fusion board of Fusion-aged folks (20s and 30s only).” At Clergy Fusion, its most recent event, a couple dozen single/married men and women met at a private home with Rabbi Nolan Lebovitz and Cantor Jacqueline Rafii – both of whom joined VBS within the past year. 

They were comfortable meeting their fellow newcomers because the cantor is Fusion-age, while the rabbi is not far. “People in every generation connect differently,” Singer said. “They have different philosophies on religion, on belonging. Our challenge is figuring out how to maintain the values we have had, going on 70-plus years, while carving out opportunities for people to connect in those different ways.”

Lebovitz explained that the Fusion program is a VBS priority “because it engages a new generation of young professionals with our values of community and Jewish life. Cantor Rafii and I enjoy participating in the events and bringing together a sense of fun and tradition.”

While some participants in the first three Fusion events already are VBS members, most are not.  Adina Winnett, VBS’s director of marketing and communications, was an enthusiastic participant in Clergy Fusion. She described the evening as casual. “People arrived within the first half hour; they grabbed dinner and began schmoozing with one another.” Meanwhile, Rabbi Lebovitz and Cantor Rafii roamed about, separately, introducing themselves as they went.  

After an hour, the rabbi took charge, introducing himself to the crowd and explaining the Fusion program. Hoping to stimulate interest, he talked about the Super Bowl program, the VBS Gala (value pricing for Fusion members) and a special Purim event at the synagogue that, Winnett said, “would be good for Fusion-aged adults.” After Rafii followed with a quick introduction of herself, both the rabbi and cantor made sure they greeted every attendee. 

The 30-year-old Winnett described the crowd as “a nice mix of those who knew one another and some who didn’t. So the topics ranged from friendly icebreakers to catching up with friends over more meaningful conversations.” For Lebovitz, “the program is a great success and so was the evening. The home was packed with 20’s and 30’s. They want to build Jewish community with their peers.” He called the Fusion events “an investment in the future of Valley Beth Shalom.”

He also is realistic.

“We don’t expect these young professionals to begin attending Shabbat services on a regular basis,” the rabbi said. “We are trying to introduce them to our clergy and to our professional staff to bring awareness to what VBS and what synagogue life have to offer.”

Peering years ahead, Lebovitz believes that “one day, they will reach a stage of life in which they need to join a community like ours … We offer an Early Childhood Center, a day school, a religious school, and senior Hazak programming. We want them to feel comfortable walking through our doors. We want them to know VBS will be there for them throughout their lives. So we would like to build relationships with them as early as possible.”

Rafii, who arrived last year from Shomrei Torah Synagogue in the West Valley, performs in annual concerts. “One of the many ways we build connection and community is through music,” she said, emphasizing that she meant “the music that speaks deeply to each generation, the music that is timeless. We welcome all Jews in their 20s and 30s to be part of this exciting new initiative … VBS is at the forefront of engaging our next generation. Rabbi Lebovitz and I are passionate about connecting with Fusion, and with VBS’s 20’s and 30’s Jewish social group.”

She described the participants as “diverse, eclectic and dynamic. [They are] our future.”

Singer was speaking for the entirety of Valley Beth Shalom leadership when she said, “hopefully this is more than a social networking opportunity – a pipeline to future membership.”

With Purim arriving in a few days, VBS’s next Fusion event is on Saturday night, March 4, at 8 p.m. at Mr. Furley’s Bar, 14649 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks. $20 admission includes one drink ticket and appetizers. Costumes welcome. https://www.vbs.org/event/vbs-fusion-purim-celebration-2023.htm

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