Synagogue’s Rental Agreement with Muslim Group Prompts Internal Dispute, Leadership Change

Anti-Israel speech by CAIR’s Hussam Ayloush was the final straw for HaMakom
March 13, 2024
Covered up images of the hostages

UPDATE (3/14, 11 A.M.): The clergy from HaMakom provided the following statement regarding the allegations that a Muslim worship group renting space on the HaMakom campus held an event there promoting anti-Israel views:

“We have had a longstanding relationship with the mosque who was going to use our facility. It was supposed to be for the purpose of worship only. We had no idea that they invited an anti-Zionist speaker to speak. We never would have permitted his presence at the synagogue. We do not believe that he shared any anti-Zionist sentiments in his speech that night. They were focusing on the first night of Ramadan [which began the evening of March 10].  Sunday night after hearing that he had spoken, we revoked our agreement with the mosque.”

An internal dispute at HaMakom, a Woodland Hills-based synagogue, over the congregation’s decision to rent out space on its campus to the Islamic Society of West Valley (ISWV), has led to the resignation of the synagogue’s co-presidents as well as to the appointment of an interim president.

According to an email sent out on March 10 and signed by the synagogue’s leadership, the synagogue terminated its rental agreement with ISWV after it came to light that the organization held an event on March 10 at HaMakom’s campus that featured a speaker who spoke “out against Israel and its rightful actions to defend its people.”

The speaker, according to the email, was Hussam Ayloush. Ayloush’s professional title is not stated in the email, but he is listed online as the chief executive officer of Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-CA).

The email — signed by HaMakom Co-Presidents Ellen Cervantes and Debbie Strom as well as the congregation’s Co-Senior Rabbis Richard Camras and Stewart Vogel along with Executive Director Aliza Goland — suggests the decision to rent out space to ISWV was initially met with a mixed reaction in the community.

“Some of you have been very supportive of the decision as another important step in building bridges with an Islamic community … We have equally heard from many of our members who are outraged at the decision we made,” the statement said. “We were naively under the impression that this would be another step in making closer connections to those who wish to reach out in understanding and fellowship.”

Ultimately, after the event with Ayloush, HaMakom made the decision to “immediately terminate its rental agreement” with ISWV.

“We cannot give audience to comments that denigrate Israel’s right to protect itself after Oct. 7,” the synagogue’s letter said.

In the wake of the controversy, HaMakom has named Paula Russell as its interim president. Russell will “guide us through this period of organizational reflection and change,” a statement on the HaMakom website says.

A parent from HaMakom (Hebrew for “The Place”) who spoke with the Journal criticized the initial decision of the synagogue to provide space to ISWV.

“We felt that in light of what was going on in the world, it was wholly inappropriate,” the individual, who declined to be named, told the Journal, adding that Ayloush was an “extremist speaker.”

The individual also said there were photographs of Oct. 7 hostages on the hallway walls of the synagogue. According to the congregant, the synagogue covered up the images in preparation for the ISWV event on its campus.

According to HaMakom’s leadership, however, the coverings placed over the hostage photos were not supposed to go up in the end but were mistakenly still put up by the synagogue’s custodial staff. The coverings were removed the night of the event, HaMakom’s leadership said.

“Covering up the posters does not reflect Richard or my values, nor the values of our synagogue,” Rabbi Vogel said in a statement, referring also to his co-senior rabbi, Rabbi Richard Camras. “We regret the pain that we have caused the Jewish community, and in particular the Israeli community.”

An image provided to the Journal from the event shows a table with pamphlets, which appear to be titled “10 Things You Need to Know about the Oct. 7 Massacre.” According to the synagogue, these were booklets published by pro-Israel group StandWithUs that were mistakenly perceived by some members of HaMakom to be anti-Israel literature.

“We had squelched this rumor with our community,” Vogel told the Journal.

The letter from HaMakom described ISWV as an “Islamic community we have been in dialogue with for six years.”

HaMakom is the result of two merged congregations, Shomrei Torah Synagogue and Temple Aliyah. It primarily serves, according to its website, Jews of the W. San Fernando and Conejo Valleys and operates a synagogue, early childhood center and a religious school.

As a result of the merger, the community has a north campus and a south campus. A statement on the synagogue’s website refers to the “the potential sale of our south campus.”

On March 12, HaMakom convened two town halls to address the current situation, according to a statement provided to the Journal and co-signed by Co-Senior Rabbis Vogel and Camras. One town hall was held for the general membership of the community, and one was held for the congregation’s Early Childhood Center families.

“These forums provided an essential opportunity for open dialogue, allowing us to share updates, address community concerns directly, and listen to the valuable feedback of our members,” Vogel and Camras said in the joint statement. “The insights gained from these discussions are critical as we chart our path forward.”

Editor’s note: This article includes revisions to reflect updated information.

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