Opening Hearts, Minds and a Temple

July 4, 2018

It’s Friday night and people are gathering outside the Electric Lodge, an intimate theater space near Abbot Kinney Boulevard in Venice before Open Temple’s monthly “Shabbat Take Me Higher” service.

The scene is decidedly “Venice,” with its on-site electric vehicle charging station, Bird scooters available for rent, and a woman wearing a hat that reads, “Mystical Mama.” A boy named Henry, whose bar mitzvah is the following morning, is wearing a fedora and a slim-fitting button-down shirt.  He looks as though he’s getting ready to perform at a club instead of reading from the Torah.

But this is par for the course for Open Temple. Founded by Rabbi Lori Shapiro in 2016, it seeks to engage the unaffiliated, intermarried and Jewishly curious. 

Shapiro, 46, was born and raised in New York and grew up with little to no Judaism. 

“I grew up outside of ritual,” she said. “Imagine growing up and not having Passover. You know when Rosh Hashanah is because you’re off from school, but there was no going to shul.”

After studying English at Barnard College in New York, Shapiro moved to Israel for three years. She said it was there, in the kabbalistic city of Tzfat in the northern region of the country, that she found her Jewish identity. That led to enrolling in rabbinical school at the Conservative American Jewish University (AJU) in Los Angeles. While there, she discovered Reconstructionist Judaism and began to question whether she wanted to commit to a single denomination. She left AJU and joined the staff at Kehillat Israel, a Reconstructionist synagogue in Pacific Palisades. For more than four years, she helped build the congregation’s youth department. 

“Open Temple is not a show. My husband says this is performance art Judaism, but it is participatory. We are transforming ourselves from an eclectic constellation of strangers into what the rabbis call a ‘kehillah kedoshah,’ a holy community.” — Rabbi Lori Shapiro 

“AJU ended as I was very young and my mind was growing,” Shapiro said. “I needed to keep growing before committing to a denominational agenda.”

Working up the courage to leave Los Angeles, she eventually enrolled at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (RRC) in Pennsylvania, where she connected with the teachings of the movement’s founder, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan. During that time, she observed rabbinical students at the trans-denominational Academy for Jewish Religion, California (AJRCA) landing jobs at some of the most active synagogues in Los Angeles. Longing for the same, Shapiro returned to L.A. and enrolled in AJRCA, where she received ordination in 2010.

During her final year at AJRCA, Shapiro began working at USC as the director of Jewish life and the senior consultant for interfaith relations and outreach. It was during this period she met and married Joel Shapiro in 2011 and moved to Venice. Two years later, they had Harel, the first of their two daughters, and Shapiro said she was disappointed there was no Jewish community in Venice that felt right for her daughter.

That same year, the 2013 outdoor Abbot Kinney street fair happened to coincide with Sukkot. Shapiro set up a sukkah at the festival and asked passersby a series of questions, including what they thought of the prospect of a Jewish community in Venice for unaffiliated and intermarried Jews. She received 125 responses.

“What I didn’t know then is those 125 names were the seeds of Open Temple,” she said.

Shapiro’s ambition was to “create a space for people to explore their Judaism through the arts,” something she had also expressed on her rabbinical school application. She began laying the groundwork for Open Temple, holding events tied to holidays and forming a group for Venice moms.

“The duties of a rabbi are sacred and professional development is important. For me, this work is the holy work of leadership.” — Rabbi Lori Shapiro

Open Temple finally transitioned from an idea on paper to an operational community in 2016, after Shapiro acquired the Open Temple House, a two-level home neighboring the Electric Lodge, which serves as a hub for Open Temple programming.

Tonight, almost two years later, 60 people have turned out for the synagogue’s (or spiritual startup, as Shapiro likes to call it) Shabbat services, which are held on the third Friday of every month. Shapiro incorporates music, multimedia presentations, prayer and storytelling into the experience in a way only a Venice-based rabbi — in this once-bohemian enclave that’s now one of the coolest places to live in L.A. — can. 

Services begin with the Open Temple Band, led by “Divine Rhymer” Zach Puchtel, performing the song “Uprising” by hard rockers Muse. Throughout the evening, people rise from their pews, grooving to the beats and shaking tambourines.

There are no prayer books here. Instead, Shapiro directs attendees to images, text and lyrics projected onto the wall. But, she says, “This is not a show. My husband says this is performance art Judaism, but it is participatory. We are transforming ourselves from an eclectic constellation of strangers into what the rabbis call a ‘kehillah kedoshah,’ a holy community.” 

Shapiro bills Open Temple as “traditional yet contemporary,” a community helping its members (or co-creators, as she calls them) understand the world in which they are living today.

Multimedia in the service is appropriate, she said, because Judaism, after all, is a form of technology. If that sounds a little heady, Shapiro said it’s appropriate for a shul that draws in people who work in Silicon Beach.

Venice is also known for its liberal views, and many Open Temple members are advocates of marijuana use. Jeff Chen, founder and director of the UCLA Cannabis Research Initiative, has spoken at Open Temple Shabbat dinners.

“We take topical things and go deep and create community around it through Shabbat,” Shapiro said.

Congregant Brad Pomerance is among those who were drawn to Shapiro’s concept for Open Temple.  The senior vice president of news and programming at Jewish Life Television, he is also Open Temple’s incoming board president. He was introduced to Open Temple when he attended his daughter’s friend’s bat mitzvah.

“I was blown away by what I saw,” Pomerance said, recalling how the bat mitzvah girl and her audience were equally engaged in the experience, something he had never seen before.

“Lori is doing a great job in attracting people who would never be exposed to the depth of Judaism if not for this new modeling. She is also very engaging, very social and very friendly to people so that it also draws them in.” — AJRCA President Mel Gottlieb

Pomerance credits Shapiro for creating “a very unique welcoming and accessible environment for both the bat mitzvah girl’s family and the audience,” he said.

Moishe House CEO David Cygielman concurred. Cygielman has come to know Shapiro through her selection for the 2018 cohort of Open Dor Project, an initiative of Moishe House that seeks to empower clergy who are building emergent spiritual communities. Open Temple has a received a three-year, $225,000 grant from Open Dor. 

Shapiro acknowledged that Open Dor and similar leadership fellowships have played a significant role in her evolution as a spiritual leader. The duties of a rabbi are sacred, she said, and professional development is important. “For me,” she added, “this work is the holy work of leadership.” 

But Shapiro is not just a rabbi. She is also Open Temple’s artistic director and executive director.

Photo by @FishMakesPhotos

On a recent afternoon, Shapiro was counseling a young couple in the Open Temple House while an acting class was taking place in the neighboring Electric Lodge, which her husband rents out to various organizations.

The Open Temple House serves many purposes. Millennials hang out, schmooze and eat and drink there after services. The house also has a garage and courtyard for the community’s religious school called Arts 36, which serves children between the ages of 7 and 11. An additional space is outfitted with music production equipment. The Open Temple Band records its music there and Shapiro said she plans to use the space for podcasts.

“It’s right now at a point where we need strong leadership,” Shapiro said of her community. “At Open Temple, I feel my greatest asset has been the lay leadership that has come forward. However, they don’t fulfill the role of the nonprofit professional. Whereas our lay leaders are very involved, no one is saying, ‘I am going to be your executive director. I am going to build this with you.’ ”

Shapiro said she aspires to be like IKAR, a local independent congregation with humble beginnings that is one of the most influential Jewish communities in the country. However, she added that much of IKAR’s success can be attributed to Senior Rabbi Sharon Brous receiving support from her executive director, Melissa Balaban.

Mel Gottlieb, president of AJRCA, told the Journal Shapiro’s strength is that for all of her innovations, she does not sacrifice Jewish substance.

“She is doing a great job in attracting people who would never be exposed to the depth of Judaism if not for this new modeling,” said Gottlieb, who officiated at Shapiro’s wedding. “She is also very engaging, very social and very friendly to people so that it also draws them in. She is very accepting and has a great passion for tikkun olam.”

Shapiro’s reach also is reflected in her impressive social media efforts. The Open Temple mailing list has close to 3,000 subscribers and there are more than 1,000 followers on Open Temple’s Facebook and Instagram pages. 

Currently, Open Temple has 48 co-creators — individuals who have contributed more than $900 and families that have given more than $1,800. More than 2,800 people have supported the community with donations under $900.

Cygielman said he is confident Shapiro will continue to grow her unique community.

“She has really good momentum already. She has people come who feel fulfilled by the experiences she put on,” he said. “There is room for growth. We think [Open Temple] could be much larger than it is right now with the right kind of resources.”

Shapiro continues to embrace her role at Open Temple and fulfill the responsibilities that come with leading an emergent community.

“The people who were at services, most of them would never go to services,” she said.  “And they go [now] because they found something that speaks to them. I think we’re doing something very special.”

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