September 23, 2019

Unorthodox venues for High Holy Days services

The question “Where are you going for services?” is a mainstay among Jews around this time of year. Numerous congregations that ordinarily perform Shabbat services at their own locale often need to find larger, and more spacious, nontraditional venues — often churches, theaters or hotels — for the High Holy Days to accommodate the many who come only then to meet their spiritual needs. 

Congregation Or Ami, the Calabasas-based Reform shul, rents the Fred Kavli Theatre at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza to accommodate the more than 1,000 ticket holders for their High Holy Days services. Rabbi Paul Kipnes, Or Ami’s spiritual leader, wanted a location that would be both comfortable and provide outside space to welcome the community to the prayer services. “The High Holy Days are not meant for pain and distress, but to be transformative and introspective,” Kipnes said. “The more we remove any obstacles of discomfort, the more we can open our hearts and our minds to the purpose of the holidays — it becomes more meaningful.”

Up until four years ago when Or Ami began to rent the Kavli Theatre, High Holy Days services were held in a community center auditorium with limited seating. The theater, by contrast, is comfortable and has a sophisticated audio and visual system, with plenty of stage space for the medley of instruments and performers, including a violinist, cellist, pianist and soloist who enhance the services. “We have an incredibly musical and dramatic service,” Kipnes said. “The theater undergoes a shift from just a stage and curtains to an ark and podiums, all set up by experienced movie set installers, with the exception of the Torah, which travels with me.”

Transporting the Torah, Kipnes said, takes special care. “We recite the traveler’s prayer, Tefilat HaDerech, before the Torah is transported to the theater in my car,” he said. “It is lovingly wrapped and goes from Or Ami straight into the ark.”

To help offset the expense of the Kavli Theatre, Congregation Or Ami budgets for the venue with ticket sales and a High Holy Days appeal.

Paying a rental fee for a larger space for the High Holy Days is a necessary expense says Rabbi Mordecai Finley of Ohr HaTorah Congregation in Mar Vista, which he co-founded with his wife, Meirav. Since 1995, Ohr HaTorah has spent the holidays at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre, a Broadway-style, live-performance venue, with attendance that fluctuates from 700 to more than 1,000 worshippers. “There is a cost benefit,” Finley said of renting the theater. “We don’t want to miss all the prospective members who come to the High Holy Days services; but we don’t turn anyone away because of cost.”

“The Ebell is really a beautiful setting,” he added. “It looks like an old-style synagogue, with full-backed theater seats facing toward the bimah. When people see the carefully constructed stage, the Torah tables covered with tablecloths, and the holy ark, it makes the room a sanctuary — it’s a nice facility and becomes familiar to everyone.”

Ohr HaTorah used to rent space from churches for their High Holy Days services, but Meirav Finley said she loves that the Wilshire Ebell is now their spiritual hub. “When you create or enter a space, that becomes a tradition — the traditions and the values of the old create a wonderful, sacred space,” she said. “People connect and find their own space within the holy environment.”

Ohr HaTorah Congregation in Mar Vista has held High Holy Days services at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre, a Broadway-style, live-performance venue, with attendance that fluctuates from 700 to more than 1,000 worshippers.

Art Pfefferman, vice chair of The New Shul of the Conejo, a Conservative congregation in Agoura Hills, was the facilitator in securing its current venue for High Holy Days services. Growing under the spiritual leadership of Rabbi Michael Barclay, The New Shul has held Friday night services at a local hotel but found that space could not accommodate the increasing High Holy Days turnout. “We were looking for a location that would house the estimated attendance of typically 700 people,” Pfefferman said. They found it at The Canyon Club in Agoura Hills.

A popular concert venue, The Canyon Club offers a dedicated sound and lighting person, along with security and free parking, which made it attractive. “We bring in everything that makes a shul a shul,” Pfefferman said. “We hang white curtains, bring in an ark, Torahs, a Torah table — all the necessary accoutrements.”

“It’s an intimate, yet large venue,” Barclay added, saying its wide layout makes it easy to connect with the congregation to create a sacred space. “When a rabbi is performing on an elevated bimah,” Barclay said, “people are observing, not practicing, Judaism — everything is so far away — it’s like watching a performance. The Canyon is set up in a way that allows us to all be together — I’m with everyone.”

Lance Sterling, owner of The Canyon Club, also created movable standing screens that can condense and expand as needed. “If you have 500 people on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, and then maybe 150 on the second day, people may feel lonely when surrounded by empty seats,” Barclay said. “The benefit is that we can move these screens around, creating a smaller, more intimate space, and now the venue becomes a place that holds 150 people.” 

Joe Lehrer, a member of The New Shul pointed out that the intimacy of a performance venue is one of its advantages. “There are no obstructed seats,” he said. “You can see the rabbi and be a part of what’s going on — it’s roomy and comfortable.”

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are meant for creating a personal relationship with God, Barclay said. “The venue becomes our sacred space — kavanah, our intention — it’s a reflection of how we are and how we want to be in the world.” 

Rabbi Moshe Bryski of Chabad of Agoura Hills officiates High Holy Days services at the Hyatt Westlake Plaza Hotel. Anticipating more than 1,800 people, Chabad uses the grand ballroom and the ancillary rooms, including the foyer and lobby. 

“We have a team of about 10 that are both volunteers from Chabad and the hotel staff, who transition the facilities in about three to four hours,” he said. “We have a mobile ark and we set up the bimah, with the Torahs arriving the night before services.”

Chabad has a history of outgrowing their High Holy Days venues in the Conejo Valley, moving from a local elementary school to several area hotels before finding the much-needed space at the Hyatt. “They really go above and beyond for us,” Bryski said of the hotel staff. The variety of spaces at the Hyatt also allows Chabad rooms for childcare, a youth shul and prayer discussion groups.

Chabad and the Hyatt also have created an optional retreat program for the observant who live too far away to walk to services. “We have a few hundred people who stay at the hotel,” Bryski said. “It’s like Little Jerusalem.”

But the real sanctity of High Holy Days services always comes from the people once the room fills up and everyone begins chanting, Bryski said. Being in such a large venue allows all Jews to come together. “Observant, secular, affiliated, nonaffiliated, Sephardic, Ashkenazi — it doesn’t matter if you are totally secular or totally observant,” Bryski said of the High Holy Days. “We are all Jews, We are all one, and being all together in this location brings out the real spirit of what the holidays are all about.”

For a guide to where you can attend High Holy Days services, visit jewishjournal.