February 21, 2020

Sanctuary@Pico Union looks to engage and enlighten

With the launch of the Sanctuary@Pico Union next month, Craig Taubman — the singer/songwriter who co-founded Sinai Temple’s influential “Friday Night Live” services — aims to bring Jewish congregational life to a venue that has not seen any in nearly a century. 

The Pico Union Project building on Valencia Street, a short distance from the Staples Center, was home to Sinai from 1909 to 1925, before that community moved west and a Christian faith community moved in. Taubman purchased the site — the oldest remaining synagogue building in Los Angeles — from the Welsh Presbyterian Church in 2012 with the goal of turning it into a multifaith center. 

Today, the Pico Union Project is home to four faith-based organizations — three Christian and one Muslim — and the addition of Sanctuary@Pico Union will restore a Jewish presence as well — one that Taubman hopes will operate outside of the box.

“We’re not your traditional congregation,” Taubman said during a phone interview from the Pico Union Project less than one month before the kickoff of the High Holy Days and on the same day that a film crew was at the venue shooting a scene for the upcoming season of the Amazon Prime series “Transparent.” 

Taubman hopes the arts-heavy content that will be offered during the High Holy Days and beyond — biweekly Shabbat programs called “Invisible Hour” will feature performances by an array of musicians, spoken-word artists and others — will be interesting enough to keep members involved long after Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. 

“If they don’t come back, you are delivering a product they don’t need for the rest of year,” he said. “[I want to] give them something they might have a glimmer of hope of using for the rest of the year.”

During the High Holy Days, Taubman will help lead four services: Rosh Hashanah (Sept. 14), Kol Nidre (Sept. 22) and two on Yom Kippur (Sept. 23). He will be joined on the bimah by a diverse group that includes author and educator Ron Wolfson, who will discuss how to build community and who will hand out free copies of his book “The Seven Questions You’re Asked in Heaven” for what Wolfson described as a “community read.”

Also involved will be singer Shany Zamir; acting coach Stuart K. Robinson; writer-director Salvador Litvak; Rabbi Scott Westle, rabbi-in-residence at Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School in Northridge; Silverlake Independent Jewish Community Center (SIJCC) Executive Director Ayana Morse; SIJCC Jewish Learning Center Director Deanna Neil; and Yeshaia Blakeney, a spiritual counselor and rabbi-in-training at addiction treatment center Beit T’Shuvah.

Taubman said the aforementioned team has been helping him formulate a vision for the new community. To that end, over the past few months, the team has been coming together for brainstorm sessions at people’s homes in different neighborhoods in Los Angeles. 

“There are people from every walk of life, and more than having one titular head, one voice, we are crowdsourcing our leadership because we recognize there is not one voice, one message from the entire community, and we want to reflect a broader spectrum of the community,” Taubman said.

Sanctuary@Pico Union is employing what its leader describes as a different kind of pricing model: singles, couples and families of up to four who purchase tickets to the entire offering of High Holy Days services will also receive membership at the shul, through packages called “Red Sea Pedestrian” ($250), “Noah” ($450) and “Friends and Family” ($800). The congregation also is offering a $40 “taste” option that allows people to attend a single High Holy Days service. 

“Don’t oblige people for a whole shebang, especially if they don’t want the whole shebang,” Taubman said. 

He also touted ticket packages that reward families that have sustained an interest in Jewish life from generation to generation. A ticket option for the High Holy Days called “Community” ($1,100) covers six people, and a “Generation to Generation” option ($1,800) is good for up to 12 people. He distinguished these from synagogue models that would offer a separate membership package for each generation of a multigenerational family joining a synagogue.

“We’ve come up with this membership model that’s more like a pass. … The pass rewards you for where you are in your life: If you are a matriarch or a patriarch and blessed to have children who want to ‘do Jewish’ and your children have children who are Jewish who want to ‘do Jewish,’ instead of saying, ‘We are going to penalize you for your continuity,’ we are going to reward you for your continuity. One pass will get the whole family in, so you don’t have to get three memberships to bring your whole family in,” Taubman said. “That’s a radically different model.”

Those who are single, on the other hand, have less expensive options, he added.

Taubman said he doesn’t expect the new congregation to attract the kind of crowds that major, more-established congregations do — he anticipates each High Holy Day service will draw about 400 people. But he is excited nonetheless about the effort to cater to people who are not traditional synagogue-goers.

“Affiliated people are going elsewhere — to Sinai, [Valley Beth Shalom], wherever. Our people are brand-new people … [and] that’s kind of exciting,” Taubman said.

Wolfson, the Fingerhut Professor of Education in the Graduate Center for Education at American Jewish University, said the endeavor won’t be easy. 

“I think it will be a challenge to build an ongoing community downtown,” Wolfson said, “but if anybody is up to it, it’s Craig Taubman.”