November 16, 2018

Rabbi Mordecai Finley sees the big picture

In the new movie “Hirokin: The Last Samurai,” due out Tuesday on DVD, the title character, a stranger in a strange world, sets off on a soul-searching odyssey in which his calling becomes inextricably linked to the new inhabitants he meets around him. 

It’s only fitting Ohr HaTorah’s Rabbi Mordecai Finley has a role in this independent science-fiction film. In some ways, Hirokin’s journey mirrors Findley’s and that of his congregation.

Written and directed by Ohr HaTorah congregant Alejo Mo-Sun, “Hirokin” will have its debut screening in Los Angeles at 8 p.m. Nov. 8 at Sophos Café, part of the synagogue’s The Hub on Venice. 

As the rabbinical-esque leader of an ancient tribe on the planet Aradius, Finley has a juicy part at the film’s beginning. While in no way an aspiring or professional actor, Finley has had roles in three films before “Hirokin,” two of which were related to Ohr HaTorah congregant David Mamet, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and filmmaker best known for plays with vituperative characters, such as “Glengarry Glen Ross.”

The highly regarded rabbi says he isn’t ambitious. So how did he wind up with a $5 million facility, a restaurant, community-wide programming and a featured role in a sci-fi flick?

Dumb luck? Blessings in disguises? Prominent, well-placed congregants? Shrewdly seized opportunities? All of the above, as it turns out.

Until finding a permanent home at the corner of Venice Boulevard and Barrington Avenue in 2008, the nomadic Ohr HaTorah was, for years, based at a variety of rented spaces, most notably Redeemer Baptist Church on National Boulevard (1995-2000) and Faith Tabernacle on Olympic and Perdue (2000-08). Finley honed sharp sermons and lively music-filled services at both locations, cultivating an inclusive atmosphere that gained currency with a cross-section of spiritual seekers, including disenfranchised young Jews and interfaith couples.

From left: Rabbi Mordecai Finley and Alejo Mo-Sun. Photo by Michael Aushenker

When Ohr HaTorah was gingerly evicted because the church had commercial designs for its building on weekends, Finley and his wife and collaborator, Meirav Finley, finally invested in their current spot, which turned into a $5 million purchase and upgrade. Meirav Finley decided that as long as they were renovating the dilapidated building, they might as well pursue a restaurant license and create a cafe. 

What they created together is The Hub on Venice, which houses six separate facilities — intended to serve area Jews and non-Jews alike — under one roof, including Ohr HaTorah, Sophos Café, the Institute for Wisdom and Conscious Living, Venice Boulevard Community Center, Beach Communities Jewish Center, and the Early Childhood Center, which features Kinder Circle Preschool, a parent-and-me program and parenting classes. 

Currently open only on Thursday and Saturday nights, Sophos Café, a restaurant with a Mediterranean menu, has become a hub for cultural happenings from live entertainment to Pilates. 

Mamet told the Journal he plans to participate in The Hub, whether it will be lecturing about writing and structure or conducting readings of his plays. 

Finley is quick to credit Meirav, as the force behind the restaurant and its community-aimed programming, which began in earnest in September. (“She did all of the designing, it’s her creative genius.”) In this context, the community transcends Ohr HaTorah’s base.

“When we came to this neighborhood four years ago, we looked around us and we realized that we did not want to be seen as someone who invaded their community but rather serve their needs,” Meirav Finley said.

The rebbetzin, who describes her multicultural neighborhood as “an eclectic group of unaffiliated Jewish population, Latino, Asian,” has already calendared November with events. On Nov. 3, Sophos will serve Parisian delicacies on French Night; Nov. 10 will feature musicians jamming on Blues Night; Nov. 17 features a return of open-mic stand-up comedy; and Nov. 24 will feature a visit by an Australian wit with traditional Orthodox roots. Sophos, which has already featured a Celtic Night, will also host a Russian Night and Indonesian Night. The diverse themes will continue reflecting the ethnic makeup of Ohr HaTorah’s multicultural locale.

Fresh off of a four-year campaign to renovate the shul, the Finleys realized the abundance of ethnic riches and opportunities surrounding their new digs. Having endured the “huge ordeal” it took across two years to get a restaurant license, Meirav Finley, who last Saturday threw herself into the trenches of the cafe’s kitchen when Sophos was short-staffed, has also embraced with gusto what the Finleys have built. Ohr HaTorah wants to become a welcome station for people of all backgrounds and faiths. 

Her greatest hope is to “engage the thriving community that’s around us, that’s really in our backyard,” she said. 

For more information about the “Hirokin: The Last Samurai” screening or The Hub, visit this article at