January 19, 2020

Temple Mishkon Tephilo Celebrates 100 Years Of Life in Venice

Foundation of current synagogue, 1939 - 1941. Building was halted due to start of WWII. Photo courtesy of Temple MIshkon Tephilo

Temple Mishkon Tephilo, one of the oldest continuously operating synagogues on the Westside, is celebrating its 100th anniversary by recognizing the diversity of its Venice community.

“Venice is a real potpourri of individuals,” said Rabbi Gabriel Botnick, Mishkon Tephilo’s rabbi for the past three years. Venice residents have an “activist mentality. They’re educators and nonprofit professionals who are dedicated to justice and also to traditional Jewish life,”

Even the high-tech professionals who have moved into the area in recent years have a “drive to have continuity, to pass down love of Judaism to the family,” he added. There are also younger people, who aren’t necessarily looking to be affiliated with any one place and are still seeking. 

“All these different people make up Venice, and Mishkon Tephilo is the big tent that holds everyone in place,” Botnick said. 

“You’re not going to get your three-piece suits [at Mishkon Tephilo],” said Cindy Goldstein, a longtime member and the Conservative synagogue’s president. “People wear anything from jeans to everything in between. It’s just like Venice. It’s all about variety and choice, and we make room for all the different possibilities.”

Goldstein recalled that when she moved to West Los Angeles in 1989, “There was a big picture of a woman rabbi on the cover of the L.A. Times Magazine.” That woman was Naomi Levy, who had just become Mishkon Tephilo’s rabbi, and the first female rabbi to helm a Conservative West Coast congregation. Goldstein was intrigued because, in her experience, “women were never on the bimah, except for the prayer for peace. I loved it and stayed.” 

Levy stepped down in 1996, and the congregation hired Rabbi Daniel R Shevitz, who remained for the next 20 years. When Schevitz retired, the synagogue hired Botnick, and membership has increased every year since then, Goldstein said.

Mishkon Tephilo’s latest membership numbers counted 169 family units, including 279 adults and 74 children (ages 12 and under).

Botnick has made changes that have pleased some members and not others, Goldstein said, including incorporating “more musicality” into services. Na’or, a Friday night service featuring musical instruments, has been attracting more worshipers, especially younger people. But in trying a “Na’or Baboker” (a Shabbat morning version of the program), some people complained about how the music from that service, held in the social hall, could be heard in the sanctuary where the more traditional service was taking place. 

“One of our strengths in the past has been our adaptability,” Goldstein said. “Every rabbi brings change, and we are adapting very well. We are able to work with the change and yet keep our traditional focus on Conservative Judaism. And all our members are very devoted to synagogue and community, so even when there are fierce arguments, everyone has the best interests of the congregation at heart.”

“My mission as a rabbi is to sell people on meaningful Jewish life and show it’s not out of reach. I wear Converse and an untucked shirt to work. I’m relatable.”

— Rabbi Gabriel Botnick

 The synagogue’s 100th anniversary gala on April 7 will be appropriately eclectic, featuring a DJ and dancing, as well as interviews with a number of former and current members and members sharing in-person memories. An interactive visual display will illustrate key moments in Mishkon Tephilo’s history alongside world events in a Torah-scroll-type format. Attendees will be invited to add personal milestones and events to the timeline, effectively writing themselves into the congregation’s history. 

The synagogue renewed Botnick’s contract for another three years, and his role is “wearing the hat of CEO for future growth and also being the rabbi.”

“The community is coming more alive,” Botnick said, “and we are trying to figure out how to address the different needs to grow the community even more.” 

Botnick also spoke to the synagogue’s role in caring for its neighbors — some of whom are homeless — through social action programs, inviting them to have meals with the community and recommending resources.

“Being in the community gave me the opportunity to really realize some of the teachings in our tradition,” Botnick said. “When you’re walking past individuals on a daily basis, you stop, ask their name and listen to their story. When you give matanot laevyonim [giving gifts to the poor on Purim], you know them, the people of your community.”

Botnick and Goldstein said one of Mishkon Tephilo’s challenges is to strengthen the physical space of its synagogue building located at 206 Main St. “The building is aging but is still big and charming and wonderful in its historic sense, and we are hoping to be able to improve it and preserve it,” Goldstein said.

“The building is almost as old as the community,” Botnick added. “It needs some TLC. I always think back to the first years of IKAR in the Westside JCC auditorium.” (Botnick is a former IKAR rabbinic intern). “What happens in the space isn’t about the space itself, it’s about the energy that people bring into the space. That is part of the hope in the coming years — to find new ways to not just spruce up but revitalize the building.”

Meanwhile, the synagogue’s leadership is preparing to serve the changing needs of its membership and surrounding community.

“My mission as a rabbi is to sell people on meaningful Jewish life and show it’s not out of reach,” Botnick said. “I wear Converse and an untucked shirt to work. I watch the same Netflix shows that other people do. I’m relatable.” 

Botnick called the synagogue’s offerings “accessible, not outdated or monolithic. That’s one of the driving factors of our success. You don’t have to water down and short-sell Judaism in order to get people to buy into it. You just have to find the right way to present it.” 

Botnick hopes Mishkon Tephilo will continue to be “the heart and center of Jewish life here in the Santa Monica and Venice neighborhood.

“People who are looking for a place to connect with Judaism realize there is this center that’s been here for a long time,” he said. “That’s not something to take for granted. It’s really something to celebrate.”