January 18, 2020

Temple Etz Chaim Welcomes New Rabbi

Photo by Jodye Alcon

Temple Etz Chaim of Thousand Oaks (TEC) welcomed Rabbi Ari Averbach as its spiritual leader this summer. Averbach, 36, was officially installed on July 1, replacing Rabbi Richard Spiegel, who retired after 19 years at TEC. 

Spiegel, 69, is still involved with the congregation, teaching classes and is preparing to lead a group travel tour to Morocco in November. Averbach previously served as assistant rabbi at Congregation Beth Shalom in Chicago. 

“Temple Etz Chaim was looking for someone who met a diverse set of needs across numerous demographics,” Eric Feigenbaum, co-chair of TEC’s rabbinic search committee, told the Journal. “We wanted someone dynamic who could connect with everyone from our retirees to our young families with infants in our thriving infant care center and preschool. This is especially challenging in a one-rabbi synagogue where one person is central to so many. ” 

Feigenbaum added that Averbach “showed us an extraordinary ability to connect with people across the board in addition to an excellent teaching style, presence on the bimah and application of Torah to modern life. [We] felt certain we found someone who could take us into the next generation and stir excitement and increased participation in Jewish life throughout the Conejo Valley.”

Born and raised in Agoura Hills, Averbach said moving back to Southern California was like a homecoming for him, his wife, Vanessa, and their three children. Even though his family never belonged to Etz Chaim, he was very familiar with it. He had friends who went there and he attended b’nai mitzvahs there. “It’s exciting and it’s like this weird homecoming where it feels like I know so many people over here already.” 

However, he didn’t always want to be a rabbi. In high school, he was head of the drama club and it was his dream to work in the film industry. In 2001, he attended New York University, where he studied film theory and made some short films. After graduation, he returned to L.A. in 2005 to work in the entertainment industry but quickly realized that it was not the right path for him.

“I worked really hard and very long hours with very little appreciation on projects I knew weren’t going to be picked up,” he said. “It just wasn’t so meaningful. I just needed to cleanse my soul and try something a little different.” 

In 2007, Averbach began working at the nonprofit Jewish World Watch, the organization dedicated to fighting genocide and mass atrocities worldwide. He traveled to synagogues, schools and churches to speak about international crisis issues. But it was ultimately the late Rabbi Harold Schulweis, Averbach’s childhood rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, who convinced him he should become a rabbi.

“In order to meet with all the congregants, we are doing house parties where there are eight to 12 couples and we sit in the backyard and we have a glass of wine and we get to know each other and we do some learning. So far it’s great.” — Rabbi Ari Averbach

“I asked [him], ‘What’s the best part of being a rabbi?’ and his response was, ‘Getting to be with people in their most important moments in their lives … when you sit with a family in a hospital room or you sit with a couple before their wedding or [talking to them when they’re] trying to get pregnant.”

And so, in 2010, Averbach enrolled at American Jewish University’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. He received the Chancellor’s Award for Academic Excellence and his first position after graduation was as assistant rabbi at Congregation Beth Shalom in Chicago. But after hearing about the position at Etz Chaim, he was eager to return to Los Angeles. Barely two months into the job, Averbach has wasted no time meeting the congregation’s 400 families. 

“In order to meet with all the congregants, we are doing house parties where there are eight to 12 couples and we sit in the backyard and we have a glass of wine and we get to know each other and we do some learning. So far it’s great,” he said. “It’s a lot of work. It’s just kind of nonstop.”

Averbach feels it is important to make sure that TEC has programming events and education for congregants all ages. He has already initiated weekly educational learning sessions at people’s homes. “I think so often in Judaism we focus on the youth and then a lot of times on retired people who have a lot more time. If we can continue the education, I think that helps make people feel like they are part of the community.” 

As the High Holy Days approach, like most synagogues, security is high on Averbach’s mind. “We take security very seriously,” he said.  “We have a current security protocol. We are talking to synagogues all over Los Angeles and all over the country to see what they are doing and what they find successful. We want to make sure that people feel safe and secure and, at the same time, that it doesn’t feel like a fortress.”

Moving forward, Averbach plans to build upon TEC’s community. “There are so many things I find need to be addressed but my main job right now is to be part of this community and to help lead it to the change they need to see,” he said. “We are working on re-doing the mission statement and the vision statement. In the next few weeks, the whole board is having a half-day retreat to see what are our goals [are], what do we want to be doing and how to make these small incremental changes that people still feel it is their community, so that we are brought into the next generation.”